Athletic Performance or Sport Specific?

By Coach Travis Mash, USA Weightlifting Senior International Coach

In the world of strength and conditioning there lingers a concept of “sport specific”.  Sport specific training is a concept that all of an athlete’s training should mimic the sport that they are playing.  All across the country, strength and conditioning coaches are trying to mimic sports that are being played inside the weight room.  That’s a terrible idea!

Strength coaches have a job to make athletes a better athlete.  They also have a job to limit injuries as much as possible.  That should be their focus while the individual sport coaches focus on the specificity.  I mean if you want sport specific, go play the sport.  That is the most specific, so why try to abridge it?

A strength coach should focus on the following:

1.  Absolute Strength-  Their first job is to get the athletes strong.  I recommend focusing on multi-joint movements like squats, deadlifts, cleans, and bench press.  If mobility and relative strength remain the same, getting an athlete stronger will allow them to produce more force on the field.  That equates to a faster and more powerful athlete.

2.  Relative Strength- It is key to focus on an athlete’s ability to move their own bodyweight.  Pull-Ups, Push-Ups, and sometimes pistol squats are great ways to monitor your athlete’s progression.  Obviously nutrition will come into play in this category.  If an athlete is getting fatter, then an improvement in absolute strength doesn’t transfer to the field. 

3.  Mobility- An athlete’s ability to move well is often overlooked.  That’s a big mistake.  An athlete should be able to move through a full range of motion with any movement and in any direction.  Improved Mobility should be a goal daily.  I recommend 10-15 minutes each day focused on mobility.  Deep Squats, overhead squats, and full range of motion cleans are excellent for promoting proper movement patterns.

4.  Muscular Balance- along with mobility this is the number one way to prevent injuries on the field.  If you are an aspiring strength coach, I recommend learning to assess for muscular imbalances.  You will also want to learn how to correct.  Here are some simple things to look at:

  • The deadlift should be as strong as the back squat or a little stronger.
  • Sumo Deadlift should match Conventional Deadlift.
  • The Front Squat should be 90% of the back squat.
  • The Clean should be 90% of the Front Squat.
  • Pull-ups should match dips.
  • Presses should match upright rows.

No one is going to be perfect on this scale, but the goal is to get around 90% perfect in all these areas.  The goal is simply balance in all the planes for every push there is a pull, and for every squat or deadlift there is a variation with an optimal ratio.  Weakness anywhere is like having a kink in the armor.

5.  Speed, jumping, and agility work- let me first say that agility has nothing to do with cones and ladders.  That stuff is simply bells and whistles used to sell parents on a program.  I am going to tell you a story that I have never before revealed.  I use to have ladders, cones, and parachutes simply to put parents at ease.  However, when they bought into the program, I focused on the proven tactics to get their children in the best possible shape.

A strength coach has a job to teach proper mechanics of sprinting, changing direction, and all types of jumping.  Each should be practiced with drills that breakdown the mechanics.  However, let me say right here, if you want to get faster at sprinting, you have to sprint.  If you want to jump higher, you have to jump. 

I am going to tell you the way to get an athlete fast.  A lot of it has to do with the jobs of a strength coach that I have already mentioned.  It doesn’t involve fancy machines or colorful ladders.  Here are the components:

  • Relative Strength- An athlete has to be able to control his or her own body weight.  If you ask Martin Rooney or Joe DeFranco (two of the best NFL Combine coaches in the business) how to determine if an athlete is fast, they will both tell you to measure the amount of strict pull-ups.  If an athlete can do the most pull-ups, they will probably be one of the faster athletes because they can move their own bodies the best.  Body fat plays a big role in relative strength.  This should keep strength coaches from solely focusing on absolute strength.
  • Absolute Strength- make no mistake about it, absolute strength is still important.  I am sick and tired of hearing parents tell me not to make their children too muscular because it will slow them down.  Are you crazy?  Are you watching the same television that I am because I am seeing some jacked football and basketball players that are incredibly fast?

            Let’s take a look at Barry Sanders.  We can at least agree that he is one of the  best running backs in the history of the NFL.  I think that he is the best, but that’s irrelevant.  Here’s what is important.  Barry could squat north of 600   pounds.  Was he slow?  Absolutely not!  He was unbelievably fast, agile, and  quick. 

            Here is the crazy part.  The parents that tell me this the most are the ones     with the smallest and most fragile children.  I just want to say don’t worry.        You child is never going to be too muscular.  Look use your brains!  If your young athlete is stronger, body fat goes down or stays the same, mobility stays the same or gets better, and their sprint mechanics stay the same or get better, then your young athlete just got faster.  What happens when a person  puts a bigger engine in their car?  It’s faster!  Right?  Use your brain!

  • Technique- I am good at coaching sprint mechanics, start mechanics, and change of direction.  However, my man William Bradley is an expert.  I normally send my elite athletes to him for weekend camps or extended periods to get that last hundredth of a second.  I work with elite athletes.  The difference in 4.7 seconds and 4.6 seconds could be a college scholarship or an NFL contract.  Don’t be afraid to refer out.  Athletes are made with a village of support.
  • Mobility- mobility is a key that is now getting the attention that it deserves.  If an athlete is tight in the hip flexor (illiacus, psoas, and rectus femoris), full extension will be hard to reach.  The average 40-yard dash is accomplished in 20 strides.  If your stride costs you only one-hundredth of a second per stride that is two-tenths of a second.  That’s a light year in the sporting world.  Optimal mobility must be achieved to produce the most speed.
  • Encouragement- these athletes have to believe in their ability.  Martin Rooney is the one who told me that he could make an athlete faster with words of affirmation.  If an athlete believes that they are fast, they probably are.  If you believe that you are fast, you are more relaxed and lose.  If you doubt your abilities, then you will probably be tight.

6. Goal setting- goal setting is a huge role of a strength and conditioning coach that is often overlooked.  If athletes don’t possess this tool, how will they ever become truly great at anything?  The answer is that they won’t.  If an athlete doesn’t know exactly where they are going, then guaranteed they will never get there.

I like to keep goal setting simple.  I teach something similar to this:

  • Dream it!
  • Write it down!
  • Design a thorough plan!
  • Commit to the plan!
  • Execute the plan!
  • Make periodical reevaluations!

If you can’t dream it, then you sure can’t reach it.  If I can’t dream about being the president of the United States, then I am not going to slip, trip, and end up president.  It’s that simple.  However it is only when I write it down that it becomes realistic goal.  Now I can see it.

Without a plan, the goal is weak and unattainable.  The more thorough the plan is will give the athlete more of a chance of reaching the goal.  However, if the athlete isn’t committed, there isn’t a chance at all.  If an athlete is committed, then the execution portion has more of a chance.  During the execution phase, the athlete’s attention to detail is crucial.

Every plan will always come with periodical reevaluations.  During this phase, I like to sit down with the athlete, and we look at what has been accomplished.  We also talk about strategies that might be more efficient.  Then we design the revised version, and it all starts over again.

This is coaching guys and gals.  Strength and conditioning coaches are put on this earth to make better all-around humans.  We send these athletes back to the sport coaches changed for the better.  These athletes are not ready to take on any challenge issued by their sport coach.

7.  Mind Set- a big part of my job as a strength coach is to shift the paradigm of my athletes.  That means I am constantly trying to shift their view or reality up a notch.  For example, if an athlete believes that he or she can start on their varsity team, then my goal is to inspire them to believe that playing at the collegiate level is a possibility. 

What is “reality” in the first place?  It is simply some made view of life inspired mainly by parents, family, and friends.  It is just a bunch of lies when you think about it.  If my mom believes that she is only capable of mediocrity, that doesn’t necessarily apply to me.   It only applies to me if I let it.  This is a massive portion of my job as a strength coach.  This element will stick with my athletes for the rest of their lives.

Let me give you a prime example.  Landon Harris was one of my athletes between 2008 until 2011.  My job was to get him ready for a collegiate tryout with High Point University.  His freshman year tryout was rough.  He performed the tryout while he was sick with the flu, so his true talent didn’t show up during tryouts.  In turn, he didn’t earn a spot on the team. 

He didn’t quit!  We went back to work, and I prepared that boy like I have never prepared anyone else prior.  Landon was a 6’5” guard that could clean 315lb, and he was the most conditioned athlete in my flock of Division I athletes.  To say the least, he was a stud!  His sophomore year rolls around, and this time he wasn’t given a chance.  No tryout!  He called me in tears.

Now is when the real coaching happened.  He told me what happened, and I could tell that he was ready to throw in the towel.  Who could have blamed him?  I simply said, “Landon, I want you to hang up, go somewhere by yourself, and consider your options.  You can quit, and no one would ever blame you.  However, the other option is to face the challenge head on, and learn the meaning of perseverance.   Think about, and let me know.”

Needless to say, he didn’t quit.  We trained harder than ever, and we recorded highlights of his training.  We emailed these highlights and highlights of his high school games to the Head Coach almost on a weekly basis.  Then I made a personal appointment with Coach Cherry, Head Coach at HPU.  He gave me 5 minutes.  In those 5 minutes, I pled Landon’s case. 

I explained that Landon was the hardest worker that I had ever worked with, and I that I was asking for was a chance.  I just wanted him to get a tryout.  Coach Cherry was impressed with the effort, and he gave Landon that chance.  Not only did Landon make the team, but also Coach Cherry wrote me a personal thank you for bringing him such a quality athlete.

Think about how Landon was affected during this process.  His view of reality was elevated 1000%.  After this process, he was convinced that anything is possible with hard work, dedication, perseverance, and planning.  This is the job of a strength coach.  This is athletic performance at its finest.  The individual sport coach can teach the sport.  Strength and conditioning coaches are building the perfect athlete.

All of the things that I have talked about above will transfer nicely to the field.  If a good athlete becomes a better athlete, then it is up to the sport coach to teach them how to use their newfound athleticism.  I recommend that all of my athletes continue to practice their sports, while they are getting stronger and faster.  That is the best way to make sure that added athleticism is transferred to the field.

All of this is not to say that some things in the weight room aren’t somewhat sport specific.  I like to do rotational work with all of my athletes, but I focus on it more with baseball players and tennis players.  I focus on mobility with all of my athletes, but I focus on it even more with pitchers and golfers specific to their needs.  However, I am not taking a heavy golf club and telling a golfer to swing it 3 sets of 10 reps. What do I know about a golf swing?

Do you really want a strength and conditioning coach teaching your athletes about the individual sports?  I know that I don’t.  If my son is a pitcher someday, I want a pitching coach to focus on his pitching skills.  I will ask the strength and conditioning coach to focus on hip mobility and power production.

It feels good to finally spill the truth.  Because there is so many lies in the strength and conditioning world, solid strength coaches are forced to go along with the status quo to attract business.  Guys like Zach Even-Esh have refused to sell-out from the beginning.  We know what works.  We know what gets the best results.  Let us do our jobs.

I love it when a parent comes to me, and they explain how they could train their kids if they had the time.  No you couldn’t!  That’s like me going to a surgeon and telling him that I could remove my own appendix if I had more time.  No I couldn’t!

My whole life has been spent becoming an expert in the strength and conditioning world.  I started in college, and I have never stopped learning not even for a second.  Why?  I continue learning each and every day because strength and conditioning is my passion.  No one on this earth works as hard as me.  If you are an accountant by day, don’t come into my gym and tell me that you could train your son if you had more time.  You couldn’t train your dog if you had more time.

When you pick a strength and conditioning specialist to coach your child, look at the results of the different coaches.  Which coach is getting athletes better?  I coached a running back that posted the third best score in the nation at the Nike High School Combine last year.   That’s results!  Every year my athletes go on to Division I Schools on scholarship in several sports.  That is results.

When you chose your coach, let them do their jobs.  If they are getting results with your young athletes, then leave them alone.  You have to trust your decision, and then you have to give it time.  If the results come, keep your mouth shut and enjoy the process.  I get it that many of us were great athletes back in the day.  That doesn’t mean that all of us are strength and conditioning coaches.  Do you understand kinesiology?  Do you read up on physiology in your spare time?  I do, so let the experts do their job like you let your accountant or lawyer do theirs.

We are hosting a Free Athletic Performance Clinic next Saturday January 12, 2019 from 10am until 1pm. This clinic is for coaches, athletes, and parents. You can check it out below:

“Jump Higher and Sprint Faster from Work in the Weight Room”

Link for more information: =>

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