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My last post discussed the end goal of training for athletes: playing your sport better. That statement sounds like a no brainer, but all too often athletes (and their trainers) don’t approach off-season training with this mindset.
Instead, they make a lot of assumptions (read: guesses) about how training will transfer to sport.
For instance, doing cardio two or three times per week is good, right? Bigger muscles are good, right? Increasing your bench press one rep max by 25 pounds is good, right?
If you’re reading these things saying “yea, those are good, why wouldn’t athletes want these things to happen?” then you’re falling victim to the same mental trap.
The question isn’t “is __________ good,” the question is “will __________ make me play my sport better?” Those are two very different questions, neither of which is straight forward.
The first question deserves a post all to itself. This post is my thoughts regarding second question: “will __________ make me play my sport better?”
Let’s first define what “play my sport better” means. I propose the following:
Playing sport better = an improved ability to make plays or a higher frequency / likelihood of making plays.
Note that this doesn’t say being in better shape.
It doesn’t say being stronger or faster.
It doesn’t say jumping higher.
These attributes might contribute to the ability to make plays, but in and of themselves they do not constitute a better player. This is an important distinction, not just semantics.
If your training doesn’t make you a better play maker, your training isn’t working.
Who cares if your cardio is immaculate if you’re slower than molasses and get out run on every play? Is anyone going to say “yea, he just got dusted eight times in row, but he sure isn’t tired though!” This athlete needs to be faster—not have more cardio—so training spent on cardio is wasted time and effort.
Makes perfect sense when you say it like that, right?
But all too often this is NOT how training is approached.
This image is a brilliant exercise classification system developed by Dr. Antoliy Bondarchuk, a Soviet hammer thrower and coach who is considered the most accomplished hammer coach of all time. Take a moment to read the description of each level.
For a deeper dive, purchase his seminal text, Transfer of Training in Sport.
The pyramidal structure is telling. At the bottom sits the base, and each layer builds the foundation for the next. At the top sits competitive exercise, which is actual gameplay (whether in practice, scrimmage, or a live competition).
This reminds us that the pinnacle of training is improved gameplay, not how high of a box you can jump on or how much weight you can bench press (or even how fast your 40 is).
I know the classification system is confusing at first—let me give a few examples of exercises that fit into each category, using a football wide receiver as an example athlete. Read this list from the bottom up, just like you read the pyramid image.
SDE: wide receiver drills (in practice), resisted sprints
SPE: all weight training. Squats, bench press, deadlifts, power cleans, etc.
GPE: easy cardio (aerobic development), mobility work, other recovery like massage, sauna, etc.
The pyramidal structure again reminds us that each level of the pyramid sets the foundation for the next level. If one level is too small, the levels above it cannot reach their full potential.
From the top down, the pyramid tells me that in order to have good gameplay (CE), the athlete needs to be good at wide receiver drills and resisted sprints (SDE), and weight training (SPE) will help him be better at those drills, and weight training requires a certain level of mobility, recovery, and aerobic system function (GPE). If any of these is not optimal, it will affect the rest of the system up the chain.
Here’s an example…
Let’s assume this wide receiver would perform better on the field (CE, SDE) if his squat (SPE) was stronger. If he doesn’t have the mobility (GPE) to squat, then he can’t squat, and therefore he can’t use that exercise to improve gameplay. His GPE—the base of the pyramid—isn’t wide enough to allow for a high peak (CE).
Let’s take this example a step further, however…
Squatting improves leg strength, primarily quads, glutes, and adductors. Therefore maybe it isn’t necessarily squats this athlete needs, but rather improved strength in these muscles. With these stronger muscles he’ll get pushed around less at the line of scrimmage, which will help him perform better in receiver drills in practice, which will make him more likely to make plays in games.
Of course, squats isn’t the only way to improve strength in these muscles. If this athlete performed isolation work like hip adduction, knee extension, and threw in hip thrusts for the glutes, these muscles would strengthen and accomplish the same end goal as the squats: improved performance in the drills (SDE) which will lead to improved gameplay (CE).
It wasn’t too long ago that isolation exercises were demonized as non-functional and worthless. The argument was “when is an athlete ever sitting in a chair straightening one knee out at a time? Never. So the knee extension exercise is worthless.”
I fell victim to this line of thought myself, but now I see the bigger picture. Yes, knee extensions in and of themselves won’t make anyone a play better directly…but if weak quads are holding an athlete back from performing actual gameplay techniques well, I won’t hesitate to program knee extensions.
Said another way, if this exercise widens the SPE base which allows the athlete to widen the SDE and ultimately the CE sections of the pyramid, there’s no reason NOT to include it. It is a means to an end.
It is through this lens that training NEEDS to be understood in order to maximize athletic performance.
Swinging full circle back to the main point…
What if an athlete is not playing well, but has quads as strong as an ox? Will knee extensions–or squats–going to help this athlete play better? Will it widen his or her SPE base and thus allow for improved SDE and CE performance? No! So don’t program more quad work and expect the athlete to play better.
In this case, a stronger squat doesn’t mean anything, and might actually make the athlete worse.
Developing athletes is about identifying what is holding them back from playing better and then attacking that weakness directly. This is as much an art as it is a science, but one thing is for sure: blindly assuming that being bigger, stronger, faster, or in better shape will lead to better gameplay might be true 50% of the time, but the other half of your athletes are missing out on their full potential.
One final note…every position in every sport will have their own list of exercises and drills that fall into each category on the pyramid. For instance, wide receiver drills and resisted sprints clearly are not in the SDE category for a volleyball libero, for instance. Each position needs a thorough needs and KPI analysis, and from those needs the exercises in SDE, SPE, and GPE become apparent.
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