A strength and conditioning coach, by nature, should be able to take an athlete’s performance beyond what they can do for themselves. However, many coaches in the arena of court and field sport limit themselves to training for isolated tests that have stood the proverbial test of time, like the 40 yard dash and benching 225 lbs for maximum reps. While these tests are meant to show progression, regression, or proof of concept of that individual’s S&C program, what is often and ironically most neglected is the athlete’s on field performance. In recent years, I have observed a trend of the strongest and most in shape kids in the weight room occupying more and more spots on the bench.
I firmly believe this comes from coaches looking for justification of their elaborate training programs, which limits themselves as developers of young men and women. They take credit for an athlete’s testing success in pass or fail tests, but neglect the true proving ground: the sporting arena.
There also exists scenarios where strength and conditioning professionals working directly with teams are handed conditioning tests or timed runs by a sport coach that each player must pass, with no discussion on how these arbitrary tests fit into the strength coach’s philosophy, methodology, or training principles.
The bullshit lies in the belief these tests generate mental toughness, quantify athleticism, or measure the dedication of an athlete to their sport. While any coach can point to their conditioning test as the filter where they saw leaders emerge or quitters quit, the test did not generate this outcome or take you to a championship back in your day. The genetics of the kids, geography of sport culture they grew up in, and the opportunity to train, practice, and play led to success at the test and during the season.
Sport presents physical tasks to which the body is unaccustomed (1). Set plays rehearsed with perfected action are foundational components for almost every sport, but things rarely go as planned, and an athlete must be able to work outside the confines of what’s in the playbook. An athlete must quickly react using a complex set of systems, such as the central nervous, neuromuscular, and muscular systems to solve these unpracticed problems; on the field, the primary difference between athletes becomes how quickly and efficiently they are able to call upon these abilities to accomplish the unplanned task, not how many times they benched a weight.
The greatest divide will always be whether an athlete can replicate these abilities throughout competition season with success.
This article will identify how conditioning is affecting Game Day performance, crucial components of court and field sport training, lay the groundwork for replicating training abilities that translate to the field, and refocus the responsibility of the S&C provider.
Work Capacity and Preparation – Train to Train
Work capacity is the body’s ability to produce work of varying intensity and duration using the corresponding energy systems (1). Often referenced as the duration for which power can be maintained (2), popular workout practices have led many strength and sport coaches to view work capacity as a level of conditioning.
Training work capacity in these popular workout practices includes repeatedly performing cyclic movements that require the prolonged maintenance of work output. For beginner athletes, or athletes returning from an injury, increased work capacity hastens kinesiological pattern development and allows for a greater margin of error. We lean on this approach in our Bedrock program, giving athletes consistent opportunity to master fundamental movement patterns and perfecting the body’s involuntary functions (such as golgi tendon and muscle spindle action) they will no-doubt need in the sport arena (1). Experienced athletes returning from time off see benefits from this repetition of the fundamentals as well.
When I am programming for teams, work capacity is primarily programmed in the first month of off-season training. I refer to these as the fundamentals of the fundamentals: mastering our Primal movement patterns of squat, step, and lunge before sport skill fundamentals are implemented by the sport coach. The cyclic exercises elevate necessary traits developmentally required within sport, and creates a base level of fitness that allows them to train for competition (1).
When Condo gets Quirky
Where it sometimes gets shaky is when a sport coach misunderstands the demands placed on the field or court sport athlete, especially when pushing players to be in ‘4 Quarters Shape’ the first week of pads. While all field and court sports require a certain level of conditioning allowing them to compete play after play, it is next to impossible to gauge this with a conditioning test.
One of my favorite examples, when the Canadians first lost their stranglehold on international hockey to the Russians during the Cold War days. It appeared that the Russian team was better conditioned and faster when it counted. The Canadian coaches thought the Russians had better aerobic fitness. Naturally, the next off-season training, the Canadian’s players rode stationary bikes until they were blue in the face and skated hard following practice. Despite the additional work, the Russians still outperformed them. Eventually, free flow of information recommenced between Eastern Europe and North America and amazingly, Russian VO2max scores were nearly ten points lower than the Canadians. The Russians were beating the Canadians by skating faster. They had been training speed and power rather than aerobic fitness! (3)
The days of the conditioning test are numbered, and it begins now! Training is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Doesn’t matter how well an athlete fares on their conditioning test if they are consistently overpowered, sped past, or lose their step when the game is on the line.
Expansion of Abilities – Speed Kills
While there is value in capacity in certain phases of training, competitions are won and lost in moments. These moments are the instantaneous displays of athleticism, where we witness unbelievable physics-defying big plays and magnificent breakaways. While it is next to impossible to replicate demands of these situations, incorporating true maximal effort into training can arm athletes with the capacity to dig deeper and expand their top end abilities and potential.
Field and court sports are riddled with single, explosive tasks, contrary to work capacity training, which incorporates submaximal, cyclic movements. Thus, incorporating maximal efforts to expand strength, power, and speed is the way to go. This can be applied in training with acyclic exercises. Single bouts of effort in training demand significant force over minimal time, allowing athletes to form and perfect the optimal kinesiological pattern for a single effort. You see a lot of this specific demand placed on our athletes in Field Strong in the form of heavy 1’s, jumps, sprints, and medball work.
Anyone watching the NFL on Sunday knows, games are won and lost on big plays. Big plays require top end speed and dynamic explosive strength for that quick step. Incorporating this component of training will get them there, not submaximal cycliclical movements.
Coach’s Responsibility – Work Efficiency
Increasing work capacity and expanding max strength, power, and speed are two very important focal points for the strength and conditioning coach. Most know this, but what separates the “good” from the “greats”? Establishing the connection between these two components, and directing the purpose of training to skill transfer. This is accomplished in the form of work efficiency!
Work efficiency is the interaction among the various responses of the athlete’s systems, (central nervous, neuromuscular and muscular systems) in an effort to quickly display force specific to a sporting task, and then replicate these play after play. Think of an NFL linemen coming off the snap and hitting the guy in front of him perfectly. Then doing it again and again, over the entire game. As stated earlier, sport is a series complex problems the athlete has never experienced before and must solve them with their movement. Now that their maximal abilities are set, the athlete must use their instincts to determine how much force to apply to the complex tasks presented in their arena, with accuracy and finesse. Integrating work efficiency training into a program can be optimized in two different ways:
1) Sports Practice:
This is already in place for most athletes, and there is no better way for them to coordinate the strength, power, and speed they have developed in the weight room. Sport and position specific, the athletes are allowed to make mistakes and solve complex problems with their bodies. They can practice their instincts and use of abilities as close to game speed as one can get, and then replicate the coordination specific to each demand. If you are a S&C provider for a team, encourage the coach to push the tempo of practice to the game speed they’ll either implement or face.
2) Athletic Creativity Built Into Training:
With only so much time to train athletes in- and off-season, the process of increasing work efficiency needs to be accelerated. Speed and agility work alone in training is limited to only one or two stimuli, like a whistle to start and a point to change direction. Applying unscripted agility work and tasks following weight training or speed work is one of the easiest ways to accomplish this. Fun Examples we mix into Bedrock include:
- Partner tag which forces athletic creativity and competition
- Pursuit drills that allow the calculation of an opponent’s speed and angle
- Chaos training which puts the athlete in a fatigued and acidic state and they have to perform a reactive task or navigate an obstacle course
After all, a basketball player who owns the boards is not the player with moderate strength who can jump reasonably high a thousand times in rapid succession, or a player who can’t control the volume of their 42” vertical. Rather, the strongest player is the one who jumps the highest when it is demanded (3).
Many coaches view work capacity simply as an athlete’s level of conditioning. But, what if these measurements and condo practices detract from the appropriate level of fitness required for the sport? What if strength coach is forced to cut specific time dedicated to hypertrophy, tensile strength, and injury prevention, because they need to get that condo test dosing in? Is a conditioning test still worth keeping around, if training specifically for the test detracts from top end abilities and creates unstable, faulty movement patterns that minimize work efficiency and risk acute or long term injury? Extra points on the conditioning test will only look great in pre-season once they’re traded for 1’s in the L-column.
Final thought, work capacity training is a valuable tool when preparing for the strength, power, and speed training that will benefit an athlete most in competition. However, during this preparation phase, a coach must also remember that each individual displays a different rate, degree, and efficiency of response to the same training, so it is not optimal to hold a whole team to a single standard conditioning test. Following this pre-competition training phase, test work capacity, but avoid simply labeling athletes as in-shape or not, quitters, or any other non-empowering label. Odds are you will need them during the season. Instead, use this as a measurement of an athlete’s ability to recover between bouts of maximal velocity, maintain technique under fatigue, and challenge their ability to replicate their abilities in a chaotic environment. Just like the finesse of a jump shot, this will not be measurable by anything but a trained coach’s eye.
Empower Your Performance: Train For Sport, Not Survival
Athletes never rise to the occasion; they always fall to the level of their training. Training cyclic movements at sub-maximal levels will not expand an athlete’s top end abilities or train their efficiency in calling upon the range of task specific abilities that is sport.
Conversely, only relying on maximal efforts in single lifts or sprints as a test of game time preparation is a fallacy. Sport is a problem-solving activity, where movements produce the solutions (1). Single maximal effort lifts or sprints mean little if an athlete is either only good for one attempt per game, or does not have the neuromuscular control to complete a task in their arena.
In conclusion, I believe there is an over application of conditioning that is not preparing athletes for their moment, and is negatively affecting the top end abilities of athletes and their ability to replicate it when needed the most. When training field or court sport athletes, it is the strength coach’s responsibility look to the sporting arena (practice or Game Day) as the proof of concept, as well as the lens of where improvements can be made. Focusing on improving an athlete’s ability to not only use their full motor potential specific to the task to achieve success, and more importantly, replicate, is the mark of a “great” strength program. Remember what they’re training for, and empower their performance, not their conditioning test.
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- Siff, M., and Verkhoshansky, Y. Supertraining. (6th Ed.) Denver, CO: Supertraining International; 32, 96, 105-107, 2009.
- Bosch, F., and R. Klomp. Running: Bio-mechanics and Exercise Physiology Applied in Practice. Philadelphia: Elsevier; 102, 2005.
- Francis, C. Key Concepts: Elite Edition. www.CharlieFrancis.com; 13, 2008.
John Welbourn is CEO of Power Athlete and Fuse Move. He is also creator of the online training phenomena, Johnnie WOD. He is a 9 year veteran of the NFL. John was drafted with the 97th pick in 1999 NFL Draft and went on to be a starter for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1999-2003, appearing in 3 NFC Championship games, and for starter for the Kansas City Chiefs from 2004-2007. In 2008, he played with the New England Patriots until an injury ended his season early with him retiring in 2009. Over the course of his career, John has started over 100 games and has 10 play-off appearances. He was a four year lettermen while playing football at the University of California at Berkeley. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in Rhetoric in 1998. John has worked with the MLB, NFL, NHL, Olympic athletes and Military. He travels the world lecturing on performance and nutrition for Power Athlete. You can catch up with John as his personal blog on training, food and life, Talk To Me Johnnie and at Power Athlete.
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