4 Principles for Team Training Design

Run, Kick, Scrum, Lift, Pass, Throw, Tactics , Calls...

Where does it all fit?  Speed, strength, power, endurance...and that's just the physical component.

Restarts, turnover possession, defense, attack...the tactical elements of any team sport you'd like to discuss are, in the professional era, simply prolific.  

Recovery; massage, physio, cryogenic therapies, rollers, contrast hydrotherapy.  Let's not forget the grossly under utilized area of mental preparation...meditation, imagery, sensory deprivation.  So much to do, so little time.

Putting together the perfect training program for team sport is almost a Holy Grail.  Does it exist?  Can it exist?

While I'm sure that some coaches think they've got it nailed, I wouldn't say that of myself.  My experience across 20yrs in primarily two very different contact field sports (Rugby Union and Australian Football-AFL) and more importantly across a dozen different Head Coaches, has been that there is no unified answer. Not only is each sport and the nature of their competitions different, but the impact of different Head Coaches has an enormous effect on what and how programs can be implemented.

So where do you start in order to navigate this quagmire of variables.

Firstly, you (as a S&C/High Performance professional) must have a strong philosophical position. Based on demonstrable facts (preferentially over intuition...although this plays a part) you must be able to paint a concise picture of how you envisage putting a program together.  Your ability to convey this to the head coach is central to you gaining influence and control.

All coaches exist on a continuum from crystal clear vision of what they want to achieve and how they want to go about it, all the way to disorganized philosophies and little to no idea of training structure beyond “this is how we used to do it”.  Understanding where your coach sits on that continuum will determine what elements of the program that you can manipulate in order to determine the physical performance outcome.

People ask me all the time "how do you prepare for more advanced jobs".  One way is to start working through these scenarios;
How would you approach a program in which the coach said “I’m in your hands…what do we do?
How would you approach a coach that said…”this is the way we are doing it…end of discussion”.

I have faced each variant on several occasions and the strength and direction of your response often sets the tone for how your relationship will play out.  Ensure that when you face a 3hr job interview in front of a panel of 8 people (for the "big" job everyone seems to long for) that you have these answers in advance. You need to know how to respond.  Don’t ever be caught searching for the answer.

In my view I approach my role on two fronts;

  1. Prepare and maintain players capacity to express physical domination in competition.
  2. Facilitate an environment in which the Head Coach can develop and implement his strategic and tactical plans.

These objectives while independent, are inextricably linked.  I don't live in an isolated "silo" where all I need to concern myself with is strictly physical preparation.  I need to concern myself with everything that requires a player to expend energy.  That by definition includes all elements of technical and tactical practice.

In team sports the overall balance of a program between purely athletic preparation and competition specific practice (technical and tactical) is the signature of the Head Coach/S&C Coach combination.  A program skewed too far in either direction can produce disastrous results.  Equally, with the equation balanced the team's potential can be unlocked.

There is no unified model that works.  That being said there is a perfect balance for every team between pure athletic preparation and technical / tactical practice.  Athletic preparation work is easily quantified and can be relied upon for repeatability.  Technical / Tactical practice on the other hand is really dictated by the Head Coach's perspective of what is being trained vs what is being expended in the course of a session.

Here are my Four Guiding Principles when it comes to evaluating and planning technical & tactical elements of training.  I use these as a cornerstone in my conversations with coaches so that I am clearly understood when it comes to balancing out any program.

1. QUANTIFICATION - The degree to which a session quantifiably reflects competition dictates how you can manipulate combined Technical/Tactical/Physical sessions.  High correlation to competition = highly effective training modality.

2. SPECIFICITY - The greater the number of competition specific elements that are removed to create a drill e.g. contact, field size, the lower the specificity.  High specificity = highly effective training modality.

3. ISOLATION - The more isolated a drill becomes e.g. practicing one play or pattern repeatedly, the greater the likelihood of imbalanced load between positional groups.  Low number of isolated drills = highly effective training modality.

4. CONTROL - The degree of control / influence I have over the elements of VIDF (Volume, Intensity, Density, Frequency).  The greater the control / influence I have = greater ability to structure appropriate overload of targeted physical adaptations.

Once I have these four points mapped my action item list becomes clear.  My role is then to fill the gaps in the physical preparation stimulus.

A few notes of warning to all S&C coaches...

Despite "funky" contract variations we are all judged on our team winning.  Make sure you facilitate this happening, don't stuff it up with egotistical S&C crap!

Understand that in order for them to play well they must technically and tactically train well...don't get caught up in your players being just athletic.  If you can't grasp this concept you may be better suited to cyclic sports.

Be careful in your approach to "freshening" the team…it is all well and good to be “neurally optimized” for the weekend game, but if the players haven’t practiced well, reinforced their processes they may still play like shit no matter how well they run.

On the "flip side", never capitulate to a coach that demands all training be team based.  There are strong arguments for and against this position and all of them can be defended by good data collection and analysis which is our backyard.

While I haven't provided any "rock-solid" answers (mainly because I'm I'm not sure there are any) the aim of this article was to give you an insight into my processes, by virtue of which you can adapt yours as required.

If you want more on this subject, Sign Up at the bottom of the page for email updates as I am in the process of writing a number of Webinars (with an outstanding international co-author) in which we will explore this subject in far more detail.

In the mean time check out Breaking the Cone-to-Cone Culture and Thoughts on Small Sided Games for more ideas on delivering elite S&C programs in team sports.




Ian Gibbons

Just re-read this post again…. The battle ground on weekly training schedule and content is one that we as S&C coaches face on a daily basis, the relationships we build with the head coach as his team of merry men are crucial, we are salesmen and these 4 key guidelines are absolutely bang on!

Jason you are on fire!

James Marshall

Very clear and useful, thanks.


interested to find out more on principles for team training design.


Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published