Is it Necessary to Emulate Sport-Specific Movements during Training in Our Youth?

By Jeff King

Throughout the years, my approach and philosophy towards training young athletes has changed. Many factors have attributed to this: books I have read, conferences I have attended, and respected coaches I have talked to. Each has played a vital role in developing my current approach with any young athlete I have the opportunity to train. One major aspect that has changed in my training philosophy since I became a strength coach nine years ago is whether to emulate sports-specific movements during my training sessions with my young athletes.

Let me take you back nine years ago. I had just graduated from UC Davis and passed my CSCS exam. I was a young and hungry trainer ready to attack the sports and help any young athlete I trained become the best player they could be. My thought process was simple: If I had a basketball player, I would do drills/exercises to simulate a basketball game. This would be the same for football or any other sport I was exposed to. It made sense to me that, in order to improve them as players and see positive results, these sports-specific drills needed to be implemented.

My philosophy remained like this for about 2 years. However, through readings and conferences from some of the most respected trainers in the business (Eric Cressey, Dan John, and Gray Cook, among others), a paradigm shifted occurred in my brain, and I started to question what I was doing. I began to realize my top priority as a strength coach was not to make my athletes better players but to make them better athletes. It’s a small difference in wording but a major difference in terms of approach, and this change has allowed me in my view to become a better strength coach for my athletes.

I use the case of a baseball player as a prime example how my approach to training has shifted. In the past, whenever I worked with a baseball player, my goal was always to make them bigger, faster, and stronger. Additionally, I would consider what type of movements baseball players execute and how I could improve on them. In this example, baseball requires tons of rotational movement such as pitching and swinging. Therefore, I would incorporate tons of rotational movements with baseball players to simulate their swinging and pitching motion. I would use bands, cables, and whatever modalities I had at my disposal to help with their rotational movement. The thought was the more rotational work they did, the better they would be at pitching and batting, and, ultimately, the better they would be at baseball.

As I gathered more experience, I began to question if my approach to training a young baseball player was flawed. I realized different kinematics are involved in swinging a baseball bat compared to swinging a cable or throwing a medicine ball. Second, any youth player involved in a sport where a repetitive movement occurred, such as swinging of a golf club or bat, would be better off not doing more of that same movement in a training environment. By having them train their repetitive movements, all you are doing is exacerbating their imbalance or any type of movement dysfunction. In some way, you can equate it to training a client who has an all-day desk job and having them complete the workout in a seated position. Most people would agree this would not be a smart approach to training. Lastly, any type of mechanical movement in sports has a technical component to it, which can be anywhere from very simple to very complex. For example, there are many elements to an efficient and correct golf swing. I am totally out of my element if I were not only trying to replicate the swing during a training session but if I were providing feedback on the swing as well. This is better suited for a swing coach whose main job is to dissect and analyze that specific movement.

I found I am more valuable to my young athletes by focusing on improving their athleticism. Improving their work capacity, strength, speed, and mobility will allow them to have the capability to execute a swing, shoot a basketball, or throw a football with great efficiency and effectiveness. In essence, this is General Physical Preparedness (GPP) training and should be the foundation with any athlete. There are times, however, when Specific Physical Preparedness (SPP) is necessary for an athlete to develop. As an athlete moves up the athletic food chain and get closer to the professional or Olympic level, one should incorporate sport-specific movements in their training regimen, for this type of stimulus is required to make the small improvements needed to go from a great player to a world-class player.

There are different ways to achieve success when it comes to training. However, the base of your training philosophy should center on movement efficiency and work capacity. Development of a successful young athlete requires the help of many people such as strength coaches, sport-specific coaches, parents, and teachers. If each entity fulfills his or her role, then proper athletic development will be seen in most athletes.

Jeff King has a Master of Arts degree in Kinesiology from San Diego State and is currently the Director of Athletics at Fitness Quest 10 and co-author of the e-book Pigskin Prep: The Definitive Youth Training Program. Jeff is a youth development specialist who has over 7 years and 1000 hours of experience working with youth athletes of all ages and skill levels

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