Unbalanced logo

What is Sports Performance?

Concepts real coaches wish parents understood.

By Blake A SwanPublished 2 years ago Updated 2 years ago 19 min read
What is Sports Performance?
Photo by Ian Mackey on Unsplash

Not to brag but...

Legendary Duke Basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski is retiring. The class of 2021 will be the last group of young men he will recruit as a head coach. It will be a special event and quite the memorable ride that I will have a special interest in. That’s because the last athlete that Coach K signed is one of my athletes. It’s a humbling thought that I could contribute to an amazing family and help an athlete maximize their potential, but that’s not the story here. The story here is how an athlete was brought to me before their 8th grade season for performance training and how easily it could’ve gone wrong.

Where it all began

The Blakes did their research. Looked me up and came in for a complimentary consultation. Excuse me if this sounds too technical. The athlete was coming off a soft tissue injury that was repeatedly aggravated during sport. Basically, muscle pain with tightness. The parents were concerned with injury. The athlete's goal was to dunk. Medically, he was cleared for sport. This is where it could’ve gone wrong.

By Beth Macdonald on Unsplash

Being cleared for sports means resuming normal activities and returning to sport activities. It means they are healthy for life. It does not they are fit for sports. 

Parents, coaches, athletes and faux trainers don’t understand the difference. Which is why parents and coaches get confused when the player tells them their body doesn’t feel right despite being "cleared."

What could’ve happened? 

Had we just gone to lifting weights, agility, and plyometrics, we would’ve been building on a poor foundation. Increasing his imbalances and risk of injury. Shortening his career. Limiting his physical activity. Changing his quality of life.

What happened?

We focused on mobility and stability. Reintroducing basic movements of sport and “core” activation. By the time we started lifting, we had about a month before for school. We progressed in the lifts we could and had routines to stay healthy. Allowing him to play a season injury free and he could dunk. Each offseason or break in the season, we focused on the foundation. Mobility and stability before reinforcing movement patterns. Then lifting patterns to add sports strength and power. He stayed healthy. The best ability is availability. Allowing him to train harder, longer, and continually develop. Between him and his sister, and any athletes that were brought to me, the formula was the same. Solid foundations. It worked out well for him. That’s what it’s all about. 

By Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

This is the trainer’s job! Helping kids reach their dreams. 

It’s why I selected this industry and a decade later it's the reason I’m writing this. The right coach helps whereas the wrong coach can ruin your career and your health.

I could’ve thrown on weights. Made him bigger and stronger. He dunks. We cheer. He lands funny and grabs his leg. Now we call him injury prone. It’s essentially malpractice. A young athlete’s voicing discomfort and tightness. The most appropriate thing to do is find out why.

Through screening, we discovered several imbalances. Catching them early allowed reverse the trend. Having an injury free high school career.

By Markus Winkler on Unsplash

For those who haven’t read my bio, my name is Blake Swan. I’ve worked with athletes at every level. Youth, High School, College, and Pro. I’ve worked with bodybuilders, triathletes, and interpreted DEXA body comps for Olympians. I’ve been in strength and conditioning for over a decade as an NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS). Of all the credentials after my name, today I want you to get used to the term: Certified Strength and Conditioning Professional.

Terms are extremely important. If we can’t define a “thing”, then our conversations are meaningless. We refer to it as our standard nomenclature. It’s how professionals communicate. 

Terms of Service. Terms of Agreement. Terms are extremely important. If we can’t define a “thing”, then our conversations are meaningless. We refer to it as our standard nomenclature. It’s how professionals communicate. 

Why Terms are Important

Terms of Service. Terms of Agreement. In a digital world, we are constantly bombarded with them. It is a company doing its due diligence. It is up to the consumer to read before signing. Of course, nobody does. This process is the same for sports performance. Hot buzz words are just like the terms of service. They’ll be in bold. Give the consumer some general idea of the product. Yet, the consumer rarely understands what they need, let alone what they’re getting. 

By jordis small on Unsplash

Multiple professions have created their own terminology. In performance, it enables a trainer from New Jersey to create a program that can be accurately replicated in Sweden. It also codes conversations. Allowing communication while speaking about the clients discreetly. Unfortunately, this created an atmosphere of confusion. People created their own interpretations to fill the gaps.

We do it all the time. Common phrases we give our own special meeting. That’s why we can use the same language with vastly different expectations. Most don’t bother correcting the client ambiguity. Let’s fix it now. Just like professionals, clients should establish a standard nomenclature. Define the key terms. Giving you the ability to ask the right questions. Giving the professionals the opportunity to identify themselves by answering them. 

By Austin Wilcox on Unsplash

Terms You Need to Know

Clients need to know several basic terms. I will go over them as well as some categories. These definitions are aimed at helping the client. It is not a deep dive into the professions and the science. At worst, it can stand as the basis of the conversation before we get into the philosophy and the science. 

What is Sports Performance?

By Braden Collum on Unsplash

Here on out, we will define Sports Performance as the outcome of an athlete’s skills based upon their physical and mental abilities. It’s simple. If you noticed, it intentionally does not mention whether you were successful. Sports Performance isn’t a magic bullet. It can’t make your kid Michael Jordan.  The process is more important than the product.

Throw a strike? Good throw. Get a rebound? Good board. Make a tackle? Good hit... right?

At the professional levels however, the product outweighs the process. This is an important distinction. For the best outcomes, the process matters most. Once again, if we build on a faulty foundation, the entire building will collapse. It doesn’t matter how well we design it. At the highest levels of sports, adults get paid to make that tradeoff.

Unless it’s their job, we shouldn’t be designing outcomes based upon professional standards of performance. Increasing the risk of injury because we do not challenge the result.

Even Jordan wasn’t always Jordan. Jordan and the Bulls were constantly evaluating their needs to build the legendary career with legendary teams. Sports Performance allows you to evaluate which element or attribute your athletes needs to develop.

Three Components of Sports Performance

Three separate elements that contribute to Sports Performance.: skills, physical ability, and sports acumen. This is parents or athletes need to look for when selecting a coach. If your athlete struggles with technique, improving their physical ability won’t address their weakness. It will only mask it. However, if the athlete is excellent with their skills but lacks physical ability, that would be the match made in heaven.

Don’t pay for an injury.

Before training, every athlete should be screened. Then testing can determine the training intensity based on their current level of performance. 

The Foundation

An athlete’s foundation is everything. We are not discussing looks. We are discussing the body mechanics. The hips are the powerhouse of the body. Some athletes struggle to use them. There are athletes who make it to the professional levels without utilizing their hips. Instead, they recruit and overtrain smaller muscle groups to make up for the difference. Limiting their performance and increasing risk.

A story I often tell is of an NFL Wide Receiver, Marquis Lee. I did not work with him. However, I remember how his last year of football went in college. An All-American Receiver. Then one day, he goes down after suffering a knee injury. He missed time, and his draft stock fell. Only after his injury did they discover he was quadriceps (QUAD) dominant. Never used his hips appropriately, but nobody cared. This is an All-American athlete. The product on the field was fine. The inner process altered his career forever. 

By Valery Fedotov on Unsplash

Our foundation begins with our joints. Some are mobile like your ankle. Some are stable like your knee. Impairments in joint functions lead to alternating in the stress we put on our body. Our entire posture may change. For most people, that change is subtle. No, one of your legs and/or arms is not longer than the other. Unless you were born that way. It’s your body adapting. That’s not always bad. Sometimes it helps performance. For most, it creates a weakness. One that will spread throughout the body and inhibit performance and accelerate injury. A solid foundation should be the goal for any aspiring athlete wishing to take part in sport or enhance their performance.  

Skills, Physical Ability, Sports Acumen


We are starting with skills because these contribute the most to long-term success. In sports, skills are attributes we gain and/or improve. An ability is something you are born with. Think about jumping. One person was born with an extraordinary capacity to jump. We can improve your jumping ability. However, our capacity was given to us. Some were never able to unlock their full capacity. Others see a dramatic difference once they unlock their capacity.

By Wan San Yip on Unsplash

Even if we develop a similar capacity for jumping, the natural athlete will be better conditioned to jump. Which means they can train and develop skills earlier and at a higher capacity. Mastering elements of catching, rebounding, spiking, and any other sports related skills.

Physical ability is a necessity for developing skills. It can speed up the rate at which we gain a skill. When our physical ability is limited, we make compensations. This adds tremendous stress to our bodies. Even worse, the short term results of sport can be positive. Reinforcing our bad habits for short-lived success. Resulting in increased risk of injury inside and outside of sport.

Physical Ability

Physical ability is the natural gifts an athlete has. Regardless of sport, there are certain elements that contribute to an athlete’s success.

By Jeffrey F Lin on Unsplash
  • Agility. Which includes Speed and Change of Direction.
  • Strength. Which includes Strength and Strength Endurance. It also includes our capacity for strength for pushing, pulling, throwing, etc.
  • Power. In court and field sports, this is the ability to apply strength in a short amount of time. Making a cut, getting to a loose ball, blocking a shot.

How quickly we can jump, push, pull, accelerate, throw, and tackle. Power is crucial to sport. You may be stronger than me. However, if I can generate strength faster than you, I have the advantage. Strength requires time. Power, in sports, is constrained by time.

Question: Ever wonder why those workout warriors in the gym suck at sports? Perhaps, you spent time getting stronger but it doesn't transfer on the field. Here's why -

By Alora Griffiths on Unsplash

In order to complete this lift, the athlete must recruit as much of their muscles as possible. Which takes time.

By Kevin Olson on Unsplash

In sport, you have a minimal amount of time. Which means you can recruit a smaller percent of muscles to complete the skill.

  • If Athlete A starts higher and gets up faster than Athlete B, Athlete A has a massive advantage over Athlete B.

The athlete that is super strong becomes ineffective because they take too long to jump. Always late to get in the air against a weaker but more powerful student. The athlete that’s late may need to develop an understanding of when to jump to compete. This gets into Sports Acumen.

Sports Acumen

Sports acumen is the foundation of sport. We don’t see soccer players picking up the ball and running across the field. At its highest concept, it’s the angle the goalie takes to reduce the angles available to their opponent. Which then allows them to predict where the ball can go.

Athletes can be successful without understanding the sport. There are plenty of “late-bloomers” who are given the basics of the sport to compete. The pitcher that becomes a quarterback knows to throw the ball. Preferably to their team. They have a successful career until they get to the next level of sport. Here, they can’t adjust plays or read the defense. They don’t know how to place the ball and every pass is a rocket. Now, they are an ineffective athlete.

By Luis Santoyo on Unsplash

The amount of coaching it takes to teach them the nuance of sports is tremendous. A pitcher doesn’t understand why they can’t throw that pitch. It's why baseball players can't hit against the shift. Watching a guard continue to drive into the clogged paint. Sports acumen is difficult to develop later in life. You’ve trained your nervous system to have a distinct reaction to the situation.

It was difficult to teach Tim Tebow not to drop his elbow when he throws a football. He can in a controlled practice. During an actual game under fatigue, he will revert to poor mechanics. Add in a tendency to stare down receivers and he’s a turnover machine in the NFL. It doesn’t mean he couldn’t have success. He made it from High School to College successfully. The entire offensive scheme is in jeopardy at the NFL level. Limiting his long-term success. Altering how the entire offense functions because of the limitations of one player. 

Sports acumen allows an athlete to understand how and when to use their skills. Where to be positioned to use their skill and when to use their skill. It allows them to put themselves in the best positions to succeed. Understanding the entire sports concepts the coach has implemented. Preparing your mind and giving you confidence in every action.

Sports concepts and Sports Psychology fall within this spectrum. You’re confident running the play because you understand how it’s supposed to work. Predicting the opponent’s behavior. Expecting their reactions and taking advantage to help the team succeed. Some players are naturally inclined to absorb information and patterns. For those who may not be the most athletic, Sports Acumen is the great equalizer.

Trust, you can be successful in sports without understanding the reasons you’re doing what you do. For the undersized and under athletic athlete, their Sports acumen is the reason they are successful. For some players, it’s the reason they were great and not just good. 

By Markus Spiske on Unsplash

A Coach is a Coach, Right?

What many parents cannot understand is every coach isn’t right for them and there’s no one to blame. You heard about a performance coach that worked wonders. Different athlete. They needed to improve their skills to improve their performance. So sending your 11-year-old that’s physical ability is limited to a skills coach… is a waste. Not because the coach is bad. Your athlete doesn’t have the foundation. They won’t be able to use those skills. Even worse, if the physical foundation is poor, they may increase their risk of injury by attempting to gain some version of that skill. What if your athlete has the skills and physical ability but performs poorly? Then they need to meet with a coach that works on their mental ability.

Most youth athletes should focus on technique. For lifting and for sports-related activities. As I mentioned earlier, top level programs will have CSCS on staff. Youth athletes’ bodies will change with puberty. A solid foundation with optimal technique will maximize their performance. The more deep you dive into performance, the more elements there are to understand what your athlete needs. In order to do that, we should go over the coaches and trainers you may encounter.

By Meghan Holmes on Unsplash

Did I Get the Right Coach/Trainer?

It’s not your fault. Before this article, you did not know what you were looking for. You ran into a former athlete or super fit individual and they made you promise. Their website looked nice, and they had great referrals. We’re not here to blame. We’re here to fix. Let’s begin with the “professional” you ran into. What were their credentials? What’s their philosophy? Let’s speak about the rules before we speak about the exceptions. 

Personal Trainers

No offense, but the lowest person on the totem pole for performance coaching is the personal trainer. Trust me, I have been a Personal Trainer longer than I’ve been a performance coach. This isn’t because trainers can’t train athletes. The profession changes bodies. However, it is not designed to change bodies for specific performance needs or conditions. It doesn’t take a trainer to make you feel tired.

Any Joe Shmoo can make you lunge down the field and back. Odds are you’ll be tired and your muscles will get sore… but why? What’s the adaptation you’re hoping for by making an athlete sore and tired 24/7?

Personal trainers can do a lot of things, but looking good and being terrible at sports is frankly the worst. 

Athletic Trainers

How about an Athletic Trainer? First, they are health professionals. They are the thankless professionals who appear on the field for injuries and execute the return to play protocols off the field. They offer supportive techniques to allow athletes to compete in sports through the physical demands of the season. Returning to play faster. Skilled in bracing, taping, evaluating, and rehabilitating. They do a lot. They also won’t be shy about their credentials. 

Athletic Trainers follow a medical model. Requiring extensive education. Now, some Athletic Trainers are certified to perform other duties. However, they will make the distinction between their scope of practice and any additional fitness/training they offer.

By Chanhee Lee on Unsplash

This is where parents and faux trainers make the gaff. They use Athletic Trainer and training athletes interchangeably. Faux trainers will say they are athletic trainers which only further confuses people with Athletic Trainers that are actual health professionals. Parents will use the term out of ignorance and thus when meeting a trainer use the incorrect title. Any qualified coaches won’t make that mistake. They should correct you if you do.

Weightlifting and Powerlifting Coaches

Next, we have the Weightlifting or Powerlifting coaches. They are extremely useful in developing strength and power. Remember, Weightlifting (one word) is the competitive sport. It’s the thing they warn you will stunt your growth. Weight lifting (two words) is an activity that promotes muscle and bone development and positive hormonal response. Of the two, Powerlifting is more relevant to sports because sports is about power. Power introduces the element of speed with strength. The movements in powerlifting are closely linked to the key positions in sports. The transfer of training is direct. However, the limitations in these activities is that they do not develop sports specific skills. Earlier, we mentioned that physical ability enhances skills acquisition and development. Without the skill component and mental ability to understand the concepts of the sport, your actual performance in sport may not improve despite enhanced capacity.

Side Note: Many Strength Coaches and Performance Coaches study Weightlifting and Powerlifting. Getting certified so they can utilize these activities for their athletes. That's how significant these coaches are to sports performance.

Strength and Conditioning Specialist - Strength Coaches

Strength coaches are experts in physiological adaptation. Certification requires knowledge of every aspect of sports performance. Diet, Rest, Cardiovascular Conditioning, Resistance training, Endocrine System, Energy systems and more. Weight lifting and powerlifting are tools in their toolbox.

Strength Coaches will know the standards and adaptations needed for athletes based upon the needs of the sport down to the position. They’re well versed in the energy systems required by sports so that they can condition the athlete to meet the specific needs of that sport. Which we call specificity. Understanding the common injuries in sports and the strategies to reduce the risk.

Basically, we can train anyone for any functional purpose. Understanding how to maximize performance for a specific window of time. It's the reasons some professional teams peak at a specific time of the year. Professionals design programs such that their athletes peak in the postseason. We also design programs for several years like a 4 years program for an Olympic athlete.

By Karsten Winegeart on Unsplash

All the individuals I have mentioned will be certified coaches. They will have credentials to back up their services and it won’t be hard to find out which credentials are top of the industry. If someone claims to be a strength coach for sports working with college/pro teams and they aren’t NSCA certified, it’s an obvious lie. They may train an individual athlete but are not able to work for higher-level sports as a strength coach.

Performance Coaches

Performance coaches focus on improving elements within the sport. They could be general or specific to a position such as a Football Performance Coach compared to a Quarterback Coach. Improving your technique, your understanding of the technique, and your ability to process game situations. Simulating sport situations and the concepts behind them. Performance coaches may not always be certified. Most are not strength coaches that can take you into a weight room.

Strength Coaches can be performance coaches. Especially when focusing on general phases of training. Working on jumping, cutting, sprinting, or any other fundamental movement required in sport. Physiologist can break down the components of sports and develop strength and coordination that should transfer into improved sports performance.

However, they may not have the specific nuances of sports skills. Such as throwing a curve ball, kicking a soccer ball or throwing a football for accuracy.

Coaches and/or athletes can be useful to a developing athlete. Explaining the nuances of sports and training them to perform sports specific skills. Taking them through a proper training regimen to prepare to compete in sports at a high level.

Check their credentials 

This is where the grey area begins. Coaches may not communicate with every type of athlete at every age. Athletes may not understand what makes them better. Which contributes to the stereotype of talented players making terrible coaches. It isn’t because they didn’t know what they were doing. Their understanding may not be useful to a majority of athletes.

By Colin Lloyd on Unsplash

Some people naturally understood how and why a certain technique works. Adjusted their body to the correct position without thinking.

Performing complicated skills like a Fade Away Jumper or a Bicycle Kick subconsciously. A blank canvas when it comes to developing the skill. Perhaps they succeeded without ever developing the Sports Acumen. It was all reflex. Communication may not even be their strongest attribute. A few people get it, but they're unable to teach it in a way that is useful to you.

Which is why you should interview your coach before agreeing to train with them. The first sign of a fraud is when they are unable or unwilling to answer your questions. Qualified coaches aren’t afraid to share information. Information is easy to attain. Knowledge of the correct and optimal application, that’s what you’re really paying for.

The ability to communicate successfully with the athlete would also be helpful.

By Jeffrey F Lin on Unsplash

Thank you for taking the time to read this. It’s a portion of the discussion I try to have with any parent and athlete seeking training. If you understand what you’re looking for, you can find someone that can help.

This isn’t about watching athletes fail. The goal is to help them succeed. Understanding that one coach may not be the right coach for you or your athlete.

Now, you've learned the elements of sports performance and the coaches available. It’s still up to you to decide, but knowledge is power. Watch and listen to your athlete to learn what they need.

If they are complaining about back and knee pain in middle school and high school, that’s a red flag.

By Gabin Vallet on Unsplash

Ask for a consultation. Get a movement screening.

Have your athlete evaluated. Help them stay in love with an active lifestyle. Learning crucial life lessons and reaching their potential.


About the Creator

Blake A Swan

NCSA Strength and Conditioning Professional certified as a CSCS, TSAC-F, and CPT. I have my FMS Certification as well, and spent over a decade working with athletes in various sports. Including youth, high school, college, Olympic and Pro.

Reader insights

Be the first to share your insights about this piece.

How does it work?

Add your insights


There are no comments for this story

Be the first to respond and start the conversation.

Sign in to comment

    Find us on social media

    Miscellaneous links

    • Explore
    • Contact
    • Privacy Policy
    • Terms of Use
    • Support

    © 2023 Creatd, Inc. All Rights Reserved.