Program Design: College vs. Pro

One of the toughest things to do as a strength coach is balancing the in-season training loads of the athletes with your set of priorities; what you need to get done with your athletes including gaining performance, or just keeping them healthy. 

Understanding all of the competing demands the athletes you work with are under can be complicated, so I wanted to talk about how I’ve attempted balance them. When I’m working with college teams or private clients, I am always very systemized, I like to have a plan written out for them way ahead of time. For my college teams, I eventually got in the habit of writing out a full semester of workouts and progressions at the start of the semester. The trouble with that is things happen that are outside of your control. Missed training sessions or injuries, or something else unforeseen. 

I frequently ran into issues in the college sector where I would finish explaining a training session and there would be five athletes waiting to tell me they were hurt and needed to adjust the workout. This would happen for all of the eight or nine teams I worked with and added up to a lot of on-the-fly adjustments that I had to make.

Typically, the plans I write are very detailed, writing out the actual details of sets, reps, intensities, and exercise selection for the timeframe of the training wave or series of waves. At the college level they would typically be written for 3- to 4-week blocks. 

These blocks are really nice and clean, leading to progress that is precise and predictable. But, I have found that doesn't work everywhere. 

At the professional level the speed of communication is much faster. I no longer have to wait to hear a possible miscommunication about injuries from athletes or coaches. I hear directly from a medical professional, and I hear quickly. So I've needed to develop into someone who can be okay with planning workouts on a day-by-day basis if that's needed. With the amount of nicks and dings these athletes compete with, this seems to be the best approach. 

A rigid planner at heart, that was a tough pill to swallow, and unfortunately, I have not yet found a way that I can implement the planning process I used to use in its entirety. 

What it’s evolved to is setting my goals at the beginning of the season, and working with each athlete to determine what their top priorities are. After these goals and priorities are set, they are the framework that I follow to plan on a day-to-day basis. These goals are what drive the focus of what we do.  If the goal is better fitness and better conditioning, then that's what I’m focused on when I'm planning workouts. Whenever I consider adding something to the program the question I ask myself is always: “Is this something that comes directly back to supporting enhanced conditioning and enhanced fitness (or other set priority)?” 

If I was still in the college setting, I wouldn’t be able to work this way, it would just be too time consuming. However, I do like the individuality that it gives all of the athletes.

This new planning structure makes me still feel like we are working towards that one primary goal, even if I cannot plan nearly as far ahead. I do go back and review past weeks to make sure that when we do have the opportunity to repeat a lift, we are progressing in some way, whether that be volume or intensity, whatever is appropriate. 

I’m pleased with this approach, it makes me feel that I can move fast enough to meet the needs of the players. When I had a firm and structured plan, I was not able to do that and felt I was not adjusting quickly enough. 

So, take a look at the population you work with, and see what the best way is to plan for your athlete’s goals. This “best way” will give you room to make decisions on the fly without jeopardizing long term goals, effectively balancing the training demands of your athletes.

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