By Carl Valle
If you are a strength and conditioning coach, and you write workouts for athletes, it’s likely you use a software system to construct training sessions. If this is the case, you may also be one of the many coaches frustrated by the slow progress of that same software over the years, as it has not kept pace with the demands of the profession.The heart and soul of coaching is a combination of teaching and training, and designing the workouts in an efficient and effective manner is everything, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
In this article, I cover my own personal experiences working for and with software companies in the sports performance space. While this may not the most exciting topic to read or write about, it’s perhaps the most important one coaches should consider because it connects to how you spend your time. If you create workouts to analyze your training, eventually you have to write down and record what you are doing. The heart and soul of coaching is a combination of teaching and training, and designing the workouts in an efficient and effective manner is everything.
How Software Affects Your Job and Your Athletes
Coaches today face a daily struggle because we often don’t have the right tools or sufficient time to do our jobs. Team and strength coaches have a lot of responsibilities (growing demands) that are not directly related to designing training, such as recruiting and budgeting. If writing a workout is tedious and difficult to scale, results get compromised.
Numerous software companies that provide online strength and conditioning exist, such as BridgeAthletic, TrainHeroic, and TeamBuildr, to name a few. New options such as PLT4M and Rack Performance are viable and offer similar advantages. Volt and MaxOne are growing as well, and they are trying to replace Microsoft Excel and subscription-style coaching plans. Here are some examples of what coaches face today with software:
- Coaches still use Excel, mainly because it’s very flexible and free, but it’s a colossal burden.
- Most teams that use barbell tracking tools need multiple products to integrate data, and this is labor-intensive.
- Monitoring is a major responsibility of coaches now, and while most software programs have these features, athlete compliance is low.
- Companies that make online strength and conditioning software tend to have issues with product improvement because they are not profitable enough to hire a sufficient number of developers.
- If a company does have money from investments, they pursue fitness or health care and kick sports to the curb, but still have a product for marketing.
- Engineers usually make software for other software engineers, not coaches, and you see many companies copying each other.
All of the above matters because the end user is typically a private facility or scholastic coach trying to get home at the end of the day to see their family, but instead ends up spending their free time writing workouts. Some coaches wing it or dumb down their program because they know they can simply coach up their limited workout and they would rather have a life. Several companies brag about how fast they can build a workout or how much time they save, but if that were true, we wouldn’t see so many coaches complaining online or using printouts.
I was inspired to write this by the poor innovation and lack of vision of a few of the companies in the market. Coaches have voiced their frustrations and concerns, and I wanted to start a serious dialogue. Instead of just complaining or criticizing, I have made an effort to help the entire profession by saying what needs to be said versus cheering on the industry to keep the charade going. If companies don’t listen, they will find themselves disrupted by a wave of new companies that understand the needs of the coaches who are in the trenches.
If you are in sports and design training programs, this article helps build upon this buyer’s guide for AMS software and addresses the strength side of things more. Not only will this review share my personal opinions, but it will get into what coaches want for their dollar by giving real examples that must be discussed.
What Is the Difference Between Training Software and Management Software?
Before I get into the nitty-gritty, I want to start by explaining that online strength and conditioning software helps you write workouts and athlete management systems are more about monitoring and tracking athletes. The gray area is truly messy, as some online software that specializes in writing workouts sometimes includes wellness questions.
Once a product includes subjective indicators and body charts, they are now part of the AMS space, like it or not.
For example, the Titan Sensor, an athlete tracking system, includes wellness questionnaires and even a hydration tracker. Are they a GPS sensor or light AMS product? TrainHeroic has a solid questionnaire as well, but I still categorize them as an online strength and conditioning product. CoachMePlus is especially strong with data management and integrates with countless hardware and information providers, but they don’t have a product that, if sold separately, would win the strength and conditioning software battle.A good strength and conditioning product with a complementary suite of testing and monitoring tools can develop an athlete better than just workout software, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
It is disturbing that a single feature of one company still outperforms smaller players that only specialize in strength and conditioning software. In CoachMePlus’s defense, the system is widely used to deliver workouts with pro teams, so it’s good enough for most needs but comparable to the competition. I would make an argument that a good strength and conditioning product with a complementary suite of testing and monitoring tools can develop an athlete better than just workout software, though. Remember, the weight room is everything to a strength coach. If you don’t do anything with the practice load and recovery side, it’s likely your program is compromised at best.
Several companies, such as BridgeAthletic and TeamBuildr, can connect to AMS products such as Smartabase and EDGE10. “Connecting,” however, is just another way to say that some of the information from training is moved over into a digital filing cabinet—but coaches want synergy! Translating and transporting data is not very useful unless it provides added-value features such as building composite charts and custom reporting that is important for doing your job. In summary, both markets work together by moving data, but if it’s not back and forth and adding assistance to do your job better, it is just dumping information into a black hole.
Microsoft Excel – The Black Eye of the Profession
Most coaches still write workouts using an Excel template, and it’s still likely 90% of the market population. Sometimes coaches use Microsoft Word or PowerPoint to write workouts, and I still see handwritten cards and dry erase whiteboards as well. It’s not great out there for the majority of coaches, and if you were to summarize the current standard of coaching software, the following conclusion is grim.
To further illustrate the sad state of affairs, brilliant coaches are forced to use software that is likely meant for budgeting a family vacation to train the most advanced athletes in the world.
Sure, we have options today with high school and college teams, specifically TeamBuildr and TrainHeroic, but the majority of coaches still write and print workouts for athletes. The good news is that coaches are starting to use BridgeAthletic, CoachMePlus, or even AthleteMonitoring.com to create workouts. Now PUSH is growing with teams due to their software improvements and hardware changes, specifically the move to directly measure barbell speed instead of using a wrist band. With other options such as TrueCoach and Rack Performance entering the market, the space is getting crowded with different options but not evolving fast enough for better options. I love the fact the market is growing, but competition has yet to foster real innovation.The space is getting crowded with different options but not evolving fast enough for better options. I love that the market is growing, but competition has yet to foster real innovation. Click To Tweet
Coaches have repurposed Excel and Google Sheets to customize their workouts for years, and while this is a great sign of resourcefulness, most of the external attempts to design workouts have not caught fire. Several vendors have come and gone, and some companies like Volt are more subscriptions to on-demand programs than actual software for coaches. Thus, the market has stagnated because the bar was low to start with. I have used Excel to write workouts and stayed loyal to the software after seeing some amazing constructs from individual coaches. Small companies such as Excel Training Designs have succeeded in selling templates, indicating the market still relies on spreadsheet software.
The freedom to make something the way we think is the allure of Excel, and that is why most of the software today struggles to surpass spreadsheet applications. One difficulty in innovating is the massive requirement of actually maintaining software. Don’t fault companies for just trying to keep the status quo happy.
Then we have to think about the resources needed to actually sell the product to coaches, which is a major cost when companies compete against something that is virtually free. To summarize their plight, companies have to really succeed in making something special if they want to appeal to a coach who may be able to use something that is practically given away. The issue is that Excel was never meant to be a strength and conditioning software solution for coaches, and we maxed out its potential long ago.Excel was never meant to be a strength and conditioning software solution for coaches, and we maxed out its potential long ago, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
The largest obstacle most companies struggle with is an equivalent standard to model from. Nearly all the platforms for building online strength and conditioning software have been to replace the limitations of Excel and have it function as a spreadsheet replacement. This is a mistake though, as the saying, “you are only as good as your enemy,” is completely wrong when the three-headed dragon is not a real strength and conditioning product.
While great talents in other professions are supported by award-winning products, teams are faced with solutions that are one standard deviation from what you would use to do payroll.
Excel is amazing, but as an application for creative minds, it is not good enough to take workouts to the next level. If John Mayer uses GarageBand and a composer uses Finale, where is the equivalent for strength coaches? I have asked that for years, and usually I hear “massive exercise libraries” or “we have an app on Android and iOS.” Again, it’s very disappointing, but I understand where they are coming from.
If you were to get one takeaway from this article, it would be this question: How does the software tap into the brilliance of coaches who transform athletes every day with their talents? Maybe a better way to say it is, how are coaches programming better and improving their craft, rather than pointing and clicking? True, being more efficient matters, but that’s a starting point and not a finish. Coaches need to be more effective, not just save time writing a program because they spend hours loading workouts or videos.
My Experience Working with the Performance Software Market
Because of numerous NDAs, I cannot get into details that are private regarding the online strength and conditioning space, but I will share what can help the entire market. I will focus on obvious and general issues faced by the majority of coaches, mainly strength and conditioning professionals. As a coach who has done both track and field and strength and conditioning, I will reflect on the most important milestone from decades ago—Gary Winckler’s TrainingDesign Pro. For me, this threw the gauntlet down in the 1990s, but it was too far ahead of its time.
Anyone under the age of 40 is computer native, while those under 30 are fully immersed in the digital world. Back then, though, having a computer was optional. If you wanted a ride and you had enough change in your pocket, you hoped that the payphone would connect to a friend. Now the new normal is smartphones and sensor technology, but the training is still sprinting, jumping, lifting, and throwing. While the technology world has evolved, humans are basically the same as they were last century.
This is important because if we don’t have a reference point for what was available long ago, we can’t compare it to what is hopefully improved today. Technology usually iterates; rarely does an actual innovation occur. I created training software using Hypercard in 1994, yet today I don’t see much difference outside of smartphones and cloud storage.
The combination of strength and conditioning professional, creative artist, and software programmer is rare. When you see a team of software developers, the stereotype is that they like to play video games and eat junk food while watching science fiction movies, not compare their clean or deadlift numbers. Some programmers like Eric Blue have made huge advances in the sports technology space and are unknown, but most are coding to pay the rent, not to turn a college athlete into an Olympic champion. Thus, the biggest problem with software development is that most of the “makers” are not creating for themselves, but for faceless customers. A well-intentioned developer is still not likely to be a former strength and conditioning coach with a talent for writing workouts.The biggest problem with software development is that most of the “makers” don’t create for themselves and are not likely to be former S&C coaches with a talent for writing workouts. Click To Tweet
Even worse, some very low-level programmers who have a sports training background and “think” they are great at designing workouts and know sport science are leading the charge. It’s hardly the same as building software to be used internally for high stakes performance. When teams or national governing bodies create their own software, they put more skin in the game because they take all the responsibility for their future. Buying software built for everyone is sometimes a curse, because every customer who spends a dollar has a vote, and not all customers should be voting if they are not the best at their craft. With capitalism, the customer who can pay forces the hand of the developers, so we as coaches are sometimes at fault for what we see.
I have made countless recommendations that companies either rapidly leveraged or mistakenly ignored. Honestly, I am fine with companies not listening to criticism, but if they cannot make changes because of development costs, they need to be honest about it. The management leader or company founder who posts that they listen to their customers is the same person who brings up the Henry Ford quote about faster horses the next day on social media.
Does Your Software Company Have a Vision?
Nearly all the companies in this article have a leader or founder, and most are former programmers or interested in sports in some capacity. If the vision for the product doesn’t have a compelling goal of where the company and software need to be, you will not see a viable product pipeline, only a product that moves the needle. Some companies have surprised me in many ways, such as PUSH.
PUSH’s CEO, Rami Alhamad, built a company from scratch, and I enjoy talking to him (and technically, SimpliFaster competes with him, by the way). Most people would be surprised that I like PUSH’s vision, as they have executed on several fronts to make important parts of their product come alive. True, they have had some bumps and bruises with their monitoring and CrossFit projects, but for the most part, each year their product actually improved and got better. Their hardware still needs refinement because it’s accelerometer-driven, but as a company, they are executing on a lot of fronts. They were originally a VBT wearable; now they are more of a software provider and should be considered a dark horse in the space down the road. It’s not that they pivoted, it’s just Rami likely had a vision that made sense to the customer. Create an actual full turnkey solution for coaches, not just a wearable or app.Integration is not moving data from one server to another server, it’s having a coordinated effort to help coaches get more out of the process, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Conversely, it’s been really frustrating for other VBT hardware vendors that make great products, as the software has not made integration come alive. It’s currently just a way to move barbell data from hardware into the cloud or add a weak chart on a dashboard. Integration is not moving data from one server to another server, it’s having a coordinated effort to help coaches get more out of the process. The third-party leaderboards and reports I have seen with GymAware and Bar Sensei have left me disillusioned, and new systems that are available are now forced to wait for everyone else to catch up to PUSH and Kinetic Performance.
Hewitt Tomlin is the CEO and co-founder of TeamBuildr, and I give him credit for building a great brand while promoting inexpensive software for the largest market, high school coaches. Not only is TeamBuildr’s product affordable, sports teams in the professional ranks have adopted it because of the simplicity of the software and its ability to get the job done. I have seen them grow over many years, but due to their company structure, most of the development has been to ensure the product continues to function properly rather than to make program design better. I can’t fault them, as they have a very good piece of software, but to grow they need more adoption from the market or to raise their prices.
One of the pitfalls of not taking investment money is the slow organic growth that often doesn’t outpace the needs of coaches. If you don’t grow fast enough, you can die. The good news is that the competition hasn’t really taken advantage of TeamBuildr’s perceived limitations. In fact, I would make a case that they are likely to weather a storm better than larger companies with investors, as they don’t have to grow quickly to be solvent. It’s a catch-22, meaning you need money to make the product better, but if you take money from venture capitalists, sometimes the money gets spent on marketing rather than evolving the software.
Ben Crookston, VP of Product Development for TrainHeroic, opened my eyes to the challenges of product development and the enormous burden of trying to keep the revolving doors from spinning too fast with employees leaving. Software developers and content marketing talents are in demand, so half the battle for companies is managing human resources, not managing code. Keeping a team motivated and supported is very difficult when employees are constantly checking their LinkedIn account for the next big job. Every software company is dealing with the revolving door, leading to the continual ordeal of trying to develop a product when talent comes and goes. Coaches who complain about the lack of development or poor feature lists need to consider the demands of running a business, and I feel for companies like TrainHeroic that are stuck in limbo.The mark of a successful product is to see the future but solve for today, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
The mark of a successful product is to see the future but solve for today. Everyone loves the idea of being a visionary, but if you don’t present solutions for the current problems faced by coaches, you are building for a population or community that doesn’t really exist yet. Still, not having a plan for the future usually results in coaches investing too much time and effort into something that becomes obsolete. Every coach should think about having a moving box and a process to switch to another option, as investing too much into a stagnant program will place their own creative abilities in jeopardy.
Features of Strength and Conditioning Software That Need Upgrading
If you were to do a price and feature comparison of products, you would see a lot of overlap. Plenty of companies have accused each other of “ripping off features,” but the truth of the matter is most of the tools make the product function. Having an exercise library is convenient, but it’s expected and is only a starting point. One repetition max calculators or tracking are the lowest forms of automation, and coaches need something more intelligent.
Bridge has really put a lot of solid effort into the automation realm of their product, but it wasn’t easy. Sales staff and marketing departments claim many new solutions, but when I did a lot of digging, I found that a lot of it is just advertising old concepts and not true development. Pushing out workouts on an app just leverages existing technology on the cloud and stays current with the standards of today—it’s not real progress.
Having a workout display on a flat screen or tablet in the weight room is, frankly, nothing to brag about. Yes, some software is nicer looking than others (UI), but functions need to reflect essentials, not just be bells and whistles. Sometimes small features that add a little sizzle are nice for user engagement and companies are doing a great job with messaging and video sharing. Athletes want to be entertained, but basics must be rock-solid, or the fluff just ends up not being worth it at the end of the day.
The ability to design, monitor, and modify workouts on the fly is the name of the game. Some companies do a great job with a handful of features, but all of us have a small hand in making it better. My biggest request with the current offerings is that companies make the products even more intuitive, so that they go beyond the level of satisfactory.
All of the companies can construct a workout, but none of the software products are fluid enough to serve as a metaphorical paintbrush for coaches. Excel is popular because what you see on the screen follows what will be printed, but pen and paper is slowly being phased out because inputting data after a session is not a great use of a coach’s time. A coach needs to construct a workout, record how the workout performed, and repeat what worked later if they are satisfied with the direction of the training. This process is especially challenging because the workout is not the entire picture; hence, the value of having other data sets such as monitoring and player-tracking data.
One vendor is currently heavily promoting that their product can be used on a tablet, yet most of its features don’t leverage the actual touchscreen beyond navigation. Another example is the need to capture videos and import them into a repository, a function where most companies simply turn their product into a Dropbox or digital filing cabinet instead of integrating with Dartfish and other leading products. Many features of the software technically work fine, but good enough is not good enough when all of the tools don’t add up to something special. Coaches must either suffer through the chore of printing out cards and manually entering data or live with software that is functional enough but not transformative to the profession.
A Better Future Requires Constructive Criticism
Honest and productive communication requires clear recommendations that are truly better than what the product offers. Complaining without giving a solid reason is just a waste of time and doesn’t help the community of coaches. Be demanding, but don’t bully the companies by becoming high maintenance. Focus on priorities and, over time, companies will evolve.
Remember: We need to support the companies with positive criticism, because as a profession we will soon be required to use online strength software like electronic health records. If you find yourself using workarounds to do your job, then the tools you have are not actually working well enough. We need to support companies by building relationships that are based on promises and transparent pipelines and fund them with loyalty and referrals.If you find yourself using workarounds to do your job, then the tools you have are not actually working well enough, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
I have a laundry list of recommendations for software companies, but here are six that are excellent starting points.
- Add intelligence to the modular blocks of training so coaches have a real virtual assistant. We still tend to send workouts and hope our colleagues save us from ourselves.
- As much as possible, integrate hardware that improves testing and training. It’s not just VBT that needs to connect, it’s all of the necessary measurements.
- Inject real sport science into the tools, don’t just chase convenient metrics that are easy to calculate, such as a one repetition max calculator. High schools are using force plates now, and in five years the new standard will be more advanced.
- Make the product sticky so athletes want to use it instead of making it good enough to have them willing to use it. Athletes will get sick of monitoring by the time they are out of high school, if they are even filling out the questionnaires.
- Add more fluidity to programming with a better user experience on touch screens and go beyond drag-and-drop functions.
- Recruit talent from larger companies as consultants to apply best-in-class design so the product is more robust and intuitive.
The current market for online strength and conditioning software is just good enough to function, but unless the entire software industry emulates the innovations coming out of the strength and conditioning market, we will be stuck using the “good enough” software instead of the breakthrough software we all need.