The Need For Individualized Sport Specific Training

by: Bobby DeThomasis

Throughout my career as a strength and conditioning coach I have had the opportunity to spend time with many other coaches.  I have learned a lot from some great coaches and it has made a huge impact on my abilities to design effective and efficient programs for my athletes.  Although each coach that I have learned from has their own unique style and methodology, the one thing that I have found to be consistent amongst great strength and conditioning coaches is the principle of individualization.  It is no secrete that every athlete (in fact every person) has unique physiological characteristics that makes him or her different from all other athletes.  Despite the fact that there are many athletes that play the same sport and even the same position, no two athletes are exactly alike.  It is due to that fact that I completely disagree with the concept of group training for athletes.  Personally, I believe that any coach that designs his or her program around grouping athletes together is both misguided and off base with their approach towards athletic development.  I understand that this may be a bit controversial in that most of the well known training centers around the country follow the method of group training but if you break down what it takes to appropriately develop athletes to their fullest potential you will see that group training is an ineffective way to train athletes.

To start, I am a full believer that ever single rep counts.  I know that sounds a bit cliche however being in the industry for over 12 years and having trained hundreds of athletes from all ages I can say with full confidence that it is the truth.  Most athletes, regardless of what level they compete at, do not have an in-depth understanding of anatomy and physiology (nor should they as this is the obligation of a strength and conditioning coach and the reason that we have jobs).  With that in mind, most athletes will go about an exercise and under most circumstances go through a faulty motor pattern or try and compensate their movements to get more reps or move more weight.  It is the job of the strength coach to make sure that every one of their athletes is performing reps with as close to perfect form, every time.  If the coach does not implement the concept of proper form, the athlete will likely start to develop compensation patterns which over time could considerably increase his or her potential for injury.  It is difficult enough to get one athlete to perform perfect reps however if a coach is training more than one athlete at a time the likely hood of being able to stay on top of all the athletes in the group is very low (most likely not possible at all).

Secondly, as I mentioned before, no two athletes are exactly alike.  Even if the coach is working with athletes from the same sport that play the same position there are still many physiological factors to take into account when designing a training program.  Several of these factors (although there are many more to consider) are muscle fiber make up, previous injury history, training age and musculoskeletal imbalances.  When I design a training program for an athlete these are just some of the factors that I take into account.  With all these things to consider it is easy to see how there are many ways that athletes can differ from one another.  For example, I was training two professional hockey players that were the same age, played the same position and were very similar in size and weight however one of them had a previous ACL reconstruction surgery and was lacking full knee range of motion and the other had subluxated his glenohumeral (shoulder) joint causing joint laxity and muscle imbalances.  Despite the fact that both these athletes appeared to be physiologically similar they had very different needs.  As such the program that was appropriate for one was completely inappropriate for the other and vice versa.

One more point to be made about program design for athletes is the lack of use of an evaluative process.  Here at PTS, every new athlete goes through a very specific evaluation.  The eval gives us the information that we need to design the athletes training regimen.  Coaches that design programs prior to evaluating their athletes (or that don’t use an eval at all) are doing their athletes a major disservice.  I have seen coaches that develop their programs months before their athletes start training.  Although I appreciate their lack of procrastination it always baffles me that a coach can develop a program for an athlete without actually knowing what physiological qualities the athlete needs to improve.  This would fall under the ‘one size fits all’ approach to training that would be similar to what you can expect with group training.

With all that being said, I have found one exception to the rule.  When we put our athletes through conditioning programs (or what we like to call sport specific energy systems development) I believe that it is appropriate to group several athletes together.  Typically conditioning sessions consist of pushing/pulling sleds, and other “modified strongman” exercises that usually have less of a technical component then other exercises (like a hang clean).  The purpose of the conditioning session is to improve the functionality of the specific energy system that the athletes will be using while they are in a game or competition (for example hockey would fall into the anaerobic lactic energy system).  Fortunately, for most sports, this is a static factor in that it does not change.  For the most part a “shift” in hockey will last about 40-50 seconds and the athlete will typically have about 2 minutes in between “shifts”.  As long as you are staying within the specific parameters of the sport I believe that you can group athletes together (pending they play the same sport) while doing energy system development training.

I truly believe that program individualization is the key factor for athletes to get the most out of their training regimen.  Although group training might seem like a more “fun” way to workout, remember that activities are fun, training is designed to produce results.  Do not confuse the two.

If you are an athlete and would like to get started on a specific training program that will be individualized to your needs email us at to set up your initial evaluation.