Managing the In-Season Athlete

IceBathThe other day I was texting with my good friend (and Portland Timbers center back) Danny O’Rourke, and we were discussing how to approach in-season training and lifting.

After our discussion, I thought this would be a great opportunity to discuss the topic here on the site.

(This is also going to be the entire focus of my presentation at the upcoming Midwest Performance Enhancement seminar [November 7th and 8th], so this will work as a nice little outline for that presentation!)

If you train athletes you need to know and understand what they are going through during the competitive season.

Here are three critical “priority areas” that you should be addressing, if you aren’t already.

Priority #1 – Manage Stress

During the competitive season, your team has one primary goal:

To win games.

Sounds simple, right?

But think about how much planning, preparation and work goes into that one simple goal.

First and foremost, you have the technical and tactical work that the sport coaches administer.

You have the physical preparation piece, which includes speed, strength, agility, power, conditioning, and a host of other physical qualities.

But there are also less obvious factors, such as travel.

This could be as simple as a direct flight where you stay in the same time zone, to a multi-flight, multi-time zone endeavor that takes multiple days to recover from.

And finally, you can’t forget about the fact that these are people you’re dealing with, and even if they’re a professional athlete, training and competition are just one piece of their life.

Now can you start to envision how tough this is?

As a performance coach working with a team in-season, I think of myself much more as a manager than a coach.

And the primary thing I’m trying to manage is fatigue.

Or perhaps even more specifically, I’m trying to managestress.

Your job as a performance coach is to make sure that your team is ready and prepared to play on “X” day.

As soon as they play a match or game, it’s a race to get them recovered and feeling fresh as quickly as possible. Doing so allows for improved performance in both practice and competition.

Taking this a step further, you also need to respect the fact that all games or competitions are not equal.

And if every game isn’t created equal, you have to pick and choose which games are the most important and plan accordingly.

At times, you’ll have to knowingly increase fatigue, or train an athlete when they’re not as fresh as you’d like.

It’s not ideal, but as the saying goes, “that’s the way the cookie crumbles.”

But if you can keep your athlete feeling as fresh and prepared as possible, as often as possible, you give them the best possible chance for success.

Priority #2 – Maintain Strength

If you only know one thing about managing in-season athletes, it should be this:

No one gives a shit how strong you are in the gym if you’re getting your ass kicked up and down the court or field!

I love the analogy of max strength being a glass. If you have a bigger glass (i.e. more strength), you have the potential to be faster or more explosive.

And while this analogy works great in the off-season, I’m going to tweak it slightly for the in-season.

Imagine you have a glass, but it has a small hole in the bottom and water is leaking out. This is respective of you losing strength over the course of a competitive season.

If you did the right things in the off-season and got stronger, you have a bigger glass. So even if you have a hole and you’re losing some strength, you’ve got a bigger strength reserve that you can lose.

turkish get-upAnd taking that a step further, if you continue strength training in-season, it’s like doing your best to plug the hole in your glass.

You may lose some of your gains, but you’ll do so at a much slower pace.

This is why you have to strength train year round. Not only do you have a bigger glass (or reserve) to start with, but you can also maintain that strength for as long as possible.

Now here’s a key distinction that I think a lot of people lose sight of:

The goal isn’t to demonstrate maximal strength in-season. I don’t need someone working up to true 1- or 3-RM’s in the weight room.

We may push some decent weights, but again, the goal isn’t to get stronger – it’s to maintain strength.

A mantra I’ve been using goes like this:

– but don’t test it.

The goal isn’t to prove that you’re still strong, but rather, to maintain your strength gains for as long as possible.

Even if you only get in one decent training session per week, this is going to go a long way to mitigating any losses in strength over the course of the competitive season.

Priority #3 – Rehab and Return to Play Appropriately

Last but not least, we have return to play.

Now I’m not a physical therapist or athletic trainer, but as a physical preparation coach, I have to work hand-in-hand with the medical staff to get the athlete back on the court/field as quickly (and safely) as possible.

While the athlete is doing their work with the training staff, we can be working not only on strength and power, but also on conditioning.

If an athlete is out for an extended period of time, conditioning will drop off quite quickly.

This is where a smart conditioning program comes into play. If an athlete didn’t have a great conditioning base to start with, this could be a blessing in disguise as you have the time to build them a base.

From there, you can progress into more intensive methods that allow them to more seamlessly reintegrate back into team training.

The worst case scenario is when an athlete is orthopedically prepared to get back on the field or court, but then not prepared from a conditioning perspective. This not only limits their ability to contribute, but also increases the likelihood of them getting injured again.


Managing in-season athletes is no small task.

Whether it’s managing stress, maintaining strength, or getting them back on the field, this is a constantly changing landscape that requires a great deal of time and attention.

However, focusing on these three priorities can go a long way to giving your team the best possible chance for success.

Good luck!



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