Sports specific training is a polarizing term that creates value in the eyes of parents, athletes, and coaches for what you can provide a team. It’s also one of the most abused and misunderstood phrases in the strength and conditioning field. If a parent or athlete is involved with field hockey and they have the choice to work with either a strength and conditioning coach or a field hockey specific strength and conditioning coach, they’re most likely going to work with the field hockey specific guy. But what does it mean to do field hockey specific training?
Does a field hockey specific strength and conditioning coach work on their passing technique? No. That’s a responsibility better fit for their sport coach to oversee. Does a field hockey specific strength and conditioning coach work on speed and agility training with them? Probably. However, what makes those drills specific to field hockey and not lacrosse, soccer, or other field sports? Are they going to be holding their stick and fighting for a ball? Because that's their sports practice, not strength and conditioning. Are they going to invent new weight room exercises that mimic the movements performed on the field? While that sounds good in theory, you typically end up with something that falls in the middle ground of effective strength training and productive practice drills. Not able to be loaded enough to be considered strength training, and not specific enough to be more effective than practicing the actual skill/movement.
As great as it would be to have some perfect style of training or specific exercises for each sport, it’s just not reality. Now, sports use different energy systems and require different physical traits, but the exercises and methods to develop those traits are not exclusive to each individual sport. As a strength and conditioning coach, it’s important to look at the specific athlete or team in front of you, evaluate what they need, and pick the best tools to get the job done. A lacrosse middie and a softball outfielder may both need to get faster, and it’s ok for them to do the same exercises to get there.
When it comes to training, there are exercises and drills that are most conducive to creating certain adaptations. A barbell is more effective than a kettlebell for maximally loading a movement for strength training. Lunges and step-ups are safer options than back squats for higher repetition work because they avoid axial loading. The Olympic lifts are better used for training power than hypertrophy. Sprinting is more effective for training speed than doing hamstring curls. Pogo hops are better suited for training elasticity than calf raises. The list goes on.
When designing a workout, it’s important to understand it’s all about picking what exercise will most effectively teach or train the trait that you want your athlete to acquire. You’re picking which is the best tool for the job. There are always multiple options to choose from, and it’s a coach’s responsibility to pick which they think is best. That’s often the root of most training methodology debates.
One of the issues sports specific training creates is the concept that there is one correct training style for each sport, or position in each sport (all shortstops need the same training, all tennis athletes need the same training, etc).
A position might have needs for certain traits, but the athletes playing that position might need to focus on something else. Sports specific training would say an interior D-lineman needs to be doing a lot of lower body strength training to be successful. However, if your athlete is already the strongest on the team, but has no ability to bend or move, they probably don’t need more squats. Sports specific training would say a DB needs to get faster to be more successful on the field. However, if they’re already one of the fastest on the team and it doesn’t show at practice, they don’t need to spend extra time developing speed. They need to learn their position better.
Rather than worrying about what exercises & drills the sport you’re working with should be performing, worry about what outputs or traits the athletes you’re working with need. Then choose the exercises that best develop those outputs or traits. From there, they just need to be good at their sport.