It can be challenging to be a sport-specific coach in amateur athletics.
Parents and athletes sign up with you, expecting that for the single coaching fee – specifically for your skill in the sport – you will also provide nutritional guidance, mental/emotional support, rehab advice, and strength and conditioning. This stems from a lack of understanding that while you may have a better-than-average knowledge base on them, they are still outside your area of expertise. While I can’t offer anything regarding nutrition, sport psychology, or rehab (as those are outside my wheelhouse), I may be able to offer some assistance in implementing a productive strength and conditioning component into your program.
First Step – Can You Outsource?
Designing a quality strength and conditioning program that matches the sport-specific training macro-phases (build, peak, taper, maintain and recover, for example), minimizes or eliminates interference between the two, and provides the athlete with performance improvements requires specific education, knowledge, time, and thoughtful planning. Therefore, the first recommendation is that, if possible, align or partner yourself with a local S&C coach and see if there’s some way for them to provide the programming. Be realistic in your expectations – bringing someone in with the requisite knowledge, experience, and programming skill to work with your athletes in person is likely to cost a minimum of $90-$100/hr. Therefore, it may be better to think a little outside the box – maybe you can set up some sort of team discount that could be applied if the athletes went TO the coach, or perhaps you can negotiate a one-time fee for a program that you can implement with your athletes yourself. While all of the options will bring an increase in expense, the latter options should be a more cost-effective solution than trying to bring in a qualified S&C coach to run the program.
That said, there are several reasons outsourcing may not work – you may not be in an area where there’s someone of adequate skill or knowledge, and maybe you don’t have the budget to outsource (parents and athletes being unwilling or unable to pay increased fees) so it ultimately falls onto you after all. If all other options are exhausted and it falls on your shoulders, there are a few guidelines that can help.
Know the Difference Between Training and “Working Out”
For a strength and conditioning session to be objectively productive, the outcome of the training must be measurable: an increase in power, strength, stamina, and/or conditioning (aka work capacity). You may work through them one after another over a period of months (consecutively) or simultaneously (concurrently) – but if you’re doing the latter, you can’t train them all at maximum intensity. Whichever method you choose to employ, there must be a mindful placement within the context of all other training – not simply throwing a bunch of exercises together because they’re “hard.”
Method is Determined by Desired Outcome
Our repetition range, load, movement complexity, and recovery time are all determined by our target results.
Power is the ability to move weight explosively and thus must be trained in rep ranges that allow the movements to maintain a rapid application of force (“Rate of Force Development”). From a movement standpoint, this could mean anything from a box jump to a barbell clean, with the number of repetitions being somewhere in the 1-3 range. There also needs to be adequate recovery for the athlete to “recharge” the energy system before going into their next set – generally 60-120s.
To work on strength, the rep range will fall somewhere in the 6-12 range, with the rest period being roughly 60s. Furthermore, there should be a progressive increase (over the duration of the program, not necessarily within the same workout or week) in the amount of weight being moved. Given this rep range, and the demand for a progressive increase in resistance/load, bodyweight training can cease providing the appropriate stimulus very quickly and therefore has a limited time frame in which it is useful. While there are options for power development that require little to no equipment, strength will require access to at least a basic gym setting once the athlete is able to complete the bodyweight movement for multiple sets of 10-15 quality repetitions.
Muscular endurance or stamina is the ability to express submaximal power or strength over an extended duration. Total repetitions per set will largely sit somewhere in the 12-25 range – though to reach the top end of those repetitions, you would probably want to consider using complexes (two or more exercises done back-to-back, often with the same equipment without a break). An example of this might be goblet squats for ten repetitions, followed up with goblet alternating reverse lunges for 5 repetitions per leg for a set total of 20 reps. Rest for the same amount of time it took to complete the complex, then repeat – and continue to do so for 6-10 sets.
Lastly, we have conditioning – which is essentially just training to improve the athletes’ capacity for work (a higher threshold for fatigue and faster recovery). This type of training puts a high level of strain on the nervous system, so it should be used sparingly and purposefully. Unfortunately, due to some misrepresentations through marketing and uneducated (or unethical) practices in the S&C world, this type of training is often viewed as the hallmark or standard of a good “workout” and therefore takes up a disproportionate amount of training time which may be better served elsewhere.
Applying the Concepts
It is important to understand that all these qualities should be trained regardless of the sport, though how much time is spent on them and the degree of intensity will depend entirely on the phase, time of year, and proximity to the competition period. Similarly, it’s important to note that strength and aerobic training, while interrelated and impactful on one another, should not be conflated in terms of training protocols. In other words, don’t try to create a direct correlation between the amount of weight or the reps the athlete is doing based on their sport (endurance athletes only do reps of 20 or more, and power athletes never go beyond five reps). In terms of making time in the program, ensure that you are not ADDING strength training onto an already overloaded schedule – rather, choose two 60 min blocks within the current training schedule and reinvest them in strength and conditioning.
Lastly – Keep in Mind that Recovery is Always an Option
Be very cognizant of the impact of cross-training in relation to sport-specific training. When the training load in the sport itself is very high, you want to limit extraneous or unnecessary fillers – hill sprints and burpees, for example, don’t offer much to a swimmer and may instead interfere with their progress in the pool. In fact, if you have an open block of training available on the schedule, you may consider making it a recovery session. Whether it’s active (yoga, foam rolling, and mobility work) or simply a mental break from training, the benefit to the athlete will be far greater than simply training hard for the sake of filling the time.