Looks Big, Plays Weak!

USP - Looks big, plays weak

Like clockwork I almost invariably receive a phone call or email from a concerned athlete or parent that goes something like this..

“Hi Joey,

I’m a 16 year old footballer/athlete. I’ve just come off what I thought was a great pre-season. I went to the gym by myself every day and did my cardio every morning.

I put on 5 kgs of muscle and got up to doing 10km road runs! I’m the biggest and fittest I’ve ever been. I’ve started back playing footy and it is the worst football I’ve ever played in my life!

It’s embarrassing I look Big and Play Weak. I’m puffed after 1 effort, I can’t change direction, nor can I get down to pick up the ground ball. To make matters worse, I can barely jump off the ground to take a mark, my legs feel they weigh ten tonnes.

Joey, I train with and compete against some of the athletes that you train, they are bigger, faster, stronger, fitter and more resilient and more importantly they are playing really great footy!

Can you provide some insights as to what’s gone wrong and why I’m playing weak instead of playing strong?



Richmond Tigers AFL Star Katie Brennan working on her hand skills at Strongman Camp on 2013

Firstly, I commend you on doing extra training to improve your performance! Secondly, I also feel sorry for you in that you the training and effort you’ve put in, has not been rewarded.

Steven, your story is all too common! amongst athletes that attempt to coach themselves. It’s not a lack of effort that holds you back, it’s a lack of knowledge, skills and expertise.

Before we analyse what went wrong, lets answer a few simple questions. (See answers in brackets)

1. What testing and assessment if any did you undertake? (None)

2. What was the goal and purpose of your training? (Get bigger arms)

3. Why did you do the training you did? (I saw an article in the magazine and online)

4. Where did you get your training information from? (I followed the program out of muscle and fitness and one off the internet)

5. What percentage of training time did you devote to each of the physical qualities? (70% strength training, 30% cardiovascular conditioning)

First question, what physical qualities are required for AFL performance? (Strength, Speed, Agility, Power, Endurance, Flexibility, Resiliency).

What are the technical skills required for AFL? (Kicking, marking, tackling, shepherding, blocking, handballing etc).

Sydney Swans Superstar Player and USP Athlete Kurt Tippett transferring his work from the gym onto the playing arena!

What are the psychological skills required for playing AFL Footy? (Mental toughness, ability to push through pain, work ethic, discipline, focus)!

Train the Brain-Mental Muscles

What are the tactical skills required for playing AFL Footy? (Reading the play, footy smarts, playing to your football strengths etc).

Gaz Jr and Chris Judd 2 of the best examples of footy smarts!

From the information above we have identified that only 2 physical qualities have been trained. They have been been relatively non-specific, nor have they been initially assessed to determine their effectiveness.

We can also see that there are 3 other attributes/factors that contribute to AFL sporting performance. (Technical kills, tactical skills, psychological skills) that need to be addressed in training as well.

 The Problems Identified:

1. Non-specific training methods. Training for bigger arms will not enhance your football performance. There is little correlation between size of muscles and your actual strength! High volume body part training bodybuilding style training splits and programs with slow tempos and isolation and machine based exercises may assist with increasing your muscle size, but do little to enhance athletic performance as you have found out. This comes back to the principle of specificity. And the fact you will play, how you train. Slow speed lifting and non functional hypertrophy or muscle that does little to aid performance can actually detract from performance due to the non specific contractile speeds. Athletic performance is based on strength, explosive speed and power and this needs to be developed through explosive ballistic compound exercises, with fast tempos and loads above 85% for maximal strength and various weight percentages from 40-80% of 1RM to hit the speed strength-strength speed power continuum with reps between 3-6. Click here to read about the methods we utilise to enhance our on-field strength and power.

Sydney Swans Superstar Kurt Tippett developing his leg strength with traditional compound exercises-The back squat performed at USP Gymnasium

2. Non-Specific Conditioning that has neglected to develop all physical qualities and sport specific skills, body contacts, movement patterns and decision making! Long slow distance runs may assist with fat loss and general conditioning, but do little to assist you with on-field sports performance. I suggest you read the 3 articles on how we condition our athletes to understand why the running training you performed has failed to make you football fit.

Long Slow Distance Running Vs Sprinting

3. No Sport Specific Speed training. From your program outlined above, there was no speed, agility, quickness training included in your overall program design. I suggest you read our article on Sport specific speed development to ensure you can transfer your speed to the footy field. As an added bonus you’ll be less likely to sustain an injury as you have included deceleration and agility training into your program. All of which are integral components of playing football as you don’t just run in a straight line. basic speed and acceleration biomechanics are important for all athletes, however it is repeat sprint ability that has the greatest determinant on athletic sports performance. Click here to check out how we develop sport specific repeat sprint ability.

Brisbane Broncos Star Nat Barnes developing his blistering speed and acceleration!

4. No specific agility training. As you program focused on muscle building and aerobic fitness. You have neglected on of the most important qualities pertinent to sports performance. That physical quality being a sub quality of speed-Agility. Or the ability to change direction to evade opponents, make tackles or pick up the ground ball. Click here to check out how we develop sport specific agility.

5. No targeted flexibility program. As there was no assessment performed we can be assured that there would be limited flexibility included in your program or none at all. Which is quite common amongst virtually all teams and coaches either way. A concerted focus on optimal flexibility is one o f the cornerstones to the success of our programs and has allowed our athlete to stay injury free!

Brisbane Broncos Gun Nat Barnes Neural Flexibility Assessment in THE PIT Circa 2009

Steven, I trust this article helps shed some light as to why you look like strong but play weak. Many athletes try to write training programs and train themselves and they are merely guessing at what they should do. They end up injured, over-trained and frustrated by a lack of results or worse yet their performance actually gets worse. Click here to check out the 14 mistakes athletes make.

I suggest you seek out an appropriately qualified coach or trainer to assist you with your training program design. It may be cheaper to try and do it yourself, but trust me, it ends up costing you more time and money! It’s smarter and more efficient to seek out someone that  has achieved what you aim to do and achieve and pay them for advice and leverage off their skills and experience. After all you’re putting the time in to train, you want to guarantee results. It makes sense to hire an expert of a professional!

All the best,

Joey Hayes