By Brett Klika
“Sport Specific” is the new marketing buzzword when it comes to strength and conditioning programs for youth. Uneducated masses of parents and coaches herd their sports teams at a young age into “athletic performance” programs that supposedly address the strength, movement, and speed demands of one specific sport. The idea looks great on a marketing flyer, particularly in the American youth sports culture of “win right now”. Unfortunately the notion of early specificity ignores well established pedagogies of child development and motor learning, the foundation of youth sport skill acquisition and application. The fact is that most trainers implementing these programs aren’t qualified to implement programs for anyone, more less youth. Most of the time they are ex players in the specific sport who find exercises they think are “cool”, slap the term “functional” on them, tie some colorful equipment in, and bingo! A sport specific program! Their “program design” if any, is based on the cool toys and “secret exercises” they employ, with kids who can’t do a push-up!!! That’s like teaching a child to read by giving them “US” magazine! No valuable content, no skill acquisition, just stuff to get their attention.
Training that is specific to the demands of a particular sport does have merit at the higher levels, assuming the athlete is developmentally sound. The purpose of Part I of this article is to discuss the role of a general strength, conditioning, and movement program in a young athlete’s development, and how attempting to get too specific at a young age can be detrimental to future performance. Part II will discuss how implementing certain “sport specific” protocols at the appropriate phases of competition and development can be beneficial to performance.
A good athlete is a combination of raw athleticism (big, strong, fast, adaptable) and sport specific skill (skill involved with a specific sport like hitting, kicking, dribbling, etc.) When parents and athletes are looking for a coach to help them be better at their sport, they must realize the difference between the two factors involved with being a good athlete. Sport skill coaches (baseball coaches, basketball coaches, etc) are specialists in developing the specific skill sets needed for that game. Athletic performance coaches or “strength and conditioning” coaches are specialists in making an athlete generally faster, stronger, more mobile, more reactive, etc. Unless either of these coaches have extensive, qualified experience in developing both factors of athleticism (raw and specific skill), they cannot create a program that optimizes both. A sport skill coach should teach youth developmentally appropriate levels of sport skills and tactics. An athletic performance coach should help develop youth’s general physical proficiency. The idea of “Sport Specific” training for youth suggests that an athletic performance coach can help develop and improve specific sport skills by simulating them in the weight room. As mountains of research as well as empirical evidence will state, this is a flawed notion when considering the developmental needs of young athletes.
One of the well established laws of motor learning is that the only way to improve a skill is to practice that skill as accurately as possible. For example, if you want to hit a baseball, learn the mechanics of hitting, practice them over and over in as realistic environment as possible. Swing with a bat that you will use in a game, hit off pitching similar to that you will see in a game, etc. This teaches your neuromuscular system “patterns” that get stored in your brain like computer programs. The more you practice a certain way, the more grooved and automatic these patterns become. This is where the idea of sport specific conditioning in the weight room becomes a problem. Coaches will take an athlete and try to replicate the baseball swing with cables, medicine balls, etc. If this move is replicated enough, the neuromuscular system thinks “Is this a baseball swing? It’s slower and more loaded, so maybe we should adjust the “baseball swing” program in the brain to allow for a different pattern”. This confusion causes the actual baseball swing pattern to be comprised. That isn’t my “opinion” or “approach” it’s actually a well established “fact”. That doesn’t say that doing rotational work isn’t good for baseball players. After all, lumbar stability and thoracic mobility is essential for swinging athletes. Weight room drills such as Kaiser chops and medicine ball throws can help create this. Realize that these drills are done to improve mobility and core strength, both attributes that can prevent injury and promote performance. They are not implemented to copy a baseball swing.
Beginner athletes need a program that begins with general physical skill development. Basic aerobic fitness, coordination, and motor skills such as throwing, kicking, catching, climbing, etc. are the foundation of physical development, regardless of what sport an athlete plays. Establishing a level of proficiency in these foundation activities at a young age lays the framework for an improved ability to learn sport skills quicker and more effectively. For example, a 10 year old should learn how to kick a target, even if they are a baseball player. The hip flexion, knee extension, hamstring flexibility, and contra lateral leg balance involved with kicking lays the foundation for coordinated lower body movement and power development. This can help them learn to run faster, jump higher, or be more agile in the years to come. This can help them in any sport they decide to play.
As an athlete gets older, their physiology allows for the development of skills requiring a greater magnitude of mental focus and physical output. This is a period of development in which techniques for effective movement can be introduced and adapted. Proper movement technique for running, jumping, acceleration/deceleration, throwing, and strength activities should be introduced. Again, this is regardless of the sport the young athlete plays. Once techniques of different skills are mastered, maximizing their output is the goal. For example, once sprinting technique is learned, timing a 40 yard dash and aiming to improve that time would be an example of maximizing output. Another example would be in the weight room, getting stronger at certain lifts. Giving the athlete these greater output capabilities with efficient biomechanical movement allows them to adapt these new skills to the needs of their sport.
Athletic development should focus on creating a sound physical specimen with the appropriate mobility, stability, coordination, strength, and movement efficiency in order to promote performance and hinder injury. It is up to that specimen’s ability to apply these attributes towards sports skill. The more thorough and appropriate the developmental program, the better their ability to adapt. It’s a fact, Jack.
As an athlete matures, they will reach a certain age, or point in their development where it is clear that they have the capability to play in college and beyond. These athletes are often genetically blessed with highly adaptable neuromuscular systems and progress quickly through phases of physical development. They are highly coordinated, fast, powerful, strong and consequently, very rare (1% of 7 million active high school athletes will receive a Division I scholarship). They may have progressed to a point where their limitations are more in the realm of realistic human capability as opposed to appropriate development. For example, if a high school football player can run a 4.3 forty yard dash at 200 pounds and can squat 450 pounds, their neuromuscular system has reached a point of maximal neuromuscular output. Any improvements in these numbers would require a high degree of practice and attention to these specific tasks. Improvements would also be very minute. This may be necessary if the athlete is participating in some sort of combine, but these further minute improvements don’t transfer much to the actual game performance. In this case, an athletic performance coach must work closely with the athlete’s skill coach to determine what needs to be done to improve their performance. While the athlete’s ability to create high magnitudes of output must be maintained with speed work and appropriate loads in the weight room, there may be very specific things that need to be addressed. There may be an imbalance of proficiency moving to one side of the body versus another, there may be certain scenarios that the athletes performance is compromised due to some specific biomechanical weakness. In this case, the athletic performance coach should work closely with the sport skill coach to come up with modalities that can help. For sports that observe a competitive “peak” at a young age, such as ice skating and gymnastics, this specialization may need to be employed earlier in the developmental process.
Speed, agility, quickness (SAQ), and conditioning can be benefited from a sport specific protocol when employed with properly prepared athletes. Assuming that athletes have developed an effective aerobic fitness level, and are at an age where their anaerobic system is effective and adaptable (usually around age 14) specificity can be beneficial. Each sport has different demands for duration of activity, recovery time, and movement requirements. Employing SAQ drills, as well as conditioning drills that address these specific needs allows the athlete to “practice” these demands, and in turn, improve their response to these demands. Generally speaking, due to our poor system of athletic preparation in the United States, it is difficult to pinpoint an age where this specificity is beneficial. There is often a drastic difference between where an athlete should be in regards to physical development, and where they actually are. For example, the game of baseball does not have many aerobic demands. However, if a baseball athlete does not have a basic, aerobic base, it will hinder their improvement in other physical skills. I have found that with many of my high school teams, it takes me many weeks to develop a basic aerobic work capacity, just to get through a training session. Most of the time, 20% of the team is throwing up from the dynamic warm-up. In this case, moving to high-intensity anaerobic work sets such as sprints, agilities, or plyometrics would be of little use. They would not be able to do them with any amount of intensity or focus. Unfortunately, I have found the best way to address a team in any sport is to assume that they are poorly, or improperly prepared. In this case, basic physical development is the goal.
Quite possibly the highest relevance of sport specific training is when considering injury prevention. As athletes age, and levels of competition rise, patterns of injury for certain sports arise. For example, ACL injuries in soccer, high ankle sprains in basketball, shoulder injuries in baseball, along with a host of others. Research has demonstrated that specific modalities can aid in the prevention of these injuries. While a general well-designed, balanced program can decrease the likelihood of general injuries, more specific work is often necessary for different sports. Ideally, this type of work should be introduced at an early point in development, focusing on nearly every avenue of injury prevention. As the athlete ages and becomes more engrained in participation for one sport, or has shown specific inclinations towards certain injuries, the focus should narrow to these specific needs.
As you can see, there is some relevance to sport specific training in specific situations. It is essential, however, that basic physical development is used as the guide to progress to more specific training. It is growingly more important that we address this with our athletic youth. Be one of the educated, helping develop youth into happy, healthy, pain-free adults.
Coach Brett Klika is the Director of Athletic Performance at Todd Durkin’s Fitness Quest 10 in San Diego, CA. He specializes in youth fitness and athletic performance, overseeing a staff of 8 strength coaches developing programs for over 300 youth per week, both athletes and non-athletes. He presents around the world to both trainers and corporations with Todd Durkin Enterprises on a variety of health, wellness, and athletic performance topics. Brett contributes monthly to the award-winning “TD Times” newsletter. If you would like to sign up, you can do so by visiting FitnessQuest10.com, ToddDurkin.com or use the contact form below: [easy-contact]