In the current “Information Age” of strength and conditioning, young coaches can get lost in the vast ocean of information. Social media, journals, blogs, podcast- and subscription-based services: The pool of information is ever-growing. New methods and practices are being developed daily, while old-school methods continue to produce solid athletic outcomes. So, what is a coach supposed to do? Hold to the tried-and-true and risk being left behind? Jump at every new method and hope to gain an advantage, but risk having it fall flat?
This is where the concept of training principles comes in. There is an opening phrase that makes the rounds on strength coach Twitter every now and then, which goes something like, I’m not an Olympic coach, or I’m not a Westside coach, or I’m not a 5-3-1 coach, or I’m not a triphasic coach, and so on. I guess that the point of this declaration is to demonstrate how the coach is not biased toward one system over another. While this looks good and open-minded, I think it is potentially dangerous. What is the limiting principle keeping these coaches from hopping from one program to the other or mixing too many methods at once?
Ralph Waldo Emerson stated, “As to methods, there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods.” Principles are the North Star that keeps a coach on track through a sea of information. They don’t dictate exact bearings, but rather maintain a generalized course toward the objective.I believe every coach, especially young coaches, should develop a set of guiding principles for their programming and training, says @Tate_Tobiason. Click To Tweet
I believe every coach, especially young coaches, should develop a set of guiding principles for their programming and training. These principles should be broad, yet clear in their objectives, providing the framework by which a coach can decide whether a new method may be worth their time. Change for the sake of change is reckless, but by establishing guiding principles, change for the better is made possible, while simultaneously protecting against rash knee-jerk reactions.
For me, a principled approach to training began back when I was a young intern at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Back in the day, Boyd Epley and Mike Arthur developed a list of 10 “Husker Power Principles,” which they hung on the wall and treated as if they were the Ten Commandments. As a young coach, my opinions on training constantly changed with whatever rabbit hole I dove down, and thus I thought these principles were too rigid and narrow-minded, and I treated them as methods rather than guiding principles.
As my time at Nebraska progressed, I developed more of a relationship with Mike Arthur and began to probe him about these principles. Now, if you have ever met this soft-spoken man, you know that he is a wealth of knowledge, but sometimes getting an answer from him is like pulling teeth. Eventually, I learned that he got the idea for these principles after reading Stephen R. Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. By examining high performers in society, you can reverse-engineer effectiveness down to common habits or principles.
A similar concept can be found in Ray Dalio’s book, Principles. By examining what had worked and what hadn’t over the years at Husker Power, Coach Arthur outlined the underlying principles on which the program had built its success.
After hearing this, and reading the mentioned texts, I wanted to develop my own set of principles. Setting out, I began to examine successful training programs, trying to understand why they were successful. From the collegiate realm of Husker Power to the powerlifting realm of Louie Simmons and the track and field realm of Charlie Francis, I found common trends. Paired with first-hand experience, I started to form the following principles.
Principle 1 – “Athlete-First” Training
If you have been coaching for any amount of time, chances are you have heard the phrase “Athletes will not care how much you know, until they know how much you care about them.” Far too often, coaches get so caught up in boosting KPIs or demonstrating our knowledge of the field that we end up alienating our athletes. Not to say that KPIs are not important, but rather that they do not tell the whole story, especially in team sports. This took me awhile to understand, coming from a powerlifting background where the numbers did not lie.
Coaching, first and foremost, is a people business. Learn to listen to your athletes. Having a good relationship with a player may provide you with better and more honest insight than any screening tool. Coaching should be geared toward furthering their career, not your ego. I’m looking at you, social media coaches. As Bill Walsh puts it, the score takes care of itself. Focus on your athletes as individual human beings first, and you’ll be surprised to see how many other outcomes fall favorably into place.
Principle 2 – Ground-Based Training
Plain and simple, the majority of sports are played on the ground. Athletes need to learn how to display force and power into the ground to obtain maximal athletic output. Unstable surfaces may be great for rehab, but we are performance coaches. You may argue that unstable surface training expands the toolbox of an athlete’s ability, but I would counter that until you pour the foundation, set the frame, and hang the drywall, you do not need a Stubby Nail Eater in your tool pouch. Principles are not about demonizing certain movements, but rather putting them in the proper context.Principles are not about demonizing certain movements, but rather putting them in the proper context, says @Tate_Tobiason. Click To Tweet
Principle 3 – Power-Strength Training Split
Strength is the underlying quality for all athletic movement. It doesn’t matter how quickly you can move if it isn’t of any substance. On the flip side, strength levels only matter up to the point where your opponent is better able to display their strength levels. Therefore, I construct my training split into specific power and strength days.
On power days, we prioritize bar velocity with the ability to target specific sections of the velocity spectrum. Furthermore, by expanding the day to focus on high-velocity explosive movements, I don’t tend to worry about the Olympic versus non-Olympic debate. It allows me the possibility to start with some good old-fashioned power cleans and move on to trap bar jumps. Moreover, on strength days, we prioritize mass—whether it be building mass or moving mass. Primary lifts on this day—such as squat, bench, and deadlift—can have a velocity prescription, although it will be on the lower end of the continuum.
Principle 4 – Heavy-Light or High-Low Training Split
While 100% effort is required to improve athletic performance, 100% intensity is not always required. In fact, it can be counterproductive. A mentor of mine told me that strength coaches would be better described as “stress managers.” It is our job to know when to push adaptation via high stress and when to back off to allow adaption to take hold. Examine some of the great coaches of history: Their programs followed this principle, understanding that athletes require high-quality stimuli to induce adaptation, but realizing that high intensities of training are unsustainable day after day.
Principle 5 – Progressive Overload
As the athlete progresses, so should the challenges the athlete faces. Progressive overload can take on a variety of forms other than the common “add five pounds per week” mantra. Load is the accumulation of total reps, weight, and form/range of motion. The goal should be to challenge athletes weekly by making incremental changes that increase total load.
For example, if an athlete has three sets of five reps on dumbbell shoulder press, and they complete 40-45-50 pounds for their three sets, rather than attempting to increase every set by 5-10 pounds each week and risk failing, they could instead perform 45-45-50 pounds in Week 2 and 50-50-50 pounds in Week 3. Total load will have increased from 675 to 750 pounds lifted over the three weeks.Athletes need to be challenged off the field, so they can be a challenge for their opponents on the field, says @Tate_Tobiason. Click To Tweet
The goal should be to challenge athletes weekly by making incremental changes that increase total load. Athletes need to be challenged off the field, so they can be a challenge for their opponents on the field.
Principle 6 – Successive Patterning
Establishing proper movement patterns is key in the weight room. Start with the basics (squat, hinge, push, pull, stabilize) and move on from there. As coaches, we sometimes spend too much time hammering home the basics, or we skip over them altogether. Establishing a base is key, but don’t be afraid to move on to more advanced tasks.
An overhead squat with a dowel is great for teaching freshmen to move correctly, but not for a senior who has already been around the block. A good coach will not only teach the athlete the ABCs of movement, but also teach them how to string these movements together on the field.
Principle 7 – Appropriate Energy System
In the weight room, training from sport to sport will not differ greatly. However, on the field, the nuance of athletic development shows itself. Each sport has unique energy system demands and should be trained accordingly. Soccer and football players may both cover a lot of ground, but one is a free-flowing sport, while the other has short breaks in-between plays.A proper understanding of the energy systems is what separates the good coaches from the great, says @Tate_Tobiason. Click To Tweet
First, identify the work:rest ratio of the sport, the position, and even the style of play run by the coach. Then, implement an appropriate training plan. The goal is to prepare the team for their style of play, not regurgitate a safe textbook answer. A proper understanding of the energy systems is what separates the good coaches from the great.
From Principles to Outcomes
Principled training is not so much about creating success as it is preventing failure. It’s about keeping us away from the rocky shorelines that are injury-plagued, losing seasons that ultimately result in athletes watching from the stands. While my principles have helped me have success with my athletes, more importantly, they have helped keep my athletes safe, healthy, and progressing in a state of improvement.
I encourage every reader to create their own guiding principles that they can use and follow throughout their career. In a world full of information and emotionally charged debates, it is important to have a North Star to keep the ship on course. So, do you have a guiding star, or do you find yourself afloat in a sea of training ambiguity?
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