Individualize the delivery, not the program

Ask me 10 years ago about the key to successful coaching and it was all about individualization. Ask me now, and I think most coaches individualize too much. Maybe I’m just getting set in my ways, but the longer I coach the more I see individualization as simply the icing on the cake. It’s nice to have and can make all the difference, but the true substance is the program underneath it.

This is a bit of a broad statement and of course some situations, such as injuries, demand extreme individualization. But in most standard athletic development situations we often go overboard. The first factors we often look to individualize are the sets, the reps, and the exercises. In other words, we change the whole recipe of the cake. As I argue below, there are subtler ways to individualize that are often both more effective and more efficient. They don’t involve changing out the entire recipe, but simply makes some changes around the edges that, while small, can have large effects.

Training is more alike than different

Before I share some examples of this approach to individualization, I want to discuss why bigger changes are not needed. Why not just change the recipe all the time? Because training is more alike than different. If I am coaching a group of players they all will have a lot in common: they will be playing the same sport and often same position. They will often have similar age, experience, and training age. The majority of what they need to improve is the same. This is even more true in the developmental setting: all beginning athletes need to develop physical literacy and develop power and speed. Barring a significant injury history, the program should look more similar than different. Of course each athlete is different with different strengths and weaknesses, but what will help them will look more alike than different. Spend time focusing on the basics and developing a good holistic program. This is your recipe. A good program not individualized will beat a bad program individualized any day of the week.

Strategy 1: Change the phase length

I use a variation of Nick Garcia’s foundational and basic strength work to start each year. The sets, reps, and exercises look the same. I don’t really change the program up year to year. The main thing I change for different athletes is how long the phases last.

There are two factors I look at in determining the length of each phase:

  1. What is the athlete’s experience level? A beginning athlete will take a much slower approach as the purpose of the phase is to develop a foundation. For experienced athletes, the purpose is to get back to the basics so we can then move on from them. We need to make sure the foundation is still strong and after that we can move on quickly.
  2. How fast does an athlete adapt? Researchers used to think that some athletes were simply non-responders to different types of training. More recently we’ve learned it isn’t that straightforward. In many cases you can just alter training frequency or length, and those non-responders often show a response. I’ve found many athletes simply need more time on the plan to adapt to it. This isn’t a statement about their talent, it is just how their body works. Some athletes need more than four or six weeks for a training phase. Bondarchuk has taken this concept to the extreme and the individual length of each phase is the keystone of his periodization methods.

Strategy 2: Change the entry point

Another way to individualize is to change the starting point. To use another analogy, the freeway is your training program. Different athletes might use different onramps.

Beginning athletes might need to spend a phase simply learning lifting technique. My advanced athletes can do more than just more quickly through they phase, they can skip it all together. New athletes to my program also might need to regress, whereas experienced athletes can skip ahead. The program is the same for everyone, they are just starting it at a different point.

Strategy 3: Adapt it on the floor

The last point is where the art of coaching comes in. Ask any top coach how their plan looks on paper, and how it looks in practice, and there is a gap. This gap can be for any number of reasons (time, weather, etc.), but one reason is individualization. If an athlete shows up to training in bad shape, you’ll need to make some changes. If the drills you choose aren’t challenging enough, you’ll need to make some changes. This isn’t to say that you need to throw our your plan: the goals and thought put into it are still valid. But minor tweaks on the floor can help you get more out of it. We might not think about this as individualization as it comes after the planning phase, but it is the most important type of individualization I use.

The common theme: individualize the delivery, not the program

Look at all three of these strategies and the underlying program is the same. They individualize the delivery of the program, not the program itself. In other words, they use the same recipe. Spend time developing good recipes and you can adapt them to the tastes of each athlete.