Are You Training Effectively For Your Sport?


My first “career gig,” well before becoming a Starting Strength
Coach, was coaching competitive youth soccer. In the soccer world, I
couldn’t help but marvel at how well parents could often identify
the areas in which their children needed improvement (“Josh is
really struggling to make accurate passes”), but at the same time
so often completely miss the mark on identifying an appropriate
solution to the problem (“Would you have any time to work with him
one-on-one? Just get him tired, he needs to work off that energy!”). In hindsight, of course, I realize that it’s not just the parents
that miss the mark – my fellow coaches and I also made plenty of
mistakes, especially when it came to improving athletic performance.

This article is written
with those mistakes in mind, for anyone looking for the best way to
make athletic improvements to support on-field sports performance.
Athletes, parents, and coaches all have something at stake here. We
will address some critically important questions that you need to ask
about your athlete, discover that there are really only a small
handful of improvements worth pursuing, and conclude with what the
best athletic performance programs look like – as well as what they
don’t look like. I will be making frequent references to
soccer in this article; replace soccer with whatever sport you
desire, the ideas are the same. While age and ability may require
specific nuance, the general methods and ideas to follow hold true
whether you’re trying to get a full ride playing college basketball
or if you’re a retiree trying to improve your golf or pickleball.
The sport doesn’t matter, your age doesn’t matter. Only the
principles matter.

Parents want their kids
to excel. For improvement in their sport, they’ll spend time, money
and energy to provide what they hope will be an edge over others.
Unfortunately, the fitness industry is a minefield of snake oil and
false promises, so this “edge” is rarely found. It’s not just
the aspiring meatheads and bodybuilders that need to be wary – the
world of sports performance has been compromised as well. The more
one knows about the truths of athletic performance and improvement,
the more frustrating this becomes. But for whatever reason, too few
parents, athletes and coaches dare to ask the question: “Is this
really the best way to do things?”

If this article has
found its way to your screen, hopefully you’re one of the few
willing to question the norm and demand the best. Consider academics:
when a kid is struggling with algebra, an astute parent knows that
the hierarchy of best tutors would be those specializing in algebra,
then general math, and then far more worthless would be the tutor of
an unrelated subject like history or home economics. But parents are
funny. In athletics, most are willing to accept very modest returns –
and sometimes none at all – for all of their (and their kids’)
energy inputs. To get the most bang for your buck, you must evaluate
a proposed solution’s worth for yourself. This involves more than
just buying what you’re told, and it certainly means being able to
see through the illusion of short-term feelings and emotions (not to
mention flashy videos, professional athletes, expensive facilities,
and good marketing). It means being critical. Generally, it means:

1) Determining what
your child needs to improve.

2) Determining if any
given program will deliver this specific result.

This process is not
complicated and should be obvious. In line with the algebra example
above, the scenario can be laid out as such:

1) Johnny is failing
algebra and thus needs help with algebra.

2) Would an algebra
tutor be able to help Johnny improve his algebra? Most likely, yes.
Let’s get Johnny an algebra tutor.

In most cases, we do
this intuitively. It’s how we make decisions every day, often
unconsciously. The issue, for our purposes, is that most people
simply do not bother to question the status quo in the arena of
athletic performance. This is a shame, not only because the status
quo always deserves questioning, but more specifically because in our
world of physical performance, the norm is wholly ineffective. Yes,
even those things that Tom Brady, Lebron James and Cristiano Ronaldo
are doing and selling are ineffective. You are not these genetic
phenoms, and your kids aren’t either, so you cannot afford to make
these decisions unconsciously.

Partially to blame is
the lack of quantitative metrics that most people use to judge sports
performance improvement. In the classroom, if Johnny’s grade
improves from a D to an A over the course of a few months, the pretty
safe conclusion can be made that the tutoring worked. On the playing
field, “He looks like he’s playing better lately” is a very
subjective observation, one that can often be attributed to any
number of mental, emotional, and psychological reasons in addition to
the physical ones. This will always be the case – and this is why
so many patently ineffective athletic performance programs continue
to exist: it’s hard to prove they aren’t working. Wouldn’t you
rather have something that you know will work?

Training
vs Practice

In order to properly
evaluate athletic performance, it is critical that you understand the
difference between training and practice.
“Practice” for soccer includes improving every technical skill
required for playing the game effectively – all the various ball
skills as well as general spatial understanding and “how and why to
move” in any given situation. Passing, dribbling, and shooting.
This is the goal of soccer practice. An adequate tactical
understanding of simple and complex strategy is an important part of
excelling at high levels as well, though developing this tactical
understanding is generally a different learning process than the
improvement of the specific on-field skills.

“Training” for
soccer includes making the physiological adaptations that are
necessary to be able to demonstrate the practical skills in an
improved performance – being able to excel physically in every way
that soccer demands. Training refers to a physiological asset that
can be improved, while “exercise” would be physical activity that
does not or can not measurably be improved for very long. Most
things are exercise. For something to be considered “training,” it must be improvable over a long period of time. Training gets you
better at using your body within your environment, and thus allows
you to further improve your technical skills, both with and without
the ball.

The key here is
understanding that training and practice must be done separately to
yield the best short- and long-term performance results. Always
remember: to get better at anything, you must spend your time working
on things that you can improve, while learning to avoid wasting time
on things that cannot be changed very much, no matter how hard you
work at it.

In considering the
arguments that are to follow, you must accept that not all “athletic
performance” programs are created equal. But what’s worse is that
the vast majority of them aren’t worth your time or money, either.
No, I’m not exaggerating. There is an immensely sharp drop-off in
outcome-based quality from good programs to the rest. And
unfortunately, unless you’re already well acquainted with the
almost magical powers of proper strength training, the programs that
you currently admire, trust and are impressed by are likely the ones
at the bottom of the steep drop off. It is your job as a parent,
athlete, or coach to make the most of your time, effort and money.
You wouldn’t keep paying the tutor that hasn’t helped your grades
to improve, would you? In order to adequately determine whether or
not a program will give you what you are looking for, you must
address the two aforementioned questions.

What
Does the Athlete Need?

Just working hard and
getting tired does not make a better athlete. I wish it did. Like any
project, the process must be tailored to have the desired goal in
mind. What are you trying to improve? The ten aspects of fitness article details what we can improve from a physiological standpoint. It
discusses the importance of and the interplay between each main
category of fitness. Spoiler alert: improving strength is vital, and
positively affects every other aspect of fitness like nothing else
can. Instead of discussing each of the ten aspects individually,
you’ll find that they all fall somewhere under the three general
categories below, either neatly or loosely. These three categories
can be useful to form a broad-strokes picture of how we can improve
athletic performance specifically for a given sport. With that said,
the following three categories are not just what should be improved,
but what actually can be improved. But no, each category does
not weigh equally in training importance:

a) Sport-specific
conditioning

b) Sport-specific skill

c) Strength

Sport-Specific
Conditioning

We can summarize the
goal of sport-specific conditioning as getting physically,
physiologically and metabolically prepared to compete for the
entirety of the competition, with the cardiovascular frequency,
intensity, and duration required for success over the course of the
season. More simply, being able to compete for the entire soccer game
and also the entire soccer season. Most of the adaptations that need
to occur for one to be “soccer fit” are metabolic rather than
structural, the intricate details of which are not particularly
important for this conversation. What is important to know is that
metabolic adaptations generally occur within already existing
tissues, whereas structural adaptations concern the growth of new
tissues (predominantly muscle, but also bone, connective tissue,
skin, brain, and everything else that is loaded by the activity). In
essence, it’s easier for your body to work with tissue that already
exists than it is to create new tissue, so the adaptations happen
much more quickly.

For the vast majority
of sports and athletes, a lot of extra conditioning training is the
most highly overrated – and over-emphasized – aspect of success.
If you already agree with this, skip this section. If not, I’ll
illustrate with a quick story.

When I played college
soccer, the standard fitness test was the two-mile run for time.
Under 12 minutes was the standard pass/fail benchmark. Before my
freshman year, I took it very seriously and trained it for “a
while,” let’s say the last six weeks of the summer. I managed the
test in 11:41 (yes, I still remember this). I felt like I was in good
shape and ready to play. This was by far the most cardiovascularly
fit I had been up to this point in my life.

A few days later, we
had our first pre-season game. I was blown away at how winded I was.
Luckily (or better, naturally), within a couple more games, I was
ready to last the full 90 minute game for the rest of the season.

Fast forward to my
second through fourth years. My summers were centered more on playing
soccer. I took the last two weeks before reporting to training camp
to test the two-mile nearly every day, and while it was a horrible
way to spend time, I managed well enough to make sub-12 minutes each
time we tested. But more importantly, in these latter three years, I
showed up to pre-season much more “soccer fit.” I was ready to
play a full game from just about the first pre-season game, even if I
wasn’t quite as fit for the 2-mile run.

In other words, I spent
four extra weeks training for the 2-mile test in that first year only
to be less-ready to play soccer, while only shaving roughly 15
seconds off my timed run anyhow. Additionally, even after being
completely unable to play a full game of soccer upon arrival in that
first year, I was game-fit within a week or two of playing. There
are two important lessons here that you should not ignore:

1. Conditioning is
specific.

2. Conditioning is
quick-earned and short-lived.

Conditioning for sports
must engage the same energy pathways as do the sports themselves, and
via the same (or very similar) means. In other words, conditioning to
play your sport must look a fair amount like your sport. Note the
“sport-specific” in the section title. You build the capacity to
swim by swimming, not running. You build the capacity to run by
running, not biking. It’s why training for a triathlon includes
substantial work in each of the three different legs of the event.
Likewise, being in marathon shape (or two-mile shape) has next-to-no
translation for being conditioned for a competitive soccer game or
season.

“Peak”
Condition

Further, and more to
the point, being in shape for a soccer season happens very quickly,
and very specifically, thanks to its metabolic nature. The goal is to
build up the ability to play multiple full soccer games each week, as
is the norm for the season. How do you do this? By gradually
increasing the amount of time and intensity with which you play
soccer. That’s as complicated as it needs to be. When you’ve
been playing competitive soccer for fifteen years, this happens in a
short matter of weeks (not months). Remember, after that first
exhausting pre-season game, I was in full-game shape within a matter
of a couple weeks, simply because we began playing more intense
soccer for longer periods of time. Closely-specific exercises like
sprint intervals that mimic the actual cadence, flow, speed, duration
and rest period of a real game can help, but ultimately, you get in
shape for soccer by playing soccer. Same with basketball, volleyball,
rugby, swimming, and everything else.

What’s more, though,
is this: athletes and coaches must be selective about how long they
can expect to be in peak “game fitness” for any given period of
time. Being able to play competitive soccer games for 80-90 minutes
two to four times per week – the norm in high school and college –
is very demanding. It’s also nearly impossible to do for more than
a few months at a time at a high level.

That’s not to say a
three-month season requires a three-month break, but some break is
needed. None of this, by the way, is “theory” or “conjecture,”
but observation of the phenomenology. Increasingly high injury rates
show us this. The body can only stand so much beating down before it
starts to break down. (As an important side note, this is a great way
to make accurate assessments and to predict future success: observe
things that tend to happen, and then formulate intelligent
explanations for these phenomena based on first principles like
gravity, physics, anatomy, etc. Asserting some theoretical hypothesis
for “what should be” and reverse-engineering an
explanation as to why it should work like we say it should,
like many fitness organizations and “gurus” do, does not work
very well. The problem is that “what should be” rarely
ever actually is.)

After the season, being
“out of game shape” is a perfectly acceptable, healthy and
necessary thing to do for long-term success. Running (which is at the
core of most land-based sports) is catabolic. It breaks down tissue.
When tissue breaks down, it becomes susceptible to injury. Add to the
running the dynamic, powerful, contact nature of the sport wherein
there are already plenty of chances for injury, and the risks
compound. Moreover, with each passing week of “in-season”
competitive play, athletes accumulate fatigue and lose the ability to
recover. Just look at how tired and worn out high school and college
players are by the end of the season. They’re ready for a break.
There’s a reason it’s viewed as remarkable – not common in the
slightest – when a professional athlete has an injury-free career
(or even just a season).

There’s also a reason
why professional and collegiate programs spend multiple millions of
dollars every year on the injury-prevention and longevity of their
investments (the players). There will always be those athletes who
can stay “in shape” all year long and never get hurt. They are
the exception to the rule, and they should count their lucky stars.
But that’s not the majority of us. Equally importantly, if those
“always in shape” kids had taken some time off of running and
spent it lifting weights in their off-seasons, they’d be both well
conditioned and much stronger when it came time to compete.
Outside of managing seasonal and yearly conditioning demands,
strength is a big part of the answer to avoiding the injury cycle and
improving performance. More on this in Parts II and III of this
article series.

Despite the received
wisdom, there is categorically, undeniably, absolutely no need for
conditioning work in the off-season. None whatsoever. That’s
not to say that conditioning itself doesn’t have a place, but the
truth is that it’s had a much bigger place than it deserves for
many years. Save it for a short pre-season. Play your sport, and
start playing it closer and closer to competition-level intensity and
duration as the season approaches. Running an 8-week, summer-long
conditioning program for your upcoming fall soccer season is an
incredibly effective way to become burned out, tired, weak,
injury-prone, and a less efficient performer. Instead, place focus on
the next two aspects of performance training in the off-season in
Part II of this article series.




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