Training for the Game

What exactly does sport-specific training mean? And why is it so important?

By Tim Wakeham

Tim Wakeham is an Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at Michigan State University.

Training & Conditioning, 11.3, April 2001,

Michigan State athletics are well known throughout the country. Because of our visibility, we receive many visits and calls from coaches regarding our strength and conditioning program. The one question they all have is, “What is the most effective way to train athletes for competition?” Our answer: “Coach and train them in a sport-specific manner.”

Invariably, the next question we get is, “What exactly does sport-specific mean?” The answer to this question is one reason Michigan State wins at the highest level in many sports. The purpose of this article is to review sport-specific training; specifically, to: 1) describe what sport-specific training is and isn’t; and 2) how we at Michigan State interpret and apply this theory to our concrete and highly effective sport-specific training philosophy, which underlies the design of all our exercise programs. The following holds true for trained, healthy athletes. Some of the specifics will vary for athletes coming off of injuries.

Sport-specific training is based, as the name implies, on the theory of specificity. This principle states that “maximum benefits of a training stimulus can only be obtained when it replicates the movements and energy systems involved in the sport.”1 Adaptations in trained, healthy athletes are very specific. Sport scientists, personal experience, and mounting research demonstrate that the training and its surrounding environment must be virtually identical to actual sport performance(s) for meaningful transfer to take place.

While that may sound straight-forward, many practitioners are confused about what does and doesn’t produce optimal sport-specific transfer. Richard Schmidt, an expert in motor learning, states, “A common misconception is that fundamental abilities (reaction time, movement speed, flexibility, explosive strength, and gross body coordination) can be trained through various drills or other activities. The thinking is that, with some stronger ability, the athlete will see gains in performance for tasks with this underlying ability. For example, athletes are often given quickening exercises with the hope that these exercises would train some fundamental ability to be quick, allowing quicker responses in their particular sport.

“Coaches often use various balancing drills to increase general balancing ability, eye movement exercises to improve vision, and many others,” Schmidt continues. “Such attempts to train fundamental abilities may sound fine, but usually they simply do not work. Time, and often money, would be better spent practicing the eventual goal [sport] skills.”2

Motor-learning expert George Sage adds, “Practice of non-specific coordination tasks will not produce transfer to specific sport skills. In regards to exercises that involve many rapid skillful movements, transfer is highly specific and occurs only when the practiced movements are identical.”3

Many authors concur with these experts—basically, a significant drop in carryover is seen when the training modality and environment are different from the performance modality. It’s not that a particular training regimen won’t increase an athlete’s absolute strength and power. But because the nervous system adapts very specifically, the training won’t significantly translate to improved performance in his or her sport unless it’s highly sport-specific.

Rushall and Pyke, in their book Training for Sports and Fitness, write, “One of the most obvious signs of a lack of specificity in training is soreness experienced in muscles after unaccustomed exercise.”1 I once prescribed weight training using exercises that were similar in appearance to my rowers’ on-the-water performance. The intent was to use the mimicked movements to gain optimal transfer of strength and power to their actual rowing performance. We started the weight training eight weeks after most of the rowers began their skill practices. Following each of the rowers’ first few workouts, they were very sore, which is a sign that even though similar movements were performed, they were not specific enough and, therefore, probably did not meaningfully transfer to sport performance.

While I was working at another university, an assistant coach wanted to improve the foot speed of our women’s basketball players during the off-season. To do this, she suggested players perform quick-feet dot drills, incline stair running, and jump-rope drills. To evaluate player improvement, she suggested running them through 10- and 30-second lateral shuffle tests.

After listening to her suggestions, I proposed simply practicing lateral shuffles for varying work intervals. The coaches disagreed, thinking this approach was far too simple. However, they did agree to perform an unscientific study.

We randomly assigned half of our players to the first training method and half to the second. We pre-tested all athletes, trained them using parallel frequencies for six weeks, and then post-tested. Both training groups improved. However, the group that trained using the “specific” (exact) sport skills improved approximately three times more in the 10-second and four times more in the 30-second tests when compared to the group that trained using the non-specific sport skills. The greater improvement by the “specifically” trained group can be attributed to more “like” components between the test and the training.

According to isokinetic studies, the greatest gains in demonstrable strength occur at or near the training velocity.4,5 There is very little overflow (that is, measurable strength improvement at speeds different than the training speed). Limited research reveals that a measurable amount of overflow may occur up to 180 degrees per second above or below training speeds.6,7 Because joints move in excess of 1000 degrees per second in sport, the question arises whether many forms of resistance training can produce high enough movement speeds to specifically transfer any meaningful adaptations to high-speed sport activities.

The other problem with applying standard resistance-training methods is that athletic motor skills are placed on a continuum. On one end of the continuum, skills are classified as “open”; on the other, “closed.” Open skills require the participant to react, decide, and adjust in a dynamic environment based on visual, auditory, and tactical-kinesthetic cues. A basketball player reacting to a pick is an example of an open skill. Closed skills have a distinctive beginning and end point. They are performed in a predictable and unchanging environment.

Weight lifting is an example of a closed motor skill. Since many traditional lifting and training drills can be classified as closed skills, again, it is questionable whether a meaningful adaptation can be transferred from weight lifting to sport performances that are primarily open athletic skills.

Kraemer and Newton add, “Research has shown that [weight or strength training] does increase explosive power in individuals who begin training with average strength. However, it has little benefit for explosive strength performances in individuals with previous training or above-average levels of strength.”8

As you can see, achieving meaningful transfer from training to performance appears to be difficult because there are many factors that influence the amount of motor quality enhancement seen in the sport performance of trained athletes. Table One (at the end of this article) lists the most important factors that must be consistent between training and actual sport performance. If any one of the 16 variables differs from training to performance, transfer appears to drop significantly.

At Michigan State, we believe that increasing strength through weight training is very important. However, we do not believe there are any “magical” weightroom exercises that provide “optimal” transfer of benefits to sport. Even when studies show degrees of measurable transfer in the lab, it is highly questionable whether measurable improvements on one or even a couple performance variables meaningfully affect complex movements performed under competitive circumstances. Simply put, there are too many differences between weightroom exercises and sport performance.

Well-designed weight-training programs, however, may provide a small degree of transfer to sport performance, and their importance in injury prevention cannot be overstated. Thus, sport-specific weight training at Michigan State means performing a systematically progressive program that moves athletes through the three cardinal planes using mostly multi-joint exercises (see Table Two at the end of this article).

The importance of multi-planar exercises to achieve maximal and balanced total-body development cannot be stressed enough. Many multi-planar exercises also provide outstanding opportunities to improve muscular flexibility and correct imbalances.

Multi-joint exercises are valuable because they are a time-efficient method to develop multiple muscle groups. Some researchers also believe that multi-joint (large muscle) lifts provide partial but minor transfer of training effects to simpler activities, compared to single-joint lifts, which do not. These same researchers, however, state that the amount of transfer is marginal at best.

I would conclude that it is important to increase strength through lifting weights. Higher levels of strength have been shown to decrease the chance and severity of injuries and to improve performance of fundamental motor skills (walking, jumping, running) to the extent that they require strength. However, it is not known to what degree complex sport skills performed in dynamic situations by pre-trained, healthy athletes are affected.

If lifting weights does not appear to consistently enhance motor performance in trained, healthy athletes, how do you maximally train athletes in addition to just having them play their sport? At Michigan State, we study game film and prescribe agility, conditioning, and plyometrics exercises using exact or virtually identical movements and times (rest and work) as seen in the sport, and have athletes perform them under competitive circumstances. And, whenever possible, we try to individualize sport prescriptions based on a player’s needs along with his or her physical and training status.

For example, our basketball and volleyball players perform jumps; defensive-position lateral slides; diagonal, forward, and backward cuts; twists; turns; and sprints. Training movements bring the athletes through the three cardinal planes and are designed so the proprioceptive demands are the same as during sport performance. We start our sport-specific training by emphasizing precise and coordinated acceleration, deceleration, and stabilization in all movements.

After athletes demonstrate competent movement efficiency, we emphasize explosiveness, at or near game speeds. To continue to overload, we slightly decrease rest time, increase quantity of repetitions, or add “neck-up” sport-specific challenges. We eventually expect each athlete to perform the movement pattern as a purposeful, conditioned explosive reflex, rather than a skill that must be thought about before execution.

Equally important to training the muscles is training the mind. In an effort to maximize transfer from training to sport performance, we try to design our drills to have the same cerebral demands as the athlete’s sport. Sport-specific drills must work an athlete’s ability to focus attention (read) and react under pressure-filled competitive situations. As sport physiologist Ted Lambrinides recently told me, “Athletes may have a big, powerful gun (body) but some cannot pull the trigger (read and react appropriately) under competitive conditions. So the size of the gun and speed of the bullet (explosive movement speed) are irrelevant.”

Other athletes cannot carry over strength, speed, and power because of competitive anxiety and hesitation. Lambrinides added, “Players who are fearful increase neural inhibitory input. In essence, they are trying to accelerate their car with one foot on the gas pedal and one foot on the break.” This neural phenomenon is seen every Sunday when fired-up linemen beat faster running backs down the field on a kickoff.

Every sport and event requires distinct attentional demands at specific times for proper reads. Attentional focus can be broad or narrow, and internal or external. A broad-external focus is usually used to quickly assess situations. A quarterback in football should be able to keep this type of focus because relevant cues for success come from stimuli that are in the external environment (a defensive scheme, the weather).

The broad-internal focus is customarily employed to analyze a game plan. A coach or athlete who is developing game strategies uses this type of attentional focus.

Narrow-external concentration is practiced when minimal amounts of external cues need to be focused on for success. A golfer focusing attention on the ball he or she is about to drive is using this type of concentration.

The last type of attention is the narrow-internal focus. This is used to systematically rehearse a performance or to control arousal. A narrow-internal focus is used in competitive weight lifting, where the focus is on effort.

To increase transfer from training to performance, at Michigan State we operationally define the terms “focus” and “concentration” so that common language is used between coaches and athletes. We then identify which type(s) of attentional focus are appropriate for each sport-specific drill or situation. Then, we coach each athlete to develop proper mental focus while physically performing each drill.

The other all-important factor is reaction time. This refers to the time it takes to initiate a motor response to a given stimulus. We improve our athletes’ abilities to react by implementing the following: We instruct athletes to identify a small number of relevant (sport-specific) variables. We also limit response choices they have to consider before reacting, and we scout adversaries and incorporate opponents’ tendencies into drills. The fewer situational cues and choices that need to be read or analyzed, the quicker athletes react. Incorporating scouting information allows them to invest in early reads and responses.

The combination of both physical and mental training using exact sport actions and speeds performed under competitive circumstances helps players relax, focus, read, and react. And each resulting sport movement is a purposeful, conditioned, explosive reflex.

In conclusion, at Michigan State we believe athletes have the capacity to improve their motor abilities up to their genetic potential. The goal when devising a training program that will get them there is to assimilate as many of the required neck-up, neck-down, and environmental components as possible into a pattern that approximates competitive performance conditions.

1. Rushall, B.S., Pyke, F.S. Training for Sports and Fitness. Macmillan of Australia: Melbourne, 1991.

2. Schmidt, R.A. Motor Learning and Performance: From Principles to Practice. Human Kinetics: Champaign, Illinois, 1991.

3. Sage, G.W. An Introduction to Motor Behavior: A Neuropsychological
Approach. Addison-Wesley: Philippines, 1971.

4. Kanehisa, H., Miyashita, M. “Specificity of Velocity in Strength Training.” European Journal of Applied Physiology, 1983;50:365.

5. Lesumes, G. “Muscle Strength and Power Changes During Maximal Isokinetic Training.” Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 1978;10:266.

6. Housh, D.J., Housh, T.J. “The Effects of Unilateral Velocity-Specific Concentric Strength Training.” Journal of Sports and Physical Therapy, 1993;17(5):252.

7. Timm, K.E. “Investigation of Physiological Overflow Effect from Speed-Specific Isokinetic Activity.” Journal of Orthopedic and Sports Physical Therapy, 1987;9:106.

8. Kraemer, W.J., Newton, R.U. “Training for Improved Vertical Jump.” Sports Science Exchange, 1994;7(6):1.

If you are interested in any of Tim Wakeham’s sport training videos or have questions, he can be contacted at (517) 432-2647 or

Table One. Ensuring Meaningful Transfer

Sport-specific training has been shown to provide optimal returns for actual sport activity. In order to train sport-specifically, however, training must be virtually identical to the conditions and demands of the sport. If the training differs even slightly in any of the following areas, the returns will be diminished:
1. force of contraction
2. speed of contraction
3. type of contraction
4. joint angles trained at
5. range of motion
6. postural positions
7. neuromuscular patterning (path of movements)
8. energy system used
9. environmental predictability (open vs. closed)
10. context of situation
11. type of equipment (apparatus)
12. the amount of irrelevant elements surrounding
the relevant elements. The more non-specific
“noise,” the less transfer.
13. athlete’s recognition of shared similarities
between training and competition settings
14. cognitive processing of stimuli
15. type of motor response classification (discrete, continuous, or serial)
16. purpose or goal of the task

Table Two. Sample Off-Season Baseball Weight-Training Workout

While weight training may only provide slight transfer to improved sport performance, it is critical for injury prevention and total-body development. To accomplish optimal benefit, it is important that the program be systematically progressive and include both multi-joint and multi-planar exercises. Following is a sample off-season baseball weight-training workout that incorporates these elements.

•Barbell Squat 1x15, followed by 1x12, then 1x9 NF*

•Prone Leg Curl 1x9 DF*

•Straight-Leg Deadlift 1x10 NF*

•Lat Pulldown 1x10 DF*

•Standing Straight-Arm Pulldown 1x10 DF*

•Seated Row 1x10 DF*

•Swiss Ball Bridge and Leg Curl 1x20 NF
(Three second hold at midpoint)

•Bench Press 1x12, followed by 1x10 DF
(One inch below 90 degrees at elbows)

•Lateral DB Step-Up 1x10 NF

•Gorilla Walk (Ground-Based Hip Flexion) 1x12 each leg NF (with elastic bands around ankles, and knees bent in an athletic position, the athlete lifts one knee and foot up and out as high as he or she comfortably can and takes a large stride forward, then repeats with the other leg)

•Lying Side Crunch w/Rotation 1x15 each side NF*

•DB Torso Rotation on a Swiss Ball 1x20 each side NF

•Front Shoulder Press 1x10, followed by 1x8 DF*

*these exercises require a spot by a teammate.
DF = demonstrated fatigue; NF = lift only to the target
number; DB = dumbbell

Implementation: Virtually every Spartan repetition averages five to eight seconds to perform (two to four seconds to lift and three to four seconds to lower). Only precise, technically executed repetitions are recorded. A majority of the time, our athletes continue lifting until they literally cannot move the weight a millimeter. Demonstrated fatigue (DF), as we refer to it, is accomplished through vigorous partner coaching. At the point of demonstrated fatigue, the spotter very lightly assists in the completion of the positive portion of the repetition. The finish of the last repetition can sometimes take 10 to 15 seconds to grind out. Rest time between sets is the time needed to load weight or set up the next exercise.

Almost every time a goal repetition is achieved, the athlete increases the weight while still trying to stay within two or three repetitions of the target. This progressive increase means that every workout is harder than the last. We do not recommend this type of intensity as a starting point for those who are just beginning a training program. Beginners should start off with comfortable weight loads and rest times to establish a level of success, and progress steadily.