The most important thing we can do in life is decide how we spend our time.
Similarly, the most important thing we can do in our coaching is decide how our athletes spend their training sessions. There are only so many minutes in the day and so many hours in the week to train.
When most people think of planning for strength and conditioning, they view the concept linearly. They write the program down and lay it out like it’s a book.
But training is not what happens on the page, it’s what happens in the gym. Training is an immersive and involved experience. Training is three dimensional.
To architect well structured training experiences, we need to consider the following three dimensions:
- Program - The design of annual plans, macro cycles, etc. anchored to events and goals
- Process - The design of daily training activities, including scripted instruction, facility setup, and clock/schedule management.
- Psychology - The design of communication that engages athletes and maintains their focus over the necessary length of time to acquire mastery.
While we’ll dig into several of these granular components, if you’re to remember one thing about architecting structured training, it’s summed up in this quote from Daniel Coyle:
Structured Training Principle 1: Backwards Plan
In order to effectively design your athlete’s training, begin with the end in mind.
In the teaching world, we call this Backwards Planning. Start with determining exactly where performers need to go, then figure out the steps needed to get there.
At TrainHeroic, we believe the most powerful destination is a date specific event.
Typically, this is a competition stage: The first game of a season, a big race, a weightlifting meet, etc.
If we’re to look at the programmatic level of Structured Training, this means periodizing your plan to channel the right stimulus at the right time so athletes can achieve peak performance on event day.
This method is successful even in the theoretically random and constantly varied world of CrossFit. There, we’ve seen coaches like Dave Spitz from California Strength use date-specific anchors to periodize a strength program practiced by over 5,000 athletes and used as foundational training for 10% of the Men’s individual Games competitors in 2015.
At the micro (day) level, this means selecting and designing training activities that are aligned to the goal of the training session. Activities should be viewed as mini-milestone type check-ins to both assess current ability and hone skills toward mastery.
And finally, strong backwards planned training relies on real time data and feedback to accommodate for unanticipated positive and negative athlete adaptations.
Always plan. And when you plan, plan in pencil so you can adjust course when necessary.*
* or plan digitally with CoachHeroic so you can revise, edit, and adjust your training on the fly with live data.
Structured Training Principle #2: Keep It Challenging
Accelerating athlete development hinges on getting increments better each day.
Much like the Goldilocks goal setting framework mentioned above is used to push the athlete’s vision toward a horizon just outside their comfort zone, the elements in Structured Training should similarly push athletes just past the edge of their automatic, homeostatic performance.
Knowing that many of you train in large group environments with highly variable athlete levels, perhaps the most appropriate means of doing this with strength training is with linear progression. While bounties of physiological research extol its unmatched ability to build strength in athletes, the mental benefits shepherded in as weights continually go up is just as rewarding.
For training activities that are skill dependent, scaling exercise selection so athletes are neither drowning in the deep-end nor casually hanging out in the kiddie-pool is critical to productive training sessions. If you’re doing handstand push ups for the day, that means having pike push ups, box dips, and banded dips at the ready and in your tool kit to levy the appropriate scale to match the athlete's level.
The bottom line: each athlete grows at a different cadence. As Mr. Miyagi says, “First learn stand, then learn fly. Nature rule Daniel son, not mine.”
It’s your job to give them the stimulus they need at the right time.
Structured Training Principle 3: Dogfood Your Workouts
Would a chef ever publish a recipe for others to try out without tasting the sauce himself?
The best way to guarantee your training activities and program are seaworthy is to test drive them yourself. In the software world, we call this “dog-fooding your product.”
Loosely, this means don’t give your product to someone if you can’t tolerate the taste yourself.
John Welbourn, Luke Summers, and Tex McQuilkin from Power Athlete do this as well as any coaches I know. Before publishing a cycle to their athletes, they dry run every rep and set themselves to feel what their athletes would go through. They make sure the program hits the intended near-term and long-term targets. Inevitably, they find kinks in the process, smooth them out, and rinse and repeat until it’s the exact structured training they want.
Not only is this a best practice to perfect your program, it’s a big win for building athlete buy-in and making them believers that your stuff works.
Structured Training Principle 4: Make Training Time Feel Like Game Time
Unless you’re coaching robots, there’s a strong likelihood your athletes need a bit of sugar to go along with your salt so they can keep up with the volume of training needed for mastery.
Daniel Coyle, Deliberate Practice expert and author of The Talent Code tells us the way we refer to a training activity and the context in which we set them up makes all the difference for the potency of the practice.
In particular, he notes there’s a chasm of difference between leveraging the commonly used word “drill” and the less often use synonym “challenge.”
Coyle points out the word “drill” is a signal that:
- There is one correct way to do something, and only one way.
- The group values machine-like repetition above all else.
While the word “challenge” is a signal that:
- This is social, fun, and game like. It’s connective.
- Difficulty is expected; mindfulness is required; innovation is embraced.
- The group values challenging obstacles, competing, and creating.
If you want your athletes to be engaged, look forward to their practice, and chomp at the bit for each session, it’d be wise to take the latter approach with your communication.
As a recent example of the power of this tact, an ESPN news story broke about the unique 3-point challenge Golden State Warriors’ sharpshooter Klay Thompson relies on to hone his elite range.
The challenge is simple: Shoot as many 3-pointers as possible without missing twice in a row. And, while the challenge has made Thompson one of the premier in the league, it’s found its way down to the college ranks as well.
To encourage his own star shooter to step up his distance game, Oklahoma Sooners’ coach Steve Henson brought Thompson’s challenge to Buddy Hield...who then battled remotely against Joe Berry II of the North Carolina Tar Heels. The result? Both players found themselves using their refined long bombing to lead their respective teams to the 2016 NCAA Final Four.
In the weight room, I’ve seen this Challenge approach masterfully utilized by Dave Spitz at California Strength who, when his lifters are plateauing and petering out in a cycle, throws down small cash prizes for lifters who nail each of their heavy attempts in a given session.
The bottom line: Challenges > Drills.
There you have it - 4 unique and effective ways to deliver a world class training experience to your athletes. Follow these principles and you and your athletes will reap the rewards.
Click here to download LIFT: Correct Your Coaching and Reach Past Possible with Deliberate Practice for an in-depth look at Deliberate Practice as a coaching operating system.