Apart from raw talent and technical abilities, success in team sports requires athletes to have the necessary physical capacities to compete at a high level (e.g., sufficient levels of strength, endurance, power, speed, etc.). One physiological variable that has a tremendous impact on each of these physical qualities is body composition. This includes body fat percentage and fat free mass. Higher levels of body fat on an athlete can have detrimental effects on qualities like speed, agility, and endurance. Excess body weight from fat tissue essentially slows you down. Imagine competing with a 10lb weight vest and you’ll quickly see how performance can be effected. On the other hand, for athletes like throwers and football lineman, a little extra body fat may contribute to absolute strength which is an essential quality needed for athletes involved in constantly battling external forces (e.g., opponents, objects, etc.). An individual’s ideal body composition likely depends on the sport in question as well as their specific playing position.
A recent study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research by Collins et al (2014) evaluated the effects of body composition on pre-season performance testing in 54 collegiate-male field lacrosse players. Each athlete participated in an identical 8-week pre-season strength and conditioning program. Following the pre-season training, athletes underwent performance evaluations that included a 1 rep max power clean, body-weight bench press test for reps and parallel bar triceps dips to fatigue. Following a 3 hour break, the athletes were then tested on anaerobic and aerobic conditioning via two 300 m shuttles and a 1 mile run, respectively. Body composition was evaluated in each individual via air displacement plethysmography (Bod-Pod). The results showed that increased body fat levels were associated with poorer performance on both the aerobic and anaerobic conditioning tests. In addition, higher body fat levels related to lower bodyweight endurance (triceps dips), but not for external resistance (bench press). Fat free mass was associated with a stronger 1RM power clean, but not with any of the other variables.
Based on the results, the authors recommend that in addition to strength and power being emphasized in training, positive changes in body composition should also be prioritized through conditioning and nutritional interventions. It appears that higher body fat levels contribute to faster on-set of fatigue during aerobic and intermittent type activities. Given the nature of team sports which require high levels of relative strength, agility, speed and endurance, it is clear that body composition becomes an important factor for coaches to consider. Coaches must also carefully consider how they will approach body composition issues with athletes. Achieving lower body fat levels needs to be done safely and therefore monitored closely. Eating disorders and unsafe weight-loss protocols become potential concerns. An effective training program with sound nutritional education can hopefully make the desired changes.
Collins, S. M., Silberlicht, M., Perzinski, C., Smith, S., & Davidson, P. (2014). The Relationship between Body Composition and Preseason Performance Tests of Collegiate Male Lacrosse Players. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Ahead of print.