Athletes are competitive.
In the absence of a planned break, many will just push harder. On to the next season, the next game, the next pursuit of a championship ring.
It's admirable, which is why social media is filled with memes about "no off days."
But the grind eventually wears you out...physically, mentally and emotionally.
Youth athletes are burning out younger and younger these days. We're talking about overtraining syndrome with middle schoolers. Kids are on multiple teams at a time, traveling across the country year-round to compete.
It's crazy, especially when you think about how teams at the top level of sport literally have several months off planned into their schedules.
But it's a reality. So, how do we as coaches deal with it?
The Challenges of No Offseason
First and foremost, let's state the obvious. Physically, an athlete's body needs to rest.
A well-programmed training plan takes that into account. Your body does not get stronger during training. Training actually breaks your body down, and it's that breakdown that spurs adaptation. But it's during the rest and recovery between training sessions when your body actually levels up.
However, unless you work for a pro team, it's unlikely you can program every aspect of an athlete's physical preparation. They may come to you beat up from a four-hour practice the previous night, and they've got a game the next day.
During a competitive season, you could just give them the night off. Take it easy so they can perform in the game.
But when the athlete's always in-season, how are you supposed to accomplish anything without tearing them apart? And this doesn't even account for the mental and emotional toll.
You can't deny that sports create inherent highs and lows. Exhilarating wins, crushing losses, and going to dark places to push through intense training. That in itself is a lot to handle. Add the very real effects of overtraining (such as mood swings, lack of sleep, fatigue and malaise), and you've got a recipe for disaster.
Of course, every athlete will respond differently, but don't mistake the athlete with no offseason for being mentally weak. Usually, they're just exhausted.
Your role as a strength and conditioning coach changes when an athlete doesn't have an offseason. Sure, you're ultimately there to help them perform, provide support and prevent injury. But how you do that shifts.
Moderate Their Load
If you're not measuring, you're just guessing. That goes for things like external load and jump count, as well as sleep quality and readiness to train.
One of the best tools to use (both for athletes with and without an offseason) is a simple wellness questionnaire. It doesn't have to be complicated. Simply have them answer a few questions before training. How well/long did they sleep last night? What's their mood/energy for training? And how hard did they train the day before?
These are just examples, and obviously they're subjective. But by asking how they feel physically, mentally and emotionally, you can track trends and know when to pull back or push hard.
Asking these type of questions is important for any athlete, but for athletes without an offseason, it's absolutely critical.
For a more objective measure, talk to their coaches.
Ask about what conditioning they do in practice. How many minutes did they play over the weekend? Every bit of info can help you tailor their program.
From there, adjust their volume in the gym accordingly. Be adaptable.
Set a target number of jumps, sprints, or high-impact exercises based on their sport-specific demand.
On lighter weeks, add a few reps to provide a more game-like load. During intense weeks, take some off. You can still plan peaks and de-loads, just know it might not go exactly as drawn up.
Having said that...
Ditch Traditional Linear Periodization
Without an offseason to prep, a preseason to push, or a postseason to perform, you can't stick with that kind of block periodization.
After all, fall postseason overlaps with the winter season, which overlaps with spring preseason
Instead, adopt a shorter-term, all-around athletic training plan. Consider paring that down into a single competition week.
Let's say they play on Friday night. Saturday is the recovery.
Sunday and Monday start the build. Tuesday represents the preseason push. Wednesday is in-season maintenance, skill and tactical focus. On Thursday, you can prime them for performance with a speed-strength day. And Friday, they play.
Of course, this assumes you have access to them every day. If you only get two days per week with your athletes, focus on developing a strength foundation, total-body movement quality, and any sport-specific prehab. Make the most of the time you have by hitting the big rocks first, and filling in the details where you can.
It's not ideal, but consistently hitting those big rocks accomplishes a great deal.
Still Program Peaks
An athlete might not have an offseason, but they still have games that matter more than others inside a season.
The fluctuating nature of a competitive season means athletes will have tougher games, bye weeks, and postseason play. With a little planning and open communication, you can still progress athletes over the course of the year.
One great way to push athletes without going over the edge is RPE training. It's easy to use, and it doesn't require extra equipment like other self-regulating methods, such as velocity-based training. RPE's been proven effective for experienced athletes, with strong correlations to actual %1RM training.
Unlike percentage-based training, however, it allows an athlete to work at an appropriate daily load.
Keep Conditioning Short and Sweet
As far as conditioning goes, speak to the athlete's coaches.
Honestly, the athlete is probably getting enough conditioning in games and practices.
If you do program conditioning, do it like you would any regular in-season cycle—sparingly and purposefully. Use short sprints rather than endurance workouts. Incorporate exercises that raise their endurance, but carry very little risk of injury. Focus on low-impact stuff that mitigates soreness.
I love assault bike sprints, sled races and heavy carries for competitive finishers.
And make it fun! With all of the pressure they're constantly under to perform, it's important to foster healthy, stress-free competition.
Give Them Time Off
In some cases, you might literally have to kick kids out of the gym. But time off is so important.
A huge part of performance is physical and mental recovery, and if they're not getting it elsewhere, it might be the best thing you can do for them.
Yes, I know it's tempting to push your program agenda. Trust me, less is more.
If an athlete with no offseason is still resistance training, they're doing far more than most kids in their situation.
We all know real athleticism isn't built over the course of a few weeks or even a year. It's the accumulation of years of a consistent, smart approach.
When you look at it that way, a week or two away from the gym is nothing. In fact, it'll help keep them healthy.
Give them back a few hours a week to play video games, eat burgers, and chill with their friends for a bit. They're people first, athletes second. It'll reduce burnout, so they want to stick with their sport.
And the best part? They'll come back hungry when it's finally time to train again. Fully recovered, and ready to rock.
Photo Credit: OSTILL/iStock
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