Nov 1, 2021
Implementing a High-Performance Program During a Pandemic
Meade Smith, MS, CSCS, CES, PES

The last year-plus has challenged us in many ways, both personally and professionally. As a strength and conditioning professional, your focus is always on developing your athletes and being with them daily to ensure they are physically, mentally, and emotionally prepared for the competitive season. 

When laying out your vision of a pre-season training program, there are usually a lot of known variables regarding the current status of your team. In a “normal year,” you have three to four months dedicated to some type of off-season training. During the pandemic, however, we have dealt with team shutdowns, inconsistent training on an individual level due to quarantine or, in some cases, athletes having COVID-19, and not knowing when or how we will compete again. 

This article focuses on the challenges of implementing a six-week pre-season collegiate football high-performance program during a pandemic. More specifically, we will take a hard look at three key variables of program design: special considerations, progression, and implementation.

programWhen beginning to develop a program, the three variables that dictate its design are time, mode of training (training implements), and space or a number of athletes. Before we tie these together, we must account for special considerations. Due to the pandemic, all training sessions must follow specific guidelines: 60-minute sessions, 25 or fewer athletes (including strength and conditioning and sports medicine staff), and six feet of space between athletes. Sessions may be conducted outdoors or indoors based on the team’s current COVID-19 testing protocol status.  

The pandemic also changed the timing of our competitive football season from fall to spring. As a result, our athletes reported for pre-season training camp after a six-week break from the fall semester. To ensure their health and well-being, all athletes trained through a two-week minimum acclimatization period. During this time, training volumes, intensities and work to rest ratios were followed per CSCCa-NSCA Joint Consensus and NCAA Sports Science Institute guidelines.  

Utilizing these guidelines allowed our athletes to focus on safely returning to a high level of performance. One of the most important training variables in all high-performance programs is progression, especially when focusing on an extended training plan such as pre-season. To many strength and conditioning professionals, progression is a means of prescribing movements to transition from simple to complex state of training. This idea of progression would carry over to each segment of a training program to include warm-up, speed dynamics, strength training, and energy system development. Because our six-week pre-season training plan consists of a two-week acclimatization period and four 20-hour weeks of involuntary football practice, strength training, field walk-throughs, meetings, and recovery time, utilizing progression on both a daily and weekly plan is of utmost importance to ensure our athletes reach a high-performance level.  

programAfter hours of staff meetings and sitting behind the computer, it is now time to implement the six-week pre-season training plan. The training plan is broken down into two, three-week training programs. Due to quarantining and testing protocols in Phase 1, training in the first week must be conducted outside. Our athletes trained within their position groups using the guidelines mentioned earlier, performing three 20-minute segments focusing on warm-up and activation, speed dynamics or energy system development, and general physical preparation circuits utilizing different training implements such as body weight, medicine balls, and kettlebells. The segments were rotated daily to ensure each athlete completed two high-intensity days, which included speed dynamics, and two low-intensity days that emphasized tempo runs and medicine ball circuits. 

Upon return to our performance center, we were limited by time and small group sizes. To ensure everyone’s health and safety, only two athletes per lifting station were allowed, and athletes had to train with roommates or housemates or were partnered based on prior COVID-19 health status. During the final two weeks of Phase 1, the goals were to continue to progress athletes back into a high level of performance utilizing the concepts of On the Minute Every Minute (OMEM), Prilepin’s Principle, and Tier Programming. Combining these concepts allowed our athletes to focus on core lifts, emphasize great movement, and progress the volume and intensity at a rate that would promote performance gains.  

Entering Phase 2, the focus continues to build toward the football field, as the first game is less than four weeks away. Our team is in full practice mode, participating in daily practice or walk-through as well as a lifting session or regeneration such as yoga and mobility work, ice baths, or soft tissue therapy. Lifts are performed three days per week emphasizing upper or lower body movements. 

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During this phase, we utilize the methodology of Canadian Ascending – Descending to promote higher performance levels. This allows athletes to train all spectrums of power and strength, progressing from plyometrics to ballistic movements such as weighted squat jumps to speed-strength movements like Olympic movements. The athletes finish with slow speed-strength movements such as squats, presses, and pulls. These workouts can be rotated to move from high speed to low speed or vice versa.  Our team is now settled into our weekly training and practice schedule and will continue in four-week training blocks for the remainder of the season. 

As you can see, the pandemic has presented numerous challenges within our six-week pre-season collegiate high-performance program. Every time a new training period begins, there are always different challenges or obstacles to overcome. One of the most rewarding things about designing programs is that there are many different ways to get to your achieved goal of building strong, fast, and robust athletes. During this pandemic, I’ve been reminded that if you rely on sound scientific training principles, utilize past experiences, listen to your athletes and watch training sessions intently, the results are in the detail of the collective work.  

Meade Smith is one of the top strength and conditioning professionals in college athletics with a proven track record of helping athletes maximize their potential. An adjunct faculty member at Logan University in Chesterfield, Missouri, Smith teaches in the university’s Master of Science in Sports Science & Rehabilitation and simultaneously serves as Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois. Smith is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist in the National Strength and Conditioning Association holds both the Performance Enhancement Specialist and Corrective Exercise Specialist through the National Academy of Sports Medicine and is a certified sports performance coach and Level 1 weightlifting coach with USA Weightlifting. Most recently, Smith has completed Level 1 certifications in both Functional Movement Screen and Reflexive Performance Reset.

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