Individualization at the High School Level – Simple Ways to Accommodate for Athlete Needs

Read enough of my writing and you will notice a couple of recurring theme: at the high school level of the game, general training should always precede advanced methods, foundational strength should trump specialization.

While this is a vital concept to understand, something that cannot be refuted is that individualization — or the accommodation of a training program to the needs of the individual athlete — is another important piece of the physical preparation puzzle. In my mind, though, individualization takes on varying levels of significance depending on an athlete’s level of competition, and the means that the school/facility possesses to accommodate for the athlete.

For example, private sector facilities typically have the means to individualize entire programs for their athletes due to their complete ability to control athlete intake and assessment, time and scheduling.

In the team sports setting this is often more difficult, as scheduling is instead dictated by the fundamental coaches, class schedules, weight room availability, and NCAA or institutional rules. Also, facility and coaching constraints tend to make just training at all a difficult task, let alone assigning multiple training programs within a large group.

Additionally, younger athletes tend to have less disparity in terms of the needs that need accommodating. The majority of all high school athletes have the same needs to work on; foundational strength, movement competency, core stability, and postural awareness should make up the pillars of their training. With such little variance in overall needs, training can be relatively generalized for the group, yet still be highly effective. Thus, when specifically talking about the high school athlete, individualization has far less meaning than at higher levels of sport or in other sectors of training.

That being said, the unique needs of each athlete can still be accommodated through individualization at the high school level. The key is to keep individualization within the context of the overall needs of the high school team. In other words, think about keeping the program 95% general, 5% individualized.

 

But, how do we individualize at this level — where many constraints make training at all harder than any other level — yet still ensure that the training is efficient and effective? Here are three simple ways to “individualize” training at the high school level:

Note: in order to individualize, we must first assess. Without knowing what the needs of the players are, how can we accommodate for them? Whether conducting a formal evaluation or making anecdotal observations, careful notation on restrictions/limitations will best help the coach accommodate the player. Once an assessment has occurred, then individualization can be implemented…

1. Accommodate with Individual Warm-Ups

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The movement preparation or warm-up phase of training is an incredibly important time for the athlete. Not only does it help them prepare for the training session that they are about to undertake, it can also help accumulate positives changes for the athlete in terms of movement and tissue quality, mobility and stability. What makes the warm-up so conducive for these adaptations? Nothing, other than it is (or should be) performed every day before each and every physical activity. In other words, it provides repetition and volume.

But, how do we individualize a warm-up without throwing off the efficiency of a training session? After all, at the high school level, time and space are often limited.

One simple way to do this would be to keep your general warm-up in place (e.g. a team dynamic warm-up) — let’s call this the “Team Prep”  — but then follow it with 2-4 minutes of “Player Prep” where the athletes perform 1-3 drills/exercises that are specific to their needs.

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A couple of additional ideas to make this process even more simple:

  • “Bucket” players by general needs. For example, group up the players who need additional core stability work, the players who are lacking ankle mobility, etc. Have them work together.
  • Create laminated cards with the “Player Prep” programs on them.
  • Use a stop watch to make this process concise and focused

2. Accommodate with Auxiliary/Accessory Work

For most programs, the bulk of the “important work” typically resides at the beginning of the session, while each subsequent “tier” or grouping of exercises is less of an emphasis than the previous. We all know what the end typically turns out to be: “accessory work” or “bonus work” for the athletes that finish early. This usually means bis/tris/forearms — the stuff that athletes have been craving for, and what the coaches are the least concerned about.

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One method to individualize the training programs of your athletes is to change that “bonus work” from mindless bodybuilding exercises to movements and drills that focus on the needs of the athletes.

For example, the coach can again “bucket” the athletes based on needs, and then create “packages” (e.g. a core package or mobility package) that would conclude the workout. Any athletes that fall into those categories (made clear through assessment) would perform those exercises upon completing the rest of their lift, as they wait for other athletes to finish.

3. Accommodate with Exercise Variation

Sometimes the simplest way to “individualize” for an athlete is to make very small, fine adjustments to the program itself. In that way, the training card for each player on the team might look identical, but in reality there are many minute accommodations throughout the team.

For example: upon assessment a group of athletes may not have shown the requisite benchmarks to denote a safe Squat in the weight room. If it is an ankle mobility issue, perhaps an athlete performs the squat like everyone else, except with his or her heels elevated at the time being until the limitation is remedied (all the while they are hammering this limitation through prep work, not just using the heel lift as a permanent crutch).

Or, perhaps it is a stability, strength, and movement competency issue, thus the athlete instead utilizes the same sets and reps as everyone else, but instead uses a Goblet Squat with an accentuated eccentric tempo.

Finally, an athlete might feel wrist pain during the Front Squat, thus they will utilize straps instead of the traditional front rack position.

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The goal here is keep the majority of the program intact so that the high school training session remains seamless and simple for the coach and players, yet still contains the minor adjustments necessary to accommodate for individual needs.

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These three methods of individualization may not be “sexy”, however they can serve as effective ways to accommodate of the needs of each athlete, while staying within the means and confines of high school athletics.

Respectfully,

RJF

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