“Everything we do is completely individualized.”

Most strength & conditioning coaches, myself included, have probably spoken some variation of this line at some point in their career in an attempt to better sell and increase the value of their program. Over my few years in the field, I’ve struggled to determine what “individualizing” a program really means or needs to be. Before we go any further, let’s reference Merriam-Webster for a generic, unbiased definition –

Individualize: to adapt to the needs or special circumstances of an individual

There’s two ways to take this into the context of training. On one hand, science would say that 99.9% of all human DNA is identical, and therefore we all need, and can very likely benefit from, some combination and variation of squatting, hinging, lunging, pushing, pulling, etc. (insert any other fundamental or primal movement). On the other hand, virtually every athlete presents with their own special circumstances, ranging from SES background to training age to skill set and injury history. Considering these two sides, when and how should a program be individualized? Recently, an engaging conversation led to a bit of a light bulb moment potentially providing, at least for myself, a bigger outlying picture that will help to determine a clearer order of operations.

1) System → 2) Situation → 3) Individual

When considering all of the variables of program design, from periodization style to exercise selection to frequency, there are truly infinite possibilities. Here’s how I think defining the three items above can help clarify this process.

System

This could be interchangeable with “philosophy,” although a former colleague of mine would argue to the death that all S&C coaches share the same philosophy (maximize performance, minimize injury), and that what actually differentiates us are the means we choose to accomplish those goals. Before even considering the sport, level, training age and unique circumstances, though, we have to know what we believe in. While I very much refuse to label myself, it’s likely that we will always gravitate towards our roots. If you grew up in Columbus, you’re probably largely influenced by Westside. If you spent a lot of time training youth athletes early on, linear periodization may be your preferred approach, or maybe periodization style is less important to you than emphasis of movement quality. Regardless, if you ask any director or coordinator, they’ll undoubtedly be able to give you the “this is how we do things” presentation. With the wealth of information available today, it can be hard to decide where we stand and what we believe in most. This is still very much a work in progress for myself, and the reason that I can be an extremely inefficient programmer.

Situation

Before considering the individual, we must consider the situation that we’re in. As mentioned, this can be as simple as the sport(s) that we’re training, training age of our population, and perhaps most importantly, the facility, equipment and technology that we have access to. Westside won’t work without bands and chains for accommodating resistance. Predominantly barbell training won’t cut it if you have a low rack-to-athlete ratio, and/or high density of athletes with limited time. Design and approach will probably vary significantly depending on sector and population. All of these variables must be taken into consideration before even considering the individualization of an athlete’s training. However, it should not change what you believe in & your innate approach to training (your “system”) – just how you choose to implement it.

Individual

Only once we know our system, and have the context of the situation we’re in, can we then begin to consider proper individualization, and if it’s truly necessary. Within the system, our testing & assessment protocols can be a huge factor in determining if and what individual accommodations are needed. For an incoming class of freshmen, or incoming draft picks & rookies, they could all very likely benefit from 1-2 phases of sound, basic, fundamental training before getting too sexy or specific – aside from considering the obvious such as injury history and opposing positional demands, etc. From there, we can use our assessment & testing data, coach’s eye, and understanding of each athlete’s strengths & weaknesses to further consider individualizing his/her program.

We can always individualize more. The question is, do we need to? While in graduate school, I remember designing corrective exercise programs for our baseball team, and literally agonizing over picking different exercises for each guy, even if they had the same dysfunction or limitation. Instead of just “plugging & chugging” based off of standard FMS exercises, for example, I recall thinking “he really likes this one, and he really likes that one, and I think this one will work for him better.” Was it appreciated? Maybe. Was it necessary spending extra hours on trivial details that could have been better spent on more important items? Probably not. Lesson learned.

When we talking about individualizing our training, remember that we can train 100 athletes differently without assigning 100 entirely unique programs. After all, the human body is about 99.9% identical — although that .01% could very well be the difference between winning and losing.

WHO IS CHRIS HAYS?

MugShotChris believes in building robust athletes & people through holistic means that is built upon the strength of the Coach-Athlete relationship. He received his undergraduate degree in Exercise Science from Slippery Rock University, and his graduate degree from George Washington University, while serving as a Graduate Assistant in the S&C Department under Matthew Johnson. This past year, Chris served as a Performance Fellow at the University of Louisville under Teena Murray in Olympic S&C. Currently, he is preparing to begin a new role in Glendale, Arizona with the Los Angeles Dodgers in their minor league system. Chris can be reached by email at cjhays15@gmail.com.

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