By Joe Eisenmann, PhD
The school year is about to end and you decide to go on a summer road trip – you service the car making sure it is in tip-top shape, pack some snacks, book the hotels for a good night rest, search the best tourist sites along the way, and plan your route.
Planning a sports season and/or the entire athletic year for the young athlete should be no different. Have you ever heard the following saying – “Failing to plan is planning to fail.”
For many of my projects (or when designing strength and conditioning programs or practices for that matter), I use the axiom ‘start with the end in mind’. What does the final product look like? What is it that we want to accomplish or prepare for? From here, I work backwards – first identifying the necessary ingredients and then planning the steps to build the final product and reach the end goal?
As a coach, often times the end goal is the playoffs or championship at the end of the season; however, this journey starts in the off-season or pre-season. It should also entail the weekly plan in preparation for a big game. In the long-term, it may be a four-year athletic development plan across a high school career. In this blog, some general considerations will be provided for planning the week, season, and year that should get coaches thinking about creating an athlete development roadmap.
Mapping it out
In sports science, there is a concept known as ‘periodization’. Periodization is the systematic planning of training (including all practices, strength and conditioning sessions, and competitions) which involves focusing on various aspects of the training program (such as frequency- how often; intensity-how hard; volume – how much; and specific activities-practice, strength training, speed training, etc.) during a specified period, usually one year, in an effort to optimize performance for a specific event(s)(e.g., state playoffs, major showcase). Typically, the year is divided into an off-season, pre-season, and competitive season along with a transition period. For illustrative purposes, below is a generic example of an annual plan for a high school football player with the ‘+’ indicating the level of emphasis and/or intensity for the given activity.
However, for many youth athletes this model quickly becomes more complex with multiple sports, multiple teams, and multiple coaches. Hence, all the more reason to plan, and communicate across the coaching staff or with club coaches. In the high school setting, this also brings light to the importance of a unified, comprehensive strength and conditioning program in which the entire coaching staff buys into year-round training.
An exercise in creating an athletic development calendar
A simple exercise to help this process is to take out a sheet of paper and begin mapping out the year. Or if you are a coach, map out your sports season; however, in doing so it is also important to understand how the athletes are coming to you at the start of the season.
- First, write each month across the top of the page.
- Then, answer these questions:
- What sports will be played and when? Will there be an off-season training period?
- What days of the week are practices, training sessions, and competitions?
- What happens at practice and training sessions? – more specifically, how much time is spent on skill development, speed and agility, strength training, etc. and what is the intensity (easy, moderate or hard) of these activities?
Getting the answers to these questions and determining the cumulative training load (total amount of work performed by the athlete) across the calendar should be part of the athlete pre-screening process that allows you to recommend and coordinate training and recovery sessions on a weekly basis as well. For example, off-season (November through February) soccer practice focusing on skill development 2x per week and futsal on Sundays could be complimented with strength training 2x per week and speed training 1x per week.
In-season Strength Training: Use it or lose it!
To follow-up on the above example, many youth athletes may participate in strength training in the off-season but once the season starts the sole focus becomes practice, which usually consists of skills and drills and game strategy – often with the focus of winning rather than long-term athlete development. Of course, the skill development (technical) and game strategy (tactical) are vitally important for playing the sport, but removing the stimulus of strength training and conditioning places the athlete at an increased risk of injury, and may also diminish performance and the development of fundamental athletic competencies. Thus, it is necessary to include in-season programs for strength, conditioning and all the athletic competencies (mobility, balance, jumping and landing, etc.).
This can be easily accomplished by implementing a 8-12 min movement-based dynamic warm-up daily plus 2-days of strength training (20-30 min per session if ran efficiently using the Zone concept). And, it could also include integrating sports performance concepts into the practice session.
Just like the road trip example, the car needs to be maintained during the 2 or 3 month trip or it could break down leaving you stranded on the side of the road and short of your final destination.
It is also important to plan off days or recovery days during heavy training and in-season periods. In addition, athletes should be allowed some downtime following a season (transition period). The daily and weekly schedules of the busy youth athletes including the physical, psychological, social, and academic demands placed upon them can be alarming.
In closing, the focus should remain on total development of the youth athlete from all performance spheres – tactical, technical, physical and mental – throughout the season and the school year and longer-term across childhood and adolescence (i.e., long-term athlete development). And don’t forget – planning is bringing the future into the present so you can do something about it.