Specificity Trap (Part Two)

II. Training

“Sport specific drills or sport specific qualities?”

Many coaches will fall into the ‘trap’ of taking a primary skill from their sport and overloading it in the hope of an enhanced carry-over effect when the skill is performed under normal conditions. An example of applying such overload would be a boxing coach instructing his athlete to spar with dumbbells based on the assumption that once the method of overload is removed, the athlete’s skill (e.g. jab) will be more powerful than before. This reductionist approach poses a number of issues since the dynamics of the skill are disrupted. In this regard, the degree to which a training exercise carries itself over to improved performance in the sport skill is generally referred to as dynamic correspondence (1). For a training drill to satisfy the specificity principle it not only needs to fulfil the kinematic criteria (amplitude and direction of motion) but perhaps even more importantly address the kinetics (region of accentuated force production; rate and time of maximal force production; dynamics of the effort) as well as the regime of muscular work (e.g. stretch-shortening cycle). Whilst the kinematics are pre-eminently visible to the naked eye and therefore ‘coachable’, the kinetics are not inherently visible without the use of sophisticated equipment (e.g. force plates) and for these reasons can be viewed as ‘trainable’. Moreover, this transfer can be further broken down into primary, secondary and tertiary degrees of transfer. This is depicted in Figure 1. Improvements in skill may allow the athlete to better utilise current capacities (e.g. rate of force development). Conversely, increased capacity may unlock opportunities to develop new skills (e.g. increased robustness to tolerate increased time on task for skill development). Thus, maximising sport performance requires a two pronged approach whereby skills and capacities are developed to the fullest potential via a wide variety of training modalities and beyond that of the sport itself.

III. Early Specialisation

“If your child could only study one subject at school you’d worry about their development and the missed opportunities for them to learn new skills.

So why for some sports, coaches Or parents is early specialisation perceived as acceptable and advantageous?”

The specificity trap can also be applied to early specialisation, that is, intensive year-round training in a single sport at the exclusion of other sports (2). This has shown to lead to increased risk of overtraining, overuse injury, burnout and poor global motor skill competency (3, 4). At the other end of the spectrum is early diversification (sampling) leading to late specialisation, wherein a wide variety of sports are engaged in throughout childhood, predominantly involving unorganised play. Practice is accumulated later on in adolescence (circa 14-15 years of age). Somewhere between early specialisation and early diversification lies early engagement, that is, participating in large amounts of play activity within one’s primary sport but still not at the exclusion of other sports. One of the key criteria for early specialisation is early and prolonged exposure to formal practice and competition alongside a notable absence of unorganised play and participation in other sports. The notion that spending more time in deliberate practice earlier on (specificity trap), emanating from the 10,000 theory (5), will lead to a greater chance of success further down the line is unsubstantiated by any empirical evidence. In fact, elite sportsmen (hockey, football) rarely ever do ten thousand hours, but rather those who have eventual success are classified as ‘quick learners’ and participated in three or more sports early on before specialising in their primary sport (6). Further evidence suggests that greater unorganised play as a child in multiple sports differentiated between professional Bundesliga players and lower division semi-professional players (7). Additionally, differentiation has been made between Olympic medallist and non-medallists, with medallists participating in more sports during childhood and adolescence and specialising later (8). Thus, avoiding the specificity trap through delayed high training volumes and sampling of multiple sports has been shown to be more conducive to senior success (9).


(1) Verkhoshansky, Y., & Siff, M. (2009). Supertraining (6th ed.). Rome: Verkhoshansky SSTM.

(2) Lloyd, R., Oliver, J. L., Faigenbaum, A. D., Howard, R., De Ste Croix, M. B., Williams, C. A., Best, T. M., Alvar, B. A., Micheli, L. J., Thomas, D. P., Hatfield, D. L., Cronin, J. B., & Myer, G. D. (2015). Long-term athletic development, Part 2: Barriers to success and potential solutions. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 29, 1451-1464.

(3) DiFiori, J. P., Benjamin, H. J., Brenner, J. S., Gregory, A., Jayanthi, A., Landry, G. L., & Luke, A. (2014). Overuse injuries and burnout in youth sports: A position statement from the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine. Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, 24, 3 – 20.

(4) Fransen, J., Pion, J., Vandendriessche, J., Vandorpe, B., Vaeyens, R., Lenoir, M., & Philippaerts, R. M. (2012). Differences in physical fitness and gross motor coordination in boys aged 6–12 years specializing in one versus sampling more than one sport. Journal of Sport Sciences, 30, 379-386.

(5) Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100, 363-406.

(6) Helsen, W. F., Starkes, J. L., & Hodges, N. J. (1998). Team sports and theory of deliberate practice. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 20, 12-34.

(7) Hornig, M., Aust, F., & Gullich, A. (2016). Practice and play in the development of German top level professional football players. European Journal of Sport Science, 16, 96 – 105.

(8) Gullich, A. (2017). International medalists’ and non-medalists’ developmental sport activities – a matched-pairs analysis. Journal of Sport Sciences, 35, 2281-2288.

(9) Moesch, K., Elbe, A. M., Hauge, M. L., & Wikman, J. M. (2011). Late specialization: the key to success in centimeters, grams, or seconds (cgs) sports. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports, 21, 282-290.