You put in work this offseason. You went to the weight room 4-5 times a week. You finished off every day running 3 miles. You fell in love with the "grind." Your season is finally here, but a week in, a thought dawns on you: "Am I actually any better?"
You aren't alone. Athletes often spend their offseason working hard to improve their game, but with no real plan to do so. They just work as hard as they can, believing that pain/suffering is a guaranteed sign of improvement. Because athletes are human, when they're not following a detailed plan, they tend to go in and mostly train what they enjoy and/or are good at. The issue is the lack of training directed toward their weaknesses.
If you are already considered very strong for your position, getting stronger may not be of much use. Spending too much time trying to get stronger may even hurt you, as it's wasting energy you could be using on more advantageous training methods. Every team has its "weight room guys." The people on the team who are incredibly strong and always amp the team up with big lifts, but who many times, are not the best players. There's a good chance these are players who fall into the trap of mainly training their strengths while largely ignoring their weaknesses.
If gaining strength should indeed be a top priority for you, are you eating enough and sleeping enough to support all your intense weight training? Botching recovery is one of the most common ways a whole lot of hard work can result in little-to-no training-induced adaptations.
It's very easy to "work hard" to get faster but not actually improve your speed. Why? Because the best way to get faster is to practice running fast, but if you're too tired to run fast because you're doing too many reps or are taking too little rest, then you're no longer achieving the speeds required to get faster. But since sprinting when we're tired hurts, many athletes believe it must be getting them faster.
There is also the athlete who runs 15-plus miles a week, despite their sport only requiring primarily short sprints (football, basketball, soccer). Painful and difficult? Sure. But if their sport isn't cross country, then they're out of luck. All that long-distance running is actually likely to have an adverse affect on their strength and power.
If you enter your offseason without a detailed plan for improvement, you're going to simply continue doing what you've always done while gravitating most to the stuff you really enjoy (which again, is almost always the stuff we're already good at).
What makes you who you are as an athlete? What are your strengths? What is holding you back from being better at your sport?
Prior to your offseason, it is often best to consult with your sport coaches as well as strength and conditioning coaches. Their feedback can help develop a rounded assessment of where you currently are as an athlete. They will catch things that you may not have otherwise. Especially your sport coaches, because they will be able to offer advice for skill and tactical development. Remember, lifting and plyometrics can only do so much if you're bad at your sport!
After evaluating yourself, you should then look to the skills and abilities that are necessary for your sport and your position in that sport. The needs for a lineman are different from those of a wide receiver, especially skill-wise. Your offseason should reflect that.
The next stage is to develop your plan for the offseason. This plan should reflect the assessments that you performed prior and can be created in conjunction with your coaches. Do you need to get stronger? Lift. Need to be faster? Sprint (and don't turn it into conditioning work). Need to get better technically? Practice specific skills and situations you know will challenge you in competition. There is obviously more nuance than that, but it is fairly simple. If you lift heavy, train your sprinting, and practice key areas of your sports (such as a wide receiver working on their ability to bring in jump balls), you'll be miles ahead of the kids who are spending their summer doing Curls in front of the mirror.
Training your strengths is fun, but it cannot be your entire training plan. It is critical that you attack whatever is holding you back from performing at a higher level. Young athletes will often put in hard work but still manage to avoid improving the one thing they'd benefit from most. If you're 30 pounds underweight for your position, and you don't gain any weight during the offseason, was it really a good use of your time?
The last stage is for you to reevaluate where you are 1-2 months into your off-season. I believe the best way to do this is to actually go out and play your sport, if possible. There are often athletes who only focus on performance tests, and while these can say a lot about how you are developing, you need to remember your performance on the field/court/etc. is far more important than your score on a test. Nobody cares about your bench max if you're riding the bench when the season comes.
You likely already know some of your own weaknesses on the field. Talking to your coaches can shed a light on what else might be lagging behind. Although we don't want to allow strengths to become weaknesses due to neglect, you can't spend your entire offseason doing nothing but solidifying your strengths and then expect real improvement the next season.
If you're willing to work hard, you already have an edge on many of your opponents. But channeling that work ethic the right way is how you truly separate yourself. Know your weaknesses, create a plan to attack them (ideally with the help of your coaches), and enter your next season truly better than you were last year.
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