4 Ways to Individualize Training Programs in a Team Setting
We know it’s important to individualize training programs as has been discussed previously here. While we can recognise its importance, individualization can be hugely time-consuming, and often times in a team setting it might not be the most practical. This unfortunately means that individualization can sometimes be put on the back burner and ultimately there is a decent chance that it may not even happen.
It’s definitely understandable why this can occur given the limited amount of time S&C coaches have with their athletes and the time commitment involved in individualizing everything. Providing a team with a generic program that meets the overall demands of the sport is all that can be achieved sometimes and this isn’t necessarily the worst thing. Most bases will be covered by doing this because despite having a squad of 20-30 athletes with varying individual characteristics if they’re all playing the same sport they are preparing for mostly similar demands after all.
Of course, it won’t cover all bases as there are also plenty of differences e.g. age, body composition, goals, training experience, training preferences, injury history, playing position, height, etc. so it comes to a point where you must decide if you’re happy enough to stick with the generic program or if you’d prefer to individualize training programs as best as you can in your given circumstances.
If you are on the side of wanting to make things a bit more individual I’m willing to bet that one of the biggest barriers to you doing this is the time commitment involved. This is where having a systematic approach to individualizing things will save you. In the beginning, it may take a decent chunk of time to establish your system but in the long run, it will be a huge asset. This blog aims to provide insight into how to effectively individualize training programs in a team setting by taking a systematic approach. This can help save you time while also ensuring that your athletes are all progressing appropriately.
Identify what the athletes have in common before you individualize training programs
First, it’s important to focus on the fact that the athletes do have quite a lot in common. So while we have just highlighted quite a few potential individual differences and reinforced the importance of individualization, I think we can also get too caught up in having everything individualized which can lead us to lose sight of the overall objectives of the program. It’s important you don’t get too caught up in this.
As discussed in A Framework for Program Design Parts 1-3, a huge part of the program is to ensure the athletes are prepared for the demands of the sport. In a team sport setting all the athletes are preparing for the same sport so it’s not necessary to start from scratch for each athlete’s program, some differences in preparation will of course be needed given their position and other factors as mentioned earlier but having a ‘base’ program is probably a good idea.
If each program is written from scratch for each athlete the overarching goal of the program can become lost and there’s a risk that individualization is occurring just for the sake of it. There should be a clear pathway in your programming, it shouldn’t be a case where all programs in a team setting are vastly different. Of course, this comes with a few caveats e.g. a rehab-based program might need to be quite different from a general performance program.
Even just to look at things practically, if all programs are very different for each athlete in a group things can quickly become chaotic… good luck trying to coordinate that in a team gym session! So the first step in building the system will be to build a program template that addresses the general needs of the sport, so that will look at the common injury risks of the sport and the key performance indicators. You will get this information from doing your needs analysis, as is covered in great detail in A Framework for Program Design Part 1:Needs Analysis.
Once we have done the needs analysis and have established what needs to be addressed based on the demands of the sport we must have a look at how often the team will be able to make it to the gym. Often in a team sport environment, this will be dictated by fixture schedule, pitch-based training sessions, etc. so this may be decided for you.
Mostly in season for example you would be lucky to get two team-based sessions per week. Of course, when you come to individualize training programs a bit further the split may change as some players will be able to get more gym sessions in than others, it’s just my preference to get the base program in place first and then any extra sessions can be used to target individual areas.
From here we have plenty to work with to make a fairly decent program to cater to the general athlete in the squad. We know what we need to do to address the demands of the sport and we know how often they will likely be able to do a gym session. If it’s a team gym session you will most likely be limited to a specific time, a certain amount of space, and equipment too, which will actually be useful information in making the program.
We now have more than enough information to build the base program. To make things even easier on yourself you should also have a session template that you follow to help structure your session. This is the general session template that I will start with, credit to Athlete’s Authority for this one! The system I use for individualizing programs and the points that I cover throughout this article are all very heavily influenced by their great work. All sessions don’t need to follow this exactly but it’s a good starting point.
With all the information we have gathered we can choose the key lifts and the accessory movements. Once all of that is done we can start individualizing things very simply using this template. All of a sudden opportunities where we can cater to the individual athlete become a lot clearer while still catering to the whole team. Below we’ll focus on A Sequence as an example to help add clarity to my points.
Training Program Individualization Opportunity #1: Key Lifts (Progression Model)
A1 and B1 are the main key lifts, these movements will be chosen for the demands of the sport. Let’s say you choose a key lift but then a certain individual athlete has difficulty with it, it’s important you have a system in place that will help make the decision for you. We can use a two-up/two-down system to guide us. Essentially what this is is that for every key lift we are going to decide on 2 progressions and 2 regressions. Two give or take. Below is an example of some bilateral squat regressions and progressions.
All of a sudden it is very simple to individualize training programs based on the athlete’s training ability. If they can’t do a Barbell Box Squat then a Goblet Squat may be a more appropriate option. Of course, you could also include different grips or variations of the lift if you didn’t want to regress fully. For example, if it was a Front Squat and the athlete just had difficulty with the grip it may be more appropriate to allow them to do a Zombie Grip or a Crossover Front Rack position rather than completely changing the lift just because they can’t achieve the Front Rack position.
The same principle can be applied to the other lifts that were chosen to populate the base program. It’s really up to you how you lay out the progressions and regressions, perhaps a Front Squat or Overhead Squat wouldn’t be progressions for your system and you can choose to progress in other ways. Or you could look at regressions in closer detail like the example above using variations that only differ slightly.
It will most likely be based on your needs analysis and what you want your athletes to work towards but I would recommend having a set progression model that you can use to guide you in making adjustments.
Training Program Individualization Opportunity #2: Key Lifts (Individual Preference)
There will be athletes that just despise certain exercises and maybe have a love for others. Allowing an athlete to choose or at least have a say in what lift they do will help individualize training programs but it will also increase their buy-in to the program. Having a clear system in place will make this process easier.
Using your exercise progression model will make sure the goals of the program remain consistent with what you set out initially. For example, an athlete might hate doing Romanian Deadlifts but it doesn’t make sense to switch these out for Bicep Curls just because the athlete prefers doing arms over hamstrings. On the other hand, allowing an athlete to do a Front Squat instead of a Back Squat because they prefer it may be a worthwhile compromise.
Training Program Individualization Opportunity #3: Supplementary Lifts / Fillers
A3, B3, and C3 are easy options to include extra mobility or more specific prep needed for the individual athlete. Let’s use the squat movement as the example again, if an athlete’s technique is being negatively impacted by restricted ankle dorsiflexion in the squat – A3 might be a decent place to put in some targeted ankle mobility exercises to help improve their squat. Whereas another athlete can use that option for something more useful for them specifically, perhaps some hip mobility. It also ensures that appropriate rest is taken before going into the next set of the key lift. Looking at it practically here’s an example of an A Sequence for the two scenarios mentioned.
It’s nothing too complex by any means but if this is done for each sequence (if appropriate) it will definitely make the program more individualized and it will allow the athlete to get more out of the session and overall program.
Bonus / Training Program Individualization Opportunity #4: Resilience Options
This section can be used to address areas that have been identified as a risk of injury for the individual athlete, it can also be done to cater to the whole squad or different groups within the squad. For example, if an athlete has a history of groin injuries this can be used to do specific groin rehab/prehab exercises for them, or if there are a few athletes that have been identified as being at higher risk of hamstring injuries then it may be best to use this section to address that and let them work together.
A screening process will help identify who needs to prioritize what but it can also be really helpful to tie in with the team physiotherapist for any recommendations. It can be difficult for athletes to stay on top of rehab/prehab exercises for a number of reasons so it can be a good idea to allow time for that within the program, if nothing else it can be boring doing rehab exercises on their own so having the time within the gym session where it’s not ‘just rehab’ might make it a bit easier for the athlete.
Here’s an example of an R Sequence for the two scenarios mentioned – a hamstring group and individual groin prehab.
In summary, individualizing training programs in a team sport setting doesn’t need to be as complex and time-consuming as you might think. First, you must build a strong base program that addresses the common injury risks of the sport and the key performance indicators, then you can look to make it more specific to cater to the individual. Developing the systems like the ones mentioned above provide clear opportunities to individualize training programs efficiently. This will help save you time while making sure you’re athletes are still progressing!
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