Sport performance is the manner in which sport participation is measured. Sport performance is a complex mixture of biomechanical function, emotional factors, and training techniques. Performance in an athletic context has a popular connotation of representing the pursuit of excellence, where an athlete measures his or her performance as a progression toward excellence or achievement. There is an understanding in sport that athletes interested in performance tend to the competitive or elite level; athletes interested in simple participation, for broader purposes such as fitness or weight control, are most often recreational athletes who do not set specific performance goals.
On one level, the determination of sport performance in most sport disciplines is a simple matter. In those activities where the result is measurable and defined, such as a race, a jump, or an object to be thrown, the end result is quantifiable. In these sports, it is the quest for performance improvement that drives the analysis of the individual components of performance. When an athlete and the coach can isolate areas on which to focus in training, the ultimate result is likely to be improved.
Sport performance has four distinct aspects, each of which has a number of subcategories, some of which are rooted in physical certainty, others of which tend to the highly variable. The four areas include neuromuscular factors, the relationship between the nervous system and its dimensions and the musculoskeletal system; mental control and psychological factors; environmental conditions; and coaching and external support for the athlete.
The neuromuscular factors that impact sports performance are typically the most comprehensive and represent those aspects of performance that occupy the greatest degree of focus and preparation time. In many sports, no matter how devoted to training the athlete may be, if he or she is not physically equipped to compete, the performance will not improve.
The neuromuscular component of sports performance is subdivided into its own discrete elements. Each of these elements must be the subject of specific training approaches, including body type. Many sports lend themselves to a particular, generically predetermined physical frame or stature; American football linemen and rugby forwards must have a significant degree of physical size. Unless the athletes have a natural predisposition to having a large build, they cannot competitively succeed at these positions. Similarly, large-build athletes will not be successful distance runners or high jumpers as their genetics are essentially a disqualification from the serious pursuit of such sports; they will be limited, no matter what passion they may possess for the sport, to more recreational participation in such pursuits. In many sports, such as gymnastics and basketball, athletes with desirable natural physical attributes are directed into these pursuits.
Another neuromuscular component is muscular strength, both in terms of muscle mass and muscle power. While body type will tend to significantly influence the ability of an athlete to develop muscle strength, training will permit strength development in all athletes; strength, whether in terms of discernable power or as a function of the core strength, the neatly counter-balanced relationship between the upper body and lower body musculoskeletal structures when in movement.
Endurance, which is the ability of the body to perform over time, is essential to success in all sports. In high-intensity sports of a short duration, such as sprinting and weightlifting, endurance is similar to a backbone to the activity, assisting in the speedy and efficient recovery from the stress of the event or training. In sports where endurance is a central aspect, such as distance running or cross-country skiing, maximal endurance, as reflected in the ability of the athlete to consume and process oxygen, expressed as the athlete's VO2max, is of prime importance.
Flexibility is the counterpoint to muscular strength; the greater the range of motion present in the joints of an athlete, the greater the ability to move dynamically. An inflexible athlete is unlikely to ever achieve outstanding athletic performance. Inflexibility in human joints creates imbalance in the connective tissues and muscle structures, which will reduce the ability of the muscle to achieve maximum power, and will increase the risk of injury.
The ability of the body to respond to external stimuli in sport, such as the movement of an opponent or the starter's gun, requires the development of aspects of the athlete's motor control. These specific neuromuscular abilities include the feature of reaction time.
Agility, balance, and coordination are three interrelated concepts. These aspects of sport performance are also influenced by heredity and body type to a significant degree, but all can be enhanced through training. Most sports have specific drills developed to further each of these areas, such as the simple running drills where an athlete must run through a pattern laid out on the running surface. When the drills are run in reverse or in varying sequences, the drill is intensified. Each of these neuromuscular features of sport performance is less influenced by the strength of the musculoskeletal system, and more impacted by technique and repetition.
Speed is built by training that is focused on the development of the fast-twitch fibers of the skeletal muscles. The distribution of fast-twitch fibers through the muscles of the body is also regulated by genetics, but training can maximize the fast-twitch effect.
In many sports, the ability of the athlete to develop a rhythm to the performance will be crucial to success. Running, cross-country skiing, cycling, and speed skating are sports where the establishment of an effective rhythm or cadence will keep the athlete organized and physically efficient. The development of a rhythm is the imposition of a cadence on musculoskeletal activity.
Mental control and the related psychological factors in sport performance are intangibles that are reflected in the final result of an athlete's effort. In many respects, the mental elements of sport are the most difficult to master, as they usually require a high level of athletic experience and maturity to reach fruition. Examples abound in every sport of the supremely physically gifted athlete who is said to "choke" or "fold under pressure," because the athlete was not able to master emotions during competition. This development of athletic emotional control is capable of being examined from a number of perspectives, including intelligence, which is a valued commodity in an athlete. Logic and analytical power assists an athlete in any sport to dispassionately review where they must improve.
The ability of an athlete to self-motivate is essential to success, both in competition and training. Additionally, creativity is also an intangible that will separate the successful athletes from the merely talented. Creativity manifests itself in team games through clever or well-conceived tactics. In individual sports, creativity is often reflected through the athlete's approach to training routines.
Discipline is a factor in both practice and games. Undisciplined performance will inevitably lead to error; a failure to adhere to practice schedules by the athlete will usually result in substandard performance.
The level of alertness and mental acuity that the athlete brings to performance is a function of a number of combined factors, including physical fatigue or stresses unrelated to sport, such as personal circumstances, education, or employment pressures.
Environmental factors are rarely within the athlete's personal control; the ability of the athlete to adapt to unexpected environmental factors is often determinative of performance success. There are important environmental factors that can affect success. Playing conditions are the same for all competitors, be it the surface of an Alpine ski run, a sudden rainstorm soaking a rugby pitch, or unexpected heat in a distance race. An athlete seeking to maximize performance must not only exercise the mental control to avoid being upset by weather or the condition of a playing surface, the athlete must examine ways to make the conditions work in the positive.
Equipment will sometimes impact performance. A broken hockey stick or a baseball bat that fractures on impact in a tied baseball game can dramatically affect an outcome; deficient equipment can also take a psychological toll on an athlete. The 2006 Winter Olympics provided a remarkable example of an equipment failure becoming a motivating factor for an athlete, when Canadian cross-country skier Beckie Scott had a ski pole break during the women's relay, mentally deflating Scott and crippling her efforts. As Scott fell behind the pack, the Norwegian national director of cross-country skiing ran out to Scott and provided her with an extra pole. Scott raced ahead with renewed vigor; Canada ultimately won the silver medal.
Coaching and external support for the athlete is as important as any factor in sport performance. For young athletes, if there is not a parent or organized sport group providing direction and assistance to the aspiring competitor, success is unlikely. In certain disciplines, such as skiing or figure skating, when there are significant expenses with respect to securing practice time and specialized coaching, an athlete's opportunity to progress absent parental or other support is highly unlikely.
Coaching will impact sport performance, either positively or negatively, in two separate ways. Coaches provide the primary direction to an athlete in terms of training, tactics, nutrition, and sport technique. It is the coach who must keep current with respect to all advances in the sport. A lack of appropriate coaching direction in any of these aspects will prevent the athlete from achieving the best result. As importantly, a coach is one of the athlete's primary emotional support, due to the intensity and the immediacy of the relationship.