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What Determines "Sport-Specificity"?

We hear this term all the time in our industry: "sport-specific". This is a very broad term that can be interpreted many different ways through a wide audience. To some, they think sport-specific means performing a movement with an implement from their respective sport. To others, they think sport specific means using exercise to enhance an athletic skill.

Read that last sentence again...

Using exercise to enhance an athletic skill. BINGO! This is the true definition of sport-specific.

Often times, people get athletic qualities confused with athletic skills. Our job as Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialists is to enhance an athletic skill by manipulating certain athletic qualities that the athlete possesses.

Now that we better understand the definition of the term sport-specific, let's dive deeper into each specific category to develop athletic qualities.



These are where we receive this type of questions:

- "My daughter struggles getting around the defender, are there any specific agility drills to help?"

- "My son doesn't have the greatest first step when stealing a base, would we be able to show him the proper way to start his sprint?"

We LOVE getting kids faster. We could talk about the entire of myth that you can't teach speed, but let's save that for another post.

What we do know is that there are specific actions that take place during the sprint, and there are multiple branches of speed development that we use here at ISP:

- Acceleration

- Deceleration

- Top Speed

- Lateral Direction

- Open/Closed Change of Direction

- Reactionary Speed

Within these same parameters, we use several training methods in our speed development for athletes. During our entire evaluation process, we determine what "bucket" needs to be filled the most. These buckets can be, but are not limited to:

  • Increasing stride length

  • Decreasing ground contact time

  • Enhancing foot strike

Once we determine what the athlete needs the most, we then evaluate what sport they play and the position that they play. Most athletes spend their time in short bursts of acceleration followed by a deceleration and re-acceleration period, while some athletes stay in the acceleration phase for most of their duration of movement.

As you can see pictured to the left and above, this is the simplest way to visualize how we enhance the quality of acceleration, deceleration, etc. to further enhance the athletic skill of speed.

As long as we use the verbiage that the athlete is accustomed to (steal a base, make a cut, get around the cage, etc.) that is how we can make a sprinting drill as specific for them as possible!

Again, we always go back to that evaluation process: what did we find? What sport and position do they play? How long do they stay in acceleration or top speed? Once we determine the individual needs, and we create a connection to the sport, this is when the athlete will further enhance their qualities needed in order to express the skill they desire.


Strength and Power

While we love to get kids faster and more agile, our bread and butter is the strength and power training that we perform with our athletes.

Alas, this is where most of the confusion takes place with the term sport-specificity:

"Are there sport-specific exercises to increase throwing velocity?"

"Are there sport-specific exercises to kick the ball further?"

"Are there are lacrosse-specific exercises?"

The list goes on.

These are the most important variables to take away in truly understanding sport-specificity:

- Overall force production (into the ground, the ball, etc.)

- Direction of force production (specific planes of motion)

Wait, that's it? Precisely!

Think about any athletic skill for a moment. Picture it in your head. We can see that the entire body is being used to perform an athletic skill. There is a direction at which this skill is being performed, and it is performed with high intent.

Overall Force Production and Directional Force Production

To enhance an athletic skill, we can certainly work on the technical side of things. However, we must come back to how we can truly enhance the athletic skill, and that is by increasing overall force production and directional force production. It is the job of the sport coach to continually hone in on the athletic skill. It is the job of the strength coach to continually hone in on the athletic quality and the biomechanics that are needed to achieve the athletic skill.

How do we increase overall force production?

By getting stronger of course!

The simplest equation to use is Force = Mass x Acceleration. To increase force production, we can increase the mass of the object (the athlete in this example), or we can increase the acceleration of the athlete.

However, this is to be taken with a grain of salt. We do not want to forget the other piece of sport specificity, and that is directional force production. These concepts do go hand-in-hand.

We want to get stronger in the planes that matter.

For our rotational athletes, we want to get really good at our rotational force production and lateral force production. For our sprinters and field athletes, we want to get good at our linear and lateral force production.

Below is a visual of how we can manipulate joint angles in the weight room to create the most sport-specific environment for the athlete.

Power Production

Let's go back to the Force = Mass x Acceleration formula as stated previously. How can we increase the acceleration of the athlete? This is when we refer back to what we call the force-velocity curve. There is a specific inverse relationship between force and velocity, which means that a very high force output in the weight room would result in a low velocity output, and vice versa.

Below is the visual graph of the relationship between force and velocity.

Force-Velocity Curve from Science of Sport

Sure, increasing force production is the simplest way to enhance an athletic skill. However, what if you already show great force production? This is where individual-specificity comes into play. There could be the slightest chance that your maximum velocity (the opposite end of the curve) needs a lot more work!

You might notice in the middle of the curve is "Peak Power". We get Power by multiplying force and velocity. This helps us understand why sometimes force production is not the end all be all, because it is not the only variable in the Power equation.


As you can see, there is a lot that goes into enhancing the athletic skill. We take a very individual approach when evaluating our athletes, as we create a force-velocity profile for them and see which bucket needs to be filled the most.

Let's remember that enhancing an athletic skill is not by giving the athlete an implement from their sport and performing an exercise with it. Sport-speficity is defined by creating force in a specific direction that relates to their sport. While enhancing force production is a good place to start, there comes a point in time where we must focus on peak power production for the athlete to further enhance that athletic skill they desire to fulfill.

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