Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Sports Conditioning Secrets They Don't Want You to Know (Part 2): Specificity is the Key to Training Success

Let’s pick up our discussion of ideas and concepts that the sports training “experts” in our fair US of A really don’t want you to know about, much less understand with a discussion of the impact of “specificity” on training for tennis (or any sport, for that matter).

I’ll start off by recounting a conversation I had with a former American pro athlete who decided to pursue a career in the fitness and sports conditioning business by establishing his own “speed training/sports performance center” near my home.

The most interesting and revealing part of our conversation came at the very end when this ex-pro athlete now “certified strength and conditioning specialist”, we’ll call “Fred” (not his real name, of course) asked me this question:

“So what do you do differently from what we do here at XXX?”

On the surface, Fred’s question is a fair question.

What is different about what I do from what they’re doing?

Before I reveal my response, I should mention that the time, I remember taking a short pause before answering Fred so I could find a “diplomatic response”. I did this because at the time, I wanted to leave open the possibility of being allowed to use their really nice, new indoor facility to train my own players.

*To see my “real” response that appeared first in my brain before being filtered out by my better judgement at the time, please see the postscript at the end.

Anyway, my polite, diplomatic answer was this: what’s different about how I train players is that I focus on solely on tennis-specific training for competitive players.

What this means is that I ask my athletes to solely perform training exercises that are identical to the exact performance demands (i.e. the exact type of movements, the exact speed of movement, the exact sequence of movement, the exact nerve and muscle firing patterns, etc.) they encounter on the tennis court.

It’s not important or relevant to me if my athletes run the 40 under 4.5 seconds, bench press 2X their body weight, or have a 35+ inch vertical jump.

What is important is having my athletes improving their physical (and mental) performance on the tennis court as rapidly as possible.

What this means is that I want to train players who are capable of executing their maximum tennis performance level every time they compete.

In order to achieve this, I am training players who will be capable of serving consistently over 125 MPH, retrieving 90 MPH groundstrokes with full control after sprinting 3 yards in 0.4 seconds, and having the functional strength in their lower body to decelerate from a full sprint, then form a hitting stance, then make an explosive first (recovery) step to prepare for what could be a series of 10 to 15 returns from their opponent…

Among other extreme physical (and mental) challenges faced on the court (i.e. having 0.4 seconds to return today’s power serves, etc.).

Fred’s response in return was his own pregnant pause followed by this exact question:

“So how is what you just described different from what we do here again?”

At that point, finding another facility to host my training program was clearly the “action step” I needed to take after this meeting.

What you need to learn from my experience with Fred and virtually everyone else who’s in the “strength and conditioning” business here in the USA whether they’re a “certified personal trainer" in the local gym, a “certified strength and conditioning specialist” in the local “speed school”, “sports performance center” or collegiate weight room is this:

1. They all believe that improving the general conditioning level of the athlete is all that is sufficient and necessary to increase the competitive performance level of any and all athletes, regardless of the actual demands of the sport the athlete wants to excel at may actually be.

2. They all believe that increasing general athletic attributes such as strength, endurance and straight-ahead speed alone will make any and every athlete a higher performer in any sport.

3. They all believe that trying to design a training program that meets the specific demands of a particular sport is solely reserved for athletes who have already clearly demonstrated world-class or professional-level athletic ability and performance levels in their chosen sport.

For everyone else, even those who may eventually achieve world-class performance levels in their sport, general training is “good enough”.

The proof of their belief in general training being both the ”best” and “right” path to higher athletic performance is clearly demonstrated by the fact that regardless of the actual nature of the sports, the same body of training exercises (i.e. weight lifting, plyometrics, stretching, medicine ball throwing, sprinting form drills, etc.) are used for virtually all athletes from tennis players to golfers as well as baseball and football players.

They assume that a general increase or improvement in general athletic attributes translates directly into higher performance in any sport, as if swinging a golf club is identical to swinging a baseball bat or tennis racket.

Heck, what does specificity mean anyway?

It’s just another 50-cent word/idea thrown around by those “sports scientists” who don’t leave their “ivory tower” to venture into the so-called “real world”.

Specificity is a really simple idea: it means that sports training should be relevant and appropriate to the sport for which the individual is training in order to produce a training effect (= “improvement”).

When you apply specificity to tennis training, this means that whatever training exercises you do for tennis should probably closely match the actual physical demands and challenges you face when playing tennis.

For example…

Is running 5 miles continuously at a medium pace (a common endurance exercise) the same as sprinting 3 yards after an explosive split-step at least 10 times per point, for 65 points per set (on average)?

Is accelerating your 11 to 12 ounce racket to 75 MPH at contact in 0.12 seconds (or less) for every forehand the same as throwing a 10 pound medicine ball sideways (a commonly recommended exercise to add power to your groundstrokes)?

Are the exact same muscles used in your forehand used at the same speed and same muscle contraction pattern and sequence as that side throw with the heavy med ball?

The answer in both cases is a resounding “NO”, yet virtually every conditioning coach and personal trainer will make you do exactly those types of general exercises to help you “improve” your tennis-specific skills.

It’s just not logical, is it?

Maybe there’s something to this specificity idea? Just maybe?

The importance of specificity may now be clear enough to all of you out there, so why isn’t it clear to all the so-called, brand-name sports training experts out there?

Another “fair” question, right?


*PS: The real answer to Fred’s question went something like this:

“(T)he difference between me and XXX Sports is that what I do, what I ask my athletes to do, essentially begins where your training ideas and systems end. I am the one that your athletes have to come to when they hit that proverbial “wall” and stop improving using your overly general and inherently limited training philosophies, principles and methods. By definition, I, and the precious handful of others like me, are the only ones who can help aspiring elite athletes achieve their maximum performance level.”

Sound self-righteous and overly confident?

Maybe a little…

Yet, these words directly reflect the dilemma faced by all American athletes.

Doing general exercises might work, but if you’re really a world-class performer, general training takes you only so far, and then what?

Well, that is where people like myself come in... To help you continue to improve in a territory where the “inches are miles”.

The questions I would ask you next are:

Why wait so long to get to the real answers?

Why not begin with the best information and know-how?

Why compromise if you’re seeking ultimate performance?

Why waste your precious time?

These are also all “fair” questions, no?

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