Jan 29, 2015
A Guide to In-Season Training

By Vern Gambetta

Perhaps one of the biggest mysteries in performance development is how to approach in-season training–especially for athletes in team sports. How much should you do? What should you do? When should you do it? Here are a few of my thoughts on the subject.

In-season training is immensely important. Too many people still subscribe to the myth that once the season starts, training should go into maintenance mode. That concept is outdated and wrong.

If you start a “maintenance” program once the competitive season starts, you will quickly be in a de-training mode. Based on the law of reversibility (use it or lose it) the physical qualities that were developed in the non-competitive build-up phase will began to erode. Some erode faster than others based on training age and background, the sport, frequency of competition, and gender.

All physical qualities should be trained in-season, though obviously not to the same extent as in the off-season. I divide the competitive season into manageable blocks based on the competition calendar. I use pretty simple divisions–early season, mid season, late season, and championship season, which includes playoffs and championships.

Then I carefully consider the demands of the sport. Is it a collision, contact, or high impact sport? What is the frequency of competition? Is there more than one game or match in a week? What is the make-up of the team? Is it a veteran team or all young athletes without much experience? Is it a developmental team or a seasoned professional team? Then I will look closely at the individuals. Who can adapt quickly? Who recovers fast, and who is slow to recover? What is their role on the team? Are they a starter or substitute who rarely plays?

Then I begin to lay out my distribution of the actual training. This is all determined by the quality and extent of the work I have been able to do in preparation blocks. If there has been a good foundation, then obviously I can begin to build off of that. Keep in mind that training accumulates form day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month, and year-to-year. We want to be sure to take advantage of that and continue that process.

I want to dispel the notion that you need large blocks of time for in-season training. Look for time and use it to maximum benefit. Five minutes a day for five training days is twenty five precious minutes that you can use to get the athlete better. Warm-up is an obvious period to stress fundamental movement skills. This is the time to address injury prevention through modules that address movements and elements of the sport that put the athlete at risk. This should be transparent.

Speed development must be trained. All components of linear speed including max speed must be addressed. Very simply, fast people must run fast or they lose speed. One of the causes of the hamstring injuries we are seeing is that the players only are going top speed in games and matches. Something has to give. Agility should be addressed but to a lesser extent, because practice movements will hit that component. Regarding agility, you have to be careful that you are not adding stress to stress by doing more change of direction outside of practice.

Strength training is paramount. It must be an emphasis throughout, especially for the female athlete. As the season progresses strength training will assume a different role. It becomes a tool for neural excitation, rather than for force development. My rule here is, a little bit more often.

In-Season Dos and Don’ts

Let’s start with the obvious; you must work closely with the sport coach. As athletic development coaches, we are support staff. The sport coach is the one on the spot, so the final product is a judgment of his or her work. We must be sensitive to that fact. Everything we due must be subservient to practice and games. Start by meeting with the sport coach and get a very good handle on their expectations for training in-season.

I then look at the competition schedule and classify the games/matches as developmental, important, or crucial. Developmental means a competition that should not be difficult (Mind you that you should never take any opponent for granted). Important are games that will test the team’s mettle and count in the standings. Crucial should be obvious, big games or matches, playoffs or championships.

Once that has been determined, I break the season into ten or fourteen day microcycles. I have found that getting away from the traditional seven-day cycle solves the density dilemma and allows me a better distribution of the work. Then I group the players, by individual needs and by position. The actual training consists of modules rather than individual exercises. Modules consist of four to six exercises or drills designed to address specific qualities and needs. I have found that this approach makes constructing the workouts more directed and allows me to insert various modules in strategic places as needed.

Look closely at the practice plan and look for places within the practice that afford opportunities for athletic development modules. Obviously this must be closely coordinated with the coach. I have found this to be particularly effective to address individual player needs. I have also had success with plugging in a specific module that was three to five minutes long that was used to enhance the subsequent sport specific drill. To do this requires trust from the sport coach.

In regard to strength training, the emphasis should change based on the time of the competitive season. It is important to note that strength training does not always have to be after practice. With an athlete or team that has a good training background, a well designed targeted session before a practice or even a game or a match can be very beneficial in terms of neural stimulus. Also implement the “weightroom without walls” concept. Do the strength training on the field or the court. It works.

Flexibility needs to be addressed daily on an individual needs basis. It can be done before workout if it is active, but true flexibility development is best done post practice when the body is still warmed up.

It is advisable to have pre-practice routines where individual players or small groups work with the athletic development coach to address specific needs. This should be no longer than fifteen minutes. This has worked quite well for me over the years. Directed, focused work designed to meet individual needs has a profound cumulative training effect.

Vern Gambetta, MA, is President of Gambetta Sports Training Systems in Sarasota, Fla. The former Director of Conditioning for the Chicago White Sox, he has also worked extensively with basketball, soccer, and track and field athletes. He is a frequent contributor to Training & Conditioning. Vern also maintains his own blog.

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