Friday, January 24, 2014

Sport-Specific or “Culture-Specific”?

Sport-Specific or “Culture-Specific”?

Recently a friend of mine and a fellow physical preparation coach, who was working with futsal and was preparing Olympic level Judokas, got an offer to take care of a pro basketball team. Since I was the one recommending him to the agent, I was questioned would he be a good fit, taking into account his lack of experience working in basketball. 

This is very common issue for physical preparation coaches because each sport is totally different and represents totally different needs and specifics. Right? Wrong!

Sport coaches believe that their sport is special and have special physical needs not shared with any other sport. That is because they were most likely never involved in working with other sports. Things are not black and white.

I believe that, when it comes to physical preparation, most sports are more similar than different. This might be a blasphemy to sport-specific movement/community out there, but I will take the risks and provide my rationale.

The shared commonalities are dynamic ~ they tend to be bigger or smaller between sports. I am NOT saying that all sports should approach physical preparation the same way, NOR I am saying that they should be approached in completely specific and different way. Physical preparation is multifaceted and involves different component that could be shared between sports in higher or lover degree (e.g. strength vs aerobic capacity). Truth is in the shades of grey.

Those who cannot understand this ‘complementary’ approach are better off reading some other blogs which are more black and white, dogmatic and ruled by beliefs and selling points and tricks. Here we (try to) use our brains.

Going back to aforementioned friend of mine ~ I reassured the agent, and he did the same with the head coach, that my friend is a great pick, but he will need some time to get into the basketball CULTURE along with getting into the specific needs of the basketball players (positions, physical demands & needs, injury tendencies, etc). I was pretty sure he was already versed in making HUMANS stronger, faster, more powerful, mobile, endurant and resilient and it will be matter of short time until he gets the feel of the basketball culture and specific needs. I hope one understands the message here: a lot of shared needs because we are training humans and humans need to run, jump and throw with some specifics of a given sport and culture.

Sometimes sport coaches (head coaches and managers) make the following mistake: since they believe that their sport is the same regardless of the country where it is being played, they fail miserably when they take the vacancy in abroad due completely different CULTURES.  Sport is the same, but the cultures are different. Cultures demand different approaches. One cannot put the square peg in the round hole even if the objects are built of the same color and material (i.e. same sport).

Sometimes I wonder whether the sports differ (in physical preparation aspect) based on the movement patterns involved and specific needs, or based on the CULTURE involved. Soccer coaches keep whining how their sport is being special flower and is demanding special treatment/approach (not far off from athletes involved, with the couple of exceptions of course) called soccer-specific training while keep hammering leg extensions, balance/bosu board, ab curls and partial bench presses. Strength and conditioning coaches coming into sport like soccer, most likely need to get a feel for a soccer culture rather than a soccer-specific demands. This is the thing that differ the most and the thing that one needs adapting to.

I am not saying here that sport physical preparation should resemble preparation of powerlifters, weightlifters, sprinters, marathoners, crossfitters, gymnasts, throwers and others. This is on the completely other extreme of the problem spectrum and it is also worth mentioning for the sake of having a full and clear picture of the issues.

In some sports, like (American) football, the physical preparation went to the completely other extreme ~ disregarding of the sport specifics and it’s needs, and pursuing strength numbers and basically making footballers a powerlifters.

Make sure to remember the goal of physical preparation for sports: TRANSFER. Transfer to the field performance and injury reduction and resilience (anti-fragility). Steve Maxwell wonderfully outlined in the recent article that the goal is not demonstrating strength (exercise as an end unto itself), but building strength (exercise as a mean to an end).

Powerlifters, weightlifters, gymnasts are strength specialists ~ they need feats of strength in specific movements. (Team) Sport athletes are strength generalists ~ they need general strength in movement patterns that build up general organism strength and resilience and provide performance transfer to the field and most notably to improve run, jump and throw (add maybe carry, tackle, throw down, kick, punch) – in other words also general movement patterns, and here comes the drums, which are common to most humans and hence sports. Nothing extremely special in the sprint, jump and throw (and other patterns) between sports that is not already being taken cared of by practicing one’s sport anyway.

Going back to strength specialists vs. generalists. Strength specialists approach strength training as either (1) skill training and skill acquisition, or as (2) ‘biomotor quality’ training or some combo solution between the two. The former train their lifts frequently and approach it as a ‘form’ (skill). The latter approach strength training as a ‘substance’ – these usually train specific lifts less frequently and try to increase strength as a ‘biomotor ability’ rather than as a specific skill. Think of this as Sheiko vs. Westside. This is what I call “The Root Problem: Substance vs. Form” and I actually did the whole presentation on it (click HERE and HERE).

A lot of sports ‘suffer’ from the similar problem: for example throwers in certain schools (or should I say CULTURES?) did ‘substance’ training to increase strength and only used actual throwing to ‘realize’ that substance into competitive form; others, with the prime example being Anatoly Bondarchuk did throws to improve ‘special strength’ and skills and put ‘substance’ training on hold after certain level is reached. I have also tried to explain my rationale for inclusion of running-based conditioning (‘substance’) alongside with play practices (‘form’) in team sports HERE.

It is important to realize that even strength specialists differ in their approach and philosophy (in how they solved the Root Problem). Anyway, strength generalists should always have transfer and injury resilience as a main objective and not pursuing strength feats number, although they do provide certain guidelines, possible thresholds and motivating goals.

Hence there is no need to split the hair whether front squats are better than back squats or trap bar deadlift/squat as long as we provide progressive overload and variety in double led squat pattern with our athletes without making them injured in the process. Some coaches differ on the dogmatic scale regarding how much they fall in love in certain exercises and how much they defend their “Precious” exercises. Their athletes buy in into those and hence we have a culture developed. And cultures differ, not the reality.

In team sports physical performance’ relationship to either game outcome or physical qualities of the players, is simply more complex, as Martin Buchheit would say. Things are not linear ~ they are complexly moderated and mediated between a lot of factors. Some coaches and researches would love us to believe that things are simple and linear: increase your aerobic power, which will increase your running/physical performance in a game (run more), which will make you dominate over the opponents, which will make you win. Unfortunately reality is far, far more complex than that. 

To summarize this before it becomes too long:

  • Sometimes it is the culture that differs between sports the most, not physical needs. Culture specific vs. sport specific needs and differences.

  • We are dealing with humans in most of the sports (if you didn’t realized this statement has some joke elements) ~ humans need to run, jump, throw, kick, punch, tackle, carry, throw down. They need to perform these tasks in their respectable sports. Improving these is the goal of physical preparation – there are some sport-specific differences, but things are more similar than they are different.

  • The aim of physical preparation is not to make powerlifters of our athletes, nor to cuddle them with ‘sport-specific’ strength training (read: crap training involving some circus tricks while balancing on bosu ball, because, hey! sport  movements are done on a single leg in unstable environment). There is also no point in falling in love with certain exercises. Take care of movement patterns ~ create safe, progressive and variable training environment. Also make sure do to what NEEDS to be done, not only what CAN be done. This is often the problem, so we need to balance the two and find the best solution.

  • There are no clear linear causal links between physical attributes, physical game performance and game outcome which make this more complex, but also more interesting. Some elements are more linked, some are not. Some links are moderated and mediated. Don’t be dogmatic – understand and appreciate the complexity

  • Physical preparation in my opinion is 50% human specific (we need to improve the general movement patterns: run, jump, throw and others), 30% sport/culture specific (how are these movements performed in a sport and how much; how are they “modulated” taking into account skill related factors; positional demands and injury tendencies; what are cultural differences of the sport; what are sport view how these should be developed and approached) and 20% individual specific (individual player motivation and characteristics, preferences, injury history and tendencies)


  1. I have had quite a few conversations lately that are very similar to this topic. The main point has always been that we, as physical prep coaches, are in charge of developing the system in the most efficient and intelligent way possible. I am of the opinion that in the end, while we do have some effect on competition performance as a whole, one of the biggest influences we can have is on resiliency (or durability as I often put it). One of the best articles I have read in quite a while. Thanks for posting.

  2. Thanks Jacob.

    I agree on the resiliency goal. One thing to keep in mind is to avoid "Safe House" training as Derek Hanson wrote about here:

    This is great article I forgot to link in the blog post and I should have done it.

  3. Thanks for the link. I couldn't agree more. The nice thing is that through proper training means (periodized approach) resiliency tends to take care of itself.