6 Skill-Related Elements to Athletic Training

Improving your overall fitness can help you no matter what sport or other form of exercise you engage in. But where performance is concerned, the greatest improvements arise from training that develops the skills specifically related to your activity of choice.

For instance, you need cardiovascular endurance and flexibility to play tennis. But to become good at tennis, you have to work on agility, power, speed, and hand-eye coordination. It's this focus on activity-related skills that differentiate two distinct areas of fitness development.

Getting Fit vs. Improving Performance

The health-related components of fitness are important for everyone, in all walks of life, regardless of whether they have a desire to compete in or perform a physical activity at an optimum level. They are:

  • Body composition
  • Cardiovascular endurance
  • Flexibility
  • Muscular endurance
  • Muscular strength

When you improve your cardiovascular endurance, you reduce the risk of heart disease. When you improve your flexibility, you maintain a healthy range of motion, which improves your ability to perform activities of daily living, like picking things up off the floor or stretching to reach items on high shelves.

These components of fitness are crucial for physical health and lend themselves to positive lifestyle outcomes, especially for those who meet the American College of Sports Medicine's (ACSM) physical activity guidelines, which recommend:

  • Moderate-intensity cardio exercise 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week (for a total of 150 minutes/week), or
  • Vigorous-intensity cardio exercise for 20 minutes a day, 3 days a week, or
  • A combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity exercise, plus
  • Resistance training 2 to 3 days a week
  • Flexibility exercises 2 days a week

Skill-Related Fitness Components

If you're already meeting the ACSM guidelines and you want to do more to train for a specific fitness-related goal, you also need to consider the six skill-related fitness components:

  • Agility
  • Balance
  • Coordination (hand-eye and/or foot-eye)
  • Power
  • Reaction time
  • Speed

The health components of fitness are universally important. The skill-related fitness components are more relevant to certain athletes. For example, while everyone can benefit from daily walks, someone who hits the path just to get their heart pumping doesn't need to worry about developing the speed necessary to run a five-minute mile.

Likewise, baseball players need to target all skill-related areas in order to perform at the highest levels. But weightlifters can get away with focusing most of their effort on power, balance, and strength.

If you want to develop your level of fitness beyond the basic requirements for health, adjust your workout program to include exercises designed to improve the skill-related components of fitness.

1

Power

Female athlete exercising on box jump in gym
Neustockimages / Getty Images

Power 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, such as Olympic weightlifters, football players, and gymnasts.

But athletes in other sports, like basketball, volleyball, and tennis, can also benefit from developing greater power. Jumping to get a rebound requires leg power, while forcefully spiking a volleyball requires a combination of upper- and lower-body power.

Enhance your power by combining resistance and speed with fast-paced strength-training moves, such as:

2

Speed

Sportswoman sprinting in the city
martin-dm / Getty Images

When you think of speed, you might think of an event like the 100-meter sprint. But speed, by nature, is relative. An elite 100-meter sprinter needs to be very, very fast, but only for about 10 seconds.

On the other hand, if a marathon runner wants to improve their speed to set a new personal best, they might aim to reduce their per-mile race pace from 10 minutes per mile to 9.5 minutes per mile—a speed they would have to maintain for a little over four hours.

These two fictional athletes train differently, but with a similar goal: become faster for their sports. So speed training will differ based on the sport you're training for. Regardless of sport, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) is one of the best ways to improve speed.

This training involves working at an all-out or near all-out effort for set periods of time, followed by set periods of rest. It repeatedly challenges your aerobic and anaerobic systems, teaching your muscles, 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. Runners can try HIIT speed drills like these:

  • For marathon training: Try mile repeats, a style of interval training where the runner goes all-out for a full mile before resting and doing it again.
  • For sprint training: Focus on shorter intervals. A sprinter would be better off performing shorter, more intense intervals ranging from 40- to 400-meters in length, running all-out, and 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.

3

Agility

woman doing ladder drills with male coach assisting

 Kolostock/Tetra Images/Getty Images

Agility is the ability to move quickly and to easily change direction. Basketball players, for instance, are incredibly agile. They have to move in every direction, jumping, sliding, twisting, 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, such as:

  • Ladder drills: Use an agility ladder to practice quick and specific foot placement.
  • Cone drills: Set up cones in a "T" or star shape, then sprint, slide, backpedal, or change direction depending on which cone you're approaching.
4

Coordination

Curvy African American Woman Skipping Rope In Urban Area
Cavan Images / Getty Images

So many sports and activities require well-honed hand-eye (or foot-eye) coordination, including badminton, golf, soccer, basketball, football, racquetball, archery, softball, ultimate Frisbee, and more. All require you to be able to see an external object and respond precisely with your hands and/or feet to meet a pre-determined objective.

Think of hitting a golf ball off a tee, catching a fly ball, or blocking a shot on net in hockey or soccer. To improve your coordination, try exercises such as:

  • Playing catch
  • Jumping rope
  • Juggling
  • Dribbling a ball
  • Throwing objects at specific targets
5

Balance

Young sporty attractive woman practicing yoga, Warrior three pose
fizkes / Getty Images

Gymnasts, yogis, skaters, and surfers all need highly refined balance skills to be able to participate in their sports. But these aren't the only athletes who 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 position as your center of gravity changes during movement.

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, for instance, 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. To train your balance, try:

By performing standard strength training movements on an unstable surface, you're simultaneously improving your strength and balance.

6

Reaction Time

Goalkeeper jumping out to catch football
Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images

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 that interpretation.

Much of this mind-body reaction relates to knowledge of the sport or activity in question. A professional tennis player can almost instantly interpret and predict the movement of a ball. 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. Reaction-time training tends to be sport-specific, but these activities can help:

  • Fielding a ball (softball, baseball)
  • Protecting the goal as other players try to score (soccer, hockey, lacrosse)
  • Tools such as lopsided reaction balls
  • Playing table tennis or hacky sack

In many cases, improving reaction time comes down to gaining experience in the sport and performing sport-specific drills.

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