By Vern Gambetta
Vern Gambetta, MA, is the President of Gambetta Sports Training Systems, in Sarasota, Fla., and the former Director of Conditioning for the Chicago White Sox. He is a frequent contributor to Training & Conditioning, and can be reached through his Web site, at www.gambetta.com.
Training & Conditioning, 10.6, September 2000, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/tc/tc1006/training.htm
It may be a cliche, but it doesn’t make it any less true: A team is like a chain—it is only as strong as its weakest link. When it comes to conditioning a team, therefore, you must work toward making every single link as strong as possible.
But, how can one devise a successful conditioning plan that will work in a large group setting? How do you raise the fitness level of the most fit while not overtraining the least fit? How do you take into account the pitcher’s need for more shoulder exercises while also acknowledging the outfielder’s need for more speed work?
First of all, don’t disregard the essential conditioning theories of periodization, proper work-rest ratios, and testing and evaluation. All the tried-and-true theories that work in a one-on-one or small group setting must still be your guide.
The next step is adapting these conditioning principles in a large, often disparate, group. If your resources were endless, every athlete in the group would be treated individually—with an individualized plan and specific coach by his or her side. This, of course, is impossible in a high school or college setting. On the other side of the spectrum, it is tempting to have every team member follow the exact same workout regimen. This scenario, however, means you’d be affecting only a minority of the athletes—bringing the well-conditioned athletes down a notch and possibly injuring the out-of-shape athletes.
The strategy that I’ve found works best is a happy medium between these two extremes. I break the team into smaller groups, based on their needs, then devise specific plans for each group. This allows athletes to have workouts tailored to their needs, but does not take too much extra time and resources. It is especially effective during the preseason and in-season periods, when time is at a premium and conditioning tends to get neglected unless it is included as part of the actual practice.
Analyze the Sport
Just as you would do when conditioning an individual athlete, the initial stage of your team plan is to analyze the demands of the sport. Most team sports can be divided into two broad categories: intermittent sprint sports and transition game sports.
Intermittent sprint sports, like football or baseball, are characterized by intense bouts of work, usually in very short bursts of three to five seconds in duration, followed by rest periods at least three to five times as long. Transition game sports, like soccer or lacrosse, are characterized by virtually continuous action in which there are brief periods of higher-intensity activity. There are very few breaks in the action, just changes in intensity of effort.
Of course, not all sports follow those two models exactly. Basketball is one exception, as the action stops for time-outs or free-throw situations. Nonetheless, it has more of the characteristics of a transition game sport than an intermittent sprint sport.
Once we thoroughly evaluate and understand the sport’s requirements, we must then take the next step, which is to understand the demands of the various positions within the sport. Each has different demands in terms of movement patterns, speed, strength, stamina, and so forth. Admittedly, this makes the training process more complicated, but it is critical to obtaining on-the-field results.
In fact, the biggest mistake that we make is to condition all positions the same. A quarterback in football should not have the same strength-training program and tests as an offensive or defensive lineman. A forward in soccer has significantly different demands than a defensive midfielder. Therefore, we must look carefully at both the overall game and the requirements of the multiplicity of positions, and condition accordingly.
Evaluate and Group
Before doing any specific planning, it is also critical to understand the qualities each individual athlete brings to the respective sport and his or her individual position. Although it does take some time, evaluating each player is a must. Test each athlete on his or her endurance, speed, and all qualities specific to the sport and his or her position.
These evaluations then allow you to properly group each athlete into training teams. The key to making these groups work is to keep them dynamic. By that, I mean that the composition of the group is dependent upon the physical quality you are training. For example, an athlete could be in one group for speed-development work and an entirely different group for strength training. In addition, an athlete could switch groups if he or she is advancing more quickly than others in the group.
At first glance, it may seem that this approach would make conditioning a team more complicated. But, in fact, it makes it much easier to define programs and assign individuals to groups to accomplish specific tasks. It takes a little more work up front, but it really makes the process much more manageable.
A Yearly Plan
How do you structure the training year for a team? The key is to look at the in-season competitive schedule, then build everything to point toward this. Make note of the dates of key competitions, then work backwards. Look at the time available before those competitions and break that time into manageable blocks with themes or objectives for each block.
Your major focus should be on the off-season and preseason training times, which is when you’ll want to steadily increase workloads. In-season it is preferable to under-train and keep athletes more fresh. However, at all times, there should be a real emphasis on monitoring the effects of training in order to get an optimal return.
Therefore, it is very important to develop a good system for accountability. Measure, time, and record every workout possible. Make sure that the athletes get feedback on their results and that the coaching staff and trainers are also kept apprised of training results. Document everything! Keep detailed records of each athlete’s attendance at conditioning workouts as well as compliance and effort during the workouts.
Working with Other Staff
A key to effective work in conditioning a team is communication. I know this is another overused term, but it is essential. There must be clear, open lines of communication with the head coach, coaching staff, athletic trainer, and the medical staff as to the health status of the players. This is true of equipment people as well, particularly if there are any special equipment needs. And, don’t forget the groundskeepers, as they can make your job a whole lot easier.
Of course, it is the coaching staff whom you’ll need to communicate with most often. It is essential that you talk to them about how much of the work the players will be doing with the sport coaches might overlap with what you are planning to do with conditioning. The best idea is to always be at practice so that you can gauge the severity of the practice. What the players are doing at sport practice may cause you to adjust the volume or intensity of the work you have planned for post-practice or even for the next day.
Conditioning coaches know that for most of the year, the team is not under our control. The focus of training in most phases is on the technical, tactical, and strategic considerations. Conditioning must fit around those aspects. That may not be the ideal, but it is the reality.
In other words, in addition to communicating with the coaches, make sure your conditioning plans are somewhat flexible. For effective athletic conditioning, it is vital to have a good sound plan, but, when it comes to working with a team sport, it is also important to have a detailed contingency plan.
Athletes Come First
Above all, we must be able to communicate effectively with the athletes. Identify key athletes who will give you honest feedback about the training. Understand who will cry wolf at the easiest workout or who is the workhorse who can never get enough. Seek out feedback from all types of players in order to make the conditioning more effective. It’s also important to let them discover their athleticism. Although teaching correct mechanics is important, be careful not to over-coach and make them robots. Allow them to discover patterns of movement that work for them. Encourage creativity though pressure situations where the player has to make fast decisions at “game speed.”
In addition, let the members of each training group push one another and work together. Try to keep the play element in conditioning without making it frivolous.
One workout cannot make an athlete, but one workout can break an athlete. What that tells us is, with a team, we must always keep the big picture in mind. Each element of a practice is more than an exercise or a workout; we must understand where it fits into the context of the team’s long-term conditioning development.
Table ONE Providing Structure
The following structure is one that I have found to be particularly effective in several different team-sport settings.
1. The whole team does a general warmup together. This should take about 10 minutes.
2. Athletes break into groups, emphasizing very specific components of training. Each group goes through two stations a day with eight to 10 minutes assigned to each station.
The stations are as follows:
A. Straight-ahead speed: acceleration work
B. Lateral speed and agility
C. Specific speed: actual movements of the game
D. Core work
Each station has a set number of drills in a prescribed progression. The emphasis is always on quality of movement and effort. Each drill has a prescribed number of sets and reps. In this context, it is also possible to work on individual weaknesses by repeating a station for emphasis. It is best to set up the rotation so that the athletes do two stations per day. Therefore, the pattern for the training for one group for a week without a game would look like this: