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Fit to fight, fit for life

4th in a series of features on better health for TRADOC community members

Skill-related fitness necessary for sports success

By Dr. George R. Colfer/The Huachuca Scout

sports balls collageFORT HUACHUCA, Ariz. (Jan. 19, 2004) -- My previous writings have all dealt with the components of health-related fitness. While physical fitness and a healthy lifestyle are desirable, many people of military age also participate in a variety of competitive sports or mission-related competition.

Success in games and contests require more than just being fit. It demands motor skills, speed and power.

The components of skill-related fitness enable one to move and perform more efficiently, whether it is in work-related activities, daily movement functions, or in sports performance. Further, health-related fitness may also benefit from skill-related fitness, since persons who possess skill-related fitness are more likely to be active throughout life.

Skill-related fitness is compatible with health-related fitness. Many activities promote both types. Individuals who possess both will find participation in either type of activities more enjoyable and beneficial to their health and physical well-being. A person who is physically active cannot help but improve some aspects of skill-related fitness.

The components

The skill-related components are agility, balance, coordination, power, speed and reaction time. Many of these components work closely together and can be trained for by similar modes. However, specificity does exist, and such skills cannot be categorized in general.

A combination of these skills or abilities usually determines a skilled performance in a particular sport. Note also that a high level of health-related components may make skill acquisition easier. One cannot improve skill if one is fatigued and lacking strength or flexibility.

Let’s take a brief look at each skill-related component to see how it works:

  • Agility, balance and coordination: Agility is the ability to change body positions quickly and accurately to the indicated response or situation. Balance refers to the ability of a person to maintain a specific body position while still or in motion. Coordination is the speed and accuracy of correct muscle response to produce a desired movement.

The ABCs of skill-related fitness are commonly referred to as the ability to change direction quickly and to move as efficiently as possible with minimal energy expenditure. These three components can be improved or developed by the use of developmental training programs, specific exercises or drills and sports participation.

Some experts contend that strength is the most important factor in agility since a stronger body moves with more ease and efficiency. Flexibility is most important to balance and coordination by increasing one’s range of motion. Agility-type drills should involve a number of direction changes, place the performer in a variety of body positions and be of short duration so fatigue does not become a factor.

  • Power: Power is the application of strength and speed during a muscular movement. Power equals force times velocity and has to do with the speed of the contraction against less than maximal resistance. Power is closely related to dynamic strength, with speed or quickness of movement as the added dimension. Although strength, speed and power are related, strength alone will not develop power.

Power is displayed in many activities in different ways. Driving a golf ball, hitting a baseball, putting the shot, an explosive hit in football and a gymnast performing a giant swing on the high bar are all examples of power. Some persons may generate power more through strength, while others rely more on speed. However, if two forces are equal, the one that generates more speed or velocity will produce the greater power.

  • Speed: Speed is the ability to move the body or a region of the body as rapidly as possible from one point to another. Speed is the rate of movement, or the amount of time it takes for a body or object to travel between two points. Speed usually refers to running speed, as in the sprints in track or football. However, speed can be performed as leg speed in soccer kicking, arm speed in throwing a baseball, and body speed (acceleration) necessary in gymnastics.

track sprinters taking offSpeed is related to strength and power. In fact, all skill-related components contribute to speed. Speed requires the expenditure of a large amount of energy in a short time period. Age is a factor in attaining speed. One’s peak is usually reached at about 20 years of age and can be maintained for up to 10 years or so depending upon the type of training one practices. Without practice, speed diminishes quickly by the late 20s.

  • Reaction time: Reaction time refers to the time lapse between the presentation of the stimulus (sound-sight-touch) and the first muscular movement of the performer. Reaction time enables the performer to move faster, which can affect other skill components such as speed and power. Reaction time can be improved through the use of many developmental programs, such as strength and speed improvement.

There are also many drills involving sight, sound and touch that will improve reaction time on a general basis. Since there is a relatively high degree of specificity in reaction time response, most experts feel that the best method for improving upon a specific activity or sport is to practice the starting stimulus for that activity.

Skill training

There is no substitute for sports skill training. Practicing a skill for a specific sport is necessary to improve. No amount of conditioning will alternate for skill training.

Sports participation also develops skill-related fitness. Handball, racquetball, basketball, gymnastics, wrestling, volleyball, tennis and soccer are a few of many activities that could be included for motor skill development.

Reader questions

Q: Can one achieve physical fitness through sports participation alone?
A: Possible, but not likely in adult life without additional activity. Very few sports alone will contribute to overall fitness. The best solution would be to incorporate fitness activities into sports participation. For example, a weekend golfer or tennis player, instead of remaining inactive all week, could prepare by jogging or running two or three times during the week and performing strength, muscular endurance and flexibility exercises on alternate days. This would help maintain health-related fitness and improve upon conditioning for the weekend games.

Q: What are lifetime sports?
A: By definition, lifetime sports are sports, games or activities that can be participated in by adults throughout their lives. Contact sports, such as football, ice hockey, boxing and wrestling, would normally lie outside this category. Otherwise most sports and games would be included. The lifetime-sports concept emphasizes participation over competition. The purpose is to keep people active throughout life. Fitness activities alone are not considered lifetime sports. Therefore, participation in lifetime sports does not guarantee health-related fitness, especially in the development and maintenance of cardiovascular fitness.

(Editor's note: George R. Colfer holds a Ph.D. and is the retired department chair for kinesiology and health, University of Texas at San Antonio. He has published several books on fitness. He is a volunteer contributing writer for the Fort Huachuca Scout newspaper.)