Writing and implementing training programs is the majority of what we do as human performance coaches. Whether it’s your first attempt, or 25th year of crafting masterpieces, a systematic approach is paramount. Coaches often get wrapped up in the overwhelming nuances of programming, suffering from ‘paralysis by analysis’ and spinning their wheels with confusion.
This article aims to tackle that issue, serving as a checklist coaches can use to ensure they are taking necessary steps toward developing an effective performance program.
Athletes can also take advantage of this checklist to understand for their own education the intricacies of why and how a program is developed. I like to provide my athletes with as much knowledge of the program as they care to ask for because it helps with their motivation and understanding. I don’t like to overcomplicate things, but if they can walk away with a greater understanding of why things are structured accordingly, they will likely buy into the program.
1. Needs Analysis
Before punching numbers and calculating load percentages in excel you must first understand the sport for which you are programming. You need to know what kind of equipment is necessary, what the field of play is, how many positions there are, what the work-to-rest ratios are, and the duration of a typical game or match.
Furthermore, you must do you research on what energy systems the athletes use and how it may vary by position. Common injuries and risk factors must be considered as well as the sporting biomechanics and techniques athletes use daily in practice and competition. Do your research here and get all of the facts straight before putting pen to paper.
Understand how to read literature and conceptualize data presented in research studies; there are fields of information to sift through making it is easy to be misled.
Lastly, look for well-established coaches in the industry who are already working with the sport you are attempting to plan for and see what advice they can offer. The overarching themes of most strength and conditioning programs remain constant, but the subtle nuances are carefully curated by coaches over years of dedicated practice and knowledge.
Below I’ve attached a document demonstrating a rudimentary needs analysis for ice hockey. In it you can see all of the things I previously mentioned which help serve as the foundation for beginning the construction of a program.
Figures 1 and 2. Sample Needs Analysis for ice hockey
2. Movement Screens and Health History
As a coach who works with hundreds of athletes on a weekly basis in a group environment, I understand the challenges that are presented with programming for athletes who have a colorful health history or possess subpar movement competency.
If I get the chance to work with an athlete airing on the elite side of the spectrum, I can run them through the gauntlet of tests (i.e., FMS, force plate jumps analysis, y-balance reach etc.), getting more information than I can make use of, but that is rarely the case for most coaches. Instead, we are often presented with a group of young novice-to-intermediate trainees who may be getting their first exposure to a structured training environment. With these groups it’s important to lump glaring issues and needs together for efficiency because you will simply not have the time to specialize for every single person, as much as you’d like to. I often refer to this process as “bucketing.”
Have athletes fill out a health history questionnaire before the first day of training so you can adapt programming prior and work around any glaring issues. If you have front squats programmed for your first day of training but an athlete with a reconstructed ACL one month prior, you must adapt.
Next create a movement screen that you can effectively run multiple athletes through at once. If you have assistant coaches or interns who can assist in this process, even better, but always be prepared for the worst and design it so you can execute it yourself. I will typically have athletes do an Overhead Squat with a dowel, an Active Straight-Leg Raise, Hip Hinge with a dowel, Inline Lunge and Bird Dog from the floor.
The overhead squat with a dowel. Athletes should maintain a neutral spine, keep their heels on the ground, track the knees over the big toes, and keep the dowel over head in line with mid foot.
The quadruped position bird dog. Athletes should start with their hands under their shoulders, and knees under their hips. They must reach the opposite arm and leg apart attempting to get as long as possible and then touch the subsequent elbow and knee together. The spine should remain relatively neutral while reaching with now excessive extension or rotation.
Hip hinge with a dowel. Start with a soft knee bend, maintain 3 points of contact with the dowel (head, thoracic spine, lumbar spine), and maintain a neutral spine while pushing the hips back under control.
The inline lunge adapted from the Functional Movement Screen. Maintain 3 points of contact with the dowel similar to the hip hinge, keep the toes pointed forward, torso parallel with the lead shin, and front heel down as you gently bring your back knee to the middle of the board.
This is done with no more than three athletes at a time doing multiple reps for as long as I need to so that I get a quick glance at their movement competency and a chance to jot down a few notes. Most of these movements are adapted from the Functional Movement Screen, which I am a fan of, and provide me with just enough information to write a safe program for my athletes.
The key is brevity and efficiency while still getting all the answers you need. From these results, I’ll group athletes into Level 1 and Level 2, with Level 2 being progressed movements of Level 1 (e.g., Goblet Squat —> Front Squat) so that everybody is still getting the stimulus I would like them to but in a safe manner.
As a side note, rather than making this a punishment for your athletes who do not move quite well enough yet, use it as motivation for them to do their correctives and “earn” the right to do the progressions. The majority of athletes are competitors and like a little push here and there.
3. The Calendar Is Your Friend
Once you’ve established the level at which the athletes move and what exactly their sport entails, it’s time to glance at the calendar. You need to find out how much time you have with these athletes and what the critical competitions are.
This detail is HUGE and I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to understand what your timetables are. Sometimes you’re given six weeks to work with an athlete who’s training for the NFL Combine, while other times you have an Olympic athlete who can run a full quadrennial cycle before the next Olympics. Plugging arbitrary “beginner” or “advanced” strength-power programs won’t do the trick here because they have no relation to the timetable you’re dealing with.
In an ideal scenario, you’re the full-time strength and conditioning coach for a team year round with a concentrated 12-week offseason and dedicated preseason/in-season sessions. It is from here that you can string together phases of programming that progressively build off one another getting athletes ready for the season.
Once the season arrives, your work has only just begun. This is where some coaches make a big mistake in thinking they’ve done their due diligence. If you work with a sport like football who has a game every weekend for months you will need to structure the week so that you are pushing the athletes to maintain and possibly even make marginal gains on their important physical qualities as well as show up fully rested and ready to go on game day.
There are hundreds of periodization models coaches use to achieve these goals, but to address that subject an entire article would need to be dedicated to each one. The biggest piece of periodization advice I can offer is be adaptable—a plan can look great on paper but as the great Mike Tyson once said “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.”
Generally speaking, athletes will go through the following phases in a team sport setting. I emphasize GENERALLY because there are numerous ways to skin the cat.
Active Rest: Immediately after the season wraps up, athletes can take a break from structured training and focus on healing nagging injuries as well as playing recreational sports for fun. This should last somewhere in the neighborhood of two to three weeks and certainly no longer than four.
Offseason: Athletes begin structured general physical preparation (GPP) work aiming to increase their work capacity and build their stamina back up from anything they may have lost over the season plus the active rest period. This is a great time to focus on technique as well as address any glaring asymmetries and deficiencies. After an initial phase, athletes will then begin strength work and slightly increase their sport-specific conditioning, however it remains rather general. Depending on the sport, there may be greater emphasis on functional hypertrophy work as well or building greater aerobic engines.
Preseason: This is typically the most grueling training athletes see all year as the volume starts to take a decline but intensity ramps up greatly. Athletes typically begin shifting their training to a greater emphasis on power and speed if their sport demands it and do shorter more intermittent bouts of explosive conditioning. The goal is not to “peak” for the first game but to be ready for high-level competition and build enough reserve that can easily be maintained through a long season.
Season: This is most definitely the most overlooked aspect of training by athletes and sport coaches alike. Training must continue throughout the season, and athletes should still be moving heavy weights and working on power as the season progresses. Volume will be rather low but maintaining all of the hard-earned qualities through the offseason is paramount, as they decline rather quickly in the absence of training. Aiming for at least two brief 45-minute bouts during the week is enough to keep your athletes going throughout the season so long as the programming is intelligently structured. Monitoring fatigue and ensuring your workouts don’t do more harm than good is of utmost importance at this stage.
Postseason: The last phase athletes typically see in the postseason or “championship season” as I like to call it. This is where athletes have to peak and display their greatest level of performance, which can be difficult after a grueling season. If all the steps previously mentioned were followed correctly, this is certainly attainable.
You’ve done your homework and know everything about the sport, you’ve ensured you’re athletes are healthy and can move well, and you’ve even mapped out how you want to lay out your program. You’re ready to go right? Not quite.
Now you need some baseline testing numbers for your athletes.
Perhaps the most crucial part is testing. I can’t for the life of me understand how anybody begins a program without doing some sort of performance testing prior. This is how you keep your job. This is how you show athletic directors, sport coaches, parents and board members what you’re accomplishing with your athletes in the weight room by the progress you make! Of course at the highest levels (NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB) if the teams lose it doesn’t matter, you’re likely getting canned too. But tracking performance changes at least gives you some ammunition. If you don’t track where your athletes start, how do you know if your program is working?
Testing should reflect the needs analysis you previously conducted and assess the key performance indicators. It’s rather unimportant to test a team of female soccer players’ 1RM Bench Press every month as their most important qualities are repeated sprint ability, lower-body strength and VO2max.So choose wisely.
I’m a major advocate of multipoint compound movements for testing, but you must ensure the ones you select have some correlation to performance for your athletes.
Set up testing dates that you know all of your athletes can make and as many coaches/assistants as possible can assist so things run smoothly. Educate your athletes on the testing protocols and make the recorded data easily digestible for coaches to comprehend. Lastly keep track of everything, set intelligent test dates within each training season, and most importantly do something with the data. Nothing is worse than coaches who gather a tremendous amount of data but do nothing with it.
5. Writing the Program—Finally
You’ve checked all the previous boxes and now you’re finally ready to put together a program—congrats! This is where it gets really fun and the artistic side of coaches can come out.
Programs from a daily perspective should contain a warm up, coordination/neuromuscular facilitation and speed work (this includes plyos when appropriate), compound multi-joint strength and power movements, accessory work, and cool-down corrective and remedial work all in this order.
From a weekly or microcycle perspective there should be targeted high-intensity and lower-intensity days addressing every movement necessary. From a monthly or mesocycle perspective there should be undulating volume and intensity that builds into the next phase. From a macrocycle or multiple-months perspective, we simply refer back to what we talked about in the calendar section.
Once you begin building your routine you have to first consider the number of days you’re allotted each week with your team. From there you will disperse the number of movements, reps and sets across each given training week to most efficiently and effectively make use of the time.
Based on the given training week in relation to the grand scheme of the program, you will determine load/intensity for each movement and appropriate rest intervals. It’s important to calculate daily, weekly and monthly volume loads to know where you are trending with your program so things don’t get out of hand.
In addition to the strength training, you must intelligently program conditioning work so that it complements what you are both doing in the weight room and with what the athletes are doing on the practice field. My favorite method for mapping out daily, weekly and monthly volume numbers is the book “The System” by authors Johnny Parker, Al Miller, Rob Panariello and Jeremy Hall. They give excellent recommendations on volume and intensity for novice to advanced athletes as well as tables that break it all down. I’ve provided a small snippet of a given training week’s volume broken down by session and movement I created myself:
Figure 3. Weekly and daily volume broken down using ‘The System’s’ method
The last piece to the entire puzzle is implementation, making sure the program actually works.
I believe there is no better way to ensure your program works than running through it yourself. It is through this process where you can tweak finer details and ensure your program runs smoothly. The last place you ever want to find out that your program is a dud is when your athletes are going through it for the first time. Being prepared is a part of the profession, and providing a program that you know will work gives you the confidence to execute.
Although these steps may seem rather tumultuous and time-consuming, they are necessary to ensure athletes are getting the highest level of programming possible for success. As coaches we need to understand that our job is labor intensive and must be treated with care and charisma. Most of us love what we are doing, so while not easy, this is certainly tons of fun.
Obviously there is even greater detail that goes into programming than what I’ve outlined above, but my hope is that you’ve gain an understanding for the steps one must take and can use this as a platform to create sound programs.
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