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The Keys to Sports Performance Programming Success

Ned Arick, M.S.

Sports performance research, application and coaching philosophies are constantly changing, updating and advancing.

With everything that is out there, it's very easy to get stuck in the weeds on how to best train your athletes, and with social media the way it is, it's very easy to get blinded by the bright shiny training modalities that coaches post 24/7.

What I'm about to say isn't new, but I feel like it needs to be said.

There isn’t a single best exercise, a single best program, or a single best set & rep range. There are certainly some overarching principles that yield results in programming, but to say ‘this works best’ or ‘that works better’ would be limiting the scope of practice.

In the following article, my goal is to provide you a simple 5 step process to effectively and efficiently program for sports performance success.

Through a series of principles, you can plug and play your personalized system into this solution, no matter your philosophy on training or who you train.

Before we get into any of the principles though, it’s important that we get on the same page about the role of a sports performance coach.

Whether you’re a seasoned veteran or just getting started in the coaching profession, your focus should always be on the wellbeing of the athletes and their continued success.

The goal of every coach is to get each and every individual better at their given activity. You need to do that in a safe manner that allows the athlete to continually progress through the years.

No matter your weight room philosophy, your goal should be to safely and effectively create better athletes. It's that simple.

When creating a program there are quite a few variables that are important to look into, including, but definitely not limited to, age (both training and biological), specific sport or activity, past or present injuries, goals, strengths and weaknesses, and even individual preferences of each athlete.

Plain and simple all athletes must have proper programming that correlates to their respective competition.

My goal today is to have you take this 5 step framework and plug your existing training into it in order to make sure you’re creating the proper program for the athletes you work with.

The principles that I get into will allow you to strategically specify the training protocol, prioritize movements, and progress the athlete, safely and effectively to peak performance in their respective sport.

Before we get to anything else, there are two questions you must ask yourself in order to prepare for the principles we'll go over here shortly:

#1. What do my athletes have to do in the weight room to get better on the field?

When you start writing the program, start with that in mind, and when each training session and/or cycle is finished ask the following:

#2. Did the workouts that we did in the weight room transfer to better athletes on the field?

It’s that simple!

No matter your philosophy or ideas of how and what to train, if what you did yielded a better athlete on the field, you did your job.

Below you will find the 5 Principles to Sports Performance Programming Success, which will guide you to the specifics of each and every individual in your facility, even if you coach teams, or groups of players at a time.

Principle #1: PURPOSE

In everything you do as coaches, you must start with a purpose or a why. Quite simply when a team or an individual walks through your door in order to become the best athlete possible, you need to create a purpose for their training. This is centered around their goals and the goals of the team.

Very simplistically if you don’t start with a why you’re going to get lost in the weeds down the road. The objective here is to base this why on the specific sport, the individual and their needs.

This is a very simplistic stage of programming, but the most important by far.

This why is your foundation, your focus. Your why should paint the big picture on why you are doing what you are doing, this focus should be based around the purpose of the athlete.

The why creates the preparation phase for competition and what we do in preparation for competition will either enhance athletic performance or it won’t.

 

parent and child athlete

 

Principle #2: PROCESS

This is how you’re going to achieve the purpose. For instance if you’re working with a high school basketball team, their why may be to jump higher, get faster and increase lateral acceleration.

Even before we get to our next section, we need to figure out how we’re going to get players to where they need to be. This is going to be where you choose your training split, and strategy of the entire training cycle that you are starting.

This should be writing down the entire training cycle and breaking it down into the daily process.

So for instance, Let’s say you’ve got 6 months with the basketball team prior to the first game. You’re going to build this based around three things.

  1. Time availability: If you’ve only got 2 days a week with a team, there are going to be some differences in the split than if you’ve got 4 or 5.
  2. Movement Patterns: Not the exercises specifically, but the general to specific patterns  you’re going to go in. So to keep in line with the basketball team, our general movements may be a lower body strength focus, but specific would be resisted lateral acceleration on the court.
  3. Progression: Spoiler alert, this is actually a step unto itself, but when writing out the big picture you need to have a general progression pattern in mind based on the specific adaptations that need to take place.

This will answer your How questions, So now you’ve got your goal, your purpose, your why, and you’ve got how you’re going to get to that purpose. Now it’s time to fill in the blanks.

Principle #3: PRIORITY

Consider this next step your first step into the “nitty gritty”. Obviously everything up to this point should be taken very seriously and be individualized based on specific sport needs, but this right here is where you get into the specifics of everything.

Your purpose is why you are doing what you are doing. It’s very high level and it creates the goal of the program. Your process is the high level programming based on Time, Movement patterns, and Progression.

Now you have to prioritize and this is exactly what you are doing when it comes to selecting exercises, reps per exercise, rest between sets, and load. You are quite simply going to prioritize movements, volume, frequency and intensity based on the purpose and where it fits into our process.

 

chart of explanation

 

This is where you can really get into the principle of specificity and transfer of training. You want to focus on movements that are going to correlate to an increase in performance on the field.

As you're writing this, you want to make sure that you're obviously building a solid foundation, but you want to avoid movements that are unrelated to the athlete’s sport in order to avoid the possibility of negative transfer. This is an extremely important part of our programming.

You want to specify the movements specifically for the adaptations you wish to occur. Think of specificity like a pyramid, the top of the pyramid are the specific competition movements, movements at the base are considered movements that are more general in nature.

The key to any successful program is to make sure that every portion of your pyramid, from base to top and everything in between improves results during the competition.

From here you can move onto progression, which you already started focusing on a bit in the process phase of your programming.

Principle #4: PROGRESSION

The progression aspect is quite simply providing us a direction of where to go. Think of this as your GPS. Up until now, I’ve just told you “Hey I want you to drive out to California to see your Grandmother.” I tell you why I want you to go, where I want to go and how I want you to get there.

The progression phase is where I give you the GPS, it will show you the exits, where you should get off to fuel up, and the exact turns, mileage and speed limit on your way there.

 

transitional periodization

 

This is really just a fancy way of saying “Hey coach, what’s your periodization?”

I won’t get too far into the weeds here because I’m sure you all know what periodization is, but for a quick refresh of Exercise and Prescription 101, Periodization is the division of training periods where programming variables such as intensity, volume, frequency, rest and exercise selection (among other factors), are strategically manipulated and varied in order to reduce risk of injury and maximize sport performance for individuals and sports teams.

There are quite a few philosophies on periodization as well, but two major ones that are used are block or linear periodization and undulating periodization. Block and Linear periodization is quite simply keeping a focus on a single facet of training for a specified period of time. You may have a strength block for 4 weeks, then move into a power block, then a hypertrophy block.

These are great for building general foundations but for higher level athletes, something Louie Simmons said should ring in your ears: “What you don’t train, you lose.” Basically meaning that in a strength block, you may lose some power or some speed etc.

The next variation is undulating periodization which allows the athlete to train all facets of training within a certain cycle. For instance, in Daily Undulating Periodization, you could train, strength, hypertrophy and power all in the same week.

Let’s say you’re working with a team on a 3 day schedule, you would do strength on Monday, power on Wednesday and Hypertrophy on Friday. This may be more beneficial, but it also has been criticized for not allowing for enough focus to build any one facet of training.

Either way, Progression is key, and again, our goal as coaches is not to debate what works or what doesn’t, but to safely and effectively create better athletes.

If you take your athletes through the entire gauntlet in 1 day and have rest, nutrition, and external stressors optimized so that they can train optimally and safely, do it.

If you have a completely separate way of progressing athletes, that’s totally fine, as long as they get better on the field and stay healthy!

Principle #5: PERFORMANCE

So now that you have your entire protocol written up, the final stage is performance. Quite simply this is the application phase. This should be focused on daily and the questions you need to ask are as follows:

  1. Did we reach our goal?
  2. If yes, why?
  3. If no, why?
  4. Did our training correlate to an enhancement in performance in the athlete’s respective sport?
  5. If yes, why?
  6. If no, why?

Every sports performance program needs assessment. Not just assessment of the athlete, but assessment of the programming itself.

There is no gray area in sports, either you win or you lose, either you got better or you didn’t. It’s not necessarily a good or bad thing, it’s just black and white. Yes or No.

 

expectation

 

Performance is the only area in this entire presentation that doesn’t have multiple options. You can choose exercises that work, you can choose periodization models, you can choose loads, and variations, you can choose different tools to use etc. But when it all comes down to the end, ‘Did we reach our goal?’ and ‘Did we get the athlete better?’, these are Yes or No questions.

Each question needs to be followed up with asking ‘why?’, making adjustments or improving the course.

In everything else as coaches, we can put our feelings into our decisions. With performance, there is no room for subjectivity, it’s all objective.

So this final stage of your sports performance program is highly important, and it is imperative that you stay objective with your answers and your updates to training.

This is where you become a better coach, and where you can truly create better athletes. The best part about this, is if you do this daily, after every session, you don’t have to wait until next season to modify, you can make adjustments and correct the course mid cycle.

Bonus Principle: APPLICATION

You actually have to build each of these stages into your programming. I'll be blunt here: If your programming doesn't have all 5 of these principles, you have a sub par program.

So now it’s time to put this into practice.

You should never walk into a session with an athlete or a team without having a purpose, a process, priority and a progression plan. Peak Performance should be the end result of proper planning.

If you follow these steps, you can plug and play whatever works for you, but you must have these stages in your plan in order to be successful.

Training isn’t just a science, it’s an art and this formula is your canvas and brush, and each step in this plan creates your masterpiece.

To Your Success,

Ned

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