It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that someone who wants to train for the CrossFit Games needs to work out differently than someone who wants to develop greater skill in acroyoga. Where performance is concerned, great improvements arise from specificity of training, or training that develops the skills related to the sport or activity you want to improve. For instance, you simply can’t become good at tennis without working on your agility, power, speed, and hand-eye coordination, specifically as they relate to tennis.
Power is a measure that combines speed and strength. In essence, it’s how fast you can generate a maximal force. In sports, “power athletes” are those who exert brute strength in short, all-out efforts. Olympic weightlifters, football players, and “power gymnasts” are all clear examples.
But that doesn’t mean athletes in other sports, like basketball, volleyball, and tennis, don’t benefit from developing greater power. For instance, jumping to get a rebound requires leg power while forcefully spiking a volleyball requires a combination of upper- and lower-body power. The key to enhancing your power is combining resistance and speed with fast-paced strength-training moves.
To improve your power, you need to perform exercises that combine resistance work with speed.
Examples of power exercises:
- Plyometric box jumps
- Pushing a weighted sled while sprinting
- Clean and jerk
- Kettlebell swings
When you think of speed training, you might think of the speed it takes to run a 100-meter sprint, but that narrow definition ignores one important fact: Speed, by nature, is relative.
An Olympic-level 100-meter sprinter needs to be very, very fast, but only for about 10 seconds. On the other hand, an amateur marathon runner may want to improve his speed to set a new personal best, reducing his per-mile race pace from 10-minutes per mile to 9.5-minutes per mile—a speed he’d have to maintain for a little over four hours. You better believe these two fictional athletes—the sprinter and the marathon runner—train differently, but with a similar goal: To become faster for their sports.
The definition of “speed,” then, is incredibly variable, and training will differ based on the sport you’re training for. That said, regardless of sport, high-intensity interval training (HIIT), is one of the best ways to improve your speed.
HIIT training involves working at an all-out or near all-out effort for set periods of time, followed by set periods of rest. This type of training enables you to repeatedly challenge your aerobic and anaerobic systems, teaching your working muscles, your heart, and lungs, to grow accustomed to working at higher levels of intensity. The length and intensity of the intervals you use will be longer or shorter, less challenging or more, depending on your sport.
Examples of HIIT speed drills for runners:
- For marathon training, try mile repeats: A style of interval training where the runner goes all-out for a full mile before resting, then doing it again.
- For sprint training, try shorter intervals: A sprinter would be better off performing shorter, more intense intervals ranging from 40- to 400-meters in length; running all-out, then resting before repeating.
These same concepts apply whether you want to be faster in swimming, cycling, or even sports like soccer and basketball. Interval training featuring bouts of high-intensity exercise related to your specific sport can help you improve your speed.
The simple definition of agility is the ability to move quickly and easily, but this definition doesn’t necessarily paint an obvious picture as to how it relates to sport. A more clear definition is that agility is the ability to move quickly and easily change direction.
Basketball players, for instance, are incredibly agile—they don’t simply run up and down the court, they have to move in every direction, jumping, sliding, and backpedaling in quick response to the movement of the ball and other players. Their bodies have to be trained to respond and change course at the drop of a hat.
Agility drills commonly involve exercises that develop foot speed and direction change.
Examples of agility exercises:
- Ladder drills: Use an agility ladder to practice quick and specific foot placement.
- Cone drills: Simply set cones up in a “T” or star shape, then sprint, slide, backpedal, or change direction depending on which cone you’re approaching.
Think of all the sports and activities that benefit from well-honed hand-eye (or foot-eye) coordination. Badminton, golf, soccer, basketball, football, racquetball, archery, softball, and ultimate frisbee are just a few of the many examples that require you to be able to see an external object and respond precisely with your hands and feet to meet a pre-determined objective. In some cases, that means hitting a golf ball off a tee, and in other cases, that means catching a fly ball.
The thing is, you can develop hand-eye coordination fairly quickly with simple drills.
Examples of hand-eye coordination drills:
- Playing catch
- Jumping rope
- Dribbling a ball
- Throwing objects at specific targets
Gymnasts, yogis, and surfers all need highly-refined balance skills to be able to participate in their sports, but these aren’t the only athletes that benefit from balance training.
Balance itself refers to your ability to adjust your body position to remain upright. It deals with proprioception, or knowing where your body is in space, and being able to make adjustments to your body position as your center of gravity changes during movement. For instance, every time you take a step, your body has to adjust to its constantly-shifting center of gravity in order to keep you from toppling over.
In physical activity settings, balance is required for running, changing direction, landing a jump, and staying upright after you get jostled by an opponent. There are few sports where balance doesn’t play an important role, and there are lots of activities where balance is required for enhanced performance and safety. Trail runners benefit from balance training because it can help prevent them from rolling an ankle or taking a nasty fall after tripping over a root or slipping on a muddy path.
Examples of balance training exercises:
- Standing on one foot
- Incorporating standing yoga poses
- Using tools such as BOSU balls
- Using balance discs to perform exercises like squats, lunges, and pushups
By performing standard strength training movements on an unstable surface, you’re simultaneously improving your strength and balance.
Reaction time refers to how quickly you can respond to an external stimulus. Think about a tennis match for a moment—the best competitors react almost instantaneously when the ball comes off their opponent’s racquet, sprinting toward the location where they expect the ball to bounce.
Reaction time hinges heavily on your mind-body connection. Your eyes see a stimulus, your mind interprets the stimulus, and your body reacts in accordance with the interpretation it’s given.
Much of this mind-body reaction relates to knowledge of the sport or activity in question. Going back to the tennis example, a professional tennis player who has played tennis for many years can almost instantly interpret and predict the movement of a ball as it bounces off an opponent’s racquet. This knowledge enables them to react more quickly (and accurately) to the stimulus. On the other hand, a novice tennis player may see the ball coming off the opponent’s racquet, but won’t be able to interpret what they’re seeing as quickly, causing their reaction time to slow.
In many cases, improving reaction time comes down to gaining experience in the sport and performing sport-specific drills.
Examples of reaction-time drills:
- Softball players can work on fielding balls
- Soccer goalies can work on protecting the goal as other players try to score
- Using tools such as lopsided reaction balls
- Playing table tennis or hacky sack with friends