“Sport-specific” is the new marketing buzzword when it comes to strength and conditioning programs for youth. Uneducated masses of parents and coaches herd their sports teams at a young age into “athletic performance” programs that supposedly address the strength, movement, and speed demands of one specific sport. The idea looks great on a marketing flyer, particularly in the American youth sports culture of “win right now.” Unfortunately, the notion of early specificity ignores well-established pedagogies of child development and motor learning—the foundation of youth sport skill acquisition and application. The fact is most trainers implementing these programs aren’t qualified to implement programs for anyone, more less youth.
Most of the time, they are ex players in the specific sport. They find exercises that they think are “cool,” slap the term “functional” on them, tie some colorful equipment in, and bingo! You have yourself a sport-specific program! Their “program design,” if any, is based on the cool toys and “secret exercises” they employ with kids who can’t do a push-up! That’s like teaching a child to read by giving them US magazine! There’s no valuable content and no skill acquisition…just stuff to get their attention.

Training that is specific to the demands of a particular sport does have merit at the higher levels, assuming the athlete is developmentally sound. The purpose of Part I of this article is to discuss the role of a general strength, conditioning, and movement program in a young athlete’s development and how attempting to get too specific at a young age can be detrimental to future performance. Part II will discuss how implementing certain “sport-specific” protocols at the appropriate phases of competition and development can be beneficial to performance.

A good athlete is a combination of raw athleticism (big, strong, fast, adaptable) and sport-specific skill (skill involved with a specific sport like hitting, kicking, or dribbling). When parents and athletes are looking for a coach to help them be better at their sport, they must realize the difference between the two factors involved with being a good athlete. Sport-skill coaches (baseball coaches, basketball coaches) are specialists in developing the specific skill sets needed for that game. Athletic performance coaches or “strength and conditioning” coaches are
specialists in making an athlete generally faster, stronger, more mobile, and more reactive. Unless either of these coaches has extensive, qualified experience in developing both factors of athleticism (raw and specific skill), they can’t create a program that optimizes both.

A sport-skill coach should teach youth developmentally appropriate levels of sport skills and tactics. An athletic performance coach should help develop youth’s general physical proficiency. The idea of “sport-specific” training for youth suggests that an athletic performance coach can help develop and improve specific sport skills by simulating them in the weight room. As mountains of research as well as empirical evidence will state, this is a flawed notion when considering the developmental needs of young athletes.

One of the well-established laws of motor learning is that the only way to improve a skill is to practice that skill as accurately as possible. For example, if you want to hit a baseball, learn the mechanics of hitting and practice them over and over in as realistic an environment as possible. Swing with a bat that you will use in a game and hit off a pitching style similar to what you will see in a game. This teaches your neuromuscular system “patterns” that get stored in your brain like computer programs. The more you practice a certain way, the more grooved and automatic these patterns become. This is where the idea of sport-specific conditioning in the weight room becomes a problem.

Coaches will take an athlete and try to replicate the baseball swing with cables, medicine balls, and other implements. If this move is replicated enough, the neuromuscular system thinks, “Is this a baseball swing? It’s slower and more loaded so maybe we should adjust the ‘baseball swing’ program in the brain to allow for a different pattern.” This confusion causes the actual baseball swing pattern to be compromised. That isn’t my “opinion” or “approach.” It’s actually a well-established “fact.” That doesn’t mean that doing rotational work isn’t good for baseball players. After all, lumbar stability and thoracic mobility is essential for swinging athletes. Weight room drills such as Kaiser chops and medicine ball throws can help create this. Realize that these drills are done to improve mobility and core strength, both attributes that can prevent injury and promote performance. They aren’t implemented to copy a baseball swing.

Beginner athletes need a program that begins with general physical skill development. Basic aerobic fitness, coordination, and motor skills such as throwing, kicking, catching, and climbing are the foundation of physical development, regardless of what sport an athlete plays. Establishing a level of proficiency in these foundation activities at a young age lays the framework for an improved ability to learn sport skills quicker and more effectively. For example, a 10-year-old should learn how to kick a target, even if he is a baseball player. The hip flexion, knee extension, hamstring flexibility, and contra-lateral leg balance involved with kicking lays the foundation for coordinated lower body movement and power development. This can help him learn to run faster, jump higher, or be more agile in the years to come. This can help him in any sport he decides to play.

As athletes get older, their physiology allows for the development of skills requiring a greater magnitude of mental focus and physical output. This is a period of development in which techniques for effective movement can be introduced and adapted. Proper movement technique for running, jumping, acceleration/deceleration, throwing, and strength activities should be introduced. Again, this is regardless of the sport that the young athlete plays. Once techniques of different skills are mastered, maximizing their output is the goal. For example, once sprinting technique is learned, timing a 40-yard dash and aiming to improve that time would be an example of maximizing output. Another example would be getting stronger in the weight room on certain lifts. Giving the athlete these greater output capabilities with efficient biomechanical movement allows them to adapt these new skills to the needs of their sport.

Athletic development should focus on creating a sound physical specimen with the appropriate mobility, stability, coordination, strength, and movement efficiency in order to promote performance and hinder injury. It is up to that specimen’s ability to apply these attributes toward sports skill. The more thorough and appropriate the developmental program, the better their ability to adapt.