Specificity and the Simulation Trap

This week I was asked about sport-specific programming by a young coach. Specificity is much misunderstood or at best incompletely understood in relation to training prescription and programming. Our task is to prepare the athlete for the rigours of training and competing. Nonetheless, rather than training the sport into the individual, we train the individual in the sport. In this sense the sport (or sports) provides the context, but the focus remains tailoring physical preparation and athletic development to the individual. This is a subtle but important distinction as we will explore in this post.

The notion of specificity is fundamental to the training process, as encapsulated in the acronym 'SAID' - i.e. specific adaptation to imposed demands. As I wrote about a number of years ago, there are various implications and applications of specificity in relation to training adaptation.

It is easy to see how the simulation trap arises. The more similar the training stimulus to the outcome measure the greater the immediate transfer is likely to be. It would appear to follow that if training prescribed replicates the sport then this will provide the best transfer to performance.

Whilst on the surface this appears sound in theory, this short term and simplistic view of transfer of training effects is ultimately flawed. Highly movement specific training modes can be considered 'transfer training'. Such training modes inherently do not lend themselves to a high degree of force application - hence the degree of mechanical and morphological adaptation is very limited.

Fundamentally, a prerequisite for 'transfer training' is that the preceding training cycles have provided the foundation adaptation and increases in capacity, so that there is actually something to transfer.

By extension, a large part of the preparation undertaken by athletes will comprise training modes that appear quite generic. For instance, in the case of strength and power development, the requisite mechanical and morphological adaptation is often best provided by conventional heavy resistance training modes. Whilst these training modes might be dismissed as generic or 'non-specific', they nevertheless have applications in the physical preparation of athletes in a range of sports.

Moving beyond the realms of strength and power development, in all sports there are numerous other instances of training interventions employed to build capacity or capability, which would not be readily considered sport-specific. Examples include metabolic conditioning regimens designed to develop a specific quality (aerobic capacity, anaerobic capacity, anaerobic speed reserve), which on the surface bear very little resemblance to the athlete's chosen sport or athletic event.

Once again, these training interventions fulfil an identified need, and develop the athlete's capacity or capability to perform. Yet they do not simulate or replicate the sport of athletic event.

All functionality is context dependent, so that one has to examine every exercise in terms of the neuromuscular and metabolic functions that it is intended to improve
— Mel Siff

Certain authorities in the field have attempted to reconcile these issues by introducing the term 'biomechanically relevant' in preference to 'sport-specific'. Regardless of which of these terms is employed, any narrow definition of specificity (or relevance) that is bound to 'dynamic correspondence' ultimately fails to consider a number of wider implications.

As stated earlier, our task is to prepare the athlete for the rigours of training and competing in their sport. For a given sport there is a characteristic extrinsic risk profile - essentially the potential areas for dysfunction and common injuries that arise from participating in that sport over time. One important aspect of physical preparation therefore is putting countermeasures in place to address or counteract the repetitive stresses and predominant movements that are characteristic of (or specific to) the particular sport.

To illustrate this point, a couple of years ago I became involved in training three national-level swimmers. One important outcome the coach wanted was an improvement in their race starts. To that end, I employed relevant dry land training as well as spending time on pool deck providing specific coaching and instruction on starting from blocks and from the wall.

However, the coach was much less happy with the dry land training I prescribed in the weights room. Essentially, the reaction was one of outrage that the strength training modes for the upper limb particularly were not replicating the swim stroke as he had expected. I explained my rationale - I took him through each of the exercises prescribed and explained their purpose, and my intention to develop and restore function at the shoulder girdle in particular.

In this way the physical preparation was ultimately supporting the swimmers ability to train consistently in the pool. The exercises prescribed, whilst on the surface appearing 'non-specific, were indirectly serving performance goals by guarding against the overuse injuries that are common in the sport.

In this case, the training prescribed was appropriate - and specific to - the desired outcome. Yet the dynamic correspondence between training and sporting activity was essentially zero - the training modes clearly did not simulate or replicate the movement in the sport.

This exemplifies the need for a wider and more considered view of what specificity means, in relation to the needs of the athlete, and in the context of the sport(s) in which they participate. In a previous post we spoke about the paradoxical relationship between simplicity and complexity in training. Once again, a simplistic view of specificity as simulation is at odds with the nuances and complexities of physical preparation and athletic development.

Conversely, taking a wider and longer-term view in relation to transfer of training effects allows us to consider how different methods can have application for building capacity and capability. Dynamic correspondence will then come into play with the transfer training modes we subsequently employ to build upon these foundations and take advantage of the residual training effects to facilitate the expression of the qualities developed in the context of the sport.

Those wishing to read more on this topic are invited to visit the books section of the website.