From simple to advanced individualization

A few years ago I had a long conversation with a old and successful coach who told me that his plan fits to every athlete. As he put it: “They will get used to it after a while and then they will improve a lot.” He couldn’t convince me with this. What I saw in his group at this time was frustration and injuries. This kept coming up again and again with his athletes, but he was not willing to think where this could came from. For me the answer was clear.

How I understand individualization

When I started working as a coach first I was using plans and templates that I got from my old coach. I had trained with him for over fifteen years, but immediately I recognized that they were not working the way I wanted them to work with my athletes. After few months and lots of thinking, I had a a few small changes for each of my athletes. Funny enough, the plans started working much better. My coach had made my plans just for me and my needs. If my athletes have the same needs as I did, then he saved me some nights spent planning. But if not, I have to go back to the desk and create something new.

As coaches start out working with athletes there comes a point when they need to start to think about individualization. Once this conversation starts, there are a few topics that must be addressed first:

  • the specific movement patterns required in the sport;
  • the physical qualities required for those movements; and
  • other physiological adaptations required for the sport, such as ligaments, CNS, etc.

All of these considerations come before you start thinking about the individual athlete and the exercises, programs, or annual plans.

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The same, but different

If you look at the training plans from my group the first thing you will notice is that they are in German. But after you get over that, you’ll see that they have more in common than different. All the athletes have the same training days, the same times off, and mostly the same session goals. The reason for this is that:

  • My group consists entirely of throwers, so they need the same physical qualities;
  • They have nearly the some competition schedule; and
  • It makes it easier for me to work with a group from both an organizational and family standpoint.

If you look at the questions in the last section, the answers are all the same for my athletes, and therefore the basic structure of the plan stays the same. But after this, the similarities end for the most part and the individualization starts. There are four levels of individualization I look at, ranging from simple to advanced.

Level 1: Adapt the exercise

I like to see the liftings from the floor, but I have one athlete in my group who can’t do this because of some innate knee problems. Why should I torture him and make him do the standard exercise? We therefore change the exercise to better fit him. He now does lifting from small boxes with the same good results, the angles used still transfer to throwing, and, most importantly, no pain.

Level 2: Change the exercise

Sometimes you also need to change the entire exercise. For instance different athletes sometimes prefer different exercises for developing power in the gym. My personal go to exercise is the snatch, but you can reach the same goals with high pulls or cleans. Often these are the athletes personal preferences, but sometimes its more a matter of how good and safe can they do an exercise. If a substitute exercise will help an athlete, then we will change to that.

Another example of this level is how we jump. All my throwers jump on the same days, with the same intensities and the same goal: getting faster in the ring. But for my hammer throwers we use more horizontal, reactive jumps while my shot putters more vertical, reactive jumps. In the discus we take a combination of both. I think, this jumps should display the way the athlete moves through the ring. All of my athletes jump in different ways, but when it comes down to final preparations for the competitive season we focus on exercises that display the movement patterns and the rhythm of the competition movement.

Level 3: Balance the training load

Every athlete’s body reacts different to a certain training load. As a a coach you have to figure out the optimal stimulus for every athlete you work with. This requires watching for the adaptations you want and seeing how much regeneration the athlete needs. Some athletes are fine in the accumulation phase with 5×5 rep-scheme, others need some other stimulus like the pyramid-system (I use mostly 8-8-7-7-5-5). Cutting down this numbers when it comes down to summer season is a no-brainer. You always just have to watch the residual effects.

Are your athletes able to throw every day on a high level or do they need a day with no throwing in between? I work with athletes, who are throwing once a day and others, who are throwing two times every second day. At the end, they might reach the same volumes, but its a huge difference for both types of athletes.

The biggest difference I recognized was the time of regeneration after each single block or phase and before the major meets. I noticed, that there are athlete who you can train your usual way up to two days before a meet and others, who need to give a rest one week before with some real short, easy session.

Level 4: Annual planning

This one is tough. Here you may find differences in duration of each block or phase or maybe completely different planning models. This could depend on things like the competition season, annual goals (developing different abilities, regeneration year, etc.), and the athlete’s preferences.

To be honest, I never used this one until now as my athletes have a similar season and goals. But this could happen to my group next season after trying the block periodization model this year for the first time. At the end of this season I have to sit down and talk the each athlete, if we shall continue using this model or going back to our proven single-periodization model.

Putting it into practice

As I put this theory into practice, I always try to remember three key points.

  1. Don’t play around too much. You know the coaches who come around the corner every other week with new, fancy exercises, methods and strategies? They will never be successful in a long term because this isn’t individualization. This is chaos. Instead coaches need to think about the athlete’s development, choosing things wisely, and testing things out. Let the athletes get used to your decisions and know the adaption times they need. You might see some small success really fast, but give everything a few weeks to grow and wait for proven results. Even bad results are okay – then you just learned something new.
  2. Keep track of what you are doing and why. Beside all the training diaries and protocols your athletes are (hopefully) doing, you should write your own journal on how things are working out in training. There is no need to do this on a daily basis, but a few times a week would be great. I started this when I change my annual model to keep track of changes, advices, observations and ideas I had and will have over the whole process. It doesn’t matter, how you are doing this, just make sure, they are all in one place and you always can have a look at it. The journal helps me rethinking stuff from time to time, when I need to adjust my plannings. Even discussions with my athletes find a place here. This leads us to the most important advice here . . .
  3. Trust your athletes. Athletes know the most about what’s going on in their bodies. As a coach you have to lead them to a level of understanding their bodies so that they can tell you what could be good or not. The most individual changes we did here in training are results of shorter or (sometimes) longer talks with my athletes. You will learn a lot from them in terms of loads, regeneration and feelings. They other way around they will better understand, why you select each exercise, block duration, etc. Mostly I offer them solutions and they will discuss this with me and we decide together. This builds up a lot of confidence on both sides. But the best thing here is, you make them responsible too for their planning, they chose the stuff with you. So they are much more convinced of their training and the ideas behind. This involves the athletes mind much more into the training and the results will be much better then.