Home » Featured Sports Performance Articles » Application in Building the Robust Athlete: Why Deprogramming Builds Winners, Part II

Application in Building the Robust Athlete: Why Deprogramming Builds Winners, Part II


By Paul Cater

Is there really such a thing as over-programming?  How can the sports performance industry, with its increasing programming complexity and scalability, not crush an athletes ability to make decisions, anticipate, and have general awareness of their own and others bodies on and off the field under the weight of over stimulus and queuing. It is my opinion that in its push to establish credibility, and with more resources available, the Strength and Conditioning industry- both private and organizational- has diminished the journey of athletic self-discovery in the effort to support itself.

In the noble effort to develop young athletes, strength and conditioning practice has become more about processing bigger number of bodies to cover overhead of training facilities. With higher numbers of athletes, movement becomes automated and more about memorization of a pattern or beating a standardized test, than intuitive on field decision making and playmaking.

Hyper programming may not just relate to physiology and injury pathology, but a systemic problem of mentally robotic athletes who lack general awareness. This lack of un-awareness both to their own bodies, but others around them sustains the robotic circle of athlete development which, in turn leads to more injuries.

The reality is that those who need S&C the most are potentially getting their best assets programmed out of them; footwork ladders and Olympic lifting progressions, may not allow for development of on field intangibles, the very things that will help the less gifted to contribute and the more gifted athletically to become truly great.

I contend, that the building blocks of athletic development don’t need to be taken away, but put in a context that engages the athletic development and specific awareness properties differently. A robot is not self-aware. A robust athlete is aware of themselves and others.

A robust athlete is aware of themselves and others

“A robust athlete is aware of themselves and others”

In part I, we spoke of 5 hang-ups that can leave athletes in the “robotic”, and therefore fragile, category when it comes to performance in the chaotic, open environment of sport.  Preparing athletes to succeed in light of these ideals requires a different line of thinking.  There are 4 points to consider in training athletes for maximal robustness in their athletic careers.

  1. Less is more: Heightening athletic awareness by giving less coaching queues
  2. Redefining exercise complexity: Increasing individual awareness by with-holding complex exercises
  3. Prescribing chaos within the training “system”
  4. Maintaining program integrity: Creating awareness of others

Less is More

Many athletes have the innate desire to wrap their mind around a given concept before they accomplish the task. Many need to have every detail explained, demonstrated and written out before the task can be accomplished. Often I get flak from type A performers who cant function without every detail in front of them; asking them to train without a written program exposes a vulnerability to change and ultimately being out of personal control.

Should “knowledge” be withheld for an athlete’s own good? Since what is unfamiliar, is uncomfortable, and ultimately training is an exercise in adjusting to discomfort, practitioners need ask themselves if every task needs to be so easily digestible and ultimately comfortable.

Physical pain is manageable, but not knowing coupled with physical pain is the worst agony and will make cowards of us all. I purposely withhold information and have athletes rely on 3 awareness queues: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic.

Have you ever seen the kid in line at practice who after coaching instruction and demonstration needs to look at the kid in front of them to perform the drill? This is not because they are slow of mind, but it may be a lack of practice at mixing all 3 awareness queues to anticipate and release physical task performance.  I will purposely turn up the music in the gym, and withhold one of the 3 queues, either not demonstrating the drill or not giving verbal instructions, just to practice how to discern what to do with limited information.  

When I hear, “I am visual learner”, I think they are saying, I don’t feel comfortable processing information when I am not in control.


  • Withhold 1 of the 3 teaching queues
  • Increase music volume to challenge auditory sensory queues
  • De-construct predictability in the warmup; prioritize teaching at front end of session where most of the movement skill acquisition should take place

Redefining Exercise Complexity

Paradoxically, there needs to be a regression of exercise complexity but more complexity in acceleration and deceleration tempos/frequencies, to train awareness.  The reincarnation of fixed plane exercise machines like the hamstring curl and even vibration can return focus to sport movement in general, rather than the laborious teaching of complex Olympic lifting.

It is as if the exercises need to be simpler so the athlete can A. Learn for themselves, and B. Focus their learning energy on their sport skill sets and leadership skills. Over-coaching and scheduling from a young age has diminished athlete’s ability to process information and have greater kinesthetic sense in movement.

Young athletes have their robustness coached out of them in many cases

Young athletes have their robustness coached out of them in many cases

This question often surrounds when to implement complex training paradigms such as Olympic lifting. This may in fact be an ego thing for the coaches and indicative of desire to establish and perpetuate a certain methodology.  The biggest question I get at my private facility is “are you a cross fit gym?” My simple answer is “no”. The long answer still leads to “no”, but I have to go on a journey to discover what they are really asking relative to their experience with barbells, weight racks, sleds, turf, when they walk and their eyes capture the setting.

As soon as their ears hear a weight dropped, the context for a general population fitness enthusiast is what they have previously experienced. That sound would take on a totally different meaning to a Polish High Jumper in the depth of the forest outside Warsaw at the Olympic training center Spala, where we took our professional rugby team for summer and winter training camps.

“The Polish weightlifting team knew the importance of multi-lateral variability in early physical preparation”

Crossfit gyms now push for younger clients. Once the exclusive realm of the 30 something wanting to lift without a shirt and have a beer afterward, membership demands younger trainees. To be fair Olympic weightlifting, on its own or as a sport is very important in a time where kids are soft and postures are horrible. I am an advocate of young children learning to master a barbell, retain mobility and develop the nervous system, just as the Soviets and Chinese understand for their aspiring Olympic weightlifters, but again, context and endgame. The young athlete will become a product of their environment and the end goal set.

This is a product though of coaches who cant think for themselves and impart robotic patterns to their athletes.  With the influx of coaches who have their primary experience in the Crossfit gyms, where Olympic lifts are taught in large groups with scaled learned progressions, no wonder the athletes can’t operate ‘outside the box’

We become a product of our training environment, and the environmental endgame

“We become a product of our training environment, and the environmental endgame”

The coaching community must ask the question of what the desired outcome will ultimately be outside of ego, ownership and who gets the credit, not after the combine, but the Super Bowl victory. The need for a strength and conditioning coach to own the process speaks to the state of the industry itself.  Training seems to get farther and farther from the competition it’s meant to enhance, taking on its own marketing engine, spawning cottage industries around the kingdom, and ultimately false reality.

The problem doesn’t lay within the athlete and their desire to control the situation, the robot doesn’t know any better, the culpability lay with the coaches desire to own the process to validate their role, job and ultimately their passion.

A coach needs to take a hard look at training bias and how the gravitation towards a certain teaching methodology and exercise may lead the athlete down the wrong path. On paper the footwork ladder, box jump, even power clean may equate to bigger, faster and stronger, but is it being implemented in the right context? The law of diminishing returns of what equates to babysitting athletes.

Ironically, technology may also help where it has hindered. The creation of a stat crazed culture, whereby the means is now the end more than the means of training justifies health and performance, can be aided with new technologies; softening the coaching ego and the automated athlete experience to lessen the robotic effect.

I’m starting to believe that by returning to fixed machines which can deliver proportional eccentric overloads and longer neural drive, emphasis can be less on the skill of barbell mechanics, and more on the skill of playing and adjusting. It really is a function of time: to blend all training disciplines there needs to be less time on each modality.

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“Would you rather spend time learning a complex lift, or doing work based on adjusting to chaotic environments?  Simple movements like the leg press throw don’t have a learning curve, and there is no stroking coaches ego via mastery, yet it is highly effective”


  • Limit movement complexity, while increasing tempo complexity
  • Integrate accommodating/variable resistance methods

Prescribed Chaos: A Must for Progress

It is interesting that a growing number of devices and entire training systems are being built around decision making.  Light gates that flash during agility drills increases the ability to make decisions faster when moving.  Why is this even necessary?  Has movement patterning become so robotic, even with “functional training”, that athletes have lost anticipatory skills and the ability to think and move at the same time?  Even the footwork ladder has become a memorizable patterning “skill”.  Easily marketable based coaching systems have left athletes devoid of cognitive skill sets necessary to adjust in gameplay, leading not just to slumps but injury.

There must be a prescribed chaos within the training “system”. Robust athletes understand how to adjust and assimilate and learn. They don’t mistake attendance and punctuality with adaptation and performance.  Entitlement because of willingness to be in the weightroom in the end clashes with differing guidance. It’s the willingness to adapt, which usually means higher velocity exercise, that relates to resiliency.  Whereas absolute strength gain in easier manage from a coach and athlete perspective, variable speeds and tempos seem to take more attention, awareness and ultimately feedback.

It’s easier to give a “1000-pound club” rather than a meters-per-second-club T shirt to a high school football player.

Ultimately, the ditching of a high force routine and return to supine mobility work inevitably happens after a blowout.  The cycle of get big and strong, feel good, get injured then return to Pilates is evident.  So routines must constantly be changing, awareness to movement velocity, and practice changing them is important. The linear programming mentality must be broken to built robustness.

Simply put, the athlete’s ability adjust to the variation and not hang on to predictable training outcomes is necessary to build robust athletes..  If a coach hangs success on training, then they also must hang failure. A coach and athlete has to be willing to separate weight room success from on field success, yet to do this, a coaches program can’t be marketed and scaled for sale.

If a coach hangs success on training, then they also must hang failure

“If a coach hangs success on training, then they also must hang failure”

Therein lay the problem with coaching as a business. Coaches may try to replicate the Soviet models of the 70’s but they were government subsidies. America will never have a centralized sport development model, and where it is tried, it fails. US Soccer failed to qualify for the World Cup this year. Why is that? One cannot replicate a model out of context for the market.

I’m at the point now where I only prescribe the work-sets of the major strength or power exercises. All training sessions generally build up to the one marquis work set. Teaching coaches and athletes themselves to build to this event and identify the point of the session is important for them to understand the point of why they are even training.  Athletes need to link onto the ultimate goal of the external stimulus. Coaching needs to get the athlete to produce force at high rates of speed, inherently mindless activity, without it becoming mindless.

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“Teaching athletes to build to the one marquis work set of the session is key to creating goal-orientation”

As I futility tried to program remotely via an online programming software I wrestled with feelings that I was being lazy in not detailing every minute training movement from the times they walked into the gym till the time they left. I realized if it was unrealistic to write every detail of warmup, movement patterning, neural activity, power, strength, accessory work and cool down, without quickly becoming rigid and robotic, how could I expect the training athlete to not become robotic and rigid?

Adding Gameplay

As mentioned above, the incorporation of diverse gameplay within the training session is important to vary movement patterns without over thinking them. Not everyone has a basketball court in their gym. How can simple games like ping-pong or Spike ball warm up, reach agility training outcomes as well as foster competitive spirit. 1000 pound clubs in high school football may hurt more athletes than help them in the effort to illicit physiological and mental strength gains.


  • Program chaos, but don’t let them know it’s planned
  • Limit data collection to one marquis work set

Programming Integrity: Coaching the Athlete Rather Than the Landlord

As I have stated, robust and comprehensive coaching does not lead to scalability and therefore easier monetization. Kids parents want no long-term commitment and a something easily understood. Landlords want to see lots of bodies at one time. The programming is really a reflection of that attitude of the coach and their scientific integrity. Part in parcel to this is the coach to athlete ratio. Someone reading this should ask what the coach to athlete ratio is in their gym or where athletes are training. Basically, good coaching is not a money maker, where rest time, appropriate loads, technical awareness and variable movements and energy systems are progressively trained.

20 dollars a head for an hour of footwork ladders may not be what the kid actually needs; especially those who may not benefit in exercising awareness and leadership skill by doing so.

The onus must be on the strength and conditioning coach, to take a more of a servant leader mentality; a coach needs to be honest what is best for the athlete.  This is something I had to learn the hard way my six years in professional rugby in the UK: the strength coach was a backroom support role, many times a glorified water boy and tackling dummy. I had to adjust to the culture and the sport itself.

In our intern program I try to relay this to the young students who desire to enter the strength and conditioning field. First of all, they have to remove their bias from their past training processes. This is increasingly less a demand because most of the candidates that come through our program have little athletic ability or are so engrained in barbell mechanics from their “passion” they can’t sprint or move laterally.

Most S&C interns are “passionate” about the barbell movements

“Most S&C interns are “passionate” about the barbell movements, but can they demonstrate actual athletic movement patterns, such as sprinting or lateral movement with good ability?  Do they even know the fundamental components of what actually makes athletes fast and adaptive?”

The ideal candidate? I look for a lower level FCS, Division 2 or better yet Division 3 athlete who has enough structure, but had to be creative and self-motivating within it to seek training methods that worked for them. Pros and high caliber Division 1 athlete’s careers ultimately end and they have to regurgitate methods they learned, but maybe didn’t necessarily need to excel.  The rising number of pure academics coming out of university who are entirely systems based have no experience base of their own to work from. Both populations are flooding the “strength and conditioning marketplace at the private level, while the crossfit and university elites close ranks with self perpetuating methodologies to delineate.

Robust athletes are not only able to adjust themselves, but encouraging and building others to do the same. The dark and broody individual training athlete that current sports marketing promotes, is not the same one sustainable in personal and team environment. What is deeper is the well-spring of encouragement, thankfulness and serving others through the physical endeavor. This cant happen if the headphones and hoody are on.

 How does that relate to robotic programming of athletes?


If an athlete is not aware of others in the training environment, how then can they be aware and adjust spatially on the court or field?  I believe the condition of the heart and mind lead the physical posture, senses and overall awareness of themselves and others. Anger, spiteful motivations- though bringing forth a rush of hormones can have detrimental longer term affect, establishing a glass ceiling of growth and development, stunting the intangible skill set that may get an athlete on the field and in fact keep them their longer.


  • Be honest in how the square footage may hinder, rather than help him or her fulfill their training methodology.
  • Train individuals within a team context


Again, the realm of Major League Baseball has destroyed a lot of my training biases. How could the weakest guy on the team earn gold gloves at short-stop and hit 30 home runs? How could the strongest guys in the gym have the least success on the field? Robustness is not just with physical injury, but with mental toughness. The ability to process information and ultimately adjust faster than competition should be meshed with physical development aspects.  Coaches need to consistently ask themselves if they are delivering a sustainable athletic development model or just the ability to pay the rent.


Coach Paul CaterFounder of The Alpha Project

Salinas High School, Varsity Baseball, Football 1995
UC Davis: Studied pre-law while playing UC Davis Varsity Football 2000
NSCA, Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist 2001
Poliquin Certified Level, 2

Internships include UCLA, San Jose State, San Francisco 49ers

Graduate Degree Exercise Science, Human Performance, Brunel University, London 2010

MSC Strength & Conditioning from Middlesex University, London 2011

Over 15 years of experience as an International strength and conditioning coach working with London Wasps Premier Rugby,

Baltimore Orioles, USA Rugby and consulting numerous other High School, College & Professional Athletes

Late Stage Rehab Specialist

USA ambassador for advanced training technology equipment including: Versapulley, YoYo, Kbox, Gallileo.

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