Making summer programs is not fun. There is no worse feeling as a collegiate strength and conditioning coach knowing that the excitement you have while developing a phenomenal summer plan will inevitably be trumped by the reminder that only a small percentage of your athletes will perform the program the way it is intended. The inherent S&C coach mentality then leads to feelings of disappointment and a desire for more discipline from all of your athletes. You work tirelessly to create a desired culture during the year, only to have it crack because of a lack of observation and forced requisite during the summer.
Each year I find myself wracking my brain to figure out better ways to promote adherence to these summer programs. This year was no different, and during that process I was reminded why we train. I have always trained because of the positivity surrounding it. Growing up you went to the gym because you wanted to; you wanted to do things that made you feel stronger, faster, and of course build the aesthetics needed to make an impact on the exotic Connecticut shoreline. That mindset is still a big part of why our elite athletes train. We provide an escape, a positive environment meant to facilitate not only physical development, but a mental break from the daily pressure of their sport. The question is, how can we allow for this feeling towards training to continue throughout the summer, while still returning at a necessary level of performance?
Another novel and sometimes forgotten concept I was reminded of is that summer training is meant to benefit the athlete. Strength coaches get fired up about a lot of things. One of those things is formulating and printing out shiny new summer packets complete with pictures and bound up at the local Kinkos. If your athletes are similar to mine, they could not care less about the appearance of that packet. We add pages and pages consisting of introductory letters, explanations, motivational quotes, lists upon lists of exercises, etc. Sometimes it seems like the program is inadequate unless it is over 50 pages. Where was that during the year? Why do we, all of a sudden, expand our handouts from the common 1-2 sheets per phase, with necessary information, to seemingly an achievement in modern literature?
…SO WHAT WAS MY TAKE-HOME?
-Packets are not the answer, especially ones that have more than 10 pages
-Programs must cater to the athlete’s training skill-set, needs, logistics, resources, location, mindset, etc.
HOW CAN WE DO BETTER?
1.) EXIT INTERVIEWS
Each athlete can voluntarily contact / visit with his or her coach in order to determine what the summer program will look like. This conversation is meant to assess the athlete’s goals, where they will be living, what facility they will have access to (if any), how many days / week they will be able to train, summer organizations/leagues they will be a part of, etc. As their coach, the goal is to take all of this into account and formulate a program that will allow our requirements to be adhered to. Make no mistake, they are still expected to meet certain quality requirements over the summer in order to return at a necessary level of performance capabilities. If an athlete does not communicate with his or her coach, a program will not be sent.
Example: An athlete may express a need for conditioning to be the primary focus of the summer, even more so than other athletes. That goal is expressed, and the subsequent phases will be catered to that goal. Another athlete may speak to the limitation he or she may have because of traveling and inconsistency in being able to get to a facility. The program would then provide options for training without equipment in addition to training when a facility can be taken advantage of.
2.) TRAINING KNOWLEDGE ASSESSMENT
Each athlete is encouraged, prior to our exit interview communication, to come up with a list and summary of known or desired exercises and training modalities. With this knowledge, a coach can compile a better menu of exercises, drills, etc. that the athlete can perform safely and have success with.
Example: An athlete may express knowledge of a hip mobility series that a coach may not have thought to put in the warm-up, but will now do so because it is something the athlete is comfortable with. An athlete may talk about his or her lack of confidence with the Olympic lifts, but is comfortable with the kettlebell work we have done. That athlete may be put on a structured plyometric program or kettlebell routine depending on his or her resources.
3.) WRITING ONE PHASE AT A TIME
The athlete will only receive 1 phase at a time. Once that phase is completed, he or she can voluntarily contact his or her coach in order to receive the next phase of training.
Example: An athlete may continue to compete over the summer, as is common with various sports like baseball, volleyball etc. This athlete may arrive at a site and realize training resources are scarce. That athlete may communicate to his or her coach the situation at that time. The first phase of the program can then be sent based on the present resources. Once a phase is complete, the athlete can voluntarily communicate any successes or road blocks with the program, and the next phase can be manipulated in order to facilitate further success.
I know we have such a desire to make everything the same, as it looks great and it is easy to compile into a packet. The reality is that if we preach individualization, then that should include all aspects of an athlete’s situation. Individualization speaks not only to the athlete’s strengths, weaknesses, or limitations, but also to the athlete’s environment off-campus at home, his or her skill in performing certain lifts, his or her mindset when it comes to strength and conditioning, etc. An athlete with a summer ball assignment in the middle of South Dakota, with a host family he does not know, and a gym that is 30 min away with no car, will have a tough time adhering to the standard program. In this situation, hold off sending his program. Wait until he gets to the site, let him communicate his situation, and shoot out the first phase from there. Similar to an athlete playing on a national team who is still competing like it is in-season. That athlete will have a tough time adhering to the 4 days per week of speed, resistance training, and conditioning they are prescribed. You must then prescribe a modified in-season program until the national team obligations cease, at which time that athlete’s off-season program can begin.
It may sound like too much freedom to be given to the athlete. It may sound like you are giving them a way out, when in actuality, you are empowering them with greater responsibility and opportunity to take ownership over their own advancement. I contest that the athletes who do not communicate or do not receive a summer program, will be held accountable at some point, whether that is by teammates or lack of performance upon return. It may sound as if you would be setting them up to come back ill-prepared. I do not think this to be the case, as fostering a belief that the program is for the individual and encouraging communication will lead to a greater chance of buy-in and to a better prepared athlete returning to campus. Remember, these concepts stemmed from thoughts of what my own desire was while training. I could be missing the boat, but when I trained, the plan revolved around targeting my OWN weaknesses in order to improve and prepare myself to meet the physical requirements of the team upon return. All of this was written on a tattered, torn-up journal or on one sheet of paper full of exercises, sets, reps…and a couple notes.