Regardless of coaching situations – perhaps your high school team has a strength coach, perhaps the sport coaches must run it themselves – off-season training always seems to be a given. In the very least, most major sports observe some form of summer training, if not a program that encompasses the entire off-season.
All too often, though, we see those regimens fall off as the pre-season and competitive seasons approach. This is understandable. Without a full-time strength and conditioning coach it is very difficult for a sport coach to take on the job of strength coach for their team, in addition to the inherent responsibilities of a Head Coach (or an Assistant). This is only usually possible if your staff is large enough to allow one coach to solely take over the weight room responsibility, or if the few coaches that comprise a smaller staff are willing to shoulder the load together. Either way, it poses a challenge.
Thus, it is important to make in-season training as flexible and efficient as possible. Anything less would not only be difficult, but may also compromise compliance and effectiveness.
Today we will discuss a handful of considerations to make when developing your team’s in-season training program.
1. Minimize risk
The time spent in the weight room during the season is incredibly valuable to health and performance on the field. For every physical and performance gain that was made during the off-season, their will need to be allotted training time during the competitive season in order to sustain those gains.
But, as I tell all of my sport Head Coaches when I first meet with them prior to the competitive season, your in-season priority is your sport. No exceptions. That means a couple of things:
First, we must ensure that your athletes do not sustain a single injury in the weight room. Although this is always our goal, regardless of the season, we must make a conscious effort to exclude any exercises that pose too great of a risk – a risk so great that one mistake could compromise playing time.
For example, introducing new complex exercises during the season is not always the wisest decision. Not only do novel training stressors induce the greatest likelihood of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), they also can pose a great risk to the athlete.
It is cliche, but so true: an athlete’s greatest ability (in-season, that is) is their availability. Gains in the weight room mean absolutely nothing if there is no opportunity to express them on the field because the athlete is sidelined by an injury.
2. Consider strength-training as a part of practice time, but control for duration
Oftentimes it is the practice schedule that poses a road block for weight room training. This is because many coaches only recognize the limitations that their players currently have in their playing ability on the field, failing to remember that degradations in physical characteristics such as strength, power, and mobility can only further accentuate those limitations.
Thus, strength-training should be considered a priority, even if it isn’t as much as other parts of practice. To ensure that your team still gets an adequate exposure to strength-training, a coach should consider performance training time as a part of practice time, rather than something that takes away practice time.
This doesn’t mean that an entire practice day should be devoted to strength-training. What it means is that some time is given to the weight room during the competitive season.
One way to do this is to control for duration of time in the weight room. In other words, making sure that the training session only lasts 20-30 minutes. This means a couple of things:
- A focused approach to training must be instituted by the coaches and athletes so that no time is wasted in the weight room.
- Exercises/movements should be selected based on efficiency or “bang-for-their-buck.” In other words, only valuable, highly-efficient, and important exercises should be programmed each session. No fillers, fluff, or time-killers. It must have a legitimate purpose or it should be cut out.
- Rotations may need to be set up between lifting and practicing. This isn’t always desirable for coaches, but space and time can become huge constraints in-season when attempting to train 30 or so athletes at a time. The smaller the groups, the faster the training sessions. This will also mean smaller groups at practice (while the other groups are strength-training) which equates to a smaller coach to player ratio – potentially making practice time more efficient as well.
- Off-season training should be used not only to make gains, but to also introduce exercises that will be used throughout the training program, including the competitive season. In this way, very little time will be needed in-season to demonstrate, explain, or coach up new exercises for the athletes. More time can be spent training and practice.
By implementing some of the tips above, you can ensure that your training not only doesn’t limit practice time, but actually becomes a part of it.
3. Assign one “rigid” day for training, with 2-3 more flexible days built in
If it is not the practice schedule that poses an issue, it could certainly be the game schedule.
The only problem is this: if we are always moving our training schedule around for games, we may never get anything accomplished from a performance training standpoint. Also, if we cut back the frequency of training constantly (for example, moving from 2-3 training sessions per week to 1, or even none) then we are risking an increase in DOMS after the next training session, which can have a vast impact on readiness or perceived readiness before a game.
At the same time, as said above, it cannot be forgotten that your sport is the priority in-season. This means that games should be the most important aspect during the competitive season, even if that comes at the cost of training occasionally.
So, how do we work around these conflicts of interests – ensuring that we don’t compromise performance on the field for the sake of training, yet don’t miss out on adequate training frequency? One way is to establish one rigid day for training, while allowing for an additional 1-2 flexible training sessions each week.
What this means is assigning one day per week that is non-negotiable when it comes to training time, while the others remain flexible based on scheduling. An example of this format would be making Saturday’s a rigid training day. When it comes to baseball this always worked well for us at the high school level. We knew we would never play on a Saturday. Thus, we had our players come in Saturday mornings for a 30-minute lift (or recovery session if they had a tough week and a Friday night game), and maybe a short BP session.
The remaining training sessions were dictated by that week’s schedule, their apparent readiness to play and train (if they were supposed to get a third lift but were looking beat up, or had an important district game the next day, we may bag that session). No matter what, though, we were always sure to get at least one training session per week (Saturday), and the majority of time two lifts.
Finally, another option is to take advantage of rain-outs. If weather cancels a game or practice, this makes for a great time to sneak in a training session – providing the weight room is available.
No matter how you choose to do it, setting your team up for one rigid training session ensures that performance training does not get lost in the thick of a busy and hectic competitive season.
4. Monitor your athletes’ readiness, taper and “recover” accordingly
At the high school level it may be tough to monitor your athlete’s readiness. I am certainly not suggesting that you use any serious methods or interventions to do so. But, by simply observing your athletes as they practice, play, and walk around campus, you can make judgements about how recovered they are or how they are responding to their training/practice/games. Also, simply asking how they are doing and building a relationship can be a great way to glean beneficial feedback as well.
Feedback on readiness is great, but it only really matters if (and how) you apply it. To take this information and use it practically at the high school level isn’t as difficult as you’d think.
In my experience it seems that muscular fatigue is a major culprit, as opposed to neural fatigue in young athletes. Thus, unloading volume or frequency during the season can be a major benefit to their readiness.
Unloading the volume will help reduce the amount of muscular fatigue without sacrificing intensity. An easy tactic to cut the volume down while maintaining intensity (and ultimately strength) would be to reduce 4 x 6 at 83% to 4 x 3 at 83%. By cutting the reps in half, the athlete won’t experience the same muscular fatigue, but while still challenge the nervous system and muscles to exert force against relatively heavy loads.
Unloading the frequency is another tactic for minimizing fatigue. If an athlete is presenting as worn out or fatigued, then we can reduce the strength-training sessions from 2 or 3 to 1 or 2. This doesn’t necessarily mean doing nothing. Rather, you could insert a recovery or stretch session instead, which may not only minimize fatigue, but help facilitate recovery.
These tactics aren’t just for recovery purposes. They can also help your team “peak” for higher priority weeks, such as a big district week or the playoffs.
Either way, the ultimate goal during the competitive season, from the standpoint of performance training, is to be as prepared and ready to compete on the field as possible.