Handling Multiple Skill Levels?

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As a strength coach working in the private sector, many sessions are filled with kids of different ages, sports, and skill levels. Sometimes I am working with upwards of 12 athletes by myself and have to figure out a way to manage all of them in a way that they will get the most out of the training session. How do I do this? I am going to go through a few steps that might help you if you’re in the same pickle.

1. Warm-ups


Many of us have our programs set up very meticulously with everything having it’s place, as it should, but sometimes we have to stray from the plan. This is definitely the case  with warm-ups if you have a larger group of athletes with varying skill levels. I have warm-ups that are well-thought-out, but usually, if I have younger or newer athletes, I will use a general warm-up protocol. This gets the job done, while keeping it simple and quick. If I used the planned warm-up, I would have to take more time to teach the proper planned movements. Keep it SIMPLE with SIMPLE-skilled athletes! 🙂

2. Programming

I guess this really should be #1, but since I already wrote that…this will just have to do here. When you’re writing your athletes’ programs for each day/week/cycle, you should make it easy on yourself at the session level. To do this, I choose certain exercises but, within each exercise, I include options for modifications so I don’t have to think about it “in the moment”. For example, if I had deadlift planned, I might have a small list beside it with trapbar, Kettlebell (KB), KB depth squat, or even KB swings. The point is to have a similar movement pattern to the movement you actually want as your end result and have the lesser-skilled athletes work towards eventually performing that movement.

3. Split the Group


When you have a larger group of athletes with varying skill levels, you will almost certainly have to split them into smaller groups. This will make the session move along smoother, and it will make it easier on you. Also, it will keep the older athletes “in the session”. Most older, more-skilled athletes will get bored with the session if they have to wait around for the younger, less-skilled athletes to complete their set. So, split the large group into smaller, similar-skilled groups. From here, you can delegate certain portions of that day’s session to each group, so everyone is not starting on the same exercises. For example, I usually start our sessions with everyone warming-up together and then starting my higher-skilled athletes on a main lift like a Snatch, Clean & Jerk, or Deadlift. While they’re doing that, I’ll have the younger athletes performing core exercises or agility work. Every athlete will complete all of the exercises regardless, but they will just be completed in a different order to keep things running smoothly. If we had a larger facility and more equipment to work with, this wouldn’t be a problem. However, we have limited space and equipment, so this is how we choose to handle our sessions.

4. Quality or Quantity?


When working with any athlete, our main goal should always be to reduce the rate of injury while improving performance. That being said, should we try to fit the most exercises, sets, and reps into each training session (like you see many Globogym personal trainers doing with their clients to keep things ‘fresh’)? You might argue that this is plausible in times of general physical preparation (GPP), where we’re trying to increase our athletes’ work capacity. I like to keep our sessions simple, and by that I mean that I am not strict on completing the ENTIRE session. So I would never rush an athlete to get through any set of any type of exercise. Rushing only increases the chance of poor movement quality and injury. If there is only 15 minutes left and an athlete is squatting, but still has a few sets left, and conditioning after that, I will usually let them finish their squats and skip the conditioning. However, this is where specialization comes into play. I would have an athlete that needs to improve their conditioning stop squatting to complete that day’s conditioning. So, keep your sessions simple with higher quality movement…even if that means throwing out some of the exercises you had planned.

Putting it all together…include several options in your program for each exercise to accommodate all skill levels of athletes; use more general-type warm-up movements; make smaller groups of similar-skilled athletes; and allow for flexibility within your program for certain parts to not be completed over focusing on other, more important parts to each athlete. Train hard, train smart! 🙂

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