“A common mistake among those who work in sport is spending a disproportional amount of time on “x’s and o’s” as compared to time spent learning about people.” – Mike Krzyzewski (Coach K)
A gradual shift is occurring in the preparation of elite athletes. Recent advances in technology for athlete monitoring (omegawave, HRV, mood states, etc) coupled with the collective experience of top sport coaches has led to a greater understanding of how an athlete’s biology, psychology, and social network all interact to influence adaptation to training. We can no longer ignore the influence of these factors when trying to guide an athlete to elite performance. It is clear that effective coaching involves much more than just putting together the right combination of sets and reps or creating the “perfect” training split. We must look at athletes as more than biological machines and account for the whole person if we are to guide them to success. The idea that strict adherence to dogmatic training progressions ignores everything we've learned as a collective community of coaches, sport scientists, and athletes over the past 100 years. For example while squatting cycles, weightlifting cycles, or endurance training blocks can and often do elicit the target adaptations, it would be arrogant of us as coaches to think (1) we have arrived at some magic training progression that will always work for every athlete in every situation, and (2) that we have the foresight to accurately predict how the complex interaction of the athlete experience (LIFE + TRAINING) will impact the training stimulus and resulting adaptations. Effective coaching must take an "athlete centric" approach meaning: the athlete, their needs, their lifestyle, their physiology, and their psychology, directs the development of the program.
For many coaches and athletes, this requires a major change in training philosophy. The current prevailing philosophy, which can be referred to as "program centric coaching", dictates that athletes should complete their prescribed training regardless of the readiness of their bodies and minds. This dogged coaching philosophy while successful in the sporting past rarely leads to success at the elite levels of sport today. Adherents to this style of training are often trying to be "tough" and as a result they are “going through the motions” on a daily basis. Rarely, if ever, are these athletes training with the intensity or focus needed for them to take the next steps in their careers -- not because they are soft, but because they are too mentally and physically exhausted to train at the intensity required to be competitive in elite sport today. Training becomes a routine, a habit that doesn’t pack the punch necessary to push their mind and body beyond where their current level of performance.
Athlete centric coaching on the other hand requires a cognitive shift from the old philosophy of “forcing” training to teaching the athletes to work with their mind and body. This requires that all training sessions revolve around quality. Quality of training in this case can mean bringing absolute focus during technical sessions, accurately executing conditioning work to elicit the desired physiological adaptations, or bringing full-effort to sport-specific training to mimic the intensity of a competitive environment. Training with this level of commitment on a consistent basis requires a number of things to happen within coach athlete relationship.
(1) Athletes must be in a state of mental and physical readiness for training.
(2) Coaches must be able to convey the intention of the training session so that the athlete can execute as needed.
(3) Athletes must "buy-in” to their training programs - truly believing in everything that they are doing on a daily basis.
(4) The training program must be flexible to account for the complexity of "life" and the impact it can have on the athlete's readiness.
In other words, successful coaches develop adaptable programs that encourage athletes to train hard when they can and do everything they can to recover when they can't, cultivate belief in their training systems, and help their athletes understand how the means lead to a specific end. If any one of these processes is missing from the coach-athlete relationship then the chance that an athlete will ever reach their peak potential is very slim.
Levels of athlete centric coaching
In order to more clearly define what an athlete centric approach looks like, we can classify different "types" of coaching approaches based on how well they incorporate the processes laid out above.
Level (0) -- Group or template training (I.e. Group class or training blog). These types of programs often provide no individualization or flexibility outside of self-directed "scaling" or minimal coach-directed adjustments to movements. Athletes who follow these generalized blog-based programs are left with no alternative training options if they happen to be exhausted from work and life stress, or suffer an injury which precludes them from completing the prescribed training. Furthermore the lack of daily guidance regarding training readiness can quickly lead to overtraining in these athletes when the chaos of "life" rears its ugly head. This is the ultimate manifestation of a "program-centric" approach as none of the needs of the individual are taken into account when developing the program. Athletes are "bent" to fit the program rather than the program shaped to develop the athlete. If these programs are successful in developing athletes it is typically through a training-volume approach as this is the only way to ensure that the broadest group of people get the types of adaptations they need. While training-volume does have its place, if it is the only tool used to address the athletes needs, the program will inevitably lead to the development of overuse injuries and burnout.
Level (1) -- Assessment driven training template (I.e. Strength program vs endurance program). This type of program adds one layer of individualization to the group or blog model in that the needs of individual are broadly defined and then broadly addressed. This type of program is commonly implemented in strength and conditioning facilities where athletes are separated by sport or position and provided with programs designed to address the most common needs of the athletes in each subgroup. The assessment driven template approach offers some clear advantages over a purely program-centric model in that large groups of athlete can be screened and categorized and their individual training needs will be more accurately addressed. This provides an increase in accuracy that is like moving from a crop duster to a yard sprinkler. The problems discussed before regarding lack of program flexibility and alternatives for training due to readiness or injury that are seen with blog-based programs still exist with this training approach.
Level (2) -- Assessment drives individualized training, program is reactive to athlete's feedback. Similar to the assessment driven template program athletes are screened for individual strengths and weaknesses, however rather than providing a general template for these athletes, a specific, targeted program is developed based on their individual needs. This type of coaching approach is reactive to the athletes feedback, meaning that upcoming training is altered based on the immediate needs of the athlete. For example if an athlete reports fatigue in their Monday and Tuesday session and they were not able to complete training as prescribed then training for Wednesday and Thursday may be altered to allow for recovery. Another example might be implementing targeted Snatch technical work in upcoming sessions in response to reviewing an athlete’s training videos. This type of individualized reactive approach solves many of the issues in the previously discussed coaching models including adapting training around injuries, developing buy-in by incorporating athlete's feedback, and providing context for how the training program relates to the end goal. However this approach is still missing a critical component of athlete-centric coaching -- the ability to proactively adapt training to match the athlete’s mental and physical readiness. The rate of success while implementing this style of coaching is far greater than with the less individualized coaching processes.
Level (3) -- Training is proactively molded to match the athlete’s readiness on a session-by-session basis. This is the ultimate form of athlete-centric coaching. Within this coaching model the athlete and coach work together to determine the optimal form of training that both addresses the athlete’s needs as well as matching their mental and physical readiness in the moment. This means that training sessions may need to be altered "on the fly" based on the coach’s observations or "by feel" for the athlete based on a preset understanding of the goals of the training session. Athlete centric coaching is possible both with in-person as well as remote coaching relationships, assuming that the requisite athlete education is implemented and that the goals of the training block are clearly defined. Coaches implementing an athlete-centric training approach need to have well developed training tool-sets as well as an understanding of how the athlete responds to those tools. For example, coaches may use tools like changing the training environment from a solo technical session to a competition setting when athletes are "on", or implementing a recovery and movement session when the athlete is clearly too distracted to perform with the necessary intensity in a challenging testing session. By matching the training stimulus to the athlete’s readiness you not only improve the degree of biological adaption, but also improve the athlete’s confidence in both themselves and the training program by demonstrating success on a regular basis.
At this point I think it's also relevant to discuss self-coached athletes as that is a significant subset of athletes in the domain of CrossFit™. Self-coached athletes have the advantage of being able to easily adjust their training on a daily basis relative to how they feel. However in my experience self-coached athletes typically lack the objectivity needed to self-adjust training, eventually grinding themselves into the ground. Additionally, having worked with many athletes who were self-coached at some point in their career I have found that, in general, they are very bad at self-assessing our strengths and weaknesses. The tendency is to create a program that reinforces their strengths and ignores their weaknesses. I know that this was something that happened to me personally during my self-coached years of training both in swimming and in CrossFit™. Because these athletes tend to spend more time developing their strengths they fall into a confirmation bias and develop high degrees of buy-in to their own programs, only to fall short when they compete.
Obviously there have been a number of athletes who were self-coached and reached the pinnacle of their sports. An athlete like Rich Froning, four-time CrossFit Games champion, has demonstrated the success of self-coaching. I believe that this system worked extremely well for him because he was integrating many of the components of athlete centrism, including adjusting training based on readiness, developing belief in his training system, and understanding the goals of his training sessions (anyone who has seen Froning’s training videos can clearly see he has a good understanding of how to develop his own physiology). However, this is probably not a good model for the development of elite performers in the future. As sport progresses and more time and money is invested into the preparation of athletes, the objectivity of a coach participating in the athlete-centric coaching process will become more and more necessary.
As coaches we need to take a critical look at how we approach the development of our coaching systems. We need to be open to new ideas and information and actively integrate what is useful and discard what is not. The idea that a rigid training structure can take into account the needs of one athlete, let alone massive groups of athletes needs to be discarded in favor of an athlete-centered approach. Prioritizing the needs of the athlete over the importance of the program is the most reliable way to ensure you are moving athletes closer to their potential. These coaching systems require more investment of time into the development of the person and understanding their needs, but the potential reward is far greater.