How do you choose which physical qualities or skills to prioritise within a training programme? The traditional approach would be to start building on the weaknesses, after all, you’re only ever as strong as you weakest link. But is this really the most effective approach?

The needs analysis

I don’t think there’s any doubt that the first step in attempting to determine the programme’s direction is conducting a thorough needs analysis. Three important areas we need to consider here:

  • Profile of the sport

Start with the sport. Determine what attributes are important and what attributes aren’t. For example, leg strength is important to a sprinter but upper body strength really isn’t. If it a quality doesn’t matter in the sport then don’t waste your efforts training it.

  • Profile of the individual athlete

Now that we’ve identified what our athlete needs, we must now determine how they match up. Typically this done through a testing/assessment battery that will provide you with some quantitative data; this data can then be input into tables or graphs for analysis.

  • Example Radar GraphCharacteristics of elite performers

A good needs analysis should provide you with a detailed profile of the athlete, how well this matches up to their sport and how they rate against fellow competitors. A good way to do this is to plot their testing data on a radar plot along with some normative values specific to their sport, level and position (if appropriate). The picture on the right gives you an example of how a radar graph might look.

Radar love

Inputting data into a radar graph gives us a strong visual as to where our athlete is strongest and weakest. We’ve all be taught that you’re only ever as strong as your weakest link, so it’s probably a pretty logical approach to see that if a physical quality or skill is below average then it’s something we need to prioritise in our programme. However, ask yourself this question…

Does that ‘weakness’ really matter?

Traffic lights

Don’t just assume that a dip on your radar graph automatically means that you need to prioritise training a given quality, have a closer look at what you find. In addition to the initial radar assessment I then give traffic light scores for each quality based against the sport’s norms. I break it down into the following:

  • Green – >10% above norms
  • Amber – ±5% above or below norms
  • Red – >10% below norms

Anything in that 5-10% in-between range becomes green-amber or red-amber. Red qualities are something I’ll definitely want to look closely at and, nine times out of ten, want to prioritise in the training programme.

Mice and Elephants

If you go back to the example radar plot at the top of the page, it looks like our athlete should focus their efforts on upper and lower body strength. However, let’s say that we check them against our traffic light system and these can both be classed as amber. To me, this means that they’re not a problem, or at least not an ‘elephant’ of a problem. Reds are elephants. Ambers are mice.


Reds and ambers are all very well, but what do you do with greens? Do you just put them on the back-burner and ‘maintain’ them? I don’t think you should. I think you should set about making your strengths into superstrengths (a term I’ve stolen from Mark Bawden).

…the hidden window?

How do you know how much you can develop a quality if you never really push it? A bit simplistic, but let’s take a powerlifter as our example. They have a bench press of 100kg (below par) and a deadlift of 200kg (above par). It would be natural to focus less energy on the deadlift and more on the bench press, after all, it’s below par. But is it worth months of training effort and banging your head against a brick wall to add 5kg or so if it’s a lift they struggle make gains on? If our lifter doesn’t really ‘train’ the deadlift, how do they know what they could be capable of? Might our training resources be better pooled into seeing how far they can push the deadlift?

Stand out from the crowd

Superstrengths get you noticed. Think Carlin Isles and linear speed. Greg Rusedski and his booming serve. Hossein Rezazadeh and his clean & jerk. Rory Delap and long throws. You get the picture. This is particularly important in team sports where you’re completely reliant on the coach or manager picking your athlete out of the crowd. Stand in their shoes for a moment and ask yourself who you’d pick; Mr/Mrs Average or the specialist?


As training resources are finite, it’s not always the most effective course of action to focus on improving weaknesses. Sometimes it’s better to go against the grain and pool your efforts into training an athlete’s strengths. Superstrengths are gamebreakers. Match winners. The question you need to ask yourself is ‘where’s my biggest window to achieve the greatest adaptation?’ Know that the biggest window may not always be the first one you see…

Coaching, Exercises, Performance, Psychology , , , , , , , , ,

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