Specificity: Can it slow your progress?
The categories we are working through this summer are:
Today’s blog will cover these themes:
- Specificity and Progress
- Overuse Syndrome
- The Long and Winding Road
Specificity and Progress
In recent years, I have seen parents pushing their children at younger and younger ages to pick a sport and devote all their time, energy, and focus to this one area. Some parents believe that this method will give their child a head-start on the competition. Does this specificity-style training approach work?
There is an entire field of study surrounding specificity and sports training – and some controversy as to its application. Sports specificity is the principle that training should be directly dependent on the specific type of activity, volume, and intensity of the exercise performed. Many define it as how closely the movement pattern resembles the sport-specific skill. Specificity suggests that athletes should practice the exact activities for which they are training.
What type of training is likely to be more effective, and how does this evolve over the course of a career? Athletes need to be both more specific and less specific, not just follow a template that is a one-size-fits-all solution. Some sports experts maintain that if you focus only on drills and skills specific to your sport, you may end up unbalanced. This may inhibit your athletic ability and performance in the long run.
Let’s compare two of the most famous living legends in sports history and their lifetime training approaches: Tiger Woods (golf) and Roger Federer (tennis). Tiger was raised in an ‘all golf’ training regimen from diapers to becoming number one in the world. On the other hand, Roger played squash, soccer, and tennis as a boy. It wasn’t until he was 12 that Roger dedicated his focus to tennis. These are two very different approaches producing similar results -- greatest of all time results! So, which is best? Read on.
Overuse syndrome affects those who repeat certain motions over and over again during their daily activities. Often, practicing the exact same activity at every training session is a recipe for injury. Overloading “sport-specific” movement patterns can degrade the technique and the performance of that skill.
For example, hand, wrist, and elbow overuse syndromes are common complaints stemming from daily activities as well as sports training. Overuse syndromes also called cumulative trauma disorder (CTD) or repetitive strain injury (RSI), are conditions characterized by chronic physical movements that can be harmful to a body part. The most common sport RSIs include: Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, Wrist tendonitis, and Tennis or Golfers elbow. The attachment of the forearm muscles and wrist tendons are critical to sports and lifting activities, and these tendons can become inflamed as a result of specific repetitive movements.
Half of all sports medicine injuries in children and teens are from overuse. In my coaching career, I have seen these overuse issues arising in many juniors who have specialized in tennis at a very young age. Some of this, I believe, is due in part to the type of training. When young tennis athletes are fed hundreds of balls to train one specific stroke, the chances of injuries are increased.
Doing specific drills is great for learning a technique – as long as they are combined with a variety of training exercises. Unfortunately, in tennis, I’ve witnessed too much repetitive ball feeding and not enough actual playing. In addition to ball feeding drills, an improving player needs to simulate match play -- hitting a variety of shots, moving in different directions, serving, and receiving, etc. In addition, student players must be allowed to navigate challenging opponents with a variety of styles. Ball feeding might be attractive to some young players as they can swing away with good form; however, when they get on the court in a real competition, it’s a very different situation.
Consider the fall-out when choosing a sport at a very young age and dialing down on specific repetitive stroke mechanics. While there are specific training exercises for each sport that are very beneficial and allow training to specific speeds, I believe a well-rounded, balanced training approach will reduce the chances of injuries.
Performance gains from exercises are specific to the velocities at which the exercises are executed. If exercises are performed at slow speeds, then we become stronger at slow speeds; however, there is little transfer to faster speeds. If exercises are performed at faster speeds, then we become stronger at faster speeds. This is important for most athletics as few sports are performed at slow speeds. Thus, when designing a conditioning program for a sport that is performed at high speeds, incorporate exercises that make the athlete stronger at those high speeds. These may include things like the variations of the Olympic-style lifts (clean, snatch, and jerk), plyometric exercises, and sprints. Design your exercises to stress muscles the way in which you are to perform. This helps the muscle meet specific demands, including speed and type of contraction, strength and endurance requirements, stabilization, and mobility activities. The principle of specificity here is important because it dictates what gains are made.
The Long and Winding Road
No, not channeling the Beatles here. I am using the phrase ‘long and winding’ to describe my advice for parents, coaches and athletes. As parents, I believe we should never push children in any direction when they are very young. Let kids experience a wide variety of activities. Allow childhood to be about experiencing new things and new friends with different interests. Leave the door open for experimentation. Let children discover what they most enjoy for themselves – not for you (parents and grandparents). Let them travel a long and winding road full of diversity and variety.
Circling back to our GOATS, Tiger and Roger. As we look back over their careers, should we consider a less binary view? As these athletes continue to compete, which of them seems to have sustained the fewest injuries? Who seems to have embraced a more balanced lifestyle? No judgment here – just comparing approaches through the lens of accomplishment. From an extremely young age, Tiger had unbelievable precocity and clarity of purpose. Roger started more broadly with diverse experiences and honed his perspective through a progression of sports. Roger’s foundation has more ‘range’. Said another way --- a better overall athlete usually makes a better baseball player, tennis player, soccer player, etc.
In our general training, if we spread our wings and train in a variety of ways, we may stay with it longer and enjoy better overall health as a result. This life is a journey to be lived and enjoyed. When the joy fades from a sport or activity, don’t be afraid to try something fresh. It’s okay to change your mind. Embrace transformation and growth. The long and winding road of Neural Cultivating is an evolution.
It is my greatest hope that you will implement some tips from our Bio-Cultivating and Neural-Cultivating blogs. Further, it is my hope you will be inspired to pass these learnings along to family and friends. We all have people in our lives who have the desire but lack the accurate information to improve their health. It is frustrating to sift through the bombardment of data and the misinformation in today’s world. It’s no wonder some give up in frustration. I believe that we deserve the healthiest choices that honest modern science can offer. It is my mission to help as many of us as possible get and stay healthy.
As a tennis coach myself, I found the compression industry to be unacceptable for our needs. I set out on a journey to help you and your students. I know we all get beat up. The harder we compete, the more we get injured. All compression is not created equal! At Body Helix, we start with an unapologetic obsession for exceptional quality. Our design philosophy is to create modern, innovative gear that surpasses that which is offered in the global marketplace. As a privately held, Veteran-owned, North Carolina company we challenge global leaders to elevate their compression game or step aside. It’s compression gear, designed by tennis players, for tennis players.
Be well and stay focused on cultivating your health, your mind, and your solitude. If I can help you further never hesitate to reach out to me.
Move Through It.