The truth about raw athletics: The best athletes will be made, not born

Contrary to popular belief and observation, the best athletes are MADE, not born. As idealistic as this may sound based on today’s “monster” athletes dominating sports, this idea is imminent and will have important implications for future athletes as the art of improving athletic performance advances. Most coaches are already aware of the fact that there are many aspects to becoming a great athlete, but to what extent? For the athletic performance specialist, this philosophy involves the different movements of the athlete’s sport. However, a specific physical ability is often mistakenly placed in an inaccurate category.

For example, athletics is a commonly used term. But what is athletics in its purest sense? For most, it involves how fast you cover a given distance (eg 40 yards) or how high you jump from a static position (eg vertical jump). These measurements are more representative of maximum speed. As discussed in the “Train what YOU can train” article, these types of physical traits rely mostly on untrainable qualities. But luckily top speed may not be the most important trait, even when it comes to physical abilities for most sports!

While there are athletes who are blessed with the characteristics of being able to reach high maximum horizontal and/or vertical speeds, there are many other factors in being a well-rounded athlete. In fact, one’s top speed may be useless for most sports outside of athletics. Rather, it may be more important HOW the athlete reaches top speed than him.

More specifically, most sports involve a temporal (ie time) component. In other words, the faster athlete will have an advantage in most cases. Although this sounds like an obvious fact, physics shows that in the case of how high one jumps, the determinant is the speed at takeoff, regardless of how fast this speed is reached. However, for sports, an athlete who can reach his take-off speed faster can win the vertical battle, like the rebound of a basketball.

The fact that time is a factor essentially implies that acceleration is the variable of interest. For a more detailed discussion of acceleration in relation to sports, see the article “The Kinematics of Athletic Performance.” In essence, if the athlete can’t accelerate quickly, then he won’t reach his top speed fast enough.

In the crudest sense, a sprinter is in a race with time to beat his opponents over a fixed distance. Comparing this to a high jumper, the athlete is not in any kind of race. Therefore, how quickly the sprinter accelerates or reaches top speed is an important factor, unlike the high jumper. What does this imply? That the sprinter’s maximum force output through triple leg extension can dramatically influence how quickly the athlete reaches maximum speed, since force determines acceleration, according to Newton’s Second Law of Motion. It’s not exactly rocket science, but it’s a commonly overlooked fact. Again, why discuss maximal force production? Because maximal strength is one of the highly trainable physical traits! This is discussed in more detail in the “Train What YOU Can Train” article.

From a more practical point of view, how does the physique of a sprinter compare to that of a high jumper? Any noticeable difference in muscle mass? Most would agree that the sprinter is more muscular, especially in the lower body. Furthermore, doping to increase muscle mass and strength has been more prevalent in sprinters than in high jumpers. Why this difference in the muscle of the two athletes? As mentioned above, acceleration is a factor for sprinting, which implies that maximal force production is also a factor. How is maximum force generated? Through stronger muscles! And as discussed in the “Train What YOU Can Train” article, increasing muscle cross-sectional area will result in increased maximal force output, assuming motor recruitment is also maximized. However, it is important to realize that as the distance increases, the acceleration phase will be less of a factor than the maximum speed in how fast the longest distance is covered. This is also a natural consequence of muscle physiology, as muscles can only produce high peak force in short bursts.

To the contrary, many sports clearly exemplify the importance of acceleration over short distances, including football, baseball, soccer, baseball, and many others that are beyond the scope of this article. In basketball, for example, many are concerned with linear speed in order to get to the basket explosively (i.e. a quick first step). Most drives in basketball start at the 3-point line, which in the NBA is 23’9”. It’s safe to say that this distance is too short for top speed to be a factor, unlike longer distance sprints like 100m. In other words, raw athleticism may not be as much of a factor when it comes to basketball’s linear speed. Instead, in its purest sense, linear acceleration may be the most important thing.

Thus, an athlete who is not blessed with the greatest of pure athleticism (i.e., high top speed) may not actually be at a disadvantage when it comes to an important physical trait for a basketball player (linear acceleration), even in athletic sense. . If one focuses on increasing the maximal force output of the triple leg extension movement through proper strength training, then one’s maximal acceleration should also increase. This has important implications for having an explosive first step in basketball, for example.

Also, what about the slowdown? Deceleration is a type of acceleration where speed is decreasing. Again, this implies a generation of force necessary to dissipate energy. The greater the initial speed before stopping, the greater the maximum force output required to rapidly decelerate.

The rapid change of direction involved in deceleration is crucial to success in many sports, as is acceleration. Therefore, when one strengthens his muscles properly, he can take advantage of being a very “smart” athlete capable of quickly changing direction and performing many of the explosive movements required for his sport. This fact cannot be overstated, as some of the forces required to stop can be extremely high, considering that deceleration is faster than acceleration in most cases.

For example, a hypothetical 200 lb runner running at his top speed of 20 mph represents approximately 3624 joules of kinetic energy. To stop in one second, this would require nearly 5 horsepower! Remember, we are talking about humans, not horses or machines. Of course, this scenario may be somewhat unrealistic (for example, the friction between the shoe and the ground will need to be extremely high), but it illustrates the greater emphasis and reliance on trainable qualities (as opposed to pure athleticism) such as force, maximum force output and maximum power output for faster sports movements.

It is also important to note that maximal force production varies with speed. Everyone has a unique force-velocity profile in which peak force varies with the speed of movement. Since power is the product of force and speed, this implies that everyone has a unique power profile that also varies with movement speed. Quite simply, the speed component is less trainable while the strength component of power is more trainable, which makes it possible to dramatically increase power for sports as well.

Let’s move from the horizontal plane of sports movements to the vertical. As discussed in the “Train what YOU can train” article, higher maximal force output (i.e. strength) may also have implications for jumping higher, from a physics point of view. However, time is not a factor in the height of a jump, as long as the athlete achieves the maximum speed of the jump within a given range of motion.

But what about instances involving jumps where time is a factor? This is certainly true in a sport like basketball that has a pervasive vertical component. Specifically, activities like rebounding are essentially a vertical run for the ball. If two athletes can jump to the same height (i.e. vertical take-off speeds are equal) and initiate their jumps at the same time, then the athlete who reaches his or her take-off speed faster will reach the ball first. Reach faster speed, sound familiar? This implies acceleration, which implies force!

Finally, the athletic performance specialist should always be aware of the SAID principle when training for maximal strength. As mentioned in the article “Incorrect Applications of the SAID Principle”, one must take into account the exact forces involved in order to strengthen the movement. For example, when dealing with linear deceleration, the center of mass (COM) will naturally shift back behind the feet. Feet stuck to the ground by friction represent a pivot point about which one’s COM must move rearward to prevent one’s inertia from forcing the athlete to fall forward and lose balance. The greater the deceleration, the farther the COM must fall back.

Consequently, a sport-specific strengthening exercise is one that mimics the aforementioned configuration with the direction of forces suitably adapted. A Smith machine squat with the feet in front of the coronal plane of the body may be an appropriate option. Similarly, forward linear acceleration involves changing the COM in front of the body. Similar force pattern analyzes can be carried out to design the best sport-specific resistance exercise for linear forward acceleration.

Ultimately, these are some of the examples of how raw athleticism can be misconstrued as applicable to another physical trait. Being aware of the laws of physics and practical observations allows for the least amount of guesswork with improved athletic performance. As repeatedly mentioned and concluded through various analyses, improving sports performance depends on an infinite number of variables.

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