One of the “hot button” items at our coaching clinics is when Carl discards the notion of general athletic ability and lays out the overwhelming scientific evidence citing the existence of thousands of specific coordinated movement patterns instead. This idea, that moving fast to my right doesn’t mean I’m fast, it just means I move fast to my right, usually gives way to some healthy debate,which is always fun and gives us a good opportunity to learn from each other.

Having spent the past 3 summers in the USA gym, there might not be a better place to witness the laboratory of specificity around me. I believe one of the great challenges of coaching the USA team is molding 20 players who have been taught 20 different ways to play one coherent system. Our wonderful coaching staff led by Head Coach Hugh McCutcheon and Assistant Karch Kiraly have done an incredible job of this, but the challenge is no less daunting.

One of the overriding themes in the gym is “simple is better.” Even though many of these players habits are engrained and difficult to change (especially with major competitions so imminent) we can still hopefully get players to make movements without so much extra motion. The simpler the motion, the more repeateable, and the more repeatable you are, the less you have to think. We can simply trust our mechanics and play the point. Of course, it takes a lot of time and repitiion to reach this level of mastery.

As I’ve studied different players from varied backgrounds, I’ve noticed something about their complexity that leads right into the law of specificity.

Even when their complex, they tend to be specifically complex.

For example, there are some passers who pop their platform way too much. But the more we’re able to study this player, the more we see they pop their platform only on specific serves. We have players that keep falling down when they dig, but generally, it’s only on “this” play, or “this” type of hit they become complex.

Trying to break down when a player is specifically “complex” can help us a ton for a variety of reasons. First, it lends clarity to the process, which is critical for learning. ie- For a passer: “You don’t need to improve everything about your serve-receive, in fact you’re taking it on your midline really well, you just need to angle your platform better on these deep flat serves.”

Secondly, by making it simpler and more specific, we’ve made it more manageable. The more manageable the change, the higher the athlete’s confidence level that it can be done. This confidence does quite a bit to fuel a player’s motivation to persevere.

Third, we tend to have had to put in some extra time and attention to make this kind of analysis. All players want to be recognized individually by their coaches, and showing this type of focused attention can go a long way towards proving your commitment to your player’s growth.

Lastly, if we’ve identified the correction needed to such an extent, we’ve probably also identified when they are at their best with this skill, and this information might be the most important component of all. Now, we’re not limiting ourselves to what’s going wrong, we’re just as clear on what’s going right. Capturing these good moments, recognizing proficiency and taking the time to acknowledge it, goes a long ways towards anyone’s responsiveness to constructive criticism.

So, the next time one of our players seems to be making that complex, inefficient movement pattern, study them a little longer. Can we describe exactly when and how the problem is occuring, and can I let them know when they’re good? If we can, it could go a long way not only to our player’s improvement, but to our relationship with them.

Carl is on to something.

4 comments on Specificity

  1. Name *Scott Lungren says:

    Excellent! Tom, do you have a summer camp for young girls?

  2. Tom says:


    Hi Scott, thanks for the comment and sorry for the late reply. Yes, we do have an overnight camp from July 16-19 on our LMU website.

    Thanks! – Tom

  3. Aaron Benning says:

    Hey Tom, the statement you made ” also identified when they are at their best with this skill, and this information might be the most important component of all.” is huge! The other side of the coin in terms of specificity is the specificity of the stimuli. When are players at their best? What is the common denominator about that situation, that is processed correctly and they are able to respond well. What kind of balls are they good at playing? Once you see that relationship between stimuli and response, you can start to recognize the situations they do not process well and their motor pattern is poor in responses. I recently worked with a kid who could passed all kinds of 85% of balls really well, but with one or two specific types of serve her technique and response fell off oddly. We back up from where we were with the rest of her passing and got her through the cognitive phase with those types of serves (stimuli) and those situations improved rapidly. Jim Mc. told me once “every part of person’s game will progress at its own pace and players can be at different phases of learning in each skill” this also means we can be at different phases of learning relative to specific stimuli. Once we see the pattern of movement that is created by their ability to process stimuli we can really help the athlete’s specificity of moving in response to what they see. Visual/Motor wins again! Things are way move specific than we given them credit for.

  4. Tom says:


    Thanks for this comment and for adding depth to the post.


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