In The Numbers Game, David Sally and Chris Anderson assess the value of each player on a soccer field. Their findings are startling but simple: Star power matters very little in soccer. Sally and Anderson posit that a typical pro soccer team with, say, $80 million to spend on player acquisition, would benefit more from upgrading their weakest players than from adding a superstar. For all the awe a Ronaldo or a Messi inspires, their actual value is diminished by the nature of the game they play. With very few exceptions, the incredible shot or pass made by a superstar is preceded by and dependent upon eight or nine unremarkable but completely necessary passes. These passes don’t make the highlight reels and don’t defy expectation, but they fill a need. They’re the passes you’re supposed to make, and without them, Ronaldo and Messi would never get to make the spectacular play.
Because of this reality, a scoring chance is more likely to be undermined by a missed pass than created by an exceptional one; it is this fundamental idea that Sally and Anderson refer to as a “weak link” system. Scoring chances, exponentially more valuable in a game like soccer than in one like basketball, are swung for and against a team by the journeymen, and as such, that $80 million is better spent ensuring your team can make the expected pass rather than the exceptional one.
Back in the weight room, a similar dilemma faces the strength coach and the athlete. Do I spend my off-season training block (or limited in-season time) developing an athlete’s best qualities, or curing their worst? Is it better for an explosive athlete to become even more explosive, or to focus on a weakness such as a hitch in their squat pattern?
The argument in favor of the “strong link” approach is to play to your strengths. Imagine a football wideout who isn’t very big, but he’s fast. Strong link thinking would tell you not to ruin that by trying to make him something he’s not. Within reason, this is a fair approach, since most great athletes have one or two qualities that shine above the rest. Unfortunately, it’s often applied well beyond reason. The small but fast athlete is allowed to shirk his physical development and ultimately plateaus, unable to compete with more balanced players.
The argument in favor of the weak link approach is rooted in human movement and the concept of the kinetic chain. It is supported by accepted practices such as the Functional Movement Screen (FMS) and the Selective Functional Movement Assessment (SFMA), and yet it’s not as widely adopted as it ought to be (more on that in a bit).
Try something for me: Stand up, find something you can safely throw, and do so, but try to use just one muscle. When that fails, try the same thing using only two muscles. Try three, then four. Each time you throw, you’ll feel closer to your optimal movement pattern, but still short of it. A natural throw, something resembling what an athlete might do, involves literally dozens of muscles working in concert. It travels like a wave from one end of the body to the other, gathering power from each muscle group as it goes. Try that throw again, and this time allow yourself a natural rhythm, paying attention to the movement as it builds and is passed around your body. Better, right?
Let’s examine this simple but ubiquitous athletic task. The throw, much like the potential goal in soccer, relies on a complex series of tasks—be they passes or muscular contractions—all happening in a precise, predetermined order. One pass to the wrong spot or at the wrong time, one muscle not firing when or how it should, and the entire system falls apart. That can mean immediate injury, or it can mean compensatory patterns in other parts of the body that inhibit performance and lay a foundation for future injury. Either way, it means trouble.
The Case of the Broken Quarterback
In the 2012 NFL Draft, Robert Griffin III was selected as the No. 2 overall pick by the Washington Redskins. At the time, his incredible athleticism had many predicting an illustrious career. His 4.41 40-Yard Dash and 39-inch Vertical Jump were both the best at his position.
A closer look at his incredible vertical jump highlights an underlying issue that should not only have been foreseen, but also prevented. Video and still-frame photos of RG3’s jump show a common but problematic inward collapse of the knees known as a “valgus fault.” There are a number of possible reasons for this, but more often than not it stems from inhibition of a group of muscles known as the hip abductors—the TFL, gluteus medius and gluteus minimus. Due to the increased angle of the upper leg (known as the “Q angle”), the ACL is placed in a compromised position, increasing the risk of non-contact injury.
The issue here is not whether Griffin should have been drafted so high, but that such a gifted athlete was allowed to neglect such a glaring weakness.
RGIII was trained with “strong link” values; an explosive athlete was made more explosive, with little done to help make him more durable and more injury-resistant. If that can happen at the highest levels of sport, it can happen anywhere.
It can seem as if strong link vs. weak link thinking is really an argument between performance and precaution, but in reality it’s a matter of applying the right approach to the right problem. Remember, soccer teams are actually improved by addressing the worst players and improving their weakest points. If the human body is an example of a weak link system, it will yield the best performance by applying the more deliberate and seemingly cautious approach.
Put Into Practice
Weak link systems—like soccer—require some patience. They ask us to slow down, evaluate, measure, plan, and then progress. To do so, we need an intelligent approach to training movement consisting of three key elements: assessment, correction and integration.
The use of the FMS I mentioned earlier is increasingly widespread in organizations ranging from NHL, NFL and MLB teams to the Department of Homeland Security and several branches of the United States military. If you aren’t a fan of the FMS that’s fine, but watch athletes move, record your results, look for imbalances and deficiencies, and build a program that reflects these findings by initially avoiding and ultimately correcting movement dysfunction.
Unless you’re licensed as a physical therapist, it’s important to recognize where fitness ends and rehab begins. The role of the strength coach and personal trainer is not to deal with painful movements. Having said that, with some experience and a critical eye, a good coach can help activate inhibited muscles and regress movements to a point where they can be mastered and eventually loaded. It’s important that you (or your trainer/coach) have a few tools in your coaching toolbox so you can correct problematic movement. Don’t simply ignore that weak link. Strengthen it!
Athletic movement doesn’t look much like some old school weight room staples. A great Bench Press, on it’s own, won’t do much for your performance on the field. Instead, athletic movements combine the strength and function of multiple muscle groups into dynamic and coordinated efforts. A great Bench Press is a lot more helpful to a football lineman if he can create a strong base with his legs, stabilize and transmit that force through his hips and trunk, and deliver a good percentage of that strength very quickly. In order to both prevent injury and improve performance, athletes need to be exposed to movements requiring similarly coordinated efforts. Some of my favorite tools for accomplishing this include medicine ball work, plyometrics, sprints, sled work and full-body power exercises. Regardless of the method you choose, consider whether the program you’re implementing (or following) looks anything like the sport you play. If it does, you’re likely on the right track. If not, you may be overlooking a weak link in your chain, and it may choose the worst moment to reveal itself.
- Zatsiorsky, V, Kraemer, W. 2006. Science and Practice of Strength Training. 2nd ed. Champaign (IL): Human Kinetics.
- Baechle T, Earle R. 2008. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. 3rd ed. Champaign (IL): Human Kinetics.