Written by Joe Vecchione
Many strength & conditioning (S&C) coaches will work with a variety of sports in their career spanning different ages and levels. Through these experiences, we quickly realize that each sport and level bring a diverse set of S&C deliverables and interpersonal dynamics to navigate.
The training routines and roles of the S&C coach have evolved within a deep-rooted culture that spans decades. I am referring to the meta culture of a sport that transcends the team or program we work with creates the common threads that make up the fabric of a sport environment at large. The teams we support are often cut from the same cloth, though have unique nuances based on the athletes and staff. Becoming a ’fit’ for the teams and sports we work with goes beyond our expertise in exercise prescription and physiology – it requires a growth-mindset to contribute to a desirable training environment.
For the better part of the last two years, I have been working with two diametrically opposite sports at a national level in swimming and soccer. Not only do the physical needs and routines differ between sports, so do competition schedules, group sizes, and the deliverables in each role. The focus of my role with swimming is all things dryland (i.e., gym, activation, circuits). However, with soccer, most of the work is delivered on-field (i.e., activation, warm-ups, load-monitoring, return to play) with a smaller focus in the gym. These shifts in roles and environments bring different expectations on how I fit within the team and where I can find opportunities to bring value.
Team vs. Individual Sports
At times I have been led to believe that team and individual sport are worlds apart. Often sports are classified as ‘physiological’ or ‘skill-based’, mostly when the outcome of a sport is time-based versus points/scoring. I’ve come to realize this dichotomization provides a misrepresentation of both the athletes and training environments.
No matter the sport, if the physical capacities or skill level do not compliment the other, the lesser trait will hold an athlete back from achieving peak performances. The swimmers and soccer players I work with each have unique physical, mental, technical, and tactical profiles and all of them are trying to get better in each area. The trick is in balancing the need to develop specific areas while maintaining others. This is where a periodized program and individual needs analysis completed with a coach and integrated support staff members (ex. mental performance, physiology, therapy, biomechanists, dieticians) becomes critical – regardless of the sport.
Different sports bring different training environments, though many individual sports will train in small to medium sized groups, often making it comparable to a team environment. In my experience, the coaching skills gained from both environments complement each other. Within many team sports there are specialist roles (ex. pitchers, liberos, goalkeepers) which can be approached with an individual sport lens. In my recent experience as a varsity S&C coach, I realized that the training culture in sports like baseball and volleyball were very similar to the group dynamics of our swim teams – there are position/event groups that often require a level of individualization and intent on the part of the athlete to address these needs. I’ve found that the more I lean into these positional/event needs and support them, it can enhance athlete buy-in and place a level of ownership on the athlete to provide feedback on the program outcomes. When athletes are dialed into their individual modifications, they will be helpful advisors in fine-tuning the prescription to ensure maximum efficacy.
The biggest difference I can point to between team and individual sport lies in the competition schedule, which seems to be largely responsible for the differences in training cultures, schedules, and microcycle plans. The women’s national team (WNT) players are competing in weekly matches and then playing twice in the span of 10 days in camp (and sometimes with their club). Swimmers are typically working towards two major events per year (national trials, world championships/Olympics).
The nature of soccer competing weekly results in an emphasis on recovery and maintenance. To contrast, the swimmers I work with stack multiple build weeks together, often training through early meets in-season, with planned recovery weeks and taper periods into major events. Apart from the competition schedule, the mechanical load differences between training in water and running in a field sport play a significant part in the frequency, volume and intensity at which training can be tolerated throughout a 7-day microcycle.
At a national level, one thing is consistent, both sets of athletes are intrinsically motivated and willing to not only do the work but make the sacrifices necessary to achieve peak performance.
Lessons from the Senior Women’s National Soccer Team (WNT)
When I joined the WNT, there was a clear identity and culture around the team. Being a perennial top 10 team in the world for the better part of 20 years brought a sense of pride and responsibility among the athletes and staff who were selected for international duty. The standard as a team is world-class performance – and that bleeds into each facet of preparation. The players are willing to do more and are highly competitive which sets the stage for a strong training culture.
When I first started with the team, I took a step back and observed how they operated. It wasn’t until after a few camps where the opportunities to add value and support the training culture began to present itself. In my role as the assistant sport scientist, I slowly began to explore different ways to support the different player groups within our team. The first step was in supporting the young players when they got called into our senior team environment, many of whom I worked with at the U20 World Cup, with remote programming and additional support in camp. This grew into a small group of budding national team players that I have been supporting for the better part of a year as they seek to make their mark on our team.
This step led me to identify another group of players within our team, the goalkeepers. In soccer, the goalkeepers are the specialists and have a sub-culture that has many parallels to individual sport. The demands of goalkeeping are completely different to the outfield players, and as such, we train them differently. Over the course of many camps, I strengthened my relationship with our goalkeeper coach as we discussed loading, and the three keepers as we added gym sessions, conditioning, and iterated on our activation routines to include sprints, change of directions, jumps and medicine ball throws. As a result, I’ve gained the trust of the keepers by supporting them as a collective and individually in a way that hasn’t been done in the past, which has extended to ongoing remote programming for two of them while in their club environments.
Due to the nature of international windows and tournaments, many players will experience a spike in workload due to the games being days apart. Training sessions are mostly maintenance with the focus on being physically fresh for the next match. However, for those who don’t play, or play reduced minutes, it can be difficult at times to maintain physical qualities due to a lack of high-intensity physical work (1). Providing additional training opportunities (ex. top-ups, extra sessions, more practice time) is always a logistical challenge, one that we as a staff sometimes struggle with. In team sport, finding additional training opportunities for non-starters is critical, especially in our context, from youth to senior teams at an international level, starters are faster, stronger, and fitter (2). These additional trainings can double as opportunities to identify and work on individual needs, and more importantly, can be an opportunity to build relationships and contribute to a positive team and training culture.
Lessons from Swim Canada’s High-Performance Center (HPC) – Vancouver
In contrast to the WNT environment, swimming’s high-performance center (HPC) has gone through a transition period during my time with the program. New staff and athletes have brought new life to the HPC and an opportunity to reset the culture. Like soccer, Canadian swimmers have experienced much success in recent years on the world stage and the trend continues. As such, I have found myself in another environment where the collective is aspiring for world-class performance.
Finding my footing with swimming was uncomfortable at first. Thankfully I had prior experience with age-group swimmers and an assistant coach at UBC in Sierra Moores, also an S&C coach, who helped me navigate the landscape. It was hard to wrap my head around training in the pool 8-10x per week (depending on the individual, event, time of year) along with 2-3 gym sessions and 2-3 circuits. Furthermore, with the HPC being on UBC campus, some athletes are enrolled in full-time studies. Swimming has shown me what it looks like to take one’s body and mind to the limits of their capabilities. Though different philosophies exist to train for the sprint events, most swimmers are completing 3 double sessions in a week (i.e., two swims on one day) and due to logistics, will sometimes have a third session in the gym on those days. Observing the resiliency and adaptability of these athletes has raised my expectations and reframed what workloads athletes can work towards tolerating.
Working with the center through its transition has turned out to be a blessing for me. As each new staff member was appointed and new athletes trickled in, we began to develop a new way of doing things. From a training standpoint, the bar was raised – notably in the gym. We added a third gym session and coaches became routinely present in the gym. I have never had a team sport coach spend an entire session with the team in the gym unless they were working out alongside them. Moreover, I have never had a team sport coach want to be involved in exercise selection and periodization. This isn’t unusual in ‘physiology-based’ individual sports like swimming and track & field – I enjoy these discussions and the challenges that they bring. Each step along the way of cultivating the new training culture and integration among staff strengthened the value of S&C among our swimmers and my role within the team.
Three Ways to Compliment and Build Your Sport’s Training Culture
Recommendation: I suggest you first spend a significant amount of time learning about the team and sport. In both examples I’ve presented above, it took me over a year to grasp the team culture and mesh into the group.
- Be your authentic self
I don’t believe there is a shortcut on the path to complimenting and building on your team’s culture. One of the mistakes I’ve made multiple times in my career was holding back from being myself. There are many layers to unpack in that statement, but simply put, I regret not being my authentic self sooner. Why? Because that’s what people connect to. A meaningful connection with another human being requires revealing your human side – your authentic self.
- Inspire not motivate
Working with top athletes means that I don’t need to be a motivator. Instead, l aim to inspire them with my coaching skills. Another mistake I’ve made many times in my career is ‘staying in my lane’ and avoiding the discussion about an athlete’s sport performance or mental preparation. This adage is not what high-performance is, instead it is about “operating between lanes in the grey area” as my mentor Ed McNeely put it. Simply asking, then listening to an athlete in a goal-setting session respond to whether they believe they can achieve their ultimate goal will illustrate the subtle difference between inspiring and motivating. You can’t motivate them to believe in themselves – you have to pull that out of them.
- Find plus ones
Since returning from the Women’s World Cup in the summer then binge-watching Netflix’s Break Point, I’ve challenged myself to look for ways to create plus ones to enhance our training culture. A plus one has both a literal and figurative meaning for me. In the same conversation noted above, Ed reminded me that S&C coaches are uniquely positioned to create small wins every session. It struck me then, plus ones weren’t only reps and pounds, they were wins. And it wasn’t just about winning, it was the process that led to winning. Having a champion mindset requires finding a way every day to get better, even when you’re not at your best. Buy some microplates and encourage your athletes to move the needle each session, 1 pound or 1 rep at a time.
1. Anderson, L., Orme, P., Di Michele, R., Close, G. L., Milsom, J., Morgans, R., … Morton, J. P. (2016). Quantification of Seasonal-Long Physical Load in Soccer Players With Different Starting Status From the English Premier League: Implications for Maintaining Squad Physical Fitness. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 11(8), 1038–1046. https://doi.org/10.1123/IJSPP.2015- 0672
2. Manson, S. A., Brughelli, M., & Harris, N. K. (2014). Physiological characteristics of international female soccer players. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 28(2), 308–318. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0B013E31829B56B1