The Trap Behind Sport Specific Training
This topic, specificity, comes with both good and bad news. The bad news is that is can become mundane and unexciting. However, it is worth revisiting precisely because it’s such a foundational concept that it tends to slip under the radar. Of all the time-honored training principles, none seem to be misinterpreted the way specificity does. Maybe that shouldn’t be surprising. Who wants to think about stuff like analyzing task demands when there’s planning and coaching to do?
The good news is that specificity really isn’t boring at all, especially given its important place in a well defined planning process. It should be thought of as the essential first step, which is establishing a definable goal. The next two steps, understanding the situation and selecting tactics are also critical, but if performance targets re not clearly defined, odds are that failure is highly probable, despite admirable efforts.
The Simulation Epidemic
There’s no doubt about it. The sports training scene has come down with a bad case of simulation over the last decade or so. It has become the pandemic of the personal training profession. Some practitioners are missing the target worse than ever by emphasizing “sport specific” training tasks that are based on outward appearances instead of actual demands.
Every sport has some specific demands. However, most sports share some generic demands as well. For the majority of athletes — at least those involved in terrestrial activities — there is a skill set that matters more than passing, shooting, throwing, kicking, dribbling, stick handling and so on. This involves the common movement skills of running and jumping.
Think about what the demands of running and jumping really mean for training, in terms of injury prevention as well as performance. In ground-based sports from A to Z, whether the players are female or male, think about how these general demands should influence your training priorities. Consider the implications not only for advanced athletes, but also for novices and intermediates. Now compare this with the “specialized” programs many coaches and parents want you to provide.
Of course, there are sports that don’t involve running or jumping such as cycling, rowing and swimming. It is important to select training tactics with respect to both specificity (the target) and developmental considerations (the situation). At any point in the program, no matter how compelling the need for basic training might be, the trick is to balance needs with wants. People will not do a program that they don’t accept, and it is remarkably tough to get some folks to buy into the ideas of running-centered or developmentally-appropriate training.
This challenge presents itself on a few fronts:
- It’s getting harder to convince many people of the need for generic training or the pitfalls of getting too specific, especially early in an athlete’s development. Progressing toward specific performance targets is the name of the game, with progression being the central concept. The key is to approach training as a long-term curriculum that begins with a broad base — the prerequisites — and gradually zeros in on the target. As is the case with any developmental curriculum, fast-track or early-specialization programs usually backfire. Unfortunately, the fast track is exactly what many coaches and parents want.
- It’s hard to convince many people of the need for remedial training, especially later in an athlete’s development. Running and jumping mechanics are rarely taught in schools, probably because they’re not included in our national standards for physical education (NASPE 2004). Yet they comprise the essential language of movement that athletes need to be fluent in, making them the most “generic” and important skill set of all. As acquired skills, these should be part of the syllabus during children’s critical developmental periods; but the assumption seems to be that they’re innate skills and do not need to be taught. This is a big blind spot with big implications. For example, it’s one thing to accept that a high school student-athlete isn’t ready for a college program, but it’s another thing to accept going back to elementary school for corrective work.
- Many people have difficulty distinguishing specificity from simulation because of the nature of specificity itself. It is neither one-dimensional nor a stand-alone principle. It has at least three dimensions and is one of seven principles that must be considered collectively.
With all these stumbling blocks, there is some work to do if things are going to be set straight. Fortunately, there’s a simple way to make sure you never miss the target again, and to help guide people out of the simulation trap.
Specificity³: Triangulating on the Target
Most people would probably agree that specificity is where it’s at, even if they don’t agree on how it’s defined. “Specific adaptation to imposed demands” (SAID) is widely acknowledged as a fundamental premise of training. Here in the West, traditional definitions of specificity usually address issues like muscle/joint involvement, range of motion and movement velocity. Beyond these, however, there really aren’t any standard criteria — which leaves the door open for plenty of opinion and (mis)interpretation. As we’ll see, there are some pillars we can lean on to help us come up with a working definition.
One of the central premises of the “functional training” school of thought is that movement involves the entire body. As a general rule, it’s not a question of which muscle groups we use; the issue is what they’re being tasked with, how they’re interacting, and how the operating system coordinates them. Paradoxically, muscles that might not appear to be main movers can in fact be major contributors because of the way forces are transmitted through the system. So we can’t rely just on outward appearances when analyzing a target task’s demands. We need objective criteria.
Specificity exists in several dimensions, giving us a useful framework for categorizing those criteria:
Think of these as three different perspectives you’re using to try to get a fix on a 3-D target. It’s important not to rely on just one or two perspectives because certain things may not be visible from each vantage point. In effect, we want to do what a good outdoorsman or navigator does when searching for an elusive object: triangulate on it. (See Figure 1)
Each perspective offers a useful paradigm we can build on. Let’s take them one at a time:
This is where we’ll look through the biomechanist’s lens at the forces, or kinetics, involved in the target activity. This is a perspective that we otherwise wouldn’t get by looking just at movement patterns, or kinematics.
Forces are vector quantities, which means they have direction and magnitude. They’re expressed in terms of acceleration, velocity and rate or time of application. Furthermore, they’re applied via various muscle actions including concentric, eccentric and isometric — as well as reactive-elastic actions involving a combination of these, called the stretch-shortening cycle. Depending on the mode of locomotion, forces are transmitted and summated through the kinetic chain in technique-specific ways. The dynamic correspondence paradigm addresses all of these factors (Verkhoshansky 1977, 2006).
According to this concept, training tasks should be specific to the target activity in terms of:
- Rate and time of peak force production (impulse) and the speeds at which it is applied
- Dynamics of effort (power)
- Amplitude and direction of movement
- Accentuated region of force application
- Regime of muscular work
It’s hard to find a better working definition of mechanical specificity than this — especially when evaluating propulsive ground-reaction forces. Dynamic correspondence seems like cutting-edge stuff, but was first introduced decades ago. This idea originated in the former Soviet Union, perhaps explaining why it’s still sinking in here in the West.
A comment about velocity specificity is in order. Because of the cause-and-effect relationship between force and velocity, it’s rather meaningless to consider either variable independently. When analyzing (or training for) a task, keep in mind that the forces producing the action are causative factors; whereas the resulting accelerations and velocities are outcomes. Athletes must be able to skillfully apply forces across the velocity spectrum even when they’re already moving fast. Achievable movement speed is also load-dependent — a major factor when ballistically launching oneself as a projectile, particularly when doing so from single support (as when running). In this sense, velocity specificity is really the final movement velocity targeted when accelerating a mass. The take-home message: regardless of movement speed, performance boils down to the forces an athlete generates.
This lens seems to intimidate some people because they think they need to be an exercise physiologist to use it. The good news: You don’t need to concern yourself deeply with information about energy systems. You just need to create an exercise:relief profile of the sport to use as a model in training. For this, put on your coaching hats and grab a clipboard, stopwatch and some game footage.
Few sports involve a single, brief effort. Most consist of on-going activity with intense, intermittent bursts — or a series of plays with periodic rest intervals. Athletes need the metabolic power to execute their assignments at the required effort level, as well as the capacity (and recoverability) to do so repetitively. A simple, pragmatic way to achieve metabolic specificity in training is to model a conditioning program on the activity/inactivity patterns of competition.
That’s the idea behind the tactical metabolic training paradigm (Plisk & Gambetta 1997, Plisk 2008). It involves a simple five-step procedure we can use to model the “special endurance” demands of a sport and then prepare athletes for them. “Tactical” in this context doesn’t refer to military or law enforcement. It has to do with the playing tactics used to achieve strategic goals in competition, and the energetics involved in doing so. If we identify the exercise:relief intervals and effort distribution of the target activity, and then train specifically for those, the energy system contributions will take care of themselves.
This is where we’ll look through the motor behaviorist’s lens at the movement skills involved in the target activity. Here we can lean on the classic motor learning paradigm of practice specificity, which states that the demands of a training task should correspond to the target activity with respect to sensorimotor, processing and contextual effects (the origin of this principle is hard to trace; refer to Magill 2006, Schmidt & Lee 2005, and Schmidt & Wrisberg 2007). Our goal should be to maximize the acquisition, retention and transfer of motor skills. In other words, it’s not necessarily about mimicking the target activity’s movement patterns or kinematics — it’s about tasking the system with functional problems.
In this sense, training is like upgrading a computer system. We’ll get optimal results by improving both the hardware and software in a coordinated way, since they must work together. What’s unique about athletes is that their hardware is upgraded by their software, and this whole remodeling process is shaped by task demands. As a practical matter, the question then becomes: What are we tasking their software to do? The essence of functionality is to challenge the system with skill-based problems. This means criteria must take precedence over appearances. So, to put it bluntly, don’t get cute. Keep things pretty low-tech for the most part and prompt your athletes (rather than some gadget) to do the problem solving.
This touches on the related issue of balance or stability training. These methods have become so popular that a cottage industry has grown around them, but we need to keep things in perspective. Balance is part of a suite of “coordinative abilities” that have been recognized throughout the international community for decades (Drabik 1996; Harre 1982). Think of these as the basic elements of technical skills we use to perform motor tasks:
- Adaptive ability — modification of action sequence upon observing or anticipating novel/changing conditions and situations
- Balance — static and dynamic equilibrium
- Combinatory ability — coordination of body movements into a given action
- Differentiation — accurate, economical adjustment of body movements and mechanics
- Orientation — spatial and temporal control of body movements
- Reactiveness — quick, well-directed response to stimuli
- Rhythm — observation and implementation of dynamic motion pattern, timing and variation
Regardless of how useful balance training may be, keep in mind that the more instability you introduce into a task, the lower the athlete’s force output tends to be. Even if a balance exercise prompts a lot of muscle activation, much of this tends to involve protective co-contraction (e.g., to keep from losing balance) rather than power production. So it’s important to be clear about the goal of such tasks and to be especially careful about including them in strength training.
To sum up, there’s no denying the importance of SAID. Just remember that it refers to Specificity³:
- Take a look through the mechanics lens even if you’re sure the activity you’re training for is an “endurance sport.” Regardless of whether the energy systems are at steady state or maxed out, there’s a good chance that some explosive forces are being generated where the rubber meets the road.
- Take a look through the energetics lens even if you’re sure the activity you’re training for is a “power sport.” You might be surprised at the special endurance demands of competition or practice. Likewise, even long-duration sports usually involve intermittent stop-and-go activity, not just a continuous submaximal effort.
- Always, always, always look at the target activity through the coordination lens. Regardless of where athletes are on the power-endurance continuum, chances are you won’t see them sitting on guided-resistance machines or counting reps while playing the game. Of course there are exceptions, but for the most part life tends to be a free-weight sport.
The intersection of these three prongs of specificity is where we’ll find the “special preparation” tasks that closely correspond to a target activity. The more we steer an exercise toward one prong at the expense of the others, the lower the correspondence tends to be — in other words, the more of a “general preparation” task it becomes. That’s not a value judgment. It’s a useful rule of thumb when prioritizing and selecting training activities.
Please see Part 2 of this series for additional information.
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