Sports Coaching: a critical assessment of how an athlete can improve performance

Ongoing quantification and evaluation of training interventions is necessary in order to make informed coaching decisions

For athletes to improve systematically, coaches need to follow practical programmes based on sound principles. According to Andy Harrison, coaches should be encouraged to reflect critically on the process, methods and variables that they use, or could use, to devise training interventions and evaluate the effectiveness of their programmes.

At a glance

When an athlete’s performance improves and the athlete becomes stronger, faster or more precise in their movement, there’s always an underlying reason to account for it, be it psychological, physiological, biochemical or biomechanical.

The task for coaches therefore is to determine the most appropriate sequence and progression of training and competitive activities to bring about these positive changes.

General programme considerations

There are four key ingredients for a successful coaching program:

Determining training needs – Training is the process of imposing a physiological stress on the body with the aim of generating an adaptive response that results in improved performance. In order to be effective, any training intervention must impact positively upon a component of the sport movement. It is therefore essential that these key components of the sporting activity are identified.

Individualising the programme – Knowing the demands of a particular sport allows the coach to profile and evaluate an athlete in order to identify their strengths and weaknesses relative to performance demands; for example, the use of a shuttle run (‘bleep’) test can determine if a footballer has sufficient aerobic capacity for the needs of the sport. Training programmes must address differing individual needs in order for each athlete to progress.  Athletes are individuals and won’t be able to compete effectively using only generalised training programmes

Setting goals – Simply wishing for improvement is not enough. The coach and athlete must determine a specific performance objective that is appropriate. For example, wanting to be Olympic champion is admirable but establishing short and medium-term performance related objectives is an essential process towards such a long-term goal. Coaches must therefore help athletes realise that these appropriate goals need to be based on experience and the athlete’s past performances.

Making a plan – During training, we impose physiological ‘stress’ and the body (hopefully) adapts. However, adaptation is not a simple process; the mechanisms are quite complex with each training intervention generating a number of acute, immediate, cumulative, delayed and residual effects. An efficient way of optimising adaptation is to use a periodised training plan (Ed – see issue 266 for a detailed discussion on periodisation). The term ‘periodisation’ is commonly used to refer to the systematic design and sequencing of an athlete’s preparation and competition activities over time. In general, it involves breaking down the season or year into separate phases with each phase having a set of distinct objectives, workloads or training contents in order to promote optimal adaptation and prepare the athlete for peak performance.  Typically, a successful programme will optimally blend several performance factors, vary the emphasis and training load, and exhibit a high degree of individualisation to make it specific for each athlete.

Limitations of knowledge and coaching art

Most coaches and sports scientists agree that we still lack a sound theoretical framework that enables us to ‘optimally’ prescribe training and competition activities in terms of sequencing and proportion. Furthermore, despite the large body of knowledge available, the ability to predict with an acceptable degree of precision the nature, rate and magnitude of adaptation resulting from concurrent training interventions is variable.

There is much evidence available regarding the methods and protocols that are appropriate for the development or maintenance of individual performance factors (eg maximum strength, anaerobic capacity, aerobic endurance, etc).  Consequently the artistry of coaching is not necessarily about designing training interventions that target single performance factors, but rather how best to integrate activities that stress several of them concurrently within a micro-cycle or over a longer period of time.

Assessing programme effectiveness

Figure 1 shows a standard process for the design and monitoring of a training programme. Central to any process is the necessity for the coach to assess the outcome of the programme and its effectiveness to provide the desired adaptive response.

Figure 1

When reflecting upon the effectiveness of a training intervention, the coach needs to consider the following four factors:

  • What was planned;
  • What was actually completed;
  • What the outcomes were;
  • How these outcomes compared with the desired outcomes.

These considerations probably seem like common sense and fairly simple to apply. However, in reality, applying them meaningfully can be both challenging and time consuming. Methods frequently used by coaches include laboratory and field assessments (to measure the progress of key performance indicators), competition results (to assess the athlete’s capacity to perform in sport-specific conditions) and training diaries. Information logged in a training diary would generally include the type of activities performed, the conditions during training and subjective comments (eg the level of stress felt by the athlete).to help the athletes themselves analyse their performance retrospectively.

Critical to the success of any such interpretation is that it is not just an afterthought but rather adequate consideration is given to the process at the programme design stage. During the design phase, the variables that are to be recorded should be identified and a system established whereby this information can be accurately defined, collated and quantified on an ongoing basis (see box 1).

Box 1

Athletes respond to training interventions in different ways and there is no one ‘right way’ for everyone. If a particular method fails to work for one athlete, it should be dropped, even if it works for other athletes. Accurate record keeping (as detailed above) will help in the evaluation of training methods.

The questions shown in box 2 are examples of the type of questions that are relevant when assessing the effectiveness of programmes.  To answer them the coach will need to have already completed quantification analyses and be able to cross reference these results with an ‘athlete’s status’ at various stages of the plan.

Box 2

Information management

Methods traditionally used by coaches to record training programme data have several limiting factors. Predominantly these centre around the sheer volume of information that must processed and the ability to easily ‘mine’ the data (ie compile and cross reference the data) in order to facilitate interpretation and decision making. This is particularly the case when trying to selectively sort, compare and present information that is in a variety of formats.

Consequently, for many coaches the ability to assess the effectiveness of their training programme in order to make on going adjustments is massively time consuming, infrequent and somewhat of a subjective exercise. In addition, the variety of terminology and formats used makes detailed comparisons between peers difficult.

Over the last decade there has been an increase in the availability of electronic templates via web-based companies or software packages. These programme management tools offer a potential alternative to traditional designing and recording methods.

The software is usually designed to enable the coach to personalise the structure, terminology and variables used, allowing activities to be described using both quantitative and qualitative parameters. Tests can also be defined, which alongside activity and performance results, enables a database to be progressively developed for each athlete.
Some packages also allow normative data to be included and provide quantification and monitoring templates. Depending upon how user-friendly the system is or the competency of the user, the content of this database can be processed in seconds. Relevant information is thus sorted and presented in a format that simplifies analyses and decision-making.


Ongoing quantification and evaluation of training interventions is necessary in order to make informed coaching decisions. This article has suggested the type of information required to perform training programme analysis and has provided a series of questions to prompt critical reflection of the interventions effectiveness. It has also highlighted potential limitations of traditional record keeping methods and how the use of electronic software packages may facilitate improved data recording and reflection.

No one can predict the outcome of a training programme with 100% accuracy. Even the best coaches run into problems along the way. To keep doing the same activities but expecting different results is surely madness. However, without the employment of an analytical framework and thus a better understanding of an athlete’s individual response, this is in effect what the coach is doing. A systematic approach to training is essential
for maximising an athlete’s potential, irrespective of level.

Athletes are essentially unique ‘experiments of one’, and the more elite the athlete the more unique the experiment. It is the coach’s responsibility to assign the work of training, raising or lowering its intensity to adjust its tolerability.  Thus the coach must have all his or her antennae tuned in to pick up clues that can identify the small changes, which will ensure steady progress or identify areas needing improvement and must resist the temptation to coach by routine and habit!

Andy Harrison has worked within elite sport for over 10 years and is currently employed by the English Institute of Sport as an athlete services manager for the northwest region

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