Tips to individualize training in a team setting

The expression ‘there is no I in team’ is often used in team sports to suggest that no individual’s needs, abilities or ideas should take precedence over the combined skills and efforts of the entire group. From a team culture perspective, I would tend to agree with this saying. However, the core principle of individualization also suggests that coaching and training should be based on the athlete’s actual state of training, experience, athletic potential, and characteristics. Research has clearly shown standardized training program will produce a wide range of adaptive responses, with the same training producing large, small or negative responses among different athletes. How is a coach to deal with these seemingly contradictory points?

The first step to solving the problem is to understand that it is not an either/or question. The needs of the individual can be integrated with those of the team in most cases. Logistical issues place additional hurdles in the way of coaches, but as James Marshall wrote about in a recent post, little things like greeting an athlete can go a long ways towards integrating the team and individual needs. Below are some useful tips that I use in my current practice and that a coach can use to hopefully better individualize the training of athletes in a team setting.

Tip 1: Start with a system

From an athletic development perspective, principles of “systems thinking” can be used by the coach to lay the foundation of how to better individualize elements of a training session or training program to the needs of athletes. Read and colleagues (2016) propose four sequential steps to this approach:

  1. Identifying the performance goals for a given sport;
  2. Identifying the physiological and biomechanical requirements of this sport;
  3. Selecting appropriate tests to assess an athlete; and
  4. Selecting an appropriate and progressive sequence of exercises related to steps 2 and 3.

Let’s take ice hockey as an example and apply this system-based approach while considering the opportunities for individualized training interventions. Nowadays, ice hockey players need to play fast, make quick decisions under pressure and be skilled. When working with developmental athletes, the performance goals will be based on the competitive level of the athletes as outlined by Côté and Gilbert: (a) participation coaching and (b) performance coaching. With participation coaching, these goals are more short-term and relate to the positive, fun, and engaging environment and sessions. In this setting, is individualization of training really necessary when the social aspect of physical activity is predominant? On the other hand, performance coaching entails a more integrated, progressive, and intensive process where both short-term (improving my skating, winning a tournament) and long-term (getting a full scholarship to play at the university level or making it to the pros). Thus performance context might thus warrant for a greater consideration for individualization of training based on the athletes’ age, their sport, their position or their injury history as mentioned by James. Knowing the short-term and long-term goals of the athletes can be a good way to establish that coach-athlete relationship.

From a physical perspective, to be able to play this type of ice hockey, players need well-rounded physical qualities such as speed, power, strength, anaerobic & aerobic fitness, mobility, and stability to perform the multidirectional, high-intensity intermittent efforts.

Following the identification of the requirements of the sport, I can select different tests to assess the athletes. In our case, we divided testing into two components: (a) movement competence and (b) performance testing. Movement competence included movements such as ankle dorsiflexion range of motion, double-leg overhead squat, single-leg squat, forward lunge, chin-ups for reps and side plank for time. For performance testing, we selected the 10-m sprint, the modified 505 change-of-direction test, the countermovement jump, and the 30-15 Intermittent Fitness Test. Analysis of the results to these different tests can provide a first step into the individualization of training in a performance setting.

Tip 2: Use themes and categories of exercises

Before you can decide how to individualize training, it helps to know what your options are. To facilitate the programming the different training sessions, I like to put together a repertoire of exercises that I would like to use to develop the different physical qualities that I have identified in the previous steps as important for ice hockey. For example, lower body strength can be addressed using a variety of exercises such as squat, lunges, step-ups, deadlifts, single-leg squat and their numerous variations. This large repertoire of exercises can help the coach select appropriate exercises based on an athlete’s needs without having all individuals in a group perform the same movement.

When putting together the training sessions, using a general template or framework can allow the coach the needed flexibility to make changes on the spot without losing the team purpose of the training. Our own template, which I’ve written about before, looks like this:

Let’s look at just one category of the template: speed. The requirements of the goaltending position in ice hockey are vastly different than that of forwards and defensemen. Goaltenders need to be quick at moving laterally and getting in and out of the butterfly position. In developing acceleration speed, shorter sprinting distances and more emphasis on lateral start while pushing with the outside leg may be a better choice for them while other players could perform straight-ahead sprinting over longer distances (5-20 meters). The theme of a particular session may be the same (speed), the category of exercise may also be the same (short sprints), but how the players perform the exercises may differ. This way, I am not disrupting too much the flow of the group session, but I am tailoring my exercise selection to be more representative of the needs of the players’ position.

Tip 3: Be open with players and support autonomy

The template approach can also promote the integration of autonomy-supportive behaviors by the coach. Based on research from the field of psychology and the study of motivation, the provision of structure and involving athletes in the decision-making process of program design can have a beneficial impact on their needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness, which can, in turn, nurture their intrinsic motivation. Having a template is a key first step, but it is even more effective when players are involved in the decision-making on each micro adjustment.

Implementation of autonomy-supportive behaviors such as:

  • Providing choice within specific rules and limits;
  • Providing a rationale for tasks and limits; and
  • Providing athletes with opportunities for initiative taking and independent work can be done quite easily in the right coaching context and according to the coach’s personal orientation (athlete-centered approach > coach-centered approach).

When providing choice, the repertoire of exercises and the different training themes and categories of exercises are very useful. For example, when looking at developing muscular power in the lower body, athletes can choose between different derivatives of the Olympic weightlifting movements, medicine ball throws or types of plyometrics. To me, these exercises would fall under the category of ‘power training’. Choosing the right exercise for a given individual in a given session can further be discussed and agreed upon between the athlete and the coach to highlight the rationale for one exercise over another in a particular context. Finally, allowing athletes to add their own twists to some exercises or by choosing which recovery modality they feel is beneficial for them can fill their need for initiative taking.

Final thoughts

To individualize training in a team setting is certainly a difficult task but it certainly is not impossible. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the ability to individualize or to provide individual attention, as mentioned by international sprint coach Stuart McMillan, is a hallmark of effective coaching. To do so, especially when working with athletes from Generation Z, effective communication skills are essential to provide and receive critical feedback from the athletes and to establish a good coach-athlete relationship. Once this relationship has taken roots, it is important for coaches to set clear expectations that are understood and agreed upon by athletes. Then, setting the proper structure will allow for the creation of independent and resilient athletes that can adapt and thrive under various situations during practice or during competition. Altogether, individualizing training in team setting is certainly important and finding ways to get the right balance between group and individual training will come through experience and having boots on the ground.