Athletic Performance vs. Sport Specific

I know a lot of you have gotten a kick out of Coach Mike Boyle and me debating unilateral v. bilateral squatting over the last month or so. However, now I am going to write about something that we agree on.

By the way it was nice being able to discuss a controversial topic with another coach in the manner that Coach Boyle and I did on the Stronger Experts platform. That’s the way that our industry can grow and thrive.

My job as a strength and conditioning coach is to take an athlete and make him or her a better athlete. What does that look like? To name a few qualities, I aim to improve athletes in the following way:

  • Faster
  • Jump higher
  • Jump farther
  • Change of direction
  • Stronger
  • More powerful
  • Ability to produce force
  • Ability to absorb force
  • Movement throughout all the anatomical planes of movement
  • Stability throughout those same planes of movement
  • Bulletproof the athlete based overuse or potential threats of the individual sport (as sport specific as I get)

If I make the athlete better at all of these different athletic traits, it is up to the sport coach to make them better at the sport. For example, if I make a football player faster and able to change direction more quickly, then it is up to the football coach to make sure they can do it with a football in their hand. If I help a tennis player produce more rotational power, it is up to the tennis coach to make sure they can hit the ball.

I am not a tennis coach, golf coach, or wrestling coach. I am an athletic performance coach. Unfortunately there are so many fad programs just like there are fad diets. I remember seeing someone squat 225 pounds standing on a stability ball in the late ‘90s. I thought, “Wow that has to work. I bet he will be able to squat 1,000 pounds standing on the ground.” Guess what? His original back squat went down. He simply learned how to squat standing on a ball much like someone learns to roller skate.

Then there was the HIT protocol – or multiple machines for one set to failure on each. I am sure athletes added some muscle because mechanical loading (especially to failure or near failure) is the most important mechanism regarding hypertrophy. At least that’s the latest I’ve heard out of the Chris Beardsley camp. However was that added muscle mass functional regarding sports? It was probably not as explosive as it could have been with some good old 5s, 3s, and 1s in the back squat and clean.

The sport specific people have been around for a while trying to make the training of athletes in weight room look like the specific sport the athlete is playing. If specificity is truly king, then just play the sport, as that is as specific as it gets. Not to mention, if you are only training the athlete in a way that mimics their sport, you are simply perpetuating overuse injuries. You are neglecting overall athleticism and further creating more imbalances. I promise, if you make the athlete a better athlete, they’ll get better at their sport.

If a scrub becomes faster, stronger, and more mobile, he or she might not become great at their sport. But they will become better at it. If you take an incredible football player and make him or her a better athlete, they will become a better football player. I’ve seen it time and time again. When I sent Cade Carney to Wake Forest in the best athletic shape of his life, he earned the starting position at running back right away.

We didn’t run around the gym with weighted football and heavy cleats. We didn’t have him carry heavy tackling dummies, which isn’t a bad idea really. We didn’t buy him a super heavy football uniform to perform specific exercises in. Here’s what we actually did:

  • Squatted often (Unilateral and Bilateral)
  • Cleaned often
  • Pressed and Rowed often
  • Sprint work with a focus on acceleration
  • Plyometric Jump Training (unilateral and bilateral) contrast work with squats, and cleans.
  • Plyometric Upper body work (unilateral and bilateral) contrast work with bench press and strict press
  • French contrast work
  • Heavy carries of all kinds, but more of a focus on unilateral farmers walk because of the affect on change of direction
  • Med Ball Throws
  • Broad Jumps (unilateral and bilateral)
  • Rotational work
  • Anti-Rotational Work
  • Neck work and concussion protocol
  • Reverse Hypers, Belt Squats, Glute Ham Raises, Hyperextensions, and Russian Leans.
  • Rolls, bear crawls, side lunges, rear lunges, and forward lunges
  • Sleds and Prowlers

You guys and gals know! We did the stuff that has worked for years. We used exercises and protocols with proven track records, and I individualized the program based on the five previous years of coaching him. We sent him to Wake Forest running a 4.4 40-yard dash, jumping 40” in the vertical, cleaning 370 pounds, benching 370 pounds, and squatting 550 pounds. He was a man amongst boys as a freshman.

What happens when a bosu ball-using, kettlebell-swinging (nothing against kettlebells), slide board-using athlete goes against Cade? I can tell you what happens. They’re going to crumble just like when someone runs into Tommy Bohanon at Fullback for the Jacksonville Jaguars. These guys are fast, mobile, and stable. These guys don’t bend, y’all. They do the bending.

Sometimes I believe that coaches who don’t know how to coach hide behind gimmicks because their program can’t be quantified. They can use words like: “you look awesome,” “you are moving incredibly well,” or “you’re getting stronger.” Whereas coaches like me can give concrete data to show a progression in strength, speed, and overall athleticism.

Plus there is an intangible that I am not mentioning. When I sent Cade to Wake Forest stronger than 99% of the upper classmen, what do you think that did for his confidence? As an ex-college football player, I can tell you exactly how that made him feel. He sure wasn’t scared of them, and that’s for sure. Of course he showed that during his first spring ball, earning a starting position right away. FYI he started school during the spring semester having graduated high school a semester early.

Now there is a crossover where a lot of debates get confusing. Specificity is different than sport-specific. When I am using exercises that might help an athlete specifically for their sport, I might do things like:

  • Rotational work with cables, med balls, and landmines for tennis players, baseball players, and softball players.
  • Unilateral work for athletes that might sprint a lot or find themselves on one leg a lot.
  • Sand Bag Carries, throws, and conditioning for wrestlers.
  • Jammer work for football players
  • Velocity work with a focus on strength speed or faster for athletes entering their season to have them feeling explosive, recovered, and fast.

Specificity is fine for certain aspects of training, and the closer to an athlete’s season, the more your program might incorporate these items. However the main staples for the program will always be there in some fashion like squats, presses, plyos, and cleans. This is simply a recipe for getting someone jacked and ready for his or her sport.

What you won’t see me doing is centering an entire workout on swinging a heavy bat for a baseball player, or throwing heavy footballs for a quarterback. You won’t see me doing forty-five minutes of a wrestler throwing a life-sized dummy. However, using the dummy for conditioning might be cool, a little creepy, but cool. That’s the difference in sport-specific and specificity.

I’ve watched a lot of people argue on Twitter, and really they’re saying the same thing. They are simply calling it something different, and demanding the other person calls it the same thing. Hopefully, I’ve cleared that up as well. Specificity is cool. I mean that’s one of Coach Boyle’s biggest reasons for unilateral squats – and one that I agree on. Unilateral squats are definitely specific to several athletic movements, which make them a powerful tool for athletic performance. What he doesn’t do is have his hockey players perform an hour of swinging extra heavy hockey sticks, while wearing a uniform that is 50 pounds too heavy. For one, that’s just silly. For another, it isn’t practical, but mainly it’s simply not an efficient way to get someone athletically ready to play their sport.

If you are a strength and conditioning coach, your job is to make your athletes better athletes. Then it is up to the sport coaches of each individual athlete you work with to take that newly improved athleticism and transition it to their specific sport. For all you young coaches out there, don’t get caught up in shiny bells and whistles. It’s hard. I get it. I almost got caught up in squatting on stability balls until I saw it fail miserably.

I am not saying to not try new things, but here’s the way to go about it:

  1. Ask for some studies, but don’t write it off just because there isn’t a study on the program, exercise, or whatever. The only thing that not having a study means is that there isn’t a study per Dr. Andy Galpin.
  2. Ask for some data because guys like Coach Boyle and me have plenty of data showing the improvements in our athletes.
  3. Use common sense even though that can be fooled sometimes. Once again I have to point out the squats on stability balls.
  4. Try to talk to some athletes of the coach using this new shiny thing. Obviously don’t ask them in front of the coach, but the athlete will shoot you straight especially a good one. A good athlete knows if something is giving them an edge or not.
  5. Try it yourself for 12-24 weeks at least before having your athletes try it. If you get hurt, that’s ok. If you hurt your athletes, you get fired. Coach Joe Kenn is the man where this is concerned.

Anyways, I hope that this helps you all understand the difference in athletic performance and sport specific training. I also hope that it helps you understand the difference in specificity and sport specific. I mean one is cool and one is not, which is pretty simple. Let me know if you have any questions. You can ask on here or on Twitter @mashelite as I like to chat on Twitter. It’s my new favorite thing.

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