Thoughts on progressing the athlete

I’ve been thinking a lot about progressions lately. This month’s site theme is the young athlete, and that goes hand in hand with progressions. I’ll also be moderating a panel discussion on the topic at GAIN in two weeks. As a result I’ve got a bunch of random ideas floating around in my head on the topic. The following is not a set of answers on how to progress the athlete, but rather a compilation of things I am thinking about.

Progression is not linear

We often think that progression is linear in the sense that rate of improvement will remain relatively constant and the path ahead is clear. Neither is true. Athletes will reach plateaus and even regress before they make the next breakthrough. Vern Gambetta put this point best in a blog post from several years ago:

Progression demands mastery of each step before moving to the next step. In no way is it linear and entirely predictable. There is huge individual variability in how athlete’s progress at different stages of their career and how they adapt to varied training stimuli.

Frans Bosch makes a similar point in his book Strength Training and Coordination: An Integrative Approach:

That mastery of each step is also essential. Stability is as important as progression. In fact, it is more important. If the athlete has not solidified a skill, there is no sense in progressing to the next level as the gains will be illusory.

Progression as a balancing act

It is easy to think of progression in simple terms: we want to progress the athlete. But when you break it down, the whole concept is a lot more complex. We want to progress their strength, technique, mental preparation, tactics, etc. Trying to improve everything at once might be possible in some situations, but more often than not progression is a balancing act where coaches have to figure out where to press forward at each moment and then bring the whole system back into balance afterwards.

» Learn more: Vern and Martin talk about context and progressions on GAINcast 5.

In speaking with Mona Pretorius on this month’s hangout, she said she views progression for experienced athletes as troubleshooting. You find the weak link, focus on it, stabilize it, and then reassess. The whole body changes as you grow, so you are constantly assessing a new organism to find the way forward. Maybe a maximum strength deficit in the squat might be limiting and Olympic lifter. So they focus on that to progress, but solving that problem might create other imbalances. That balance act is the art of progression.

Top down vs. bottom up progressions

We might have a good idea about the end result we want to progress to, but the steps to get there could be so vast and varied that you can’t plan and predict what they will be. We talked a lot with James Marshall on GAINcast 160 about how futile it is to develop pathways in an attempt to reverse engineer champions in a top-down manner. Instead, he builds the progressions from the bottom up. As he mentioned in his article this month: “My approach is to start where the child is now, not where a model says they should be . . . using guided discovery at the younger ages rather than directions.” Go where the athlete leads you rather than where you want to take them.

Finding the starting point

Related to this, don’t let an athletes biological age, training age, apparent maturity, or competition level fool you when defining the starting point of a progression. In chatting with GAIN panel member Johnny Parkes this week, he sees this all the time. He is the Manager of Player ID and Development at USTA. Young teenagers will move to Florida to train with them. These are kids who are living away from home and traveling around the globe for tournaments at age 13, but you can’t let that fool you. All that means is they have spent a lot of time on the court, but in other areas of their life or physical preparation they may be real beginners, which affects how you progress them. And sometimes you even have to regress before you progress by breaking down bad habits to find a better starting point.

Progressions in a group environment

The topic of how to progress athletes in a group environment came up several times this month. As each athlete will be at a different place in their development, it can be difficult to create a flexible plan that will allow them to meet their individual needs and levels.

Jeremy Frisch and Greg Thompson on the podcast and James de Lacey on this month’s hangout all provided some examples of exercises they use that can be dialed up or down in training. That allows all athletes to do the same or similar exercises, while adjusting challenge to meet their need.

In continuing my conversation with Thompson off the air he pointed out another challenge he faces when it comes to progression. As a coach of primary school kids, he sees his student inconsistently and in different environments. Some kids might join him every morning, while others he only sees once a month for various reasons. How do you create progressions for that setup? Balance. As he told me: “I can’t be linear, I don’t have the same kids all the time so I have to create a good multivitamin. I have to be balanced all the time.” If a progression is balanced, kids can step in and out of it much easier.

No progression without athlete retention

My last thought is perhaps the most important: you have to stay in the sport in order to progress. Kids are dropping out of sport at alarming rates. Before we think about progressions we need to think about how to keep kids active in sport. At this month’s Inside Game conference in Geneva I got to hear from Sergio Lara-Bercial and Richard Bailey present on the topic. Bailey has done some great research on why kids start doing sports, and why they quit. These are important points to keep in mind when putting together a session: