It is a common theme in strength and conditioning that coaches love to share and comment on video of professional athletes performing their sessions. The format typically goes like this:
- We gasp at how poor the athlete’s form is on the snatch/planche hold/muscle up/insert the exotic exercise of your choice.
- Once we regain our composure, we confidently remark that we could do a much better job at teaching this athlete to master the exercise in question.
- Then we wonder aloud how much better the athlete would be once they achieve a level of mastery in this particular exercise.
But would mastering this particular exercise really make that much of a difference to his or her ability to play the game? They are already a PhD in their sport. If this particular exercise was important to their sport or position, shouldn’t there be a high correlation between its mastery and sporting ability?
It is easy to focus on what the athlete does poorly. But what does the athlete do naturally well without coaching? My belief is that these movements contain the clues about what truly transfers to the field of play. Likewise, these movements probably contain the clues about what strength coaches should focus on in the identification and development of sporting talent.
I have been lucky enough to work with some very high level rugby players in my career. I’ve seen them move in the gym and on the field. And surprisingly (for many coaches) there was very little relationship between sporting talent/playing level and mastery of the Olympic lifts. Most of them were terrible at gymnastic or calisthenic movements. Hell, for a lot, even strength wasn’t that big of a deal. I have personally worked with an elite level (50 cap international) number 8 who could barely muster a 130kg back squat at a bodyweight of 105kg.
So what do elite rugby athletes naturally tend to excel at? There is a clear relationship between playing level and sprinting ability. This is true of my experience and high level coaches in other sports like Buddy Morris in the NFL and Dave Tenney from his days in the MLS. Likewise the majority of professional athletes seem to excel at the “Dad strength” activities like loaded carries and wrestling. Lastly, elite rugby players all jump well, both vertically and horizontally.
Unsurprisingly these activities form the basis of my programming for rugby athletes: we sprint often, we jump with and without loads, and we learn to wrestle so that we can better control our bodies and those of our opponents in contact. Yes, we do lift heavy, but we do so in the understanding that the weight room serves the field and is not a goal in and of itself.
So the next time you see an elite level player sucking at a particular exercise, put down the phone, take a big deep breath and ask yourself if this is really relevant to his or her ability to produce on the field? Instead, ask yourself what the athlete naturally excels at, then try to focus on improving these abilities in your programming or that of your athletes.