I have a proven method for getting worse at all sports, which I call 5 Ways to Suck at Sports:
- Practice inconsistently (or not at all)
- Get (or stay) fat
- Ignore the health and function of your body
- Idolize elite players
- Pretend your skills are perfect
Dan John mentioned in Easy Strength that asking the question, “What would it take to become the best?” is an excellent thought exercise for an aspiring athlete.
I completely agree. My background in math has also taught me to evaluate “contrapositive” cases — that is, to not only look at how exactly to do something but how exactly to not do something. The few things I know for sure as a coach, I only am confident in because the absence of them consistently creates problems. (We will explore the 5 Ways to Suck at Sports in Part 2.)
Something I know: Speed Kills
I believe you can literally never be too fast. To be faster means you can either perform at a given speed (that could be running speed, striking speed, or throwing speed) with less effort or you can perform at a higher absolute maximum than others. In field sports, “optimum velocity” and “speed reserve” are how we describe the former; in sprints under 200m, “maximum velocity” is how we describe the latter.
In proof form, I am saying “faster athlete = better athlete.”
Contrapositive form: “poorer athlete = slower athlete.”
To disprove my case, make the argument that an athlete actually performed better in her sport when she became slower.
Right. Moving on.
Something I know: Strength Saves
I believe strong muscles and a well-coordinated brain (ie, functional strength) make you harder to injure. “Lifting” is not the only path to strength. There are many ways to become strong without using the barbell. Jumping makes you strong; throwing medicine balls makes you strong; pushups, pullups, and lunges make you strong; dumbbells and kettlebells make you strong. What matters is improving how powerfully and how quickly your brain communicates with your muscles — both to turn them ON (“squeeze”) and to turn them OFF (“relax”).
Simplified: I believe well-balanced strength reduces your likelihood of injuries.
High-level competitors in strength sports are NOT well-balanced in their strength! They have the sport goal of moving the most weight possible in a small handful of movements. Because there is no “optimal” strength for success in their sports, they constantly demand more output from limited movements and that will nearly always result in injury.
But for every other sport, well-balanced strength (quadriceps relax quickly & hamstrings tense quickly, and the reverse, as an example) is achievable. Attaining it protects you against being hurt by your sport practice.
In proof form, I am saying “stronger athlete = more resilient athlete.”
Contrapositive form: “easily injured athlete = weaker athlete.”
To disprove my case, make the argument that some player avoided more injuries (or, slight variant, rehabilitated faster) when they completely stopped all strength training.
(One correct, though misapplied, argument: if I do absolutely nothing, I am unlikely to get hurt. So if we all retire from sport right now, thus stopping all strength training, we can definitely avoid more injuries…)
Something I know: Conditioning is Overrated
Latif Thomas likes to joke about kids who blow up at the end of 400m races. Their coach usually leans on the rail and grumbles to bystanders, “Oh, they just need more endurance.” I wonder: might they just need more speed? The race is over sooner when you are faster, after all.
(That seems obvious…that being faster means a shorter race, thus less fatigue which causes acid, thus less blowing up. But I digress.)
John Wooden loved to hear opposing coaches, after being smashed by UCLA, say to their teams or the media, “Oh, we will run suicides all practice on Monday, so we get our wind up.” I wonder: might they just need more consistent application of strategy and execution of fundamentals?
In 2013, I decided to learn racquetball. Two old guys (easily 70+ to my mid-20s vigor) and one former junior national champion later, I couldn’t help but think, “Jeez, I’m out of shape, because he is running me all over the court and doesn’t even look tired!” In 2014, I read a quip of Dan John’s about avoiding handball with the old guy at the fitness club. He basically describes how Gramps will utilize his considerable experience and sound fundamentals to put the ball in places you don’t anticipate, letting you run yourself ragged trying to return shots and recover.
You have to be in shape to play the sport. The best way to be in shape for the sport is to play the sport. Forget the bullshit science about “specificity of local endurance” and “metabolic conditioning” – if your skills are sound, your tactics are sound, and your body is functional, I doubt endurance is why you didn’t win. Were you still moving? Were you still playing the game? Then you don’t need more endurance. Did you experience a total-body cramp or blackout from fatigue? Okay, you need something physically, but endurance still is a “maybe” in this case.
(Quick note: “=>” means “implies” or “suggests.”)
In proof form, I’m saying, “better skills/execution => less endurance necessary.”
Contrapositive form: “more endurance required => poorer skills/execution.”
To disprove my case, make an argument for:
- A less-skilled player (or one who makes more mistakes) who never tires winning more frequently than a better-skilled player OR
- A better-skilled player (or one who makes very few mistakes) being too out of shape to complete a game
And the argument exists! Take a retired elite player who has gained 10, 20, or 50 pounds and throw them into an elite game…catastrophic injury or farcical embarrassment will result. BUT, throw that retired, fat formerly-elite player into any other level of play with an opponent who is in exceptional shape but just not as fast, strong, or savvy…
I was hot stuff in high school as a defensive end. Ready and willing to take on the best and biggest of any high school offensive lineman in Texas. Our O-line coach was easily 15 years removed and 30 pounds added from his NFL career — he put me on my butt in nearly every drill, demonstration, or “disciplinary moment” we ever had. I was geared up in cleats and pads, in the best shape of my football career, young, aggressive, and in my sixth year of play; he was approaching 50, wearing running shoes and a T-shirt. And I ended up on my ass every time.
Take on someone stronger, faster, or more experienced, however long they have been retired. You’ll learn just what it means to have been elite. “It’s just like riding a bicycle.”
I do not believe endurance/conditioning is unnecessary. I believe conditioning is overrated.
Those are the few things that I know for sure about training. When I try to go against them, people stop improving, people get hurt, people burn out. So that must mean, at least in my life and that of the athletes I serve, that these things are true.