Balance first, individualization second

As a high school athletic development coach one of the first questions I always get when talking to a parent is if I individualize the program or do sport specific programs. It is also one of the most irritating questions. Just like the terms “activation” or “posterior chain” the terms “sport specific” or “individualization” have become buzz words the last number of years. I am not sure of the reason why. Maybe because the person I am talking to wants to sound smart on the subject or maybe it’s just because they heard others refer to the style of training they are doing. Regardless, I do not think individualization should be the first thing on an athlete’s mind when it comes to start a new training plan or working with a new coach. 

Kids these days . . .

I think it is important that I cover the fact that yes different sports and individuals do require different skills or energy system use. For example, a marathon runner is not going to train like a weightlifter or shot putter and visa/versa. However, I also think it depends on the age or level of the athlete.

I work with primarily high school athletes. They range in age from 14 to 18 years old. Many of them have a very low training age if any. Furthermore, in my region physical education is not a priority in middle or elementary schools, so many of them struggle with anything somewhat athletic when they first arrive. Then you have the opposite end of the spectrum. Many whom have only trained a lot, but often just focused on one sport their entire adolescent life and only have skills doing that sport. This is in reference to basketball and baseball players who specialize in that sport early and play all year around. Do these specialists have skills in their perspective sports? Absolutely! Would I consider them equally balanced throughout their bodies? In my opinion, absolutely not! They have background in only one skill set that relates to their sport. 

The balanced wheel approach

This is where my philosophy on individualization of programs comes in. I was fortunate to have great mentors as I went throughout my coaching career. One of the most important things that I was taught was by my college coach Glenn McAtee. He explained to me that you can think of the body as a bicycle wheel. Bicycle wheels have may spokes and each spoke should be under the same amount of tension. If one spoke is out of place, loose, etc. the entire wheel can be at risk of collapsing. Now apply that to your body regardless of sport. If one side of your body is constantly being used like a pitcher in baseball the other side may be a little out of balance. This can cause injury in a number of different ways. This is where the uniqueness or strength of my program is applied. I say “my program” loosely because the program is a combination of all the coaches who have mentored me.

Looking at the philosophy of the body being like a spoked bicycle wheel it is my goal to apply the most balanced and comprehensive training program I can. In the past we have talked about how I set my lifting up. I have never really discussed how the entire program comes together. My entire program includes the use of multi-Jumps (plyometrics), resistance training (including pre-hab and mobility), multi-throws (Medicine Ball), and for my throwers speed and endurance. I reference just the throwers here because most of the time the specific sport will take care of that within their practice. If a particular sport does not work on their speed both linear and multi-directional I will also take care of that part of training. 

All athletes will train uni-laterally and bi-laterally. When training multi-jumps, resistance training, multi-throws they will train on all three planes of movement (sagittal, transverse, and frontal). We will use different implements: barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, medicine balls, aqua bags, etc. 

What does this have to do with individualization? Only after you have a strong wheel can you think about customizing the wheel. There is no point in tricking the wheels out if they won’t function in their basic purpose of moving the bike forward.

Focus on balance over individualization

Let’s have a look on how a typical week and day are set up. As you can see, we are focused on “balance” more than “individualization.” Why balance? Balance and diversity let us develop a solid base and be applied to all sports. As I said, the focus with this age group is to develop a strong wheel before tricking it out with too much individualization.

Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4 Day 5 Day 6 Day 7
Resistance training
General strength circuit or active rest Multi-jumps Speed/Multi-Directional
Resistance Training
General strength circuit or active rest Passive Rest
Module 1 Explosive
Pre Hab/Injury Prevention/Mobility
Module 2 Lower body
Upper body pull
Pre Hab/Injury Prevention/Mobility
Module 3 Posterior chain
Upper body push
Pre Hab/Injury Prevention/Mobility

This isn’t to say there is no room for individualization in our program. If you notice, each module includes a pre hab/injury prevention/mobility element. I individualize what we do here by teams. Each team is screened and I assign this category based on the team trend. For example, if they are tight in the hips we will apply a mobility movement that is hip specific, if tight in the shoulders we will apply a mobility movement that is shoulder specific. Each team based on the characteristics of their sport will have different trends they may be deficient in and this is how we attack those deficiencies. Sports specific training also allows for indvidualization. But that’s it. Balance comes first and if we get that right we are a long ways towards our goals.