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The Unofficial Guide To Improving Athletic Performance

You Should Read This Post If You:

  • Train athletes.
  • Are an athlete.
  • Enjoy short rants.
  • Are currently questioning the efficacy of agility ladders.

My favorite sport is football.

Although I grew up a dedicated hockey player, my hockey career came to a quick and decisive halt at the end of high school and I spent every Sunday of my college years relaxing in front of a television.

It’s not the violence, but the complexity of the game that I enjoy. That and the pure athleticism of the players.

Whenever athleticism comes up in conversation, I’m sure to mention NFL cornerbacks. Not only are they typically shorter (and thus need to jump higher to contest throws), but they also have no idea where the receiver is going until he goes there – they’re always one step behind.

But it’s not just cornerbacks that display athleticism on the field. For many, the best example of an anti-athlete would be an offensive lineman.

But at this year’s NFL Combine, all but one of the offensive lineman ran their 40 yard dash in less than six seconds (and that one guy ran his in less than five). Bear in mind, only two of them weigh less than 300 lbs and those guys weigh 296 and 297.

Speaking of size, the shortest athlete currently playing in the NFL, Trindon Holliday, is 5’5″and weighs 170 lbs (that’s about my current weight). Darren Sproles is next at 5’6″, 190 lbs. Jump down the list a couple spots and you arrive at Maurice Jones-Drew. At my height, MJD weighs 210 lbs.

The most common attribute between all of these athletes? They’re bigger, faster, and stronger than the rest of us.

Let’s break this down a bit further.

When we consider that great athletes are “bigger, faster, stronger,” we can see that there are three parts. The first is obvious. Being a bigger human is advantageous in contact sports because you can truck-stick your opponent in Madden. Also, the greater muscle size gives you more potential to become powerful and strong. On the flip side, being strong gives gives you advantage when it comes to building size.

The next part is fast. Being fast is nothing more than being powerful, repetitively. Underneath the speed umbrella are things like starting and reactive strength. Having greater strength gives you the chance to better display the explosiveness that you may already have.

The last is stronger. Being stronger is advantageous in sports because you can easily knock your opponent off of the ball, puck, or their path of travel.

But this still doesn’t answer the question posed in the title of this post. As strength and conditioning professionals, how do we improve sports performance?

My honest response: it’s really hard to answer that because it’s really hard to measure.

Despite all of the best theories about power, speed, and agility development, it’s really difficult to measure a coach’s impact on an athlete’s athletic career. There are innumerable variables to consider and many of them are not easy to quantify. Here are a few examples:

  • There is a genetic component to an athlete’s ability to display power.
  • Successful athletes must be proficient at many other skills outside of the weight room.
  • An athlete’s development may be related to their nutritional intake – a factor largely controlled by the head of the household.
  • Different athlete’s will mature physically and mentally (if at all) at different times in their careers, uncovering different opportunities.

The problem with all of these factors is that we cannot measure them. Even size and power can be tough to measure. A teenage athlete may gain size due to puberty. They may or may not develop a 30 inch vertical on their own, without any strength training.

But we can measure whether an athlete has stronger. Even full-grown men aren’t generally capable of deadlifting 2-4 times bodyweight without proper training. They can’t squat, bench, or hold an L-sit. And along the path to strength, your athletes will have gained the necessary technique and nutrition tools to maintain their health well past their athletic days.

Is there a point of diminishing returns when it comes to strength? Sure. But your young athletes probably haven’t hit that point yet.

As the mildly famous idiom goes, “strength is the glass which holds all other qualities.” When your glass is larger (both physically and mentally), you have the potential to become both bigger-er and  faster-er. It’s really that simple.

Is it important to measure their 40 yard dash times and vertical jumps? Of course it is. And it’s important to spend time working on power, speed, agility, and overall technique. But the only quality that you can progressively overload is strength.

If you haven’t already, it’s time to put away the gimicky sports performance equipment. The agility might look cool, but you have better things to do.

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