By Carl Valle
The promise and hype surrounding individualized training is increasing and with every new revelation in sport science comes the false promise that customizing a variable will deliver better results. Genetic testing, speed and power profiling, and the advances in brain science expose many ways to fine-tune athletes. In this article, I share the options available that are effective and offer a practical, realistic strategy to determine how much personalized training is right for your athletes.
The Difference Between Individualization and Athlete Profiling
Decades ago, coaches instinctively knew that training was about finding a plan to help an athlete improve for their event or sport. Observation and experience helped coaches see the patterns and commonalities that surfaced and repeat them with the next group of athletes. This process is one reason sport evolves. Athletes also are a key part of this process and many demand attention and adjustments to training based on what they feel and experience. Fostering this interaction and communication can help improve training results.
“A teacher is never too smart to learn from his pupils. But while runners differ, basic principles never change. So it’s a matter of fitting your current practices to fit the event and the individual. See, what’s good for you may not be worth a damn to the next guy.”—Bill Bowerman
Individualization today, however, is spiraling out of control in some fields while it’s dragging slowly in others. For an analogy, consider the hundreds of craft beer options available that offer subtle differences to cover the needs of a particular customer for a particular meal. Gene therapy and personalized medicine are gaining more interest in healthcare, but still nearly half of the US population is overweight from poor lifestyle choices.
In sports performance, the growing interest in tailoring every variable as much as possible is like building a Formula 1 car. It’s today’s trend, which is great to see, and I’m cautiously optimistic. There are some coaches who rush or overlook individualization or assume profiling means just testing athletes and placing them into categories. And many good ideas don’t deliver results because they are not executed properly or the vision is shortsighted.
Unlike other articles where I share my personal definition or someone else’s when laying the ground rules, this time I share the intent of each term.
- Individualization matches the right workout with the right athlete based on their entire human composition.
- Profiling is the assessment of an athlete to reveal what the coach should exploit and what the coach should not tamper with (the lesser known approach) for future training.
The actual application of customization from the proper assessment is a necessary pairing for workouts to thrive. The better the profiling, the easier the individualization, and the more individualization one does will feed into the next approach to profiling. Coaches are always tweaking and adjusting their programs. A great coach improves their system by comparing the feedback from profiling to the results of individualized training.
Is Individualized Training Overrated or Misunderstood?
In sports training everything is overrated. Technically speaking, it’s the worst investment one can make. As athletes progress, homeostasis becomes very stubborn. They have to give a pound of flesh in hopes of getting an ounce of gold in return. Risk and return also become more important, and options to further their development become fewer. Individualized training plays a bigger role as an athlete advances. With youth sports, it matters less because time and exposure can dramatically improve developing athletes.Individualized training becomes more important as an athlete advances. Click To Tweet
The practical considerations of individualized training are group size, coach-to-athlete ratios, and the goals for the session. It’s great to want personal attention and custom workouts. The stark reality is that when practices are game rehearsals, the opportunities for individual training are few and far between. Overrated may sound harsh, but no matter how great the potential something shows in a study, its true value lies in whether it can be replicated in other environments.
One particular area of confusion concerns the impact of genetics and learning styles on training. Plenty of research explains that non-responders, those who don’t seem to adapt to training, is a reflection of poor profiling and appropriate loading. Individualization along with correct and early profiling may help identify why an athlete needs a much different workout or only a minor adjustment to a general program. Time is the most precious commodity, and coaches can remove unnecessary learning curves by properly evaluating their athletes’ current abilities and how they are likely to respond to workouts.Too much focus on customization leads to diminishing returns. Click To Tweet
Coaches have been very frustrated with a poor success rate after customizing a workout. On paper it makes sense that more granularity would be more effective. Attention to detail and marginal gains are noble causes, but big primary variables usually do most of the work. Focusing too much on customization is a path to diminishing returns.
The idea of placing athletes into different “buckets” based on characteristics is convenient and sometimes effective, but scaling athlete training isn’t a good idea since the human element is volatile and ever-changing. Locking athletes into categories or groups of similar characteristics is incomplete. It’s better to accept we are dealing with a group of N=1 projects.
When is Individualization Unnecessary or Counterproductive?
Two concepts I write about repeatedly (and a little too much) are the F-V profile and athlete loading. While it seems appropriate to address an athlete who is a little weak or slow, there are times when things should be left alone. When a coach focuses on improving the total athlete, they can look past the temptation to look for four-leaf clovers and pots of gold and see that the core principles should do the trick.
Many times individualization, like specialized loading, is counterproductive and can cause injury or training stagnation. Many coaches, myself included, would assess athletes, looking for strengths and weaknesses. It does sound reasonable to identify areas that need development. But if we don’t do this perfectly, the timing and amount of effort we put in can have severe consequences.
Without sounding like someone coming down the mountain with ideas and discoverers from a meditative experience, I have found a lot of good information by looking at past experiences and the guidance of my mentors. Every time I believed my situation was special and advice was too bland or unique, I felt the wrath of humbling failure from stubbornly moving forward with something that was inappropriate even though it looked good on paper. While the following are not ten commandments, they are written in blood, meaning an injury or problem occurred that haunts my memory.
- The unity of similarities is very powerful for the team, but so is the balance of self-expression. Coaches will need to know when it’s better to treat athletes as part of a tribe rather than treating everyone like special snowflakes and allowing them to live by their own rules.
- Sometimes profiling is great in theory but it turns out applying the information is not smart. For example, athletes may need to be more elastic and stiff, but their body types or anatomical features intervene and become a bane to the athlete. When prescribing training, the irony is that more personalization is the antidote to the poison.
- General training reduces overuse syndromes while personalization is sometimes overly specialized. Indirect general activities reduce the piling-on-versus-complementing struggle that Boo Schexnayder often talks about in his presentations. Systemic work may not be as effective as individualized options, but they tend to keep athletes away from the medical office.
- Athletes need to earn individualized training. Those who don’t learn the foundation exercises will not be prepared for advanced training later. Individualized training can be simple but, like anything that progresses, complexity and intensity create more demand.
- Monitoring naturally individualizes loads along with biofeedback strategies like velocity based training and heart rate tracking. We should partly base individualized pans on profiling.
- Orthopedic evaluation ensures joint movements are congruent with a person’s anatomy. We should prioritize longevity when we individualize an athlete’s training plan. In the future, profiling biological tissue will advance, and joint architecture, which is on the forefront, will increase the accuracy of a conventional clinical examination.
General physical training with specific psychological coaching sounds like an antagonistic combination, but they work perfectly for nearly all levels. Fundamental movements are the foundation for youth training and are still relevant at the professional level. Athletes may have similar needs from global coordination demands, but how they learn and respond to instruction often requires personalization.
It’s better to coach up a general program from instruction and management on the floor or field than to invest too much time personalizing a program. What makes a coach valuable is the human side of coaching, not the algorithms used to select precise loads and more appropriate conditioning programs. The combination of solid and straightforward planning and programming coupled with excellent instruction is truly a synergy—not an either-or option.
How to Individualize Training and Recovery
Training systems exist on a continuum starting at the most general yet still useful to the extreme with customization down to the smallest part. Recovery is often subjective and linked to the perception of the athlete’s personal view of load and rest and can be estimated from physiological monitoring and wellness questionnaires. How much individualization is reasonable? And when does it stop creating value and turn into an overwhelming administrative nightmare? These are logical questions.
While the entire process of individualizing the athlete’s workload and recovery pattern is intriguing, we must seriously question how to accomplish these using practices that are nearly the antithesis of personalization.
Individualized training is similar to the concept of microdosing speed and power training during a heavy competitive schedule—it’s about finding effective and repeatable opportunities. Team sport training often focuses on adding conditioning or customizing the weight room. Rehabilitation is the most common personalization process, and several shrewd players know how to game the system by using the privilege of calling the shots on loading.Individualized training is about finding effective and repeatable opportunities. Click To Tweet
Three unified decision modes often used with custom training are competitive usage rate, the preparation level, and the athlete’s recovery signature. Biological and psychological uniqueness varies with athletes, but over time many consistent patterns emerge. One example is the athlete who is misunderstood for appearing lazy but then works hard in the offseason because they trust the expertise of their private coach. Another example is the talented pampered athlete who plays in games and barely practices because at every level they progressed through, winning was more important than development.
Potent—Individualized training gets the last drop out of an athlete, not early gains in performance. A case for not individualizing training comes when athletes are new to training and just need to elevate skills and foundational abilities. The advantages gained from individualized training occurs when a hole or gap exists, when athletes are genetic outliers, or when the environment restricts options that limit development. These include facility, time, expertise, or equipment. The best opportunities usually jump from the profiling done early in the season or career.
Clear—A training program that includes multiple and different training variables will create a composition that is heterogeneous and very difficult to augment at high levels. It’s not that concurrent training is noise, as athletes can improve performance simultaneously with different modalities, it’s just that maximal output becomes more difficult as the athlete progresses. To improve outcomes, the training units must send simple, direct, and clear messages. This could come from frequency or extended time periods of training. Sometimes prioritizing individualized training during the week or session is enough to make a difference.
Targeted—Sequence is the least talked about variable in training. Coaching progressions is not about increasing demands. Progression means understanding how a human body improves with or without guidance. Many qualities fall into place with specificity and time, so it’s better to prepare for the rigors of training; don’t only focus on ways to move the needle in performance. Durability decreases when absolute performance increases. When programs artificially drive output beyond appropriate levels, the SAID principle breaks down just like an athlete does. Knowing when and where to pick your battles is important.
Precise—Biofeedback is a natural and automated individualized opportunity for coaches. Doing anything in training that gives qualitative or quantitative feedback will make loading and learning more precise. Simple things like sets and reps and durations of workouts are no-brainer options for coaches wanting to ensure each athlete does what’s best for them so they can be their best for the team.
Non-Contraindicated—Exercises or workouts that don’t jive with an athlete’s body sometimes need to be eliminated, regressed, or adjusted to achieve the goal. Some athletes simply don’t respond well to specific activities. It’s important to discover why and look for options, not to train around the problem. Sometimes small adjustments will allow the athlete to continue the training, but use caution when bias creeps into the training design.
Strength training is the most common area where performance coaches tackle individualization. As motor learning and education permeates into the team coaching, we will see even greater results from individualization. But we should take advantage of opportunities only when they don’t interfere with the team’s goals, when longer development is required, and to invest in the future.
How to Balance Personalized Training with Team Training
I have made all the mistakes applying individualization incorrectly in both team and Olympic sport. Most of the errors came from my rush to fix an athlete’s weak links or problems. Holistic and patient planning will resolve many problems by making athletes globally better. We should only use interventions and invalidation when an opportunity is truly available.
Regardless of whether a sport involves a team or an individual, group dynamics will influence how athletes improve or fail. Personalization is not easy to scale and sometimes isn’t necessary. Carefully balance the leveraging of the benefits of a group or tribe with an individual’s specific requirements to advance performance. It’s more of an art than a science. There are some great guidelines on how to apply loads based on assessment and profiling. But many of the benefits of team training, like camaraderie and motivation, counter the benefits of personalized training.Benefits of team training—like camaraderie & motivation—counter the benefits of custom training. Click To Tweet
Theoretically as athletes grow and develop from youth to elite, individualization becomes more important as output and risk increase. To sustain excellence or improve further, athletes will need workouts that are more tailored. Or elite athletes may need more general options to counter dense and extended competition schedules. Applying individualized training can be complicated.
I suggest taking a polarized approach to team and individual needs, where athletes enjoy the benefits of being part of something as well as custom workouts or tweaked sessions that adjust to their needs. Many organizational benefits exist from team training. The military is perhaps the best example of scaling instruction and development. But their injury crisis is widely documented in the medical research.
Several coaches suggest everyone do the same workout because it prevents poor chemistry. While this is sometimes true, the approach to invalidation doesn’t need to be extreme where everyone is completely different. The elephant in the room is often the calendar of games to be played and the time allocated by the sport’s governing body, collective bargaining agreement, and simple qualification needs.A private coach must manage an athlete’s personality and training tastes. Click To Tweet
In the offseason, athletes usually find a private coach because they crave personal attention and are smart enough to know that they may respond better to options tailored to their preferences. I’ve learned from experience that a private coach must manage an athlete’s personality and training tastes and apply strategies that will truly make them better.
Coaching perspectives are similar to those from the Vietnam era when dealing with “volunteer army” and “drafted soldiers.” Team sport is a draft where the athletes have no control over who coaches them. The private sector is the opposite, where an athlete volunteers their efforts and finds a coach with whom they want to work. Comparing the two is not fair as athlete buy-in is different with professional teams and colleges as well as with private sector and team environments.
When auditing your program, find time periods when athletes can self-select and self-experiment, so they feel they are part of the process instead of existing in a top-down only flowchart. Individualization is not just for coaches to decide, athletes can help during the entire process. They are the physical artists in sport and love to express themselves.
Expectations and Realistic Experiences
Don’t believe that increasing individualized training will turn a donkey into a racehorse. If, however, you do have a thoroughbred, a personalized approach will make a difference. Most of my experience is with crowd control in high school and private coaching a single or handful of athletes. Experiencing these extremes helped me realize the limits to how much a custom training plan can do. It’s worth addressing but not worth losing sleep over.
Making an honest effort to ensure training is logical and safe for each athlete is a fair way to invest our time and energy in programming and planning. Going beyond the call of duty occasionally is necessary for some athletes. But the unnecessary burdens from going to extremes burns out many coaches and disappoints athletes. Simple experimentation and trial and error will usually reveal how much individualization is good for your program.