NOTE: For the tl;dr version (which I recently found out is forum lingo for "too long; didn't read), at the bottom you can find the summary.
In the realm of sport and athletic performance there is a hierarchy of training. There is a base or foundation to all high-level athletic performance, and each step up the ladder requires proficiency (or at the very least general "know-how") in the steps below.
At the base of the hierarchy is general strength. This is strength training or lifting. I have talked a lot about strength training in the past, and for good reason.
An athlete that can better withstand an external load (barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, etc.) can better withstand the force of landing from a jump or making a quick side cut.
A stronger athlete can produce more force, and that force leads to better acceleration and explosive capabilities.
To a very limited point, a stronger athlete is a better athlete. Or in terms of the hierarchy, the bigger the base, the bigger everything else above it can be.
I know I’ve used this reference before, but Dan John compares strength to a cup. Strength is a cup, and all other athletic qualities is the water inside the cup. The bigger the cup, the more water can fit inside.
As we move up the ladder, the next step is general athletic speed and agility work. Here is where we build our technique for cutting and reacting to movement, speed and acceleration, and jumping and landing (single and double leg).
While you may work on this in some capacity within your sport, it is generally expected that athletes know this stuff before participating in their sport. Getting good at it before entering a sport will be, at the very least beneficial, but maybe even essential.
The next step is sport-specific practice. This is the first step in which the athlete brings aspects of their specific sport into the mix. If they are a basketball player, they will dribble a ball and shoot hoops, and if they are a hockey player, they will skate and shoot a puck. I think most have a good idea what this step involves, so I’ll move on.
The final step in the hierarchy is sport competition. This is the game, the match, the set, or whatever term your sport uses to say competing against the opponent. This is why you did everything else before, to prepare you for this. It’s go time, so I hope you’re ready!
Here are a few things to consider with this hierarch of sports performance training:
-In order to move up the ladder (at least in an effective way), you should have a good handle on everything else below.
-Can you start higher up the ladder right away? Well, yes, but not very effectively. If you start right away practicing your sport, but you can’t change directions effectively because, A) you don’t have the strength to control movements and, B) you never learned how to properly change directions, you are at a distinct disadvantage. You are also at a higher risk of injury.
-It is a pyramid for a reason. The base is the biggest part because it has to support everything else. Don’t invert your pyramid. Don’t spend all your time competing and no time getting stronger. A pyramid with a small base and a larger peak won’t stand very long.
-Will you be working on all of these things all at the same time?? Maybe, and maybe not. Often, the general strength work and the general speed and agility work are done in the off-season, and the sport in done in-season (weird…). If it’s possible to work on strength, speed and agility work during the season, that just helps build that base bigger, but sometimes it just isn’t realistic.
To sum up, to be a great athlete, you have to build your foundation on strength and proper running and cutting technique and ability. From there, you can work your way into applying that to your sport with specific practice, and then to competition.
Get strong first, then learn how to move athletically, then go practice your sport, then go conquer your sport. Build your skyscraper one floor at a time, but make sure the base is bigger than the penthouse!