How To Perform A Needs Analysis Before Writing Your Next Program

It’s the end of the season and time to go back to the drawing board. Regardless of wins and losses, every good strength coach knows there are adjustments to be made to the programming so off-season meets the needs of his or her team.

  • Do you have a process in place that allows you to make the right adjustments?
  • What is your plan to identify the holes in your team’s strength and speed?
  • Do you have a process in place that helps you identify if what you are doing in the weight room is lending itself to injury trends (either helping or hurting)?

Listen, I’m getting old. The young man energy has left me, and that is a good thing. You know what I’m talking about. Chasing the next job. Dreaming about my shot at an SEC program, so I can win a slew of National Championships. Having my name etched into the strength and conditioning lore and being one of those iconic coaches that every young coach wants to be like.

I can remember the moment it all changed for me… it was when my son took his first breath. Having kids changes everything in your life and what once was eyeing job postings and plotting turned into taking a job in the most beautiful, safe community in the world (San Luis Obispo, California) to raise my family. I love working at Cal Poly and have no intention of ever leaving. When I saw the job posting for this gig, I had a very short conversation with my wife and then put all of my eggs into the basket. 

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These kids get the best of me. My dedication to them and this program knows no boundaries.

The picture I’m trying to paint is of someone who cares. Someone who is all in with his role at his current job. I still want that National Championship...I’m just going to do it here. That means I need to be as detailed as possible with every move I make.

We have a pretty unique situation here at Cal Poly: we are an elite academic school that runs the triple option. If you have any experience with football, that one sentence should write a long story about not only the institution, but also the type of athlete I’m going to inherit.

Brutally competitive academically with thousands of 4.0s turned away every year, Cal Poly gives me guys who have to be smart and all over their studies. And because of the pace of our offense, I tend to get what most football programs would consider undersized guys. All of this makes my job very special. All of my guys are smart as hell, and I get the chance to truly create them physically, from the ground up. It’s awesome.

With all this being said, I have to be all over my approach when it comes to addressing team needs. Strength and conditioning nowadays is like trying to shoot at a moving target. What was once a stationary target (the old days where programs were written and repeated year after year with similar success) has now become a practice in rewriting the handbook annually because of the rapidly changing issues these kids come in with.

Long gone are the days of so-and-so who had an ACL reconstruction or that kid who had a shoulder surgery when he was a sophomore in high school. Today it's hip labrums, back issues, elbows, shoulders, concussions, necks… the list goes on and on (Thanks technology!). It makes program design interesting and pushes the limits of my abilities.

Preparing with a solid plan of attack for the coming training months is mandatory. Even though this article is framed primarily around football, this formula works and should be utilized with all sports.

Sports Medicine Comes First

Your first stop should always be with the medical staff. Even before your meetings with the coaches, the medical staff can paint an accurate picture of the health and well-being of the athletes as you exit your season. If you are lucky like I am, I get daily injury reports for football. There is not a moment during the calendar year when I’m not up to speed with how my guys are doing.

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Even with that, my first scheduled meeting is with the medical staff. We look for trends in injuries. We talk about concussions, non-contact ACLs, and how many surgeries we are facing.

Our goal is to pinpoint the mechanism of all of the serious injuries for that year. If I can adjust, I will. My hope is that I did a good enough job where the silly injuries were completely avoided (hamstrings, hip flexors, and such). And if we did have big injuries, we can identify a cause.

I went over four years without one ACL in any sport on campus back in the day. I was dialed in with our kids at the time and our system worked like magic.

Position Coaches Come Next

Before I meet with my head man, I schedule meetings with each position coach. Regardless of what offense or defense you run, the position coaches will have a unique spin on their individual group that you might miss if you don’t have the meeting. More often than not, it turns into going down the list of their guys (one by one) and seeing how they performed during the seasons and what changes need to be made.

It’s also a great way to build confidence in that coach when it comes to what you are trying to do. They can also be a total nightmare for you if they want to be. I’ve been a part of staff groups who will pass the buck to anyone they can when their kids don’t perform, and we strength people are easy targets.

So you get not only the opportunity of learning information from them about their guys, but also of identifying any grief that might be coming your way.

What you will quickly learn is that most position coaches haven’t the first clue about what we do, how we do it, and what our plans are for moving the team forward. Most are locked into their last playing season and think we all do the exact same things. This is a great time to explain to them the intricacies about how we conduct business and what our preliminary plans are to address their group.

Some of my closest friends are guys I coached with who were assistant coaches, and it all stemmed from me being candid and forthcoming with my plans for their guys, year after year.

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Then The Head Coach

Once you have all of your position meetings complete, you can take a meeting with your head coach and have all the information you need. I never go into a conversation with my head coach about his team with loose ends. I want to know my info so:

  • We can make great use of our time
  • I have the answers he is looking for

More often than not, he and I are on the same page about everything. We know where we are, where we need to go, and it’s my job to spell it out how I plan on getting us there.

What might be even more valuable is letting him know how he can help you. Discipline is a very big deal at all levels, and you need to make sure you have each other's back. I have made several asks about him supporting my more rigid ideas on punishment, and he’s always adjusted when needed.

There’s nothing better than having a solid relationship with your head coach.

Don't Forget Record Keeping

This might be obvious to some, but keeping notes on your meetings might be a great idea. Depending on how you work, it serves two purposes:

  • First, you have a way to refer back to an individual if you have too many people to keep track of in your head
  • Next, having records is always a good idea from a CYA vantage point

Personally, I never write anything down for myself. I’m a manic people person and establish all of my programs around the notion that I will have legitimate relationships with each athlete. It’s always been my philosophy to reach each kid, so by default, I remember everything about each person. 

I do, however, create an offseason evaluation for every individual on the team for the entire staff. It’s a collection of thoughts on each person in regard to their work ethic, demeanor, and buy in - as well as my take on what they need to be successful on the field the next season.

The coaches get this at the conclusion of the spring for their exit meetings with the kids prior to summer session. I’m brutally honest about my take on them as members of the team and my perception about their potential. Here is an example of this type of list:

  • Alex - Hard worker, very quiet, continues to make slow gains. Wants to be good and is willing to work for it. Average strength for his position, average runner. Needs a productive summer. I want to talk to him about his diet because he is too young to be hitting a plateau like he has. A few more kCal a day will do him some good.  
  • Beau - Injuries have kept Beau from becoming the player he talks about becoming. Physical therapist(s) dropped the ball in his knee rehab costing him precious time reestablishing his strength. Needs an injury-free, intense summer to be 100% for camp. Somewhere around 75% strength currently compared to 2012 camp. Quad injury during spring leaves questions about his running ability. Below average strength but making steady improvements
  • Frank- In my opinion, the toughest player on the team. If I was in a bar fight, I would want Frank on my side. What he lacks in athleticism, he makes up with balls. Great upper body strength and above average lower body strength. Desperately wants to be a force on the field. Desperately wants team to succeed and will go above the call of duty to see that it happens. He is the police officer of the team, exposing those who are not pulling their weight to their face. Running has improved dramatically over the last few years. Needs to work on explosiveness and first step to become a more complete athlete. 

Now It’s Time to Write

You know where the problems lie. You know what’s expected from you at all levels of the coaching staff. It’s now time to sit down and plan out the months to come.

I write two quarters in advance. Time is a critical element. Most of the research will tell you that you need 6-8 weeks of consistent training to see any demonstrable strength gains.

With that in mind, I write nearly 6 months out because I want to plan outcomes. I’ve used undulating schemes before, written waves where I leave the outcome to chance and plan only a couple of weeks at a time - and to be honest, it makes me crazy. I like solid strength theory, the good ol' linear periodization way of writing. 

With a solid understanding of time (like when your mandatory breaks are or when spring ball is scheduled), you can develop strategies on how you are going to format things.

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Do your guys need tons of size? Build longer hypertrophy schedules. Are you “big enough” and really need to dial in explosiveness and speed? Format for longer blocks of power. Are you seeing too many shoulder injuries? Build more and more back work to support all the pressing you are inevitably doing.

Yes, there might be some individual surprises, but what’s great about our profession is the science is particularly solid. We know how three weeks of X exercise at 3 sets of 10 twice a week is going to turn out. It is strength theory that has been tested over and over and produces consistent outcomes. By knowing this, and understanding how to manipulate it, you have everything you need at your fingertips.

Differences From Sport to Sport

If you use this approach for all sports, many of the common themes from team to team will shine though. 

Quickly, you will get a read on how important your role is in the life of a team/coach. I have worked with countless coaches from all sports, and some of the comments they make are quite revealing.

I had a men’s soccer coach say, “Pele didn’t lift weights, why should we?” Only problem was... he forgot to recruit a team full of Peles. And, as you can imagine, I invested zero effort in his team moving forward.

You will also find those diamond-in-the-rough coaches who, regardless of their sport, want to grind. I love these people. Some of the toughest kids I have ever coached were women’s soccer players. I have had a very rewarding time working with that sport because I have had several awesome head coaches to work for. Two in particular loved to let me take their kids and push them like I do with my football teams. 

Finally, Take a Chance

Some last minute advice from an already established “old guy” in the profession. Your needs analysis creates opportunities to step out of your comfort zones. Because of the enormous amounts of time between seasons, for football in particular, you have enough fluff time where you can try something completely foreign to you and your program.

If it fails, you have enough time to recover from a few weeks that went bust.

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I am a lifelong student. I want to know more. I want to know what I know like the back of my hand, so I’m always reading. I try and get out to a certification at least once a year in something new to me, and I’m lucky enough to have been around a bunch of great people who are generous with their time and information where I can pick up the phone and go visit.

I did this very thing with David Weck of Bosu Fitness and WeckMethod this past December. We spent several days looking into some very interesting breaking information of sprinting. David has built a complete program around some nuance-based items that have turned out massive returns for me and my program.

The leap of faith I had to take was a big one. Due to time constraints for training, I had to remove around 50% of what I normally do in order to implement the new program. But we're fast right now. Really fast.

Don’t stop learning. Don’t stop pushing the envelope when it comes to training. Our athletes are evolving in unique ways, and so should we. Keep your mind open and keep pushing the limits of your athletes and yourself. 

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About The Author

Chris Holder comes to the TrainHeroic Blog with over thirty years as an athlete and coach. Chris is the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in California. A football player first and then spending his entire professional coaching career at the college level, Holder has been in love with everything weight lifting since he was a little boy.

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