How to classify sports (And why it matters)

Today I’d like to share two important systems for sports classification. If we’re ever going to get past beyond the strength & conditioning world into that of movement, we better start to think (and practice!) sports and movement arts. Only by bringing together training and its application, are we going to reduce separation which, for me, its what movement is about. I’ll first present the systems and then make some observations on their use.

System #1: Outlined by Thomas Kurz in his book Science of Sports Training.

This is a very structured and in a way rigid system that, nevertheless, gives mental clarity and shows a traditional way of classifying sports.

Characteristic Variants Example
Structure of the movements (whether movements have repeated rhythms or not) Cyclic Walking, Running, Cycling and Rowing
Acyclic Gymnastics, Wrestling, Boxing and Team ball games
Mixed Long and high jump
Degree of standardization of competitive activity (whether there is a fixed manner and routine of performing movements) Standard Track and field, Gymnastics, Figure skating, Weightlifting
Nonstandard Team games and Combat sports
Type of competition (whether there are or not team efforts) Individual Chess, Boxing, Tennis
Team Ball games, Rowing crew races
Amount and type of contact (whether or not there is physical contact between participants) Varying degrees of contact Some permit physical contact (Hockey, Soccer, Team handball, Rugby) and others are based on it (Wrestling, Boxing, Fencing)
Noncontact Races, Gymnastics, Archery, Chess, Tennis, Track and field
Movement ability most stressed (the biggest quality adressed by the sport) Technique (This happens when Acyclic movements and Standard competition happen together) Gymnastics, Figure skating, Diving
Speed-strength (Anaerobic) Sprints, Jumps, Throws, Weightlifting
Endurance (Aerobic) Middle-distance and Long-distance running, Swimming, Bicycling

System #2. The “Quadrants” developed by Dan John.

This system is genius to me, and its discussion reaches much further than what we’ll get into here. This is the idea of the quadrants:

Untitled Diagram (6)

These are some observations I have to make about both systems combined:

  • Sports in which there is contact and/or teams tend to be acyclic. This means there is more chaos into them, so the participants must be more prepared for anything. This changes conditioning, because more qualities need to be developed, and overspecialization is not an option.
  • Training needs to prepare the athlete for the level of chaos the sport has. This means a continuum from controlled situations (weight room) to uncontrolled ones (competitions, games, arousal training, etc).
  • The more we specialize, the greater can we become at something. That is the sacrifice of specialization: it brings greatness, but at the price of loosing versatility, being more injury prone, and lack of many opportunities. The real question is, is it worth it?
  • Cyclic sports tend to focus on endurance; Acyclic sports tend to focus on speed-strength (Crossfit and Aerobic gymnastics would be exceptions).
  • Each sport or quadrant has its pros and its cons. For example, while the technicality of figure skating might make one develop great form of movement, it means that creativity and improvisation are more restricted. Another example would be Quadrant II sports, which can make a person very well rounded, but they required a lot of time for their training.
  • Gymnastics is a sport that starts like Quadrant I, but it ends up being any of the other. As a start, gymnastics is for many the best introduction to physicality, as it exposes the persons to many skills, qualities and movements. With time, the sport narrows and becomes more demanding, so it can become QII, QIII or QIV. For example, a ring specialist would be QIV, meaning somebody who trains very few qualities but at a high level. A person who does the sport without trying to be elite would be QIII, and the elite well rounded gymnast would be QII.
  • In that sense, Gymnastics is very unique in that it is a Technical sport, with Standard activities and without involving contact, that even in individual events it is a QIII sport. That category is there for sports that involve many qualities at a high level of development, so for Dan John that means Collision sports and occupations, but I would argue Gymnastics is also there. So even if Gymnastics could be more predictable to perform than Rugby, because the former is more standardized and with less chaos than the latter, the preparation is still brutal due to its technicality.
  • In Individual, Standarized and Technical sports the role of the coach ends with preparation, thus its importance; in Team, Non-standarized and Non-technical sports the role of the coach extends more into competition, and strategy becomes more important.
  • Each quadrant requires certain mindset and programing options. For QI we play; for QII we train; for QIII we exercise; for QIV we practice.
  • In the case of QIII, the great number of qualities and their level of demand mean that you need to be extra rigorous with standards and gaps. This is where weak link training comes in.
  • Movement as we conceive it today is mostly a call for bringing back QI activities: just trying many things like crawling, fighting, dancing and climbing, without really mastering them. Seen like that, movement is not that different to what Russians were calling the last century General Physical Preparation (GPP), which was to be the base for any Specialized Physical Preparation (SPP) and the Competitive Period. I understand movement might have a very different ideology behind it, which is very relevant, but on practice it does look as something which has always being there.

I could go on and on, but I hope that brings enough food for thought for you to better understand what you are and will be doing and how to approach it. For now, do me a favor and please share below any other insight or connection these systems might bring to your head.

If you want to know more about these topics, I recommend the work of Dan John and Thomas Kurz


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