Sport-specific vs general preparedness


Unless you’re an Olympic lifter, strongman or powerlifter, everything we do in the gym is general physical preparedness (GPP).

Nikolay Ozolin explains GPP as ‘the aim to perform any physical work more or less successfully.’

It aims to raise all the various fitness components at once i.e. strength, endurance, co-ordination, agility, speed, flexibility etc. It forms the base of the athlete’s preparation pyramid. It lays the foundations that allows athletes to take on a wide range of challenges. It helps minimise weaknesses and imbalances. And it should form most of the athlete’s physical preparation – this is especially important for younger athletes and amateur athletes. Generally, once athletes are at the top level their foundation of GPP has already been laid and they’re ready to specialise.

SPP is special physical preparation (a.k.a sport-specific training), and involves training purely for that sport and that sport only. Think of it as a golfer only training golf – no strength training, no endurance work, no mobility / flexibility work, no other form of exercise or training besides playing and practicing golf.

“Premature overspecialisation delivers a quick increase in performance followed by stagnation.” This is a quote taken from the book ‘Easy Strength’ by Dan John and Pavel Tsatsouline who then go on to explain how SPP without the GPP from an early age is usually accompanied by injuries and ‘unavoidable long-term plateauing of sports results.’

By only focusing on one sport and training wholeheartedly for that, you will be lacking development in other areas that form a well-rounded athlete. Not only will you have weaknesses – the repetitive stress from that sport on the joints and muscles involved in those actions are likely to be under-prepared, weak and over-used – which is a recipe for injuries.

A good example of over specialising in today’s world is the youth basketball scene in Australia. Young basketball players are asked to train multiple times per week, to play multiple times per week (rep and domestic) and then on top of that, take part in intensive camps that often run over a few days during their school holidays. This doesn’t only last for a winter or a summer - this is a year-round endeavour that we believe isn’t the smartest approach to physical preparation. We know kids that have basketball commitments 6 days per week (before camps or tournaments) and none of these commitments involve any strengthening, any running/jumping/landing mechanics or any structured plyometric work.

Back to GPP – Physical education aims build GPP throughout primary and secondary school. Over the years, kids and teenagers are exposed to a variety of sports, games and movements that cover off most things you’ll see in any sport (especially when they have a good teacher).

But Australian PE has its problems – 1) Strength training is neglected – importance is placed elsewhere i.e. endurance events, interschool sports, athletics etc. 2) We aren’t really taught the mechanics of basic human movements like pushing, pulling, squatting, hinging, jumping, landing, falling, carrying etc. 3) Depending on the teacher, (and the student for that matter) it can be downright boring and uninspiring – which can turn a child / teen of sports and fitness altogether.

So how can we train for GPP outside of PE?

1. Exposing yourself / your kids to sports that include a wide variety of movement patterns.

This works on something we call proprioception or body awareness. How well can you control your body in space? The top 2 sports at developing this are likely gymnastics and mixed martial arts. Although other things like dancing and team sports can be beneficial is general body awareness, these two sports are extremely good at teaching control and co-ordination of your own body. Through falling, jumping, landing, kicking punching, crawling, spinning etc. you begin to develop a special sense of body positioning and understand where your body is in relation to the space.

2. Learn how to squat, hinge, brace, crawl, jump, land, fall, run, move etc. with perfect technique.

This is where a strength coach can come into the picture or a good PE teacher. Often, we don’t learn the proper mechanics for basic movements. This is especially true in team sports involving running. We never learn the basics of running and gait mechanics. If a kid wants to be put into a ‘little athletics’ or swimming program, you can be sure they’ll learn the proper mechanics of running and swimming, yet with team sports we just let the kids play. And while this is better than not playing at all, learning the proper mechanics for running and all the other foundational human movements goes a long way in improving a person’s GPP.

3. Develop well-rounded athletic qualities such as strength, endurance, flexibility, speed, co-ordination, balance, agility, power etc.

While learning how to move correctly and safely is important, it’s also crucial that we lay foundations for general preparation. We should be progressively improving our strength on the major compound lifts such as push-ups, pull-ups, squats, deadlifts and carries. We should be able to run long distances slowly and short distances fast. We need to develop the flexibility to squat to depth and touch our toes. It’s important to be co-ordinated and have balance in a range of stable and unstable environments. This point really comes down to building ‘work capacity’ over a range of athletic qualities. The more qualities we can accumulate and develop the greater the potential for future improvement.

The bigger the GPP or foundations of movement skills and athletics qualities the easier it is to master new forms of specialised movement in the future (if they make it to an elite level – if not, GPP may be fine for life). Specialising too early might seem like a good idea at the time because you’ll get better quickly, but as I mentioned earlier, it’s likely to lead to injuries and long-term stagnation. Get involved in as many different sports and movements – this will develop your general body awareness – and look to build your work-capacity on a range of athletic qualities before specialising later down the road.

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