From a coaching standpoint, it is sometimes difficult to explain exactly what makes a training program apply to one particular sport instead of another. If only there were, say 100 drills that only applied to one sport, and another 100 for a different sport, then this would be a simple concept. Of course, that is not the case. And even if this were true, it still misses the mark on how to best structure a workout plan.
Before getting into individualized training, we need to define what sport-specific actually training is, and why it probably isn't what most people really need.
General vs. Sport-Specific Training
All types of training drills (strength, speed, power, etc.) can be classified as either a general or sport-specific exercise. General training drills apply to most, or all sports. Sport-specific only applies to one or two, and may only be relevant to a particular position within a sport (like goalie drills for hockey).
To get a better idea of the difference between them, let's take a look at two leg strength exercises: squats and 45° sled pulls. The squat, when performed properly, is an outstanding strength-building exercise for the lower body and core. Since these are qualities every athlete needs, adding squats to a workout would benefit people in any sport. The 45° sled pull is also a leg strength drill, but it's designed to specifically strengthen the legs in a skating stride motion. Because this is most beneficial to ice sports like hockey and figure skating, it would be best classified as sport-specific.
Simply put, general training drills develop the basic skills necessary to become a better athlete, regardless of the sport. And if a drill can make you faster, improve core strength, balance, or any other fundamental athletic trait, it should have a place in your program.
Sport-specific drills are valuable additions to many workout plans, but usually account for less than half of the overall program. Over specializing in drills that only pertain to your sport can prevent you from building the underlying skills you need to realize your full athletic potential.
Taking individual considerations into account is far more important than designing a program for any one sport. Two main factors should be stressed for each unique case: their age, and the most glaring weaknesses in their skill set.
From an age standpoint, there are certain skills that are best trained during different stages of development. For simplicity, we will only split kids into 2 groups: Ages 15+ or 14 and under.
Kids under the age of 14 are still developing basic motor skills like balance and coordination. They have bones, ligaments and tendons that are still in a highly adaptive state, and are much more susceptible to injury.
Considering what can be vastly improved, this is a time for lots of general balance and coordination work, along with plenty of speed and agility drills. On the flip side, great care should be taken with all strength training in this stage. Although strength drills absolutely should be part of an under 14 program, heavier weight work is unwarranted. Challenging bodyweight drills, and light weight training work to teach technique should be stressed. Repetitions should stay high to ensure that the poundage isn't too stressful on the musculoskeletal system.
Sport-specific training can be introduced during these years, but the main focus should be on general skills that build a solid athletic foundation.
For athletes ages 15 and up, the focus should switch to power, strength, increased muscle mass (if necessary), speed-endurance, and injury prevention.
Heavier weight training and advanced plyometric training can be gradually added, as the main growing years become a distant memory. Increased volume of training, meaning workouts that are longer and occur more often, should also be introduced. This will increase the "horsepower", or explosive capabilities, of the individual. If there is one trait that can help you to play at higher levels in any sport, it is increased explosiveness.
Speed endurance is difficult to build in younger years because the cardiovascular system isn't quite ready to handle it. Your ability to tolerate higher levels of lactic acid (that's the stuff that causes the burning pain in your muscles) begins to grow in the late teen years. Particularly for serious speed endurance sports like soccer and basketball, this can and should be a part of all high school and college-age off-season plans.
Injury prevention is an overlooked aspect of most programs, but should be emphasized as an athlete gets older. Basic movement patterns can be altered by injuries (even something as minor as an ankle sprain), or by the cumulative effect of intense training. To counteract these unwanted changes, assessments that identify potential problems, along with targeted flexibility drills to correct them, should be implemented on a regular basis.
Training for this age group should also continue to build on the balance, speed, and agility foundation they began in their younger years. Sport-specific exercises fit better now as most kids will have targeted which sport is a priority for them. Assuming they have already built a strong foundation of basic athletic skills, they now have more time to specialize their training.
Once the basic parameters are determined based on age, a program can be further tailored to an individual based on specific skills that are underdeveloped. For those who need to improve their ability to absorb force, plyometric training should be emphasized. Others who have subpar upper body strength would be wise to spend extra time on this skill. We are all human, and everyone has weaknesses in their unique profile that can be brought up to a higher level. Poor programs focus on the strengths of the individual, but good ones eliminate weaknesses.
It is important for parents and players alike to realize that quality workout programs are a blend of general and sport-specific exercises. What should be a larger focus is how to tailor a program to the unique needs of the individual.
It is worth repeating that focusing on bringing up weak points should be a top priority in any off-season plan. Skill testing will help develop a profile that can serve as a road map to your program design. The old saying that you are only as good as your weakest link is as true in sports training as it is in anything else.
It may seem that improving a skill you've never been good at will be impossible. Almost every time, however, those who are brave enough to take small steps towards overcoming their weakness someday look back and realize that they have overcome a major roadblock to their careers. Never be afraid to develop your weaknesses.
"Don't think in terms of limitations. Think instead of possibilities." - Jerry Lynch