The emphasis of many athletic development programs is typically rooted in developing the physical qualities needed in the sport of competition. Physical qualities usually emphasized are endurance/work capacity, strength, body awareness, agility, quickness, speed, and explosive power. Improvements made in any of the previously mentioned physical qualities can certainly improve an athlete’s fitness and physical preparedness for competition. But great athletes are rarely defined by their level of fitness and how ‘in-shape’ they are. They are defined by their ability to play the game and perform the skills of the sport. Great coaches and trainers understand this, being able to take an athlete’s newly developed physical qualities and transfer them to into improved skill execution or technical mastery of sport related movements.
This is accomplished by specificity of training.
In order to ensure specificity of training, it is first necessary to determine the exact physical qualities an athlete is in greatest need of. Many coaches and trainers refer to this as ‘identifying the deficiency’. Once the deficiency is identified and an understanding is developed as to how the deficiency is limiting on-field performance, the deficiency can be trained appropriately.
To identify deficiencies, the majority of coaches and trainers utilize tests to determine an athlete’s level of strength, endurance, explosiveness, and even flexibility. While these tests are often necessary and provide quantitative information that will help assess how an athlete stacks up in comparison to others, what these tests fail to indicate is how efficiently an athlete can perform sport-specific skills or maneuvers.
Physical performance tests fail to indicate an athlete’s needs in relation to game performance. To ensure transfer of training into improved sport performance, identifying an athlete’s developmental needs must take into account an analysis of all components involved in successful competition. Often, this involves a complete biomechanical analysis of movements related to sport-skill execution.
For example, the deep squat is often a staple of many strength and conditioning programs. It can be a tremendous exercise for building hip strength and power and for a variety of other reasons. But when you examine the sport-related movements of many athletes, one can come to the determination that the need to deep squat is not a priority for many athletes. Consider hockey and basketball players. These sports require hip external rotation strength and power to execute sport-specific movements (skating, lateral cuts, change of direction, etc.). Rather than placing greater and greater emphasis on improving strength in the deep squat, these athletes will be better served in developing hip external rotation through other exercises which more closely mimic the external rotation demands of the hips in competition.
Again, great athletes are rarely the strongest or the fittest. There are studies that demonstrate Olympic-level athletes and World Record holders are not the strongest athletes (with the exception being in strength sports such as powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting). Athletes on the highest levels of performance do not lift the greatest amount of weight in commonly used exercises, such as the clean, squat, bench, or deadlift.
More commonly, athletes will fall in the midrange of strength numbers. What this is demonstrating is a ‘point of diminishing returns’. Many athletes reach a point at which increases in strength or other physical qualities do not always equate to improved sport performance.
Successful athletes must be able to execute sport skills with technical mastery and precision. Regardless if you are a hockey, football, soccer, lacrosse, baseball, tennis or track athlete, you need great acceleration, speed, agility (ability to change direction quickly), and the ability to jump high (which also requires explosive power). But arguably most important is the ability to perform all sport skills with mastery and precision of movement.
An athlete will never be successful if they do not have the ability to execute sport skills successfully. This is why technique must be closely analyzed and why the training of physical qualities must directly enhance the performance of sport-specific skill execution.
Analyzing an athlete’s sport skill technique and the demands of game play becomes a necessary first step to determine exactly what their training program should consist of. Often to correct and/or enhance technique, special strength exercises are implemented to develop the specific strength an athlete needs to execute movements more efficiently.
We addressed special strength exercises in this article
. Special strength exercises are intended to replicate the exact neuromuscular pathways utilized in the execution of specific sport skills.
With proper analysis and identifying the ‘deficiency’ of the athlete, it enables the training program to have greater transfer into sport performance. The training program is continually adjusted as improvements in strength, speed, agility, and explosive power are integrated into technical mastery of skill execution.
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