What Is Sports Specific Training?

Sport specific training is a constant topic of discussion among athletes, parents and coaches.  For the Performance Team at Velocity, the question of what is sport specific training comes up daily. It happens in local performance centers as well as with our coaches at Olympic training facilities.

When we discuss “sport specific” a lot of different ideas emerge.  Doings things that visually look similar to the sport are often called sport specific.  Maybe they are drills that use the sports equipment; balls, bats, gloves, sticks, etc… 

For others, they think of examples of like practicing sports skills with rubber bands on, wearing weight vests, or hooked up to bungee cords and devices.

Still, some coaches think of trying to duplicate the sport in the weight-room with the reps, weights, and muscles used.

So, with these competing ideas, what is sport specific?

Sport Specific Training for Elite Athletes

At the elite level there is a lot of talk about sport specific training. This isn’t just a discussion with developing athletes and their parents. 

Those examples of sport specific training do occasionally come up in our elite teams. However, the discussion tends to be more focused.  The administrators, coaches and athletes care about one thing; results.

swimming specific training
With a small margin of error in many elite sports, training has to be specific

The margin for error in elite sport can be incredibly small.  Hundredths of a second can be the difference between a Gold medal, and not being on the podium at all.

An athlete facing that can’t waste time or energy.  They can’t add wear and tear to their body if it doesn’t give them better results in return.

Sports specific training transfers to better performance, lower injury risk and increased competitive longevity.

Transfer of Training

This brings us to the concept of “transfer of training” in sports.  Is the training you are doing transferring to improved performance in your sport? 

Is it transferring to lower injury risks so you can be in the game competing?

Is it helping to extend your career for more years?

Those are the questions that we ask of every component of training at the elite level.  As an athlete has more years of training, this becomes harder and harder to achieve.  This is related to their “window of opportunity” for different qualities.

Windows of Opportunity

An athlete’s opportunity to improve a skill or ability is not infinite.  A human will never run 100mph or vertical jump 20 feet.  There are limits to human performance.  So, lets’ apply this concept to a physical ability.  Sprinting.

To make our point let’s get a little extreme. 

A 3 year should know how to run.  Of course, they won’t be that fast compared to an Olympic sprinter.  

usain bolt sprint start
An Olympian has developed to such a high level, their room for improvement is usually very small.

If we consider the Olympic sprinter near the top of human potential, then the 3 year has a huge window of opportunity to improve.  The Olympian is nearing human limits, so their window of opportunity is very small.

This concept has a profound effect on the transfer of training.  At early level doing general things will bring big dividends. 

A soccer team of 8-year-olds will improve their soccer skill just by becoming more coordinated.  Doing things like skipping, jumping hoping and running will increase their basic athleticism.

They get a lot of “transfer” (improvement in their sport) from that unspecific and relatively less intense training.

Sissoko Tottenham Hotspur
Fundamental athleticism is great to keep elite players functioning, but it won’t help them improve sports skills.

That general athletic training also doesn’t overstress the body.  It doesn’t limit the skill set being developed later.   Maybe at 8 they are playing soccer, but by 10 they decide they like volleyball.  That library of basic athletic movement skills can be drawn on for most sports.

However, a professional player is entirely different.  Just doing general skipping, jumping and hopping won’t improve their performance. Our pro athletes generally have a decade or more of training.   Their window of opportunity to improve is much smaller than that 8-year old.

Whereas a little training effort may have lead to 75% sports improvement for the 8 year old, the elite athlete has to put in a lot of work to even improve 1%.

They have to put in more effort, endure more wear and tear on their body and manage large emotional and mental stresses. There is no room for waste, so training becomes more and more specific.  Sport specific training is essential for efficiency and effectiveness at the elite level.

Long Term Athlete Development Model

Velocity employs a long-term athletic development model that helps address the need for specificity.  It builds specificity from the ground up through a foundation of athleticism.  At the early stages this provides the transfer of training without the repetitive stress and strain of high specificity.

Long term athletic development velocity programs

As an athlete progresses, they continue to benefit from transfer of training by focusing on using different types of strength and building athletic movement skills.  This gives them a larger library of skills to take to sport practice and put into their technical skills.

As they gain some additional training experience, they can start to become more specific to their sport, their position and their individual needs.

How To Use Sport Specific Training

Start at the start.  To use an analogy, we don’t start future professional drivers in Formula 1 cars at age 8.  It is specific, just not very effective.  Any young athlete training outside of their sport practice should employ an LTAD model of sport specific training. 

Begin by building physical literacy and then basic athleticism. As the years of training increase, make the specific qualities more specific. Only at high levels should highly specialized training to mimic sports movement be used.

Progress from general to specific based on the years of training experience of the athlete.

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