The Training System Trap

In the realms of training, coaching and even sports medicine there is often pressure to align with a particular 'training system' of regimented way of working. @@The urge to belong to one camp or other is common and beguiling@@. Proponents for the latest in vogue training system are often vocal and active in pursuing new recruits. It is also not uncommon to see much haranguing of those who subscribe to alternative approaches or competing training systems. In this post, we delve deeper into this notion of ready-made 'operating systems'. For instance, are there potential down-sides to adopting a training system? We will also @@explore an alternative path of being systematic in our approach, versus 'having a system'@@.


@@Young practitioners especially are seduced by the idea of adopting a ready-made training system@@. There is security in following a system or structure that is recognised and popular in the field. Even when the details of the methodology of the 'system' are not well defined, being able to say I practice *insert name*'s system is perceived to reflect back on the practitioner in a way that lends them credibility.

Equally experienced coaches and practitioners are likewise not immune from this urge to ally themselves to a system of practice. As we will speak about later in the post, time and experience often only serves to strengthen the bond with the chosen system.

On the other side of the compulsion to commit to a system, those who wish to remain a 'free agent' are also often made to feel quite uncomfortable. This can be a little bit like organised religion. Those who choose their own path must guiltily admit to not following a recognised system, and often face scorn for doing so.


Even the best training system cannot be expected to fit all individuals. As such, even if you had a hypothetical system that is effective for 80% of all athletes, inevitably this system will fail to meet the needs of 1 in 5 athletes you come across.

Some coaches and practitioners recognise this and are happy to accept these odds. Others simply choose not to entertain this idea at all and place the blame on the athlete for not complying well enough.


In the title of this post we used the term training system 'trap'. Taking the step to ally to a particular system inevitably tends to restrict practice. However, the removal of freedom also rids the practitioner of troubling feelings of uncertainty.

@@When you accept a system as your personal saviour there is no longer any need to explore the unknown@@ and navigate uncharted waters; this is part of the appeal.

Adopting a system in turn often leads to 'confirmation bias'. Having chosen to ally oneself to a way of operating it is natural to then seek out evidence which is supportive of the path chosen. By extension, there is an urge to either disregard or dismiss anything that conflicts with the chosen way.

In addition to being selective when it comes to sourcing and interpreting 'evidence', confirmation bias also extends to the tendency to gravitate towards others who share the same viewpoint. All of this serves to deepen the conviction in the chosen system. The practitioner's position thereby becomes more entrenched over time.

@@The urge to cling to a system for the feelings of certainty and security this offers is understandable@@. Equally it is a security blanket that has has a price. @@Being shackled to a training system not only restricts practice but can also distort perception.@@ In particular, it does tend to constrain the ability think critically. After all, @@critical thinking is reliant on a readiness entertain alternative explanations and different perspectives@@.


So, we have established that any training system has shortcomings, and at best the chosen system will only be a good fit for a certain proportion of the athletes you will encounter. We have also made the case that being a devotee of any system is to be avoided in the interests of freedom and critical thought. Does this mean the answer is to reject the idea of a system entirely and simply freestyle?

Well, as usual, it is a little more involved than that.

Directing the training process to achieve certain outcomes requires the practitioner to be methodical and coherent in their approach. Shotgun programming that lurches in one direction then another clearly has very little coherence and is unlikely to bring the desired outcomes, particularly over an extended timeline.

So whilst pledging allegiance to a single system to the exclusion of all others is to be avoided, there remains a need to be systematic.


@@Principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods.@@ The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson

As we have spoken about no single training 'system' is appropriate and successful with all individuals. Just as no training system is all good, the odds are it is not all bad either. Whilst the particular method or approach might not fit for all purposes and all individuals, equally there will be instances and individuals where it is suitable.

If we are clear on governing principles this allows freedom to select methods from a variety of sources and modify accordingly. Whilst this might be sacrilegious to purists and devotees of a particular system, it is possible to take the best parts without committing to any one camp.


In a given sport or athletic event there are a range of athlete 'archetypes' that the coach or practitioner will commonly encounter. A certain archetype will suit a particular technical model. An example of this is track and field athletics would be a 'speed-jumper' versus a 'power-jumper'.

Likewise, there are archetypes that respond to very different approaches to training. An example of this might be a 'work horse' who craves and responds to high training volume, versus a 'Thoroughbred' who does best with quite brief high output sessions and requires extended regeneration in between.

Whilst the notion of athlete archetypes is useful, it is important to recognise that in reality this is a spectrum. On that basis, rather than assigning athletes to a pigeon hole, it is more of a judgement of where each athlete sits on that continuum between the opposite extremes or 'poles' of athlete archetypes.


With these caveats in mind, over time and experience working with a variety of athletes in different sports a practitioner will nevertheless evolve 'templates' of working with different athlete archetypes. Having acquired this experience, the practitioner is then able to select from these templates, whilst understanding the need to adapt them to suit the purpose and individual.

As we have spoken about, it is most useful to think in terms of a continuum of archetypes, rather than discrete categories. Moreover, individual athletes also vary widely where they are on their journey. The athlete's background and training history must be considered, as this will inevitably leave traces, which in turn impact how they deal with and respond to the training prescribed.

Conversely, novice athletes might be raw but they also bring less baggage, with respect to movement behaviour and preconceptions. Having a blank canvass makes a coach's job more straightforward. There are also more easy wins at this stage. In contrast, re-education and breaking movement habits inevitably requires more time and effort on part of both coach and athlete.


As we have alluded to, athletes vary in their response to the training prescribed. For a given type of training at one of the spectrum there are 'super-responders', in the middle ground you find 'responders' to varying degrees, and at the other extreme 'non-responders'. It follows that the manner and rate of progression when programming and delivering training must also be individual.

@@Individualisation also often comes down to the detail of adapting the plan and manipulating sessions each day@@. Essentially, this is the only way to be responsive to the myriad of different factors at play when dealing with biological systems and athletes who are subject to a host of variable influences and stressors outside the training and competition environment.

Individualised delivery also concerns how the plan the presented, and the manner of training delivery day to day. For many, a good approach is 'fail quickly, fail better... ultimately succeed'. In contrast, a perfectionist athlete will be very uncomfortable with this, and may quickly become despondent and shut down when faced with this approach. Whilst this may be an area of personal development for this athlete archetype, in the short term there will be a need to devise sessions to ensure a high probability of small and regular wins.


By definition, it seems highly improbable that there will be a training system that is optimal for all individuals, or even applicable at all times for the same individual.

Resisting the urge to belong to any one camp or training system helps avoid becoming entrenched and the myopic view of the world that comes from this position. Whilst this freedom and uncertainty may be uncomfortable for some, it does allow you to retain the independence to evaluate without bias and to think critically.

Moreover, 'going rogue' allows the freedom to pick and choose. Having a clear understanding of governing principles also allows blending elements from a variety of system, adopting an adaptive approach to meet the needs of the individual and the situation at hand.

So discard the security blanket. @@Cast off the shackles that come with being bound to a regimented system of operating@@. @@Freedom permits exploration and allows practice to evolve over time@@. It is possible to be systematic without being a slave to a training system.

@@To paraphrase Bruce Lee, 'be like water'@@. Fit to the individual; be responsive and adaptable, but nevertheless be clear on the direction the current is flowing, the ultimate destination, and the course that will take you there.

Enjoyed the read? For more on practical approaches to training athletes and a variety of related topics visit the Books section of the website.

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