When a client comes to you and says they want to lose 10lbs, and in a month they have lost 5lbs, it is pretty straight forward that they are making progress and the plan that was originally laid out is working. There are a few additional variables at play that may have had an impact, but you generally know that your plan is working and you are executing on the right variables. Training for sport is not the same.
There are an insane amount of variables at play during sports. An athlete has to constantly adapt to the environment and players on the opposing team. They have to do this in a matter of seconds. Things like speed, strength, change of direction, field vision, overall proprioception, sport specific skills, and overall work capacity are all at play during any given sport. That's just to name a few, and not including psychological factors as well. Some athletes are born with innate athletic skills that help them excel at a handful of sports. The best usually end up picking a specific one and do very well at that one. Some athletes could never step in a weight room and still be in the top 1% of their sport. Others don't possess that same ability. So, it's hard to really determine what we can do in the gym that will have the greatest positive effect on an athlete's performance on the field. But, we can take some very educated guesses.
We know there are certain physical qualities that are VERY likely to make someone better at their sport, regardless of their sport-specific skill. A faster athlete is likely a better athlete. A stronger athlete is likely a better athlete. An athlete with more muscle and less body fat is likely a better athlete at most positions. It doesn't matter if your jump shot sucks, if you can run fast you are likely to be better than another person with the same jump shot quality who is slower. This is the sort of framework we need to use when training for athletic performance. We can't know everything, and there are some variables that are out of our control such as genetics, but sports performance training is all about making the best possible guess as to what is going to make an athlete better on the field. And, that comes to developing qualities like the ones mentioned above.
When things get a little bit more complicated is when we have to start talking about secondary consequences we are creating at the gym. What happens when you start back squatting all the time? You may be increasing your back squat strength, which is good, but are you also limiting your ability to rotate and turn, which is very much needed on the field in athletic performance? At some point I am willing to say an athlete's squat strength is good enough, because I wouldn't want to limit other areas of performance by continuing to put pounds on the squat. A 400lbs back squat for a pitcher is good enough in my books. Time to start developing other qualities that aren't going to limit the insane range of motion that is needed to pitch.
I hope I am starting to create a picture for you as to how complex training for sport can be, and will get you to start thinking differently. I wish it were as simple as increasing bench press, back squat and deadlift. And, to be honest that is how I used to think. We have to come up with certain performance indicators that will guide our decision making, but I don't think increasing weight room numbers should be the only thing in the conversation. Many jobs in the strength and conditioning world are judged based on how much stronger athletes are getting in the weight room. I think this is misguided and does not represent the bigger picture.
It may be relevant for an offensive lineman to continue to bench 400+lbs and squat over 600lbs, but we shouldn't be pushing the same agenda on a wide receiver or a defensive back. We have understood this in a very limited sense with quarterbacks. Coaches don't typically give them the same strength program as the rest of the guys. But, this is to ensure that they don't hurt their arm and not necessarily because there might be different qualities that a quarterback needs to develop compared to a linebacker.
So, what should guide our decision making process in the gym if every athlete has different needs, and we will never know for CERTAIN what will have a positive effect on performance on the field? I wish I could give you an exact answer but the reality is that it will always be subjective and we are always sort of guessing. There are however, like mentioned above, certain qualities that are very likely to make an athlete better. One quality being speed or the ability to produce and apply force very quickly. Even though the 40 yard dash is never really ran in a straight line on the field, it is a very good test to see what football players are fast. I would pick the guy who runs a 4.3 over the guy with a 4.6 all day everyday, unless it is apparent that the 4.3 guy can't catch a ball to save his life. We also know that for certain positions in certain sports it pays to be big. If an athlete wants to be a linebacker, but is 135lbs soaking wet, I am willing to say we HAVE to add some muscle mass to his frame. In a lot of cases for a lot of athletes it would be wise to add muscle mass. Muscle is a very good predictor of force production, and most young athletes have limited muscle mass, so they are likely to be served by adding some muscle. The question you still have to deal with is when there might be a time adding muscle is no longer useful because of secondary consequences it might elicit.
The truth is, we rarely deal with the 1% of athletes. We get to train the athletes that are underdeveloped (hence they come to us) and young. It is reasonable enough to say that most of these athletes need a few things. That is, they need to add some muscle, they need to get a bit stronger, and they need to learn how to produce and apply force a bit more effectively. You may encounter some athletes that are in a lot of pain so you need to find a more adaptable way for them to express movement. There may also be a time when you see an athlete that has reached the upper extreme of performance and display movement strategies that seem more idiosyncratic. The question then becomes, do you want to keep that idiosyncratic movement or add layers of adaptability? Because for some people, increasing their movement adaptability or "range of motion" will decrease their ability to produce great amounts of force, and can therefore decrease their performance.
Training someone for sport adds layers of complexity. What we do for their training is not straight forward. It isn't the same as getting someone to lose a few pounds. It's an ongoing conversation with not only yourself and your program design, but with the athlete(s) as well. Test, intervene, retest. The biggest thing is to be willing to change your mind, change your course of action, and be willing to accept feedback. Welcome to the complex world of sport.
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