Replacing prediction models with learning models

We often think about periodization and planning as a process of prediction. The longer I coach, the more I see we need to reframe periodization as a process of learning. The best coaches implement planning methods that allow them to learn. It took me too long to realize this distinction, but the sooner as coaches understand it, the sooner they can take their athletes to the next level.

Learning to learn

Traditional planning has many shortcomings, but the big one is that they can make it hard to learn. Most coaches start out the year with a long and intense phase of general training. Essentially they dig themselves a hole, and then gradually climb out of it throughout the year. The problem is that sometimes the hole is too deep and you never get out of it. To make matters worse, you only realize that when it is too late and the season is over.

It reminds me of how Dr. Anatoli Bondarchuk once insisted to me that it wasn‘t his programming that made his methods effective, it was his process. He had a process that allowed him to learn about athletes better than other coaches. As he told me in one of our interviews:

“Everybody makes mistakes. If your peak condition takes one year you are finished. You lost that year. If you make a mistake again then you lose another year. My system is different. For example I will give my athletes a program with certain intensity, volume, and exercises. After two or three months they will reach peak condition. If the result did not grow then I made a mistake. Then I give another system for the second peak condition. If again the results do not grow I try again. If the first time there is no growth, the second time no growth, but the third time a little growth then I learned what works. With six peak conditions each year you have time to learn and make mistakes.”

Learning to dig smaller holes

Recently Vern and I led a workshop on planning and periodization in Zurich. Near the end Vern challenged coaches to rethink the microcycle. We are often tied to a 7-day microcycle and try to cram everything into it. Why not distribute that work over 14 days? His 14-day microcycle template is essentially a mini season plan: you start with more volume and general work (preparation), then increase the intensity (adaptation), then focus on specificity (application).

Different microcycles might have different themes of focuses, but the goal is always to learn. The last few days are kind a test where the coach can see if the adaptation and transfer is there. Here is an example Vern has shared previously on how this might look for an American football player preparing for the NFL combine.

Rather than digging a big hole every year, why not dig a little hole every few weeks and see if you get out of it. If not, you learn and adjust.

Shifting the focus

It‘s so easy to focus on the sets and reps when looking looking at the latest training plan or periodization model. For example, when people look at Bondarchuk’s training they focus on the amount of sub-maximal work he does. Or with Vern they might ask about the volume differences between the preparation and adaptation days. Surely that matters, but it is not the big difference maker.

What matters most are the process around the sets and reps. The processes are what can make the sets and reps effective or not. They determine whether we can learn from the sets and reps to make them more effective in the future. We have an addiction to prediction, when predicting complex systems is an inherently difficult task that will more often than not disappoint us. But shifting the focus to learning will ensure we are always improving our processes, no matter how difficult the task.