Slowly but surely, coaches are returning to training alongside their athletes. Zoom meetings and Google hangouts have helped bridge the gap, but there’s nothing quite like being together with your team, sharing time and space with your athletes, and working alongside one another toward a common purpose.
In many states, by mid/late June, we will have the opportunity to return to training. By July, most if not all coaches (hopefully) will be back with their teams.
Before we get back to work, it seems wise to identify potential pitfalls – and the greatest opportunities – of this post-quarantine moment.
As we return to training, the predominant concern should be athlete safety. There are two significant safety risks as we return to training: illness and overtraining.
First, let’s not confuse the early phases of re-opening with an uninhibited clearance to interact. The worst thing we could do in the weeks immediately following quarantine would be to get an athlete or one of their family members sick.
Regardless of where one’s mind might be (some think the quarantine is overblown while others think we’re not being cautious enough), the only choice is to abide by local governance and CDC recommendations. This moment will pass but until it does, it is better to err on the side of safety.
The other danger, which should be immediately obvious to anyone in strength and conditioning, is returning to high intensity, high volume training too fast. A prevailing concern among strength coaches is that sport coaches will be so eager to make up for lost time (an understandable sentiment) that they will do too much too fast and with too much intensity. This will almost assuredly lead to injury.
The National Strength & Conditioning Association (NSCA) and the Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Association (CSCCA) released a joint statement in 2017 outlining precautions to be considered when returning from periods of inactivity. They warn of heat exhaustion, rhabdomyolysis, and cardiorespiratory failure. Although that sounds extreme, plans must be in place to avoid such concerns, and emergency plans must be in place to address them should they arise.
In other words, don’t train too hard too fast, and have an emergency plan in place.
Even if training does not result in those slightly terrifying outcomes, the potential to pull a muscle or incur some lower-level injury is very real. That might not seem like the end of the world, but there would be few things more demoralizing than an athlete finally finding his or her way back to campus, relieved to be in the open air with their teammates, only to find themselves in the training room on day one.
One of the greatest opportunities in this moment is to shift a collective mindset from performance outcomes to healthy movement and thoughtful technique.
We all feel the pressure of competition, of fulfilling a practice plan, getting all the reps in and practicing nuanced variations of plays in our playbooks – with that pressure, the speed of our operation can distract from the precision of our interactions. Instead of feeling pressure to perform, we now have an opportunity to build a foundation on sound technique.
We can slow it down.
We can prioritize moving well.
We can focus on body positions and coordination; we can prioritize technique without the stressors of a weekly competition. We can become, as we at the Good Athlete Project have said to many of our teams, technicians.
A common saying continues to appear in our coaching: do it right, do it right, do it right, then do it fast. When you invert those directions you could be in trouble. Many of the injuries we’ve seen on the field come from great energy that is misplaced.
We all love working with people who have great enthusiasm. But great enthusiasm, when it is misplaced, does not help the team. We once worked with an offense of lineman who worked hard in the off-season to make himself strong, tough, and intense. By the time this season came around he was nearly foaming at the mouth before every game. Notoriously, on the first drive of each game, when his intensity was at its highest, he would “pancake” someone on the opposing team. After flattening them, he would stand up shouting and beating his chest, which would excite his teammates and the crowd.
The problem was, 9 times out of 10, he would pancake the wrong person… with all his intensity and enthusiasm, he would regularly misread a cue, block the wrong opponent, or simply forget the play and try to level the first person he saw.
He went fast, but he wasn’t doing it “right” and his team suffered.
In these return-to-training sessions, we have the opportunity to prioritize doing it right. Once the right way is normalized, then we will have the opportunity to ramp up intensity – you’ll be amazed by how far that takes your team.
Important coaching point: doing it “right” still has to be fun. We have to adjust mindsets which associate right with boring. The process of doing things the right way has to be fun. It has to be interesting. It has to align with a student’s motives. That’s one of the true skills of coaching.
In order to accomplish the number one goal (maintain athlete safety) and prepare for elite performance in the future, coaches should set clear expectations.
The goal of the June training camps should be to prepare athletes for sport-specific training in July. Be clear with the athletes that the goal is to move well and return – as slow as needed – from a mostly sedentary spring. In accordance with the 50,30,20,10 concept, the total volume of training should remain relatively low until July.
The key to setting clear expectations is to include enough science and research to validate your position without overwhelming the listener.
This is the language we shared with our coaches and athletes – feel free to use it, or something like it, to communicate the intention of your training with coaches:
“Week One will be approximately 50% intensity, compared to an in-season training session. During week one, focus on technique, team-building, fun and a little bit of competition.
Week Two will increase in total volume (and level of difficulty), but remain at about 70% intensity, compared to peak in-season training. During week two, the athletes should have the routine down and we able to increase the level of competition.”
Be transparent with your goals and specific with your expectations. Those you work with – especially coaches and parents – will appreciate you for it. They are your partners in the development of young people. Assume that they want to help and provide them with whatever resources they need to do so.
We took it one step further and created a suite of videos to help support sport coaches with straight-forward, easy to understand training explanations:
Does Your Behavior Match Your Goal?
There are plenty of reasons to go slow and wait for quarantine and social distancing regulations to pass. That would be easier. But is that what is best for young people?
We believe that athletes, coaches, and teams need each other in this moment. With that in mind, we have decided that it is best to go fast so that we can go slow.
We recommend getting the logistics and plans in place to get back together quickly, to get back to work quickly, so that we can go as slow as necessary in our training progression. Go fast to go slow. That is not the only way, but that has been our approach.
In fact, we just wrapped up our first youth camp:
If you are not sure what is best practice in this post-quarantine moment, it might be time to identify what your institutional or organizational goals are. Do you have a mission? Do you have a clearly articulated purpose? If not, this might be the perfect opportunity to create one.
Once your purpose, mission, and goals are in place, there is only one question left to answer… does your behavior match your goal?
Returning to training might be difficult, but it will be worth it. If we can support you in any way, please reach out.
Thank you for the great advice Jim! Keep up the good work and encouraging coaches.
Thanks, John! Just seeing this message. Thank YOU for all you do.