Every athlete knows the pressure of competition. Competition to beat not only your opponent but for a spot on the team, in the starting lineup, or to be selected into a tournament. That’s one of the great life lessons that sports teach us. They teach us the true value of hard work. If you are competitive, you learn to push yourself to become the best player you can be. Even if you are the best player on the team or even the best athlete at school, you know that somebody out there is better than you. You know you have weaknesses, and true champions work hard to eliminate their weaknesses no matter your confidence.
Work On It
So how do we plug up the holes in our athleticism? We work on it. Maybe you can’t seem to hit a curveball or make a free throw, or you always slice the ball with your driver. Perhaps it’s mechanical, or a mental block, maybe you’re too weak, perhaps it’s all of it. These questions can drive an athlete crazy, yet it pushes them to work harder. Practice makes perfect, right? Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case. You can be the hardest worker on the team, yet still miss the cut. You might even be the fastest, or strongest in the weight room or be the best three point shooter on the team. But if you can’t play defense or catch the ball, you probably won’t be starting.
Taking The Next Step
That’s what this article is about. In every athlete’s career, there comes a time where they need to take the next step. They need to jump from JV to Varsity, earn a college scholarship, or even make it professionally. There’s always another level to achieve. So how do we get there if we can’t do it on talent alone? Unfortunately, the answer isn’t always to get into better shape. It often isn’t.
The truth of the matter is that you are probably in as good of “shape” as the athletes at the next level are. It’s not like the guy or girl starting over you is doing so because they are stronger or faster than you. Maybe they are, but that’s not the real reason why they are in front of you. It’s almost always because of skills. They probably have shown to be more accurate, coordinated, and can execute the game better than you. You may be the fastest player on the team, but if Lauren is better at shooting 3s than you, then you probably won’t start over her at shooting guard. You may have the biggest bench press on the team, but if you can’t hit off speed pitches, and Brad always makes solid contact, Brad is going to start over you.
You may be fast or strong, but that doesn’t always translate to better skill on the field or court. That is why it doesn’t make a lot of sense to continue working on increasing speed or strength. Weightlifting won’t help you hit the curveball!
An interesting study looked at professional hockey players conducted over 17 years. They examined athletes from the lower minor league levels all the way to the NHL. They particularly looked at their VO2 maxes, a measurement to see how much an athlete can exert with their aerobic capacity (in this case, while ice skating). They found virtually no differences in the minor league level and NHL guys, and they repeatedly didn’t find differences for nearly 20 years between 162 athletes in all. That’s a pretty large sample size with good consistency. If the minor league guys wanted to make it to the NHL, getting in better shape didn’t seem to make a difference.
In baseball, it is said that if you want to see the highest velocities, go to the minor leagues. Go to the lower level of the minor leagues. They throw harder in A ball than they do in MLB! Why is that? Every athlete in A ball doesn’t want to be in A ball. They’re fighting to get to the next level. So what do they do? Throw the bloody piss out of the ball, every time so they can stand out. What you’ll see at the higher levels, especially at the MLB level, is older, wiser guys throwing more conservatively. Throwing strikes and adding movement to the ball are far more important. Those that do that the best, get the big bucks in the show. Almost every hitter can hit any speed of ball if it’s down the middle. But if it hits the corner with lateral movement, good luck with that.
I encourage you to pay attention to the next NFL or NBA combine. Will those with the best 40 times, bench press, or vertical jumps also be picked at the top? Or maybe go ahead and research past drafts, and see how the top players of today performed. I guarantee you that you won’t recognize the names of the strongest and fastest at any point in combined history. Look at Kevin Durant and Tom Brady. These are two first-ballot Hall of Famers that posted some of the worst combined numbers of all time. Durant famously couldn’t get one rep on his bench press, and yet is one of the greatest basketball shooters in history.
Especially at the professional level, a better question probably is, “What’s the lowest shape I need to be in.” It sounds like a lazy approach, but athletes need to maximize time and energy into skill development. Having just enough aerobic capacity is enough for Tom Brady to do his thing. He doesn’t need to be faster than he is. Kevin Durant probably still can’t bench press 185, and nobody really cares. Being able to shoot over 35% from the three point line, and maintaining the skill to do so matters infinitely more than his bench press numbers.
But it would help if you still were strong. It would help if you were fast. I’m not saying those things aren’t important, because they are. However, if you are fighting for a starting spot, are so close to making the team, getting that scholarship, or are even on the cusp of a pro career, the weight room probably isn’t your ultimate answer. Those things help, but skill development in your sport is perhaps the lower-hanging fruit for taking your game to the next level.