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Sport specificity - What does it even mean?

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Mohamed Yacoobali, owner of MO POWER Strength and Conditioning (otherwise known as the dungeon), MSc Strength & Conditioning,  BSc Sport Science & Coaching, has been doing this since before you were a twinkle in your daddy's eye.

He coaches a variety of athletes including, strongmen, boxers, MMA fighters and BJJ fighters. Known to the people that know him as Mo Power his results driven no nonsense attitude makes him one of the North's most respected coaches. He spoke to us about the confusion around sport specific training:

To begin with we must make a clear distinction between sport specific skills and sport specific training as this has often been misinterpreted which has subsequently led to confusion. Training refers to the process of enhancing physical and psychological condition of the athlete (strength and conditioning), whereas practice refers to the process of perfecting the technical skills of the actual sport (Chu, 2005., Siff, 2003).

The term sport specific is one of the most misunderstood concepts in the field of strength and conditioning. The principle of specificity says that training should be specific to an athlete’s chosen sport. This interpretation has been taken literally and subsequently has led to confusion amongst sport coaches, parents and athletes alike. For example, a boxing coach advises their athletes to throw punches with heavy dumbbells, as they deem this to be sport specific. What the boxing coach is forgetting, is that punch power is developed from the feet upwards. It is a synchronisation between the legs, torso and the arm extension (Yessis, 1983).

Conversely, an athlete only practicing or playing the sport fails to produce the necessary overload required to gain additional strength or power. Additionally, this may result in muscular imbalances and overuse injuries. This narrow approach will not provide the athlete with the base of preparation and range of movements necessary to overload the system to stimulate continued adaptation (Gambetta, 2007)

This suggests the only way for an athlete to be specific is by practicing the actual technical skills or movements of the sport itself.

From a strength and conditioning perspective the principle of specificity is a general term which refers to the mechanical similarity between a training activity and a sport. The more similar the training activity is to the actual sport, the greater the likelihood of positive carryover to performance. It is selecting specific exercises to elicit specific results hence the acronym S.A.I.D. (specific adaptation to imposed demands).

At this point we must make a clear distinction between training and skills practice as this has often added to the confusion. Training refers to the process of enhancing the physical and psychological condition of the athlete (strength and conditioning), whereas practice refers to the process of perfecting the technical skills of the actual sport (Chu, 2005., Siff, 2003).

As a strength and conditioning coach, my main objective is to enhance the general physical skills of the athlete by making them stronger, faster etc. Therefore, exercise selection is an important variable. To make an informed decision on exercise selection, a strength and conditioning coach must first perform a needs analysis. The need analysis identifies the biomechanical demands of the sport such as joint angles, type of muscle actions, the metabolic (predominant energy requirements) and the most common injury sites or prior injury history of the athlete (Fleck & Kraemer, 1997).

For example, wrestling requires overall physical conditioning, but the large muscle groups of the back, hip and legs are especially important for the performance of most moves. Wrestling requires a great deal of dynamic strength, and power but also requires muscular endurance. The main injury sites are the neck, shoulder, knee and ankle. The primary muscle actions are dynamic concentric and eccentric muscles actions. There are isometric muscle actions that are used to a lesser extent, as a wrestling match is 6 minutes in duration.

This suggests that a long wrestling match is aerobic in nature. However, the key periods are made up of many relatively high intensity anaerobic (i.e., immediate adenosine triphosphate – phosphocreatine (ATP-PC) and glycolytic systems) phases lasting a few seconds mixed with several lower intensity paced periods that can be thought of as small active recovery phases. For example, if 2 fighters are engaged in a wrestling clinch, this activity tends to be very intense and mainly anaerobic in nature (La bounty et al, 2010., Antmann, 2004).

So folks please remember the only way an athlete can be sport specific is by practicing the technical skills of the actual sport. For an athlete to develop a general base of strength, choose exercises that strengthen the muscles that are involved in the particular sport, as well as exercises that reduce the incidence of injury.

To learn more from Mo you can contact him here.

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