The Player Development Pyramid
Emily R Pappas, MS Exercise Physiology
Think of the different tools you can use to help improve your performance as situated along a pyramid.
At the peak of the pyramid is the sport specific skill you are trying to improve.
For a volleyball player, that could mean harder hits.
For a basketball athlete, that could mean a higher vertical.
Practicing these skills are necessary when trying to develop them. However from a physiological perspective, the rate and extent of their development depends on the physiological characteristics they are built upon (AKA the base of the player pyramid).
At the base of your pyramid are the training tools that help develop the the physical and neuromuscular characteristics needed for you to perform your sport.
Although less sport specific, these are the tools that help you establish the foundational qualities of your athleticism: work capacity, strength-speed-power, and neuromuscular coordination.
Think of these qualities as the necessary resources from which you develop sport skills like stronger legs and hips for a higher vertical, or greater muscular coordination for harder hits.
The goal of improving your ability to perform as a player depends on how well you establish the base those abilities are built upon.
Establishing the base
Before you can effectively develop your sport specific skills, you need to first establish the base of these skills.
For a female athlete, you can consider building your base with these three foundational qualities:
- Work capacity
- Strength-Speed-Power Continuum
- Neuromuscular efficiency
Your Work capacity can be defined as the total amount of work (or load) you body can both tolerate and recover from. (Think about your capacity as a CUP that can only hold so much…)
In order to improve, an athlete must be able to work within this threshold amount and at a certain level that introduces a necessary stress to elicit an adaptive response.
(AKA you need to work HARD enough to improve, but not TOO hard or much that you break down).
If an athlete is limited by her ability to handle sufficient work loads (aka she has a tiny cup), she will never be able to expose her body to the level of stress needed to improve!
For example, if you really want to improve your vertical, but you have been sitting on the couch since the end of last season, you can’t just jump into hard training and expect your performance improve!
Although hard training is necessary for adaptation, if your body is not ready to handle that hard training, you will only see decreased performance and eventually breakdown.
The athlete who is better able to handle higher workloads, is also able to work HARDER and with higher volumes to direct improved performance, far before reaching the point of breakdown.
So, if you want to train hard, you have to first train to improve your CAPACITY to do hard work.
Think of your work capacity has having three main components
- Your ability to tolerate high workloads
- Your ability to recover from these workloads
- Your capacity to resist fatigue (both physical and nervous system)
You can develop these components with general aerobic work (like swimming, rowing, and walking) and with higher volumes of resistance training (full body general strength and movement training)
By performing progressively higher volumes of activity at low to moderate intensities of training, your body is able to prepare itself for the hard training it will have to perform LATER to drive performance improvements.
This is the type of training that helps you INCREASE the size of your cup so it can hold MORE later!
Developing the SKILL of your sport is a process that all stems from HOW MUCH WORK CAN YOU DO (how big your cup is)
With a higher capacity to do work, the greater ability you have to WORK to develop your strength-speed- and power and transfer those qualities to higher sport skills!.
Now that you have the capacity to build your athletic qualities, its time to start stressing your body to push it to improve.
Any sport skill that depends on speed and power output (hello higher vertical) depends on the level of STRENGTH it develops from.
If you want to improve your vertical, you must prioritize strengthening your movements long before you start adding more jumping to your program.
There is clear and repeatable evidence demonstrating that an overall strong foundation of maximal strength need first be established PRIOR to integrating speed and power based training (1)
Newton’s second law (Force = mass x acceleration) demonstrates the direct relationship between increased force and increased acceleration;
When considering this law with a performance perspective, the greater the force that can be produced in a defined period of time, the greater the acceleration.
This means with improved STRENGTH through resistance training, the greater ability you have to produce higher forces at higher speeds.
This means, the athlete that is STRONGER, can produce higher forces to propel her body weight into the air and jump HIGHER!
So how strong is strong enough before a female athlete can start training to develop her speed and power?
A recent review in 2012 by Haff and Nimphius recommend that as minimum lower body strength requirement to realize superior power outputs, female athletes should be able to squat twice their body weight. (3)
Of course reviews like these vary in the types, depths, and technicality of the squats being performed in these studies, but the overall message is clear: FEMALES need to develop their strength FIRST before introducing speed, agility, and power training.
Well if that is true, then when do we see more and more coaches and parents signing their female athletes up for agility camp or speed school?
Well it’s easy to understand the carry over of agility and speed training to your sport.
Understanding how strength training carries over to sport performance requires a greater depth of knowledge of the relationship between strength and speed.
When you understand newton’s second law from a performance perspective, it is obvious that higher velocities in sport are directly dependent on the amount of FORCE an athlete can produce.
Although speed and agility training are of course necessary for all athletes when teaching mechanics, the actual physiological qualities that can be developed through more complex drills (to actually help you improve your speed and force production) are directly dependent on the level of strength first established. (4)
Trying to further develop an athletes speed and power output before establishing her ability to produce higher forces is not only a waste of your time and money, but it also puts your athlete at higher injury risks
Athletes that are more aware of their bodies and STRONGER in those movements are at a far lesser risk nagging pains or overuse injuries.
Greater neuromuscular efficiency has been demonstrated to improve speed and agility performance
What is neuromuscular efficiency? It refers to the interaction of the nervous system (your brain) and the muscle firing (contractions) to produce force.
More efficient connections help your body produce greater force in movements such as sprinting and changing direction
How can training help improve this connection?
When we train at or near maximal intensities, we are able to help our body improve this connection.
Bouts of near max intensity movements can consist of performing a heavy 1RM back squat (of course with first well established technique), performing a heavy snatch or clean and jerk (again technique first), or performing max velocity sprints or max height box jumps.
These activities helps improve your neuromuscular efficiency by developing
- Neuromuscular coordination (your brain body connection)
- Intra-muscular coordination (multiple muscle groups acting together)
- Inter-muscular coordination (multiple muscle cells working together within a muscle) (1)
Training lifts like a 1RM back squat are considered HIGH FORCE but lower speed. They help your body learn how to recruit a lot of muscle (acting together) for production of maximal amount of force, at the expense of some velocity
Training lifts like a snatch or a clean and jerk are considered HIGH FORCE and HIGH VELOCITY as they train your body to act together to produce pretty high forces (not as high as back squats) at higher velocities (5)
Training fast sprints or performing plyometrics like box jumps are considered LOW FORCE and HIGH VELOCITY as they train your body to move itself (lower force) at NEAR MAX SPEEDS
The application of these training modalities are ALL important when considering the PYRAMID of your player development.
If you want to improve your vertical, you need to make sure your work capacity is large enough for hard training; your strength adequate to develop your speed and power; and your speed and power training progressively trains your body to showcase these athletic qualities into more sport specific skills.
Transferring your athleticism to your abilities as a player
Transference of your athletic qualities such as strength, speed, power, and agility to a more sport specific tasks like a higher vertical can be trained with tools that are closer your actual sport. These are the tools that persist at the peak of your pyramid.
When considering using box jumps to improve your jumping ability, they are a far weaker stimulus in directing your development in strength and power compared to tools found on the lower ends of the pyramid like a back squat and power clean.
However, box jumps are extremely beneficial when teaching an athlete how to transfer her newly acquired strength and power in more sport specific movements.
For a volleyball athlete who wants to improve her vertical implementing plyometrics and other jump training to help her improve her performance are NECESSARY but AFTER she employed other tools to help her build her work capacity, strength, and power.
Implementing box jumps or other plyometrics FIRST before establishing strength and body awareness may help her improve her jump performance at first…..BUT to a very limited extent and with the increased risk of injury.
Remember, higher jumps are the GOAL, but not necessarily the means of achieving the goal.
When considering the development of a SKILL, you must first develop the QUALITIES from which the skill is developed.
Your athleticism is the BASE
Your skills as a player is your PEAK.
Want a higher peak? Then stop training only at the peak, and start developing your base!
(1) Gambetta, V. Athletic Development. (2010). The Art & Science of Functional Sports Conditioning. Champaign: Human Kinetics.
(2) Sargent, D., Clarke, R. (2018). Strength and Conditioning for Female Athletes. Strength and Power. Marlborough: Crowood. Pp 23-57.
(3) Haff, G.G. and Nimphius, S. (2012) Training principles for power. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 34(6), 2-12.
(4) Sargent, D., Clarke, R. (2018). Strength and Conditioning for Female Athletes. Speed and Agility Development for Female Athletes. Marlborough: Crowood. pp 73-90. .
(5) Hedrick, A. and Wada, H. (2009) Weightlifting movements: do the benefits outweigh the risks? Strength and Conditioning Journal, 30(6), 26-35.