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Specificity is Context Dependent

People continue to troll each other over the internet about what program works best, the answer is they all do and don’t. A one size fit’s all program won’t give enough customization to elite athletes, however can work wonders for a novice athlete. The difference is the closer you get to reaching your genetic ceiling, the more customization needs to occur. At the core of this is specialization vs general training, and what specifically each athlete needs.

Specific training is doing your competitive event in a competitive situation and any deviation away from this becomes general. For a pitcher, it would be throwing a 5 oz baseball off the mound in a game. Every deviation away from this is more general training but not necessarily general training. For example, throwing off of an indoor mound would be considered specific training in my book because many of the variables besides the hitter being in the box are still present. General training could be considered everything besides this. While many will argue what this means, to me for a baseball pitcher there are two types of general training. The first is general throwing which means constraint throws, long toss and playing catch. While general training is mobility work, conditioning, and lifting weights. Now that I have explained what each means, let me explain why they matter.

In my opinion athletes and coaches continue to screw these factors up because of the many variables that go into this. General training and specific training both will help the athlete but many factors need to be addressed first. The athletes age/training age, strengths, weaknesses, what level they are playing at, and their goals are all factors that must be considered when deciding which type of training to employ with athletes.

For example, take a stock 30 year old MLB pitcher and an average 16 year old baseball player. I think that we can both agree that their training should look completely different. This is because they are at different levels and have a different training age. The more advanced player needs to work on more specific aspects of their training. Everything the MLB players does should resemble closely what he does in competition. What will translate better to on field performance, squatting 100 more pounds or adding 400 rpm to his curveball? That answer is the curveball because that will have a direct impact on getting more guys out. Unless the MLB players is 120 pounds in bodyweight, it doesn’t matter what he squats because he is already in the Bigs. His squat might go up which means potentially more power production. If it does translate it might make his exit velo go from 104 mph to 104.2, does that really matter? No it doesn’t. The more the experienced athlete goes through general the training the less impact it will have on on-field performance. His training economy is very limited and needs to focus on the aspects that will directly translate to on field performance.

On the flipside, the 16 year old is in the exact opposite situation. This is because more general training at this point is more important. While adding 400 rpm to his curveball might help him get more guys out, who gives a fuck? He is 16 years old. His focus should be on development to reach the next level. Adding 100 pounds to a squat might mean adding 30 pounds of bodyweight with it, and becoming significantly more powerful. This will allow the young athlete to throw and hit harder, improve his 60 time and become much more resilient to injury. His on-field performance will improve vastly when these qualities are improved. These factors are much more important for a young athlete, development is king.

Development is improving all the athletic qualities that goes into on field performance. As the athlete becomes older and reaches higher levels of performance, only the most specific qualities are important to development. This does not mean that the advanced athlete doesn’t need to lift but they will probably be better served working on mobility to stay on the field and throw more off a mound to work on command or pitch development. These will have a direct impact on his on-field performance. The athlete is already at the highest level so needs to focus his training attention on on-field performance.

Specificity is context dependent on the development of the athlete. In general, the higher the level the more specific. There does not need to be arguments over a good or bad exercise, they are all good and bad, there are just questions to be asked. Why are you doing them? How old is your athlete?

I see this in other sports and it is easier to analyze. For example, the sport of Olympic weightlifting comes down to the total of your snatch and clean and jerk. The entire sport is comprised of only two lifts that need technical mastery. The Bulgarians dominated the scene in the 70’ s and 80’s, which is amazing because of the small size of their country. This was mainly because of their training plan in which youth athletes did general training. This means they practiced the lifts but also worked on very general qualities such as deadlifts, pull-ups, presses, etc. Once the athletes reached the national coach they had already developed all of their general qualities. So what did they do? They practiced the full snatch and clean and jerk with high frequency. They maxed out in each lift up to 7 times a week. This was very specific because they were doing their absolute max, with the full weights for only one rep. Which means besides the competition element they were as specific as you could get in training. Why work on deadlifts if you can do a snatch and that has more carry over to competition? The answer is easy, it is more specific. However, remember these athletes had already worked on their general athletic qualities, so a deadlift is not inherently bad. Though for them it was because of their training age.

This is just an example of how other athletes use development to enhance their performance. What can we learn from the Bulgarian model? Yes, specificity is important but more importantly they look at careers not seasons. Young athletes work on general qualities while older athlete spend their training economy on specific exercises (remember you can’t do everything at once, that leads to overtraining). Who cares how good you are at 16? Tommy the 6’3” 16 year who’s old better than you might have just hit puberty faster. The goal should be development so you can reach your potential. Design a program where the athlete’s training age is looked at. Don’t ask for Aaron Judge’s current training plan. Instead, ask him what he did 10 years ago to reach that level.

For baseball, this means instead of playing 100 games a year and throwing all year round at 14 years old, you focus on other qualities. Throwing everyday might help the MLB player develop, but you see that it is context dependent. The 14 year old could play other sports to work on movement diversity, lift weights to gain weight and strength, and spend more time working on general throwing such as long toss or pulldowns--general training when it comes to throwing.

Remember specificity is context dependent. How old is the athlete? Goals? Level of development? There is no good or bad training exercise, it is context dependent. You should however always ask these questions. Does it fit into the model of development that the athlete is currently on?

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