(This article was partly motivated by the story out of the NHL combine about the top-ranked prospect being unable to complete a pull-up in testing…)
This one is a doozie. There is no right answer, just multiple perspectives to consider.
Sport-specificity creates an interesting dynamic for sport scientists and coaches because it can be ALL THAT MATTERS or very restrictive at the same time.
The first thing to mention is that as a sport scientist (or performance coach, or strength coach, or physiologist, biomechanist, athletic therapist, physiotherapist, chiropractor, or anyone that works in sport regarding athletic performance and injury prevention) all of your efforts are measured by the goal of the athlete in their sport. Improving speed, power, strength, flexibility, etc. are all great but at the end of the day people want to be more successful tomorrow than they were today. The attraction to sport specificity is around being as efficient as possible, to affect those things that can translate directly to sport. It is the reason you see so many training tools on the market that simulate many sporting activities. If you can create overload on the exact same move you do in sport, then you should improve and succeed. Or so the belief goes.
This can lead down a very closed-minded path though. Some people will believe that you can’t predict or correlate performance with metrics in the gym, because the sport is more complicated that that. Or other people will say that attempting large-scale changes in the weight room via weightlifting for example are a waste of time because the given athlete doesn’t compete in weightlifting, therefore there is no need to develop the skill.
The truth is sport is so dynamic and unpredictable that we constantly need new ways of inching closer to our goal when we are limited in what we can measure or impact. Let’s look at the weightlifting example. There is only one sport that uses these lifts officially and we will leave that out of the discussion, because it is the definition of sport specificity. Then there are secondary sports i’ll call them, where a sport skill is directly reflected in the performance of weightlifting exercises. For example, athletes who perform jumping in their sport would likely benefit directly from the triple extension that occurs. What is sometimes lost though, is the specificity of neural recruitment. The nervous system can behave similarly anytime you want to do something explosively, or at high velocities. Think about changing the speed that your watch keeps time. If you tried to do your daily activities in the same amount of time as usual, but your clock moved twice as fast, you would be running all over the place trying to be super-productive. Your ‘normal’ pace would now likely be twice as fast. On the other hand, if you slowed the clock down to take twice as long, your behaviour would likely slow down as well. (This has never been proven, but the concept just came to me, and seemed to validate my point…so take it with an open-mind!) When performing activities at high velocity then, like weightlifting, we serve to increase the rate that we do most of our work at. So any sport that involves movements of high velocity then could see potential benefit of weightlifting exercises. Yet how often do you hear coaches say, “This sport is different, we don’t need that stuff”, or some version of that.
When it comes to predicting performance improvements then, sometimes we need to think outside the box in order to work through a possible checklist. If your sport involves an opponent and weather conditions, you can never be truly sure of performance outcomes. However, we can’t let that hold us back from finding ways to measure progress toward mastery. Going back to our weightlifting example, if after a given mesocycle we can say that athlete X has higher power and rate of force development, then we can probably assume an improvement in the sport. If we have an energetic test (or conditioning test, or whatever you want to call it), and we determine an athlete to be more fit, then that will likely confer a competitive advantage. What about mindset and sport psychology principles. Often in sports, coaches and commentators will call them the intangibles, or people will say “he/she has that something you can’t teach”. Over time, research has looked at talent identification and development, and you know what, there are many times where these things are measurable. So how many people are doing questionnaires and profiles to measure these so-called things that can’t be measured? (Maybe another story for another day!)
One thing that has always resonated with me form my time at Edith Cowan University with Dr. Haff and Dr. Nimphius, is the concept of building capacities. Every time you improve on one of these outcomes, you expand an athlete’s physical capacity for competition, which is rarely ever a bad thing! Sometimes just because you can’t see how a specific metric or test fits into actual gameplay, doesn’t mean it’s improvement won’t somehow impact performance. When we open our mind to the possibilities that many roads lead to Rome, we can usually find that improving physical and mental capacities give athletes a better chance when going for gold!