You Need to Do More Than Play Your Sport to Be Better at Your Sport

It’s common to hear coaches say the best way to get conditioned for a sport is to play that sport. New science proves that idea false and shows a need for structured training.

As a coach who has worked with athletes in many different sports and at many different levels, I can comfortably say the number of teams out there that have well-structured physical training is very low. This was true in my own martial arts practice for the last several decades. A typical practice involved a warm up (often one that was too intense), drills, and exercise at some percentage of competition intensity.

While that may sound like an okay model, a recent study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning disagrees. In the study, researchers looked at soccer players, but the lessons learned apply to all sports and the vast majority of all athletes and teams.

The major take home point from the study is that practicing the activity itself, even with vigor, is not always sufficient to develop the physical attributes needed for success in that very sport. That might be a shocking revelation to some coaches, but it’s true. For a simple example, there comes a point in developing your ability to do reps of pushups where the exercise itself is no longer good at developing strength, even though strength is still required for the greatest improvement.

While pushups may be a far cry from soccer, the researchers found the same results. Playing a full season of soccer where all the training variables were measured and separated into various categories of intensity, only some of the attributes necessary for soccer were improved. The big one that was not improved however, was aerobic capacity.

Yes, perhaps the most substantial athletic factor for success in soccer was not developed even after a full season of playing and practicing soccer itself. The researchers reasoned that this was due to an increasing intensity of exercise needed to increase the VO2 max any further than the soccer players were maintaining. They noted even that one such session per week, which the athletes typically did, was insufficient to improve their aerobic capacity.

What researchers offered as a solution is something I’d like all coaches to learn. This will take a lot of effort, which is why I think – and the researchers echo this assumption – that many coaches don’t already do this. You need to be able to measure the athlete’s activity levels and then adjust their skill training time appropriately. This adjustment might be different for every sport and even for every athlete, but if you have a firm grasp on the effort put forth by athletes and you determine what they need to improve further, then you have attained the recipe for success.

Note that I said there is a need to determine what is best. I didn’t say assume, but rather determine. Much like in this study, the researchers assumed that the aerobic ability of the soccer players would increase, and it did not. This result was surprising to them, and to me. No matter your experience, the answers might lie behind a different door than the one you’ve been walking through. Take some careful measurements and examine the path of your athletes at every turn and they will surely succeed.


1. Zbigniew Jastrzebski, et. al., “Effects of Applied Training Loads on the Aerobic Capacity of Young Soccer Players During a Soccer Season,” J Strength Cond Res 27(4), 2013

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