This blog in the STOP series is a plea for coaches to please understand one of the most important principles in the science of motor learning – that of specificity – as it particularly applies to conditioning/running.

Sadly, there are coaches who, either because of old, no longer true traditions or their beliefs and opinions, think that running the mile or more in less than some amount of determined minutes, is a valid way to 1. Train for volleyball, 2. Warm up for volleyball or even worse, 3. Eliminate a player from even trying out for a volleyball team. If you are one of those coaches, please stop doing such running.  You are not training according to the science and research known, and you are being a less effective coach in your training.  Your players need be taught how to play volleyball, not taught how to run long distances.

Let me share an email discussion with Dr. Carl McGown, professor emeritus of Motor Learning at BYU about this, important principle of specificity as it regards conditioning.

“Training is specific. The maximum benefits of a training stimulus can only be obtained when it replicates the movements and energy systems involved in the activities of a sport. This principle may suggest that there is no better training than actually performing in the sport. This text maintains that the principle of specificity is the single most pervading factor that influences the improvement of performance from a physiological perspective. Training effects are, in the main, so specific that even minor departures from movement forms, velocities, and intensities result in undesirable training effects. This means that incorrectly designed training activities will have no carry-over value for a particular movement form, and may even have the potential to negatively influence activities.”

Like we all have learned how to bike ride by riding a bike, playing the game of volleyball teaches players how to play the game of volleyball.  There is a program in another team sport, women’s soccer, where at the collegiate level one coach and school has won about two-thirds of all championships in history. The head coach, Anson Dorrance, has some great books out, including the classic, Training Soccer Champions.  In two chapters, Anson‘s core statements are: “In the Entire Off-Season, All we do is Play…” and “Conditioning is Homework.” 

A reference back to motor learning science that relates to the importance of both specificity and developing fundamental abilities is found in the IMPACT manual over the last two decades with the following quote by Dr. Richard Schmidt. “Drills and lead-up activities take considerable practice time and do not produce much transfer, so use them sparingly in later practice stages.”  AND “It is fruitless to try to train fundamental abilities (e.g. quickness, balance) so concentrate on the fundamental skills instead.”

Getting in shape to play is important, but the non-game specific options should be done when you do not have time to play on the court.  Marv Dunphy understood that when, in a season that he felt his Pepperdine team to be behind his opponents in skill and team play, he cancelled all scheduled conditioning/weightlifting, and moved that time into gym training and play.  At the highest levels, conditioning is a core part of training. At the medium to lower levels, it is skill and team play, not conditioning, that wins the match. You can see this clearly in adult play where the Masters teams, in nowhere near the shape of their younger opponents, can easily defeat these youthful teams. The far better conditioned younger teams will win the warm up, but lose the match.

The most important “skill” in our game is reading, which is not conditioning dependent. Being a good runner does not help you be a better reader of the game. The flow of the game and actions done by a player long before the actual ball contact of the player, are essential to development of this skill, and only occur in game play, not in any drill. Indeed, as a lefty myself, we are, again based in specificity in training, harder to read and play against, as almost all reading done by players is against right handed players.  In an important paper by Drs. McGown and Bain, they note that regarding specificity in training in blocked (as in most drills) vs. random training (as in game play) that:

The random versus blocked practice methods represent a fundamental paradox regarding athletic performance during training and subsequent performance during competition [29, 30]. Based on performance measurements during practice, blocked activities, in which athletes repeatedly rehearse the same task, result in superior performance during the training session [2, 31]. In comparison, performing tasks and skills in random order decreases skill acquisition during training. Consequently, based on measurement of performance effects during practice, many coaches and players believe that blocked practice is superior to random practice [25]. Such a conclusion however, mistakenly assumes a positive correlation between performance in practice and long-term skill retention [32]. The paradox arises from the fact that blocked practice is in fact very ineffective for transfer of learning to competition as performance improvements measured during practice degrade rapidly, and inefficient because retraining on the same skills will be necessary [29, 31, 33]. Conversely, random practice is both effective, transfer to competition is high, and efficient, skill acquisition is relatively permanent. Indeed, the superiority of random practice has been substantiated for a large number of sports skills including volleyball [34, 35], badminton [36, 37], baseball [38, 39], basketball [40], tennis [41], and soccer [42], and its utility and training applications thoroughly reviewed by Schmidt and Lee [2]. Finally, scientific research into the neurological reasons for this superiority have revealed that variable activities increase and strengthen the brain connections that are responsible for learning motor skills whereas simply repeating the same activities exerts no measurable effect on these brain connections [43-45]  The neuronal explanation for these effects are perhaps best exemplified by our own observations (Bain and McGown), of inexperienced coaches training novice players where the instructor(s) become frustrated by the performance variability and lack of successful repetitions of new learners. As a consequence, these inexperienced coaches limit or abandon whole teaching methods for part, and random practice for blocked. Unfortunately, this course of action deprives the learner of the environmental variability and sensory inputs that are essential for the formation of motor maps and implicit behaviors, which are ultimately reflected in the acquisition of functional skills and expert performance [13, 18, 19, 29, 65]. In total, the evidence on this topic is clear; drawing distinctions between training methods based on age or ability is a coaching practice that has no foundation in either motor learning science or in the application of motor learning principles.