Athletes are complex
When it comes to high level performance, it is no secret that there are many moving parts within each individual athlete. There are big cogs in the system that will be staples in development. There are also variable cogs within the system that may grow into more important pieces or require replacing along the way. Each piece carries varying weight with regards to the outcome, but are important to the process nonetheless.
Identifying which cogs are important is a challenge by itself, but understanding the complex interaction of the moving pieces is a more tumultuous task. Once I understand how the system works together, how can I influence positive change to optimize performance? Can I create higher outputs with less wasted energy? Do I need to try building a larger fuel reserve? Are the outputs repeatable? Do the outputs put the system at risk? If so, how can I mitigate that risk? What are the limits of this complex machine? How long between tasks does it need to perform at max capacity again? The list goes on, but this is a glimpse into the complex challenge that is optimizing high level performers.
Training goes beyond what happens in practice
Many believe training only encompasses what an athlete does in practice and in their competitive environment. In reality, training is made up of every decision an athlete chooses to make (or not make) throughout any given day, week, month, season, etc. Why? Because every choice matters and has an impact on the system. Due to this fact, I like to break training stressors up into two large categories: Program and Non-Programmed.
This is what I have strategically drawn up as a coach to add or reduce stress to the system. The ultimate goal is to pave the way for the athlete to adapt and evolve in response to the training to put them in a better position to achieve success in their given discipline. This is highly structured, yet should be fluid in order to accommodate for Non-Programmed stress.
Sometimes referred to as "the other 23 hours". This is made up of everything else throughout the day: nutrition, sleep, recreation, homework, stress management, religion, mindfulness, emotional regulation, family time, social activities, habits, body awareness, hygiene, additional training, household happenings, financial issues, etc. Each of these things carry a variable amount of positive or negative stress that will ultimately influence whether an athlete will successfully adapt or not. How this time is spent has a great impact on Programmed training. Being roughly aware of the Non-Programmed stressors allows me to adjust the Programmed stressors to attempt to mitigate the negative impact of destructive stressors and keep pushing the athlete towards successful adaptation.
If my body is a Ferrari and I'm fueling it with diesel, taking it on long trips, never letting it cool off, mudding, and refusing to take it to the mechanic when all the lights on the dashboard are flashing... the odds of me crashing and burning are significantly elevated. When an athlete is failing to take care of the Non-Programmed aspect of training, the Programmed aspect becomes less useful and potentially hazardous. This is why Programmed training must remain fluid and adaptable to account for lack of sound decisions on the Non-Programmed side of things.
Making a Difference outside of practice
Coaches often feel like their hands are tied in the Non-Program side of things. Athletes make decisions time and time again that are detrimental to the overall progression of the program as well as potentially damaging to themselves. The athletes aren't always to blame, as there are cultural norms coming from other influential figures that make athletes feel obligated to endlessly pursue more work without regards to the consequences.
While frustrating, there are things each coach can do to make an impact in this domain and it starts with education. Conveying the message to the athletes about how to get the most out of practice sessions sets the stage for them to take matters into their own hands when they leave your setting. They may become more mindful in their actions, which can ultimately make training a collaborative effort instead of a one way street.
Another way to improve buy in and emulating better Non-Program behaviors is to consistently model it yourself. If I want my athletes to eat healthy and hydrate, I should be eating healthy snacks and drinking water at practice. If I believe there's value in sleeping, I should be finding ways to hold myself to those same standards. On the flip side, if a coach is preaching against substance abuse on weekends and continuously shows up to practice under the influence, athletes are less likely to take that message seriously. Similarly, if a coach preaches against it yet continues to tolerate a set of behaviors or actions, it sets a bad precedent for the rest of the team.
Other potential ideas include but are not limited to electing team captains, telling athletes stories of your own shortcomings and why you think ABC decisions are important, give lessons on sleep stages and hormone secretion, the list goes on. There are many ways to make an impact in this aspect of training, it is up to coaches to decide what that looks like and how they can get follow through for their program.
Tying it all together
If a coach has not considered Non-Programmed aspects of training and how it can lead to shortcomings in adaptations, there is no better time to start than today. I've found success in implementing non-invasive wellness monitoring systems into my program. It can be as simple as a 5 question Google Form or as complex as a subscription to an athlete monitoring system complete with an app, questionnaires, body charts, graphs, readiness grades, etc.
Being roughly aware of what is happening outside of Programmed training allows me a better chance to adjust and avoid injuries as well as find windows for the toughest days of the week. No workout is worth forcing in the face of red flags. Rather, it is worth having a plan B and C to avoid placing the athlete in danger. The best ability is availability and if an athlete is not available to train, no matter how great the program is, they cannot adapt to something they can't safely do.
About the Author:
I attended the University of Iowa from 2012-2017 where I became an All-American sprinter and double majored in Human Physiology and Psychology. Since graduating in 2017, I have run Brendan Thompson's Exceleration, LLC where I focus on holistic development to maximize performance, health, and education for athletes to thrive in their competitive environments. In 2020, I graduated from Washington University in St. Louis with my DPT and since opened a private physical therapy practice here in St. Louis, MO.