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Sports “Specific” training? ….where are we going wrong?

June 15, 2010

It always seems that the health and fitness industry has a tendency to take a concept derived out of scientific study and transform it into a new, ‘sexy’ training approach that no longer resembles the originally examined concept.  Take for example the concept of ‘sports specific conditioning,’ and ‘sports specific rehabilitation.’  These separate, but inter-related concepts were derived out of the literature that has examined the specificity of muscle function and strength application in terms of: angle of force application, speed of contraction, agonistic contractions; and various other research streams that when consumed as a whole leads to the conclusion that effective training must be task specific.  This means that the application of training programs for athletes should resemble the types of movements, speed of movements, and demands of movements that are found in the respective sport.

This concept really speaks to the functioning of the human nervous system and its adaptations during the process of motor learning.  Learning a skill or sports specific movement involves the development of a motor program (aka. Motor engram).  A motor program can be thought of as a motor ‘plan’ set out by the nervous system to perform a certain skill or movement.  The program contains information such as timing of muscle onsets, speed of individualcontraction, force development, agonist-antagonist-synergist relationships, etc.  In other words, it is the neurological ‘blueprint’ for the desired action.  With practice and time, the specifics of the motor program improve which results in a more skilled, efficient movement – which would translate into a better golf swing, stronger kick, more powerful lift, etc.

“Motor learning is a set of [internal] processes associated with practice or experience leading to relatively permanent changes In the capability for responding” (Schmidt, 1988, p.346; Schmidt, 1991, p.51).

While there is little debate as to the existence of such programs, the way in which they develop is debated.

J.A. Adams (1971) used the term ‘closed loop’ in his influential theory of motor learning. He proposed that several processes become increasingly congruent for motor learning to occur:

  • A motor memory must initiate movement
  • The movement thus initiated must produce internal feedback, which “lays down”in the central nervous system another memory, a “perceptual trace.” The more accurate the movement, the more useful the perceptual trace that is collected and retained.
  • The system must compare the feedback produced by a current movement against the accumulated perceptual trace.
  • Finally, the system must detect any “error” or difference between the actual and the expected feedback, and correct the movement accordingly.
  • Adams’ theory implies a “closed-loop” type of learning in which accuracy and repetition are important for refinement of skill.

Adams, J.A. (1971). A closed loop theory of motor learning. Journal of Motor Behavior, 3, 111-150.

Schmidt argued against J.A. Adams’ closed loop theory, stating that that people don’t necessarily learn ‘specific’ movements. Instead, they construct “generalized motor programs.” They do this by exploring programming rules, learning the ways in which certain classes of movement are related. Then they learn how to produce different movements within a class by varying the parameters that determine the way in which movements are constructed.  Parameters are features of a movement, for instance, its duration or overall time, or the level of force that develops in the muscles that contribute to the movement. By scaling these parameters up or down (vertical axis), people produce variations (horizontal axis) among a class of movements.  As people practice a movement, like throwing a ball various distances or in various directions, or climbing stairs of various dimensions, they learn the relationship between the

Figure 1

parameters and the outcome. By collecting “data points” like the ones in figure 1, they improve their understanding of the relationship between a movement outcome and their control of the movement’s parameters (the “best-fitting straight line” in the figure).  He termed this theory the schema theory.

An important prediction of this theory is that people will more quickly learn the relationship between manipulating parameters and achieving a desired movement outcome if they practice a task in wide variety of situations, and experience errors in the process. To use the figure as an illustration, the theory predicts that people will more quickly appreciate the underlying “best-fitting line” (the rules by which a generalized motor program produces a class of movements) when they accumulate a large and broad scatter of data points (a varied experience of movement).

It is following this theory that I feel that the ‘training’ industry became….lets call it confused.  The confusion lies in the fact that the schema theory promotes the practice of tasks in a wide “variety of situations.” This is supposed to mean that the specific sports skills should be practiced under a variety of circumstanced that the athlete may be faced with during the application of a task.  For example, a running back will drill various running patterns; basketball players will practice shooting from various areas on the court both with and without a defender to challenge him; hokey goalies will practice taking shots from various angles, with various forces, speeds, etc; batters will practice hitting a number of different pitches; etc.  These are all tasks that are drilled at the direction of the coach and technical staff.  This is not the job of the therapist or strength and conditioning specialist!!!

With the increased (and incorrect use) of some of the ‘newer’ training equipment, such as balance boards, BOSUs, rocker boards, other unstable surfaces, I often hear trainers claim that doing ‘sport specific skills’ while making use of this equipment will enhance performance.  Golfers are asked to hit balls while standing on a BOSU ball; fighters shadow box while on wobble boards, or with dumbbells in their hands; Soccer kicks are practiced with resistance bands strapped to the players legs.  These types of activities will not improve athletic performance…in fact, they will make it worse!!!!

Another good example...of a BAD TRAINING

A good example...of a BAD IDEA

The purpose of skill training is to produce more efficient and effective motor programs.  When utilizing the methods mentioned above in the gym setting, we are simply forcing the athlete to perform the specific athletic task with an un-natural amount of perturbation that will drastically alter the way the task is performed.  For example, throwing an effective punch takes a great amount of coordination and timing….when doing so with weights in the fighters hands, this will stimulate the development of an entirely different motor program, one which must perform the task with the added weight which will require changes in terms of muscle onset, timing, force production, etc.  With repetition of this un-natural movement, the fighter will never improve on the actual program that is needed to accomplish the task during competition.  Previous studies have shown this to be true with the use of weighted pucks for hockey training.  The technique needed to shoot with these pucks will not translate to the same task with the regulation puck …. It will only alter the program in a way that will hinder the shot.

It is the job of the conditioning specialist to improve on the basic ‘tenants’ of athleticism (strength, speed, power, agility) in a way that will translate into enhanced performance of the athletic skill.  This means training the athlete utilizing techniques that are similar to the movements, speeds, and energy systems that that athlete will require to perform the sports specific task.  It is not their job to work on the skill itself, that is the job of the technical/coaching staff.

….that means make the athlete stronger, faster, explosive, and flexible in a combination that is “specific to the sport” …thus allowing them to perform the learned skill more effectively.

Therein lies the true meaning of “sports specific training.”


One Comment leave one →
  1. May 23, 2014 3:55 pm

    Couldn’t agree more. People took the idea of special strength and miss applied it to sport specific movement, perhaps because it looks somewhat like sport specific movement with certain exercise in a few more generalized sports like track and field. Now there’s people trying to perform their complex sport skills standing on a stability ball with bands, cables and all sorts of things.

    “This means training the athlete utilizing techniques that are similar to the movements, speeds, and energy systems that the athlete will require to perform the sports specific task.”
    -well said

    Which means not erroneously loading highly complex sport specific movements with resistance, or on the opposite end engaging in a lot of training which does not utilize similar movements, speeds, and the energy systems specific to sport task outside of building an initial foundation in early development (or perhaps in correcting overload patterns from a specific sport to prevent injury).

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