General vs. Specific: What is Sport-Specific Training?

As the quality of athletics increases through better coaching, an increase in programs and facilities, and widespread access to online content, there has been an increased demand for sport-specific training to assist athletic growth. At this point, there’s no question as to the benefits of supplementary training and it’s importance in reaching the next level. There is some debate however, about what constitutes proper training for a given sport.

Look at it as a spectrum ranging from very general to hyper specific. Before moving forward, it should be noted that there is a tremendous difference between sports performance training and fitness training, whether general or specific. Nothing against the physical and health benefits of fitness training, but it helps to focus the lens a bit when discussing specificity vs. generality. To clean it up a little further and simplify the topic, we’re going to set injury prevention and multi-sport athletes aside. We are simply looking at this topic through the lens of sports performance enhancement for the single-sport athlete.

On one end of the spectrum, you have general conditioning. This includes cross-training and other similar styles of training. On the other end of the spectrum, you have hyper-specific training. This would include forms of training replicating exact movement patterns found in a particular sport. On the surface, each sounds pretty great in their own right. People often associate HIIT (high intensity interval training) and exhaustive workouts with conditioning. Being able to mimic movements used on a daily basis certainly sounds like it can help as well. While it’s great to look at the sexy stuff like exercise selection, sets, reps, etc, let’s take a step back for a second and look at it from the ground up… rather than top down.

The first thing that should probably be done if you’re a coach designing a training program is to go back to some basic physics and conduct a general needs analysis. Does participation and success in the sport require acceleration, power, force production, or speed? Honestly, the answer is going to be yes to all of them for most sports but some of them are more important than the others depending on the sport and the position. It helps to rank them in order of importance when you’re conducting your needs analysis. Certain sports are more aerobic in nature, requiring longer, slower bouts of movement, while in others, plays might last only 4 seconds.

It also helps to think about the athletic demands of the position. How much distance does the athlete have to cover? How fast does he/she have to cover it? Is it a contact sport where strength will play a role. There is a pretty stark difference in demands between a football wide receiver and a soccer goalie.

Once you have finished conducting your needs analysis, it’s time for the coach to go into his/her library of exercises and select some exercises and drills that best mimic the movement patterns exhibited by that position. Sets and reps should be programmed based on the position being programmed for. For example, if you’re an athlete that needs high level of force and power production, like an offensive lineman, you’ll need to perform fewer repetitions of each exercise in order to move as much weight as possible. In other words, the training should reflect the demands of the position.

So why then does almost every athletic program teach Olympic lifting? In short, because the movement pattern exhibited during the performance of a clean or snatch translate well to running, sprinting, and skating ability. Specificity doesn’t necessarily mean that another position or sport doesn’t need the same exercise. Some exercises and drills transcend sport and have a high crossover effect. However, there are variations of each exercise or drill that might be more appropriate for particular athletes based on their sport, position, body composition, height, etc.

Some training programs will seem a little generalized because of the crossover exercises such as the Olympic lifts. Generalization might also be apparent in Freshman programs, where a desired level of strength and technical proficiency will need to be achieved before moving onto more difficult progressions and phases.While this will assist in the growth of the athlete, it will not improve in-game performance at a high rate all on it’s own after the end of the learning phase. Specificity is often achieved with the use of highly specific movement patterns. The drawback to these is that they are usually performed unilaterally and/or in slightly unstable environments. It is difficult to recruit motor units to increase power and force production using these types of exercises. If you’re not doing both, you’re doing yourself a disservice.

The answer probably lies somewhere in between both ends of the spectrum. For all of the cool pieces of training equipment that have come out in the last few decades, there’s a reason we still use barbells, plates, and dumbbells. Most sports require some amount of strength and power and those characteristics seem to be best developed in the stable environment provided by the squat rack, platform, and bench. So the takeaway here: train too generally, and miss out on the peak performance`opportunities from more position-specific training. Train too specifically, and miss out on high levels of strength and power. Always train with your primary sport in mind.

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