We live in a very progressive and ground-breaking time in the field of sports performance. Everybody wants to be the best strength and conditioning coach, physical preparation specialist, technological guru, and what have you. They want to show they are pioneers in the industry by manifesting brand-new training methodologies through research, innovative exercises, technological advancements, and advanced programming strategies. There’s one problem, though. What happened to good ol’ coaching?
New multifaceted information in our field is prodigious. Yet, the best coaches in the world take complicated matters and simplify them so that everybody can understand and apply them. If you got into this industry to try and reinvent the wheel for your own intents and purposes, you are misguided. As coaches, it is our responsibility to put our own schema aside for the betterment of our athletes. In our gym, I believe we have revolutionized the way we train team sport athletes by implementing the latest research, promoting individuality within a team setting, managing many personalities, and creating a culture that fosters athletes who are hungry, humble, and committed to excellence.
Creating Individuality Within a Team Training Session
I know I have 60 to 75 minutes to work with a team consisting of 16-18 basketball players. Their head coach just ran a two-hour open gym, three athletes have a knee injury, two of them have a shoulder injury, and they all have a game in four hours. I would be doing the players and the coach a disservice if I put together a bunch of exercises that were not individualized to each athlete’s needs, just for the sake of “getting the work done” or to “look cool” for an Instagram video.
How do I manage a full 18-man roster where each player has individual needs? Easy—preparation. We train team sport athletes three times per week and operate in four 12-week macrocycles: pre-season, in-season, post-season, and off-season. We structure each block as follows:
A two-week assessment/acclimation period. We test our athletes in week 3. Weeks 4-10 consists of progressive training. Week 11 is a low-stress week, priming our athletes for week 12, which is testing week.
Figure 1 shows our four 12-week macrocycles for basketball teams that we have established within each phase of the year. The training template remains the same, but we manage the exercises, intensity, and volume according to the external stresses on our athletes. As mentioned previously, I know each athlete, their needs, and their injuries based on the two-week screening period prior to our actual training, regardless of what phase of the year it is. Every athlete will be in a different stage depending on where in the year they are in their season. Each athlete has specific pre-work they must perform prior to our session. We break them into their groups based on their neural ability, anthropometrics, fitness, and strength.
The program remains the same, with slight variations in exercises based on the aforesaid reasons. We always work backwards with the end goal in mind. A key part of our job is to be in constant communication with the coach so we know what external stressors athletes experience. This allows us to scale the training up or down based on the way they are feeling.
Figure 2 shows how we allocate our time for each facet of training. We train multiple teams a week and we have found what works best for most team sport athletes regarding the intensity, duration, and frequency of each sequential training component. A guideline or template is necessary to ensure we leave no stone unturned in their physical preparation process within that seasonal microcycle. We have found that training three times a week in a 12-week off-season block broken down into a force-dominant lower, heavy upper, and velocity/dynamic lower (top speed, change of direction, throws) based days elicits the best results from microcycle to microcycle.
Our time frames are always based on the attention span, work capacity, and ability to comprehend the movements of each team we work with. For example, we have found that high school females have longer attention spans than high school males. We can spend more time teaching higher brain activities like sprinting, jumping, and throwing with high school females versus high school males. In turn, the benefits are mutually inclusive. We teach females who have more trouble generating intent and effort for longer of periods of time. Therefore, they spend more time practicing and getting better at what they are less efficient in.
Figure 3 shows two sessions of the three times weekly 12-week pre-season basketball training block. We found that four-week mini microcycles within each 12-week block deliver the best results for our athletes. The learning curve for each concept takes slightly longer, and the adaptation to specific stressors is generally longer as well.
The above figure represents a template that each athlete follows, but we make changes accordingly based on individual needs, anthropometrics, and injury limitations. You can see that we leave a lot of room for personal notes on each athlete, including the technicality of a movement, ability to comprehend, and metrics. If time does not permit, we cut some things out and the more important things take precedent.The measure of an athlete is how they react to something that doesn’t go their way. Click To Tweet
One unique aspect of our programming that we never neglect is team competitions. This is a high-priority training component included for every team we train. Team competitions are sport-specific and challenging, and they reveal your team leaders. The measure of your athletes is how they react to something that doesn’t go their way. Sports are competitive and we try to mirror that competitiveness every week within our training cycles and the guidelines of our programming.
Coaching and Managing Your Athletes’ Personalities
As coaches, we wear many masks. It is our responsibility to prepare our athletes, not only physically, but mentally as well. We are put in unique positions that allow us to demand respect, honesty, and above all, trust. What makes a great coach? It’s the ability to lead—to make things happen, maximize resources, and inspire. It’s the extraordinary quality that solves problems and helps the athlete come to a new level of understanding what is possible. It’s the skill and talent to influence and guide our athletes to make real breakthroughs and create lasting change.
Great coaches have vision. They understand where their athletes are mentally and physically. Coaching extends well beyond directing activity. A team of 15 athletes is a team of 15 individuals, each with a different upbringing, temperament, and external influences, all brought together for one common goal.
How you communicate with your athletes is just as important as how you program for them. Your persona and the way you carry yourself as a coach are paramount. Fifty-five percent is your body language, 38% is your tonality, and 7% is what you actually say. Do you stand tall, dress well, and shake your athlete’s hand when you see them? Or are you discombobulated, carry yourself poorly, and don’t address your athletes firmly? These subtle things make a big difference in getting new/old athletes to respect you and “buy into” your beliefs.
There are three types of tonalities with which you address your athletes. Unbeknownst to you, your athletes subconsciously pick up on the messages you unwittingly send them. When you seek rapport, it implies you are trying to overtly seek the approval of your athletes. Consequently, you put the ball in their court. As a result, their impression of you is belittled, regardless of your knowledge. Breaking rapport implies you are talking down to your athletes. If you train a team of 18 high school girls and communicate with them in a condescending way, they will instinctively be reluctant to trust you. Know your audience. Neutral rapport implies commonality. You both respect one another. You respect each other’s opinions and are more receptive to feedback.
Verbal content is the last impression you make on your athletes. They do not care about the “science” or the “why” behind your programming. They care about how you make them feel. When you instill confidence, work ethic, and leadership in your athletes, the ramifications will go far beyond the physical improvements they make in the gym.
Remember, we have the end game in mind with our athletes. When I explain a series of exercises and an athlete responds, “Ugh, these are the worst,” I’ll say, “Is that how a leader would respond?”. Taking an athlete aside and simply telling them how well they did today will mutually benefit both parties.The only way to hone your craft as a coach is to spend quality time in the trenches. Click To Tweet
Athletes gauge your ability as a coach on how you carry yourself, how relatable you are, and how you make them feel. Experience is the ultimate teacher. I have spent more than 5,000 hours on the gym floor in the last two years, programming, training, and developing amazing young athletes. I have learned that the only way to hone your craft as a coach is to spend quality time in the trenches. You must have the ability to bring these individuals together, bring out the best in one another, and create a culture that has a lasting impact.
Creating an Unmatched Culture
At the gym, we have an unwritten rule. If you are late—meaning, if training starts at 3:00 p.m. and you stroll in at 3:01 p.m.—you must perform one of the following: 50 calories on the AirFit, 500m on the Ski, or 500m on the Row. This is not a punishment; it’s a teaching tool. We want our athletes to be accountable for themselves, not for us.
In college and the pros, nobody cares about how you “feel.” They care about results. Results are predicated on habits that athletes can learn. They do all of their specific pre-work on their own 10 minutes, prior to the session. We explain the exercises the first week. They must take it upon themselves to get the work done prior to our session start time in the following weeks.
We always have two to three coaches on each team. Every coach must have a notebook with a log of all the names of each athlete in their group. This log includes the intensity used for each exercise and the strengths and weaknesses of each athlete. We address every athlete by name, which we know prior to our first session when working with any team. The details matter.
We always ask the athletes about their day, their weekend, and even check in on their families. Establishing a relationship with our athletes is paramount, and here’s the secret: You actually have to care. I train over 100 athletes a week, and I go to every athlete’s games. I know them by first and last name; I know their families; I know what music they like, what movies they enjoy, and sometimes who they’re dating.
Remember, in the private sector, these athletes DO NOT have to train with you. There are many gyms that “train athletes” near yours. What makes your facility unique?
One of my favorite quotes is from Peter Drucker: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
When you build a culture that fosters athletes who are hungry, humble, and committed to excellence, the rest of the components fall into place. Building a culture starts with the foundation. Coaches are the foundation on which everything inside our four walls is built.Building a culture starts with the foundation, and coaches are that foundation. Click To Tweet
We hold ourselves accountable every day by living the code, caring about our athletes, and meeting regularly to improve our programming for our athletes. We regularly highlight our athletes on social media, put up posters in the gym, and create training montages dedicated to them. Furthermore, we always have an athlete of the week. This is a subtle way to spotlight what happens in the gym and give recognition to athletes who may not always be rewarded for their hard efforts.
While Science Is Important, Don’t Forget About the Craft
Coaching is an art. We cannot get get distracted by our own agendas in our industry. We must remember that it is the athletes who provide us with jobs. We owe it to them to provide them with the best hour of their day, over-deliver with service, and always ensure they are getting better. Own the foundation. Create a culture in your gym that fosters athletes who are hungry, humble, and committed to excellence, and watch the results as your athletes reach new heights.
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