Sport-specific training. Athlete-specific training. Today, these terms too often are thrown around as if they mean the same thing. But lately, “sport-specific training” has turned into a marketing term that applies to drills and movements performed in the gym that mimic skills of a particular sport, promising to improve performance on the field.

Unfortunately, the wrong kind of sports-specific training can do more harm than good. Instead, we lay out why a proper athlete-specific training program is more beneficial.

What is sport-specific and athlete-specific training?

The law of specificity states: “To become better at a particular exercise or skill, you must perform that exercise or skill.”

Sport-specific training utilizes movements or equipment to replicate those of a particular sport. Athletic-specific training focuses more on movement patterns, general skills, strength and conditioning in order to improve athletic performance and durability.

The problem with “sport-specific training”

When athletic trainers try to replicate skills or movements in the gym, the end result may actually hurt performance in the long run. Golfers who swing weighted clubs, basketball players who execute shooting drills with medicine balls, even performing drills with an agility ladder while holding a hockey stick or football are misguided attempts to improve performance. What will happen in the cases above is a golfer who changes her swing (for the worse when swinging a real club), a baller with a modified shooting motion, and someone – who by holding a piece of equipment – compromises form during the ladder drill and hinders the ability to increase foot speed, which is the drill’s original intent.   

The fact is to improve specific sport skills, you must practice those specific skills on the field or court in a realistic environment.

Focus on Athletic-Specific Training in the Gym

While in the gym, focus primarily on traditional strength and conditioning movements, including plyometrics and speed and agility drills. Don’t try to mimic sport-specific movements. Instead, focus on proper movement patterns and don’t lose sight of the drill’s intent. If your intent is to get faster, then create an environment that allows the athlete to produce the most speed. Take your plyometrics and speed drills to a higher level when the athlete is ready by introducing banded resistance. By focusing on athletic development in the gym and leaving sport-specific training to practice on the field, you create the proper foundation for a stronger, faster and more durable athlete.