Many elite athletes note their success to playing multiple sports growing up. Often times, we chalk this up to that athlete having natural athletic ability that can be applied to multiple sports. Though that is likely a factor, as a strength and conditioning coach and athlete myself, I know another reason – these athletes avoided sport-specific training as youths. Not only can playing multiple sports improve long-term athletic ability, but it will also decrease risk for overuse injuries.
In order to understand sport-specific training, it’s important to understand a few key principles, and how some work together, and others against each other in the progression of a sport-specific training program.
The principle of specificity or Specific Adaption to Imposed Demands (SAID) implies that to excel at a specific exercise or skill, you must perform that specific movement. So, if you wanted to be a better tennis player, for example, you’d play tennis. In general, this makes a lot of sense, but wait, there’s more.
Now, let’s add the progressive overload principle to our example. According to this principle, you should do more of the same thing to create adaptation. So, our tennis player assumes – ‘I’m getting better from playing tennis, so I need to do it even more.’ Again, we have more tennis.
Conversely, there is the principle of diminishing returns. An individual who has been doing a specific training longer will not see the same gains as an individual who has been training for less time. Because of this principle, our tennis player will potentially plateau, or even see a decrease in performance. They’ll likely either think - “I need to rest and take a break from tennis” or, “I just need to keep playing more tennis. I got better before when I increased my tennis hours, I’ll just keep playing even more.”
If the tennis player picks the later, they can put themselves on a path of continued diminished performance in their sport, and even more, potential over-use injuries. Because of this, coaches and parents need to understand that at a physically immature age an athlete’s musculoskeletal system can become compromised with chronic overuse injuries. These compromises can come from playing one sport all year round or playing one sport and having a training program that mimics the specific movements of their sport. Youth athletes are now having surgery that professional athletes would see later in their career (i.e. Tommy John surgery, FAI pincer/cam lesion) because of improper, sport-specific training.
A Better Way
So, how can an athlete who’s only focused on one sport excel? At Sports Advantage powered by EXOS, we focus on variation and recovery to help our athletes find continued success.
In order to avoid accommodation, an athlete must have variety in their training. This should include natural progressions and regressions, specifically - training load, volume, exercises and sport. So, our tennis player should not only find variation in the gym to avoid accommodation, they should also consider adding a sport with different movement, such as basketball, to the mix.
Another very important aspect of a proper training program is recovery. In many scenarios, this is not considered as student athletes sign up for the next season or training program. Recovery is pivotal in preventing over-use injuries, especially in younger athletes.
How we practice and play our sports should be viewed in the same light as a sound strength and conditioning program, which offers variety, recovery and an opportunity to excel for the long-haul without injury. Though it might sound contradictory, athletes should avoid strength and conditioning programs that mimic everything they do in their specific sport. Programs designed for “tennis players” should be made to compliment what they do on the court, not repeat it.
Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson is a performance specialist with Altru Advanced Orthopedics. Outside of work and hockey, she enjoys downtime with her husband, dog and family.