Sport is chaotic and dynamic, yet most athletic performance training situations are anything but that.
I just heard a story from a neighbor of mine about a dad who got several members of the local youth football team together, running them through typical conditioning drills, agility work (cone based), hitting tires with sled-hammers, and other elements that many of us would characterize as "athletic" training. The joke at the end was that all of those kids still sat on the bench, and nothing changed in their playing time after the work was done.
Getting "stronger", or in better condition, is nice, but without context to the sport we play, we will get very little carry-over to games that are fast-paced and chaotic. It's important to make an informed decision in the training process to truly train what matters.
There are five elements of a "sports performance" training program, as I see it, each with its own nuance to how it actually transfers over to sport itself.
- Strength (A term with a multi-layered meaning)
- Body Control and Awareness
- Chaos Management
Let's cover each of these critical elements and how we may need to redefine some of our existing ideas on what truly makes "training" for sport just that.
Strength: A Multi-Layered Term
Before I get any farther, let me go on the record: Getting stronger to be a better athlete is a good thing, but there are some problems with how we typically approach it. The two issues with strength and the modern athlete are two-fold.
- Too much emphasis on the importance of 1-rep maxes in the power lifts (if you do things right, those "maxes" will go up on their own, in proportion with total athletic ability)
- Elastic and neurological issues that occur by spending too much time training heavy bilateral lifts versus a holistic approach
"Strength" is a multi-layered term. It can mean the strength and size of an individual muscle. It can mean the neurological output of the body (having a lot of raw "horsepower"). It can mean the fascial tension that runs through the body (just think of how much pressure and output goes through the end of the sinewy limb of a cheetah, horse, or even your pet dog). It can also mean mental and inner strength.
To properly train "strength" in the sense of a balanced body and mind, I will include the following in a program, in proportion to what I feel the needs of the athlete at the time are:
- Bodyweight isometrics (lunge, pushup, and hanging from a bar are staples)
- Loaded carries
- Kettlebell and dumbbell training
- Unilateral barbell lifts
- Bilateral strength lifts
Regardless of who the athlete is, I do not put any single one of these training methods on a pedestal. I will rarely if ever, train bilateral barbell movements for more than ten total minutes out of a 60-minute session. These components are all important, and more importantly, they all work together to provide a synergistic effect that is more powerful than any single one on its own.
When combined with the elasticity training methods and the body control methods, a powerful fire of performance is truly stoked.
Elasticity: A Defining Factor of Speed and Power
When we think of being fast, a lot of coaches, athletes, and even parents think of getting in the squat rack or doing some cleans to help one improve their ability to become more like "The Flash" on the field of play. This is more of a cultural idea than anything else, particularly in the Western hemisphere. Athletes who are "slow-ish" often feel they can make up for it by "grinding harder", doing more lifting and conditioning than their peers who are more fleet of foot.
The solution to moving better, faster, and more efficiently comes from moving away from a "muscle" centered approach to athletics and towards a "human" centered approach. As humans, we are designed to utilize an array of spirals and joint rotations, working with the force of gravity, to harness and release elastic energy.
Think of a series of sequential gears created by an ultimately intelligent force with the goal of fine-tuned energy return, and you are just starting to approach the magnificence of this thing we call "our body."
To train elasticity, we need to learn to work with gravity in accordance with how our bodies are designed to move. In the weight room, this could mean using a step-up that teaches our body how to spiral with gravity.
The simples and best way to train elastic power is via using a variety of plyometric exercises, with a priority on how the body re-uses elastic energy. These can be as simple as short, single leg hops where one is feeling particular elements of energy return, or as complex as utilizing a fancier bounding complex that might get more likes of a social media feed.
Remember, elastic and strength training have a powerful synergistic effect that multiplies one's athletic results.
Body Control and Awareness
It always amazes me how much emphasis, as an industry, we put on "FORCE" in the process of training athletes, but just how little we put on the awareness of own bodies and the ability to control our body in space. If we watch an elite athlete, sure, they may have genetic gifts in the realm of horsepower, but far more often than this, they have a high level of body control and awareness.
I would dare you to show me an ESPN "Top 10" play that didn't require a very high level of coordination and control. Many require plenty of force and speed, sure, but force and speed alone don't make a top play. Interestingly enough, this critical quality of athleticism of so often ignored by the training masses.
There are three powerful elements when it comes to training body control:
- A foundation of play and movement in childhood and adolescence
- Training that prioritizes an overload in control and body awareness
- Training that helps to improve coordination in fixed joint positions
Due to the length of this article, I won't get into these points extensively, but I will say that the foundation of body control starts at a very young age and is something we can only make up for later in life by so much. This highlights the need for parents to be adamant, active, and examples themselves, of creating an environment for a child to learn, move, and play in their early years.
In regards to body awareness and control, the two-fold areas we can work on are proprioception training and then static joint control training. In regards to the former, the work of Marv Marinovich is outstanding for developing all things body control. See the video below for an example of what this training looks like (contrasted to grinding out heavy squats and puking in buckets), and how much more like a sport this training is like.
Static-joint control training, as done by the utilization of "extreme isometrics," is important to give athletes a foundation of good body-balance and posture, and then through the use of fatigue, it helps to improve the coordination needed to hold that position. It also helps to improve elasticity through its effects on the length of muscles and tendons. If I am ever going to "grind" in training athletes (to me, training is not about the grind), this is where I am going to go, as these positions can be held for several minutes and can be extremely difficult.
Perception and Chaos Management
I can't count on my fingers the times I've heard about the "freak athlete" who could squat the house, do crazy dunks, or run insanely fast, who still ended up "riding the pine" in the actual game and barely got to play.
Why does this end up happening? It is a matter of perception and the ability to handle the pressure of a competition mentally and emotionally, particularly as the level of play increases.
By perception, I mean perceiving and reacting to game-specific stimuli. Not cones, not agility ladders, not even flashing lights, or heck, even a coach pointing left or right. Game specific stimuli is first, and foremost, other human beings, especially when we are talking work in the sports performance realm.
Working with and reacting to other humans in a variety of situations is critical to becoming better as a team sport athlete. "Overloads" can be created here by taking specific situations, such as "1 on 1", "2 on 2", "2 on 3", "4 on 4", etc. and manipulating the space and rules of play. Kids who played lots of sports year-round used to get this stimulation naturally in many ways, but in modern society, such free-play and multi-sport participation are much less common, unfortunately.
Some of the best coaches I know in this arena are Michael Zweifel of "Building Better Athletes" and Jamie Smith of "The U of Strength". These guys, and others, are in the trenches, creating situations that make athletes better movers on the field and working hard to see speed and power gains manifest more readily in sports success. Below are two examples of drills that these coaches will use to enhance game-like perceptive abilities.
Perception-based warmup by Michael Zweifel
Perception-Reaction field-based setup by Jamie Smith
Autonomy and Creativity
The last important point in building the optimal situation for training athletes is to give them space to solve problems on their own (both on the field of play and in the gym), and use their creative abilities to make plays while having fun in the process.
I'm not against the "fundamentals" by any means, but a rampant problem across sport is the over-coached, "robotic nature" of so many athletes. Elite Cricket coach and scholastic sports specialist Steffan Jones has said that the "natural athlete" is starting to become extinct because everything is over-structured, and we are not able to use our innate human learning and creative capabilities to their fullest potential.
This is not just a sports issue, but this over-structuring issue is present in many other fields, including education, as I've had discussions with school teachers on this exact topic regarding their own students.
For athletes to be more creative, they need to be able to spend time not around coaches or parents and to play on their own with no coaching, guidance, or expectations. The unsupervised play has been a landmark in society for many years but is starting to slow, and unfortunately, fade away, and sport is the worse for it.
Even in the gym, giving athletes the power of choice in exercises, and even how they execute those exercises, is an important mirror for helping them to be able to make creative and autonomous choices in their sport. Again, I am a believer in fundamentals or a bandwidth of a basic technical model, but the power always resides in the athlete, and we, as coaches, are merely facilitators in their journey.
Sports performance is a young field. In 100 years, we are going to look back and laugh at many things that we have been doing in the early 2000s.
I hope you have found this article an enlightening step in key factors for how true athletic success is acquired and how the sports performance field will be pushed to replicate the demands of sport itself as time moves forward.