The term “sports specific” gets thrown around a lot in the fitness industry these days, but what exactly does it mean? To some it means doing certain exercise that they have deemed are “functional” for their sport. For others it may mean trying to move their bodies in similar planes of motion that they encounter in their sport while at the same time working against some form of resistance. On the surface it may seem to make sense to attempt to train movements in the gym that are similar or appear the same as those performed in your chosen sport. Unfortunately, there really is only one way to replicate the movement patterns associated with a given sport, and that is to play (or practice) the sport itself.
You see skills are specific and when you add weight to a skill you are actually creating a new skill. This is true whether you add weight to a skill that normally has none, or you increase the weight of the implement used in the skill like swinging a heavier than normal baseball bat in hopes of attaining more bat speed. Any of these subtle (or not so subtle) changes will adversely affect the skill in question. Those well- versed in motor learning theory will be nodding their heads in agreement with this statement while others may be feeling their heads fill with a dogmatic counter argument.
To be helpful, movement patterns need to be specific. Every sport be it boxing, soccer or baseball, has its own specific skill sets with specific movement patterns. There are no degrees of specificity. Either something is specific or it is not. Specific means explicit, particular, or definite not “sort of” or “similar to”.
As an example, taking dance classes (no matter what kind) to enhance your boxing footwork, will not make a difference in how well you box. In this case your time would be much better spent working on boxing specific footwork such as shadow boxing, live sparring etc. Now to some this may seem like a silly example however this is a mistake many coaches and athletes frequently make. The only real benefits to a boxer taking dance lessons would be:
1: He/She may become a better dancer.
2: He/She may notice an improvement in one area (dancing) and feel it must have a positive carry over to another area (boxing).
Another common misconception among some strength and conditioning coaches is that certain strength training tools or movements are somehow superior to others because of the “transfer” or carryover to sporting movements. An example here would be that the triple joint extension that occurs in Olympic weightlifting movements will have a direct and positive impact on any other sport movement that has a triple joint extension component for example jumping or sprinting. If you have been paying attention thus far then hopefully you are starting to see that this is not the case. The skill of lifting a heavy barbell from the ground to overhead is totally unique and specific. It is in no way the same as another seemingly similar skill.
Let’s take another example and look at the many tools and gadgets available to improve foot speed. Some coaches will use agility ladders, parachutes and a myriad of other toys in an attempt to improve individual foot speed. Unfortunately, what actually occurs for the most part is an improvement in the new and very specific skill with essentially no positive carryover to the sport itself. Ask your self this question, if you are a youth soccer coach with limited time to improve your kids skills, would you rather they spend more time using drills that utilize an actual soccer ball in realistic situations and movements, or spend time learning how to move quickly through a ladder lying on the ground in a sort of high speed game of “Hop-Scotch”? Hopefully you are having a little light bulb moment and starting to realize that playing (and or practicing) your sport is the only way to improve your specific sport skill.