Coaching Athletes for the Private Strength and Conditioning Coach

Physical development happens in the background of competitive athletes’ careers, and the measure of success is not in the gym but on the field of play. This is a paradigm shift for coaches who focus primarily on the health benefits of training. Athletes must prioritize performance, practice, and a competitive schedule over your optimal training program. You have to be flexible while providing expertise. These constraints might seem limiting, but they are not your constraints; they are your athletes’. Finding creative solutions that bear results is what makes you valuable as a private strength and conditioning coach.

The Role of a Private Strength and Conditioning Coach

The private strength and conditioning coach may find ample opportunities to work with developing young athletes, but with the rise of adult competitive sports—from powerlifting to pickle ball—there are growing opportunities to work with competitive athletes of many demographics. Your role coaching competitive athletes as a private strength and conditioning coach, however, is not the same as it is coaching clients for general health, strength, and physical fitness.

Physical development happens in the background of competitive athletes’ careers, and the measure of success is not in the gym but on the field of play. This is a paradigm shift for coaches who focus primarily on the health benefits of training. Athletes must prioritize performance, practice, and a competitive schedule over your optimal training program. You have to be flexible while providing expertise. These constraints might seem limiting, but they are not your constraints; they are your athletes’. Finding creative solutions that bear results is what makes you valuable as a private strength and conditioning coach. 

The strength and conditioning coach takes crucial and complicated parts of athletes’ development out of their hands, making decisions about a host of factors: 

  • Programming
  • Schedule
  • Exercise Selection
  • Intra-workout adjustments
  • Tracking, managing, and adjusting for fatigue
  • Peaking and game day specificity
  • In-season vs. off-season strength and conditioning goals

Let’s step back and look at the things a private strength and conditioning coach has to consider and possibly juggle in order to optimize an athlete’s training and minimize interference from training to sport and sport to training.

Training, Practice, Performance, and Recovery

Training is all the things the athlete does in the gym to improve their physical capabilities. The strength and conditioning coach creates a training program targeting planned physical adaptations that help the athlete meet a specific goal or set of goals. Training goals are not performance goals. They are physical development goals that the coach will monitor through meaningful metrics for physical development. For example, a maximum effort deadlift or AMRAP bench press may have little meaning in terms of performance on the field but often make useful training benchmarks. 

A performance is a test of the athlete’s proficiency in his or her sport. The athlete’s performance reflects on all other factors of their preparation, not the least of which is their physical development through training and the dissipation of fatigue from training before a competition. Performances will also often highlight areas where the athlete needs work in the gym: strength, conditioning, muscular endurance, and game day readiness.

Practice is where athletes develop the skills and specific expressions of physical development that lead to successful performances. The private strength and conditioning coach has little to no input on the practice schedule, and the practice schedule will usually trump the strength and conditioning coach’s training schedule.

Recovery describes baseline behaviors that create a kind of reservoir from which the athlete draws to manage fatigue and see improvements. These behaviors include how the athlete eats, sleeps, manages stress, and dedicates their non-competitive hours. Recovery affects all other areas of the athlete’s success.

Athletes can roughly divide their lives up into these four areas. Generally, practice and performances can happen cyclically, in seasons during the year, giving the strength and conditioning coach more time and recovery resources to draw on during the off-season. Physical development is a constant for the athlete, meaning the strength and conditioning coach must push for appropriate training schedules, even when athletes balk at training taking time away from practicing or playing their sport.

The Importance of Physical Development

There’s no clear line between practice and training. Sports use physical attributes and, in the use, develop them. The ability to hit a tennis ball, for example, requires skill in the swing and a developed perception to control the swing and the ball. It also requires power and accuracy, balance and whole-body strength, timing and controlled aggression. Just practicing tennis can improve all these attributes but not indefinitely.

Novice athletes often confuse this phenomenon with some kind of training principle of specificity. Just play [the sport] if you want to get stronger/faster/better. Hit a plateau? No problem! Practice more/play more/compete more. This mentality resists anything that takes the athlete off the field or out of practice. To most athletes (and unfortunately most head coaches), less practice is never the answer. 

Sports specificity and training specificity are two different things. Training specificity is general development—making the athlete stronger, training their energy systems to handle more practice and perform better, and targeting weaknesses in the athlete’s performance. This starts with general physical development that is useful no matter the athletes’ sports: balanced, well-developed, whole-body strength, developed through a means of coordinated multi-joint movements that require significant control and balance, and a broad conditioning base with appropriate energy systems training. For the underdeveloped athlete, training specificity is similar to training for general strength.

General training specificity works from upstream to downstream. Bigger movements that train more muscle mass at heavier loads, which require symmetrical efforts over long ranges of motion are upstream types of exercises. The benefits athletes get from those movements carry downstream and positively affect the movements and skills necessary for sports. For example, a heavy squat trains the athlete for powerful hip and knee extension as well as creating an immensely strong trunk, tying together force produced against the ground and the rest of the body through the hips and trunk. The squat also trains the athletes balance and creates a readiness to produce force. For athletes who lack dedicated squat training this one movement costs little time and carries a great benefit. Eventually, however, getting a stronger squat may have a negligible benefit for the athlete (depending on the sport) and training must move downstream a little bit toward specificity.

For novice or under-trained athletes, training does not start getting specific until they have reached a baseline of strength, conditioning, and mobility that is appropriate for their bodyweight, age, schedule, and recovery baseline. What is appropriate is determined by an informed strength and conditioning coach who understands the requirements of the sports that they are helping the athletes train for.  Until athletes reach that baseline, their lack of a general strength and conditioning base limits the benefit they get from sport-specific training. 

As the athlete advances, programming changes will include more sport-specific considerations. Importantly, however, sport-specific physical adaptations build on top of general physical development. The athlete cannot neglect these general adaptations, or those attributes will start to wane. Sport-specific training includes the muscular endurance and the energy system demands of the sport as well as motor control, flexibility, and accentuating areas where strength is more important. For example, the grappler benefits from grip strength, strong pulling, and elbow flexion movements. As their program gets more specific, the may lean toward chin-ups, curls, heavy rows, and dedicated grip in their program. Many sport-specific physical attributes are best trained in practice. That is something the strength and conditioning coach must account for in their programming. The more sports-specific in-the-gym training gets, the more necessary it is for the strength and conditioning coach to understand the demands of the sport.

Training specificity continues to target physical development—strong muscles, energy systems, power, and muscular endurance—not the specific tasks that the athlete does in practice. Very rarely will the things athletes do in the gym look like the sports they play. Given the need for continual development and maintenance of general physical attributes, strength and conditioning coaches will tend to train their athletes in blocks that help them peak for performances, maximize the use of the off-season, and focus on readiness as the athletes get closer to competitions. Training should regularly cycle back to general physical development, whenever time and recovery resources allow.

General Principles for Coaching Competitive Athletes

(1) Organize Training from General to Sports-specific. Training should start generally with the goal of improving the athlete’s broad base of strength and fitness, getting more sport-specific as the athlete makes progress. This means that most athletes will start with similar looking training but training plans will start to diverge based on their sports and individual needs. 

The body’s ability to accommodate a productive stress means that the stress must change in order to continue to make improvements. Though the initial changes should be in the magnitude of the stress, eventually it must also vary in quality and character or the athlete will stagnate. This need for variety means that the coach has to pick and organize exercises that will carry over well to the athlete’s sport. Since all sports have different requirements and athletes have different strengths, what the strength and conditioning coach chooses will different form person to person. 

Demanding competition and practice schedules may force premature specificity. If the athlete has to allocate more resources to the sport, the strength and conditioning coach may need to employ less stressful training than general training allows.

(2) Anticipate Frequent Programming Changes to Address Fatigue. The strength and conditioning coach will have to make tactical ad hoc changes as the athlete’s fatigue and fitness waxes and wanes. Unfortunately, no activity is static, causing predictable fatigue or allowing the athlete to return to a predictable baseline. During the most intensive parts of a season for some sports, fatigue will not dissipate between competitions or practices, requiring the athlete to constantly manage their ability to recover enough to perform at a high level. The strength and conditioning coach has to manage with them, making impromptu changes to their programming, and staying flexible despite their best-laid plans. 

Typically, this will mean inserting deload days or cycles that help the athlete recover fromrather than add totheir training stress. This also frequently requires intra-workout changes, which can happen on the fly but does not necessarily require subjective, perception-based programming. 

To help manage these frequent changes, it helps if the strength and conditioning coach has set out a particular goal for each main lift in a training session. These goals are usually either volume, intensity, speed work, or maximum effort work. If the athlete cannot complete the workout as written, they should know what the goal is for the lift or exercise and work to meet that goal.

Volume Goals: The goal for volume work is the accumulation of fatigue within a particular rep range, through multiple sets, at a weight that is heavy enough to produce productive fatigue. If, for example, the strength and conditioning coach has programed 5×5 squats at 225 pounds, the underlying goal is enough sets in the five-rep range to cause fatigue (with the assumption that 225 pounds is heavy enough for that lifter to produce fatigue without being too heavy). If the athlete is unable to complete this workout as written for any reason, they should still try to achieve the goal for volume work by manipulating the appropriate variables.The athlete should first try to preserve overall volume (five sets of five reps) at a weight that is still heavy enough to elicit the proper response—usually 5-10% off the programmed weight. If they are already fatigued, three or four sets may be enough, but the number of repetitions per set should stay as close to five as possible.

Intensity Goals: Whereas volume goals should preserve the programmed volume, intensity goals should have the athlete trying to lift the programmed weight even if the number of reps must change. They should also try to maintain the number of programmed sets. So, for example, the coach might program two sets of three repetitions at 315 pounds for intensity work. The 315 is the most important part, and the athlete should try to lift 315 for at least a single rep for two sets. Decreasing the weight here is more likely to change the desired stress. If necessary, the athlete can try to complete a single repetition at 315 and then call it a day.

Speed work: By its nature, speed work is less difficult to complete even while fatigued. For speed work, the athlete should be trying to get the most out of each rep, via set-up and speed on the concentric portion of the lift. Changes to actual programming will be infrequent, but should focus only on reducing the number of overall sets and not changing the reps per set or the programmed wight unless absolutely necessary. 

Maximum Effort work: If an athlete is truly fatigued, the coach should consider whether maximum effort work is appropriate at their stage in training. If it is, changes to maximum effort work can focus on changing the type of exercise to increase the range of motion, making the lift more difficult and reducing the overall stress by decreasing the weight. For example, a maximum effort deadlift set changed to a maximum effort double-overhand deadlift (no mixed or hook gripping) will reduce the weight. Similarly, a paused deadlift, SLDL, or other variation can help reduce fatigue while keeping the effort level as high as the coach intended. The coach should use caution in these kinds of substitutions since some supplemental lifts carry a higher risk of injury when done at maximum effort. 

(3) Anticipate a Reduced Training Schedule During In-Season Training. For in-season athletes, scheduling training around competition and practice takes some advance planning. Competitive schedules vary widely from two game days per week to once or twice a year. The less frequent the competition the more you can plan for cyclical progress and regular returns to general training. These athletes will rarely have an off-season. Instead, their training will happen in blocks very similar to the standard models of block periodization.

Progress will depend on the degree to which a competitive schedule affects the athlete’s training. More advanced lifters will suffer a greater impact on their strength training from the competitive season. For younger, less trained athletes progress is still possible during the season. Changes within the program will be more frequent for more demanding schedules. The basic principles of small changes for steady progress should be preserved as much as possible.

(4) Always Return to General Training. We talked above about general and sports-specific training and the need to maintain a base of general strength and conditioning that the athlete can build upon. Hard in-season schedules or intense, infrequent peaking for competition will erode the athlete’s base. The strength and conditioning coach should take opportunities in the early off-season or immediately following a competition to rebuild or even improve the athlete’s base. This will often look like a short linear progression followed by an accumulation block if the athlete is on advanced block programming. In these phases, most of the athlete’s strength work will look boring: big lifts, lots of volume, with infrequent peaks. 

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