John Abreu, CSCS
I few months ago, I presented at the Special Olympics of BC Coaching Summit, sharing some thoughts around general periodization and training programming principles with their volunteer coaches (view the presentation using the link below):
Having a personal interest in contributing to sport at the grassroots level, this was a very rewarding experience for me. Additionally, from speaking to some of the coaches in attendance, it was also the realization that there are some common hurdles that coaches face, regardless of what level they’re working in.
In my time working in different institute, collegiate, and private settings, one limitation that regularly presents itself is that the actual coaching time I have with an athlete is not always what I think is ideal. This hurdle can pop up for a variety of reasons. If you work at the collegiate level, conference and league rules can dictate the number of contact hours you have with a team, or a lack of facility space can limit how many times you can work with them in the weightroom or on the track. The sport coach’s practice plan could also leave strength and conditioning with few training sessions, or the athlete’s schedule can be very travel intensive. If you work at the private setting, you are subject to many more variables, and outside factors like cost and parents’ schedules (and punctuality), can cap the number of weekly sessions you have with an athlete.
I have heard many people in the field discard the value in training an athlete or group only once a week, citing the lack of time and the inability to fully realize a complex training program, while also highlighting the “futility” of such limited contact time. However, I believe that there are avenues to continue progressing an athlete forward despite the less-than-ideal situation, and these are some guidelines which have helped me obtain some degree of success when working with athletes who I only saw once a week.
1. Be realistic with your athlete’s (and your own) expectations
This should be a given, and that is why I place it at the top of the list. We know that training once week likely won’t have as much of an impact as training multiple times a week, so communicate clearly with your athlete and let them know that the improvements may not come as quickly. With younger athletes in a private setting, this is not as arduous a task, as their capacity for learning and neural plasticity allows them to make significant improvements, even by training only once a week, based on just motor learning alone. In a high-performance setting, this becomes more difficult. Your coaching strategy may involve directing the focus on what you are able to achieve at this time, or on when your training frequency will increase and what you are doing to prepare the athlete for when you get there.
Conversely, also make sure that you as a coach don’t get discouraged with the situation. It’s easy to blame the lack of time as why you’re not seeing as many successes, but if you’re aware of that going into it, and you know that the situation isn’t changing, you can change your focus on to what you’re able to impact, and keep yourself and your athlete directed toward that goal.
2. Identify what changes you can impart – What are the big rocks in your bucket?
Early in my development as a strength and conditioning coach, I had the process of building an athlete be explained to me with an analogy of filling a bucket. When we’re looking to fill the capacity of the bucket, we can try to fill most of it with a few big rocks, or we’re going to need a heck of a lot of tiny grains of sand.
With time being the limiting factor, you will have to be very efficient with your athlete’s time. I recall times that I wish I could have had an athlete sprint, do plyos, Olympic weightlifting, and incorporate recovery modalities in their routine, knowing that the combination would have best improved athletic qualities I deemed necessary. However, knowing that I wouldn’t have had the time to fit it all in, I had to identify what areas I could have the greatest impact, and what modalities I would use in order to get there. For example, if you’re working with a young field sport athlete with little to no formal training background, teaching proper sprint mechanics may provide the best yield in terms of athletic performance and injury prevention.
With an advanced athlete, this approach still holds true. Perhaps the big rocks there would be general maintenance, or in certain competition or travel-intensive scenarios, backing off of structured training and assigning recovery modalities (such as stretching, rolling, low-intensity circulatory work, and mobility work) could be where you have the biggest impact.
You can also extend this approach beyond the general focus of your sessions, and into your exercise selection. As much as I like the Olympic lifts for power and explosive strength development, I may not incorporate them into a program for a once-a-week athlete who has never done them or does not possess a certain level of proficiency. The time I may need to invest by teaching them from scratch would take away from time where we could be gaining adaptation through other means, and even if I quickly reach a level of comfort with their technique, it may take them a long while before they reach a level of strength where they would be subject to a discernable stimulus given their limited frequency. This is not a steadfast stance against the Olympic lifts for a once-a-week athlete, as you may find yourself in a situation where you are best served teaching technique. I have been in situations where I needed to prepare an athlete for an intensive off-season program, such as one they may face as they transition from a high-school program with no structured training as part of their sport, into a collegiate environment that offers year-round strength and conditioning support. In this example, I may not be improving my athlete’s athletic qualities the best I could given my limited time, but I am setting them up for success for when they arrive in that collegiate scenario, as their improved skill will allow them to best delve into their collegiate program, and their new found proficiency will hopefully draw positive reaction from their coaches.
3. Choose generality and simplicity, over specificity and complexity
More often than not, I believe that the best programs are not the most complex, or elaborate, but rather those that take into account their situation, and best apply simple modalities and progressions in order to achieve adaptation. I believe that this stance is brought to the forefront when working with time constraints, such as the once-a-week athlete.
We know that we won’t have time to evolve a complex periodization scheme, so keep your rep progressions simple and aimed at supporting your goal. You won’t be able to chase hypertrophy or maximal strength, as the frequency would not be high enough, but perhaps you would be able to achieve some level of maintenance (or at least slow de-training) for a very advanced athlete. You won’t be able to incorporate a substantial menu of exercises, as you will obviously not have time for everything. Instead, choose a few exercises that you can get really good at.
This leads into the one avenue with which in my mind you can obtain the most yield, and that is education.
4. Embrace the education aspect of coaching
An athlete that trains with you 5 days a week, for two hours each day, is still only under your guidance for 10 hours out of 168 hours in a week (just under 6% of the time). We all know that even in that environment, education about other aspects of performance, such as recovery, nutrition, and sleep, is important. Well, education for the once-a-week athlete is even more important. Not only do you have to counsel your athlete to polish their habits outside of training time, so that they can yield more on the sessions they have with you, but you also have to be very efficient with the way you coach movement skills, and progress your athlete through them.
Rehearsal is the ultimate process to proficiency, and the continued retention of a skill. In 1885, German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus studied the learning process using fact recall and found that the rate of decay of learning was a logarithmic, and that as practice of memory recall continued, the retention rate increased, while the rehearsals needed in order to retain that information decreased. This was the finding in a simple verbal recall experiment, but I believe it is the same process in skill development, and exercises are just that – movement skills.
You can apply this concept in a situation where you’ve determined that you can impart quality training, and perhaps the athlete can complete some work on their own. Here, your educational approach is best served by ensuring that the athlete learns how to perform the exercises with enough proficiency that you are comfortable with them doing the exercises unsupervised. I use my time with the athlete to refine patterns, and educate them on their load selection (supervised rehearsal). As the athlete progresses, I can assign ‘homework’ comprised of these same exercises, or if equipment availability is an issue, exercises that involve similar patterns (unsupervised rehearsal). When the athlete returns, I complete the same exercises – This serves multiple purposes: An opportunity for me to help refine the movement or coach subtle changes, a qualitative assessment of their retention of my coaching and their improvement (or regression) during their own sessions, and a chance to quantitatively assess progress if they do happen to improve their load (evaluation). This is why, with the once-a-week athlete, I always first strive for mastery of basic movements over exposure to multiple exercises.
If the training frequency is something that will not change over the course of several months, and you have identified that progression into more complex exercises is something you need to do in order to further advance your athlete, we can also draw strategy from learning theory. In the 1970’s, Sebastian Leitner first introduced the spaced repetition system for learning. Leitner would have flash cards that were being correctly recalled come up less frequently, thus spending less time on information that the subject already knew, and more time exposing them to flash cards containing information that they still had not committed to memory. In training, as an athlete becomes more adept at basic movements, a coach can reduce rehearsal of some exercises (or assign the athlete to only do them at home), and start devoting time to introducing and refining other exercises. I have seen this principle be frequently applied when teaching the Olympic lifts, as exercises reinforcing technique (snatch-grip deadlift, overhead squat) are taught in segments, and as they are mastered, they are replaced by other exercises that continue to steer the athlete toward your ultimate learning goal (in this case, a snatch).
Working with an athlete with which you have limited contact time is never an easy task. You have to be more resourceful, more directed in your approach, and are doing so usually under the same pressure and expectation for improvement as you would with an athlete who works with you more frequently. To top things off, through successes and failures alike, you will not be able to shake the thought that you could achieve so much more if that athlete worked with you more often.
However, this is nothing new in the role of a strength and conditioning professional – You constantly have to change things on the fly due to all sorts of external factors such as changing schedules, depth charts, facilities, weather, and injuries. Even wins and losses can change how the sport coach values and enforces your program. Unfortunately, the only ideal training scenario happens as you write your program. Then, there’s real life. That’s why I believe that the best coaches are not necessarily the ones that can best write a program under ideal conditions, but rather those who can best apply their program and adapt to situations, even if that situation involves an athlete that only trains once a week.