The whole reason we train for sports is to develop and improve certain qualities which we hope will have a positive effect on competitive sports performance.This improvement in one exercise which improves another exercise or competitive event is what we call transfer of training. The effect of training is transferring from how it was developed (the training exercises) into improved performance in the competitive event.
Sprinters and other athletes train in a litany of ways with the intent and expectation that improvements seen in training will lead to a similar improvement in performance of their chose sports discipline. Coaches assign speed training, sprint drills, strength & power oriented lifts, and plyometrics, and other exercises in hopes of developing neuromuscular, energy system, and skill adaptations that will help them in their sport.
Despite the goal being to improve sports performance, the reality is that many people will spend large amounts of time and effort in training, yet fail to see improvements in their sports performance. Since everybody wants to sprint faster or improve in their specific sport, it is worth it for us as coaches and athletes to develop a mental framework which can help guide us as we create and implement workouts in a manner that is more likely to enhanced sport and competitive event performance.
The Logic Test
A great starting point for any coach is the logic test. Whatever you do as a coach must make sense from a logical standpoint. If what you are doing doesn’t look, feel, sound, or rhythmically relate to your end-goal, there are likely better ways to spend your time.
If an athlete needs to achieve sprinting speeds over 11 meters per second, yet their training program chronically exposes them to movement velocities which are below 10 meters per second, we cannot logically expect this athlete to reach their goal of improving speed.
If an athlete is training for a powerlifting event, where maximum strength is the specific quality that determines the winner, training year-round with bodybuilding workouts of high reps and 50% load would not pass the logic test.
If an athlete needed to run for as long as possible, such as in a 100-mile long ultra-marathon, maximum strength lifts and maximum velocity sprint training would be be ruled out in favor of a very large proportion of work being performed over long distances for endurance.
If you can line out that a given quality is relevant for a particular athlete's success in their event, and you can agree that the cost to benefit ratio of them performing this training favors positive improvement in their sport, then you can test out your method and see for yourself.
Always consider how a given method of training can both benefit and hurt an athlete's progress toward their goals, giving more attention in training to those tools which add value while taking away the least.
An important aspect of the art of coaching is how a coach takes the state of capability of an athlete and nudges that state toward a more competent state of capability relative to their event. Progressing too fast can lead to injuries or leaving adaptation on the table by changing workloads too soon, while progressing too slowly can lead to stagnation or regression in performance, as the body senses it does not need to do anything to be able to handle the stress of training. Some simple ways of looking at exercise progression:
- Moderate to faster speeds, over time giving the athlete more exposure to speed.
- Simple to complex to allow for the athlete's technique to be challenged.
- General to specific to build a base and then refine for performance.
- More variation to less variation to guide the body down a specific path.
- Moderate loads to higher loads for increased force demands.
- Moderate loads to reduced loads for increased velocity demands.
Set your sights on the end goal, and working backwards to where you are now so you can elucidate the path forward. Reverse engineering your timelines of progression, exercise progressions, and to get a general theme of how your next training block will go can help you progress training in a way which actually has a chance of creating transference.
Cues & Explanations
Certain cue progressions and explanations of the “why” in your training may help lead to better transfer of training to performance. Once again, reverse engineer your cues so that you can progress each cue toward the end goal.
Progress your cues.
Just as we can plan training by looking at our current level of competence in our sport, where we need to get, and what intermediate steps exist to bridge that gap, we can do the same thing when planning for the use of cues. Use cues that nudge the athlete toward where you want them to get, rather than throwing highly complex training at them which leaves them confused and demoralized. The athlete should feel challenged but capable of succeeding.
Use cues when they work, ditch them if not.
As Dan Pfaff states, cues all have a shelf life. What works one week may not work the next. As athletes become proficient in a specific movement, you will have to modify your cues to continue development.
Say you have an athlete with poor ground contact, and cues directed at aspects of ground contact itself are not working. In this instance, look at aspects of technique such as the movements that precede ground contact or posture of the athlete. Quite often, the problem we see is being caused by something that occurred at a prior moment in time.
Educate Athletes For Buy-In & Placebo Effect
Beyond cues, simple explanations that show the athlete why things are done a certain way can increase buy-in, focus, and have a positive effect on the training outcomes. Just as placebo pills can alleviate pain, belief in the efficacy of the program is important if you want your athletes to actually improve. The demoralized and doubtful athlete is not an athlete who is primed for progress.
Explain to athletes the basic framework of why they do what you do in training, educate them on how it can benefit them in a way they feel is relevant, and convince them as to why they should do it to their best ability (physically and technically).
Balancing Creativity With Practicality
Part of what makes coaching so enjoyable is the aspect of creative expression. Creating workouts, exercises, and progressions is fun! While it could be easy to go hog-wild and come up with the most creative exercises possible, this creative expression must be balanced with practical application.
Stick To What Is Demonstrably Relevant
When in doubt, strengthen athletes in movements and positions that are somewhat similar to what is seen in their event. Putting someone in a crazy position that they never achieve in their event may be a waste of time and energy compared to a lunge, split squat, or RDL.
Where you should get creative is how you progress exercises. For example a sprinter may benefit well from starting with the more boring version of an exercise, such as an RDL or hang clean, eventually progressing toward other variations such as the staggered stance RDL or staggered stance hang clean.
Big Ticket Items First
Because of the limitations of reality, we need to first attack the big ticket items that will have the greatest impact on performance. In training for sprinters, make sure you hit these big ticket items in your training/exercises/positions:
- Use "big" exercises which activate large proportions of tissue.
- Use more locally targeted exercises for hamstrings, hip flexors, calves, and feet.
- Manipulate technique & intent to bias exercises toward posterior chain activation from toes to glutes.
- Train the ability to extend and flex hip & knee through a full ranges of motion on the front and back sides of the body.
- Train for long length hamstring strength at various speeds & loads.
- Pay attention to foot & toes use during training & develop athletes' awareness of how they move.
- Ensure adequate postural control in loaded movements and explosive plyometrics - don't let your athletes move like wet noodles.
To achieve transfer from sports training to sports performance coaches need to stick to logical training, progress that training in a way that is relevant to the athlete, balance creativity with practicality, and educate their athletes to improve buy-in and take advantage of the placebo effect for training.