If you fail to prepare, you’re prepared to fail.These words from the 9-time Olympic swimming champion, Mark Spitz, conveys the importance of preparation in the most obvious way. Whatever field you might be in, preparation is the key to success. Especially in sports, your preparation will define not just your performance during the season but also the length of your season. We have seen many professional sports persons whose season has been cut short due to repeating injuries. At the same time, we have seen many athletes who have played injury-free seasons, performing at their best. It all comes down to how you have prepared for the season.

When a season is over, it is vital to give yourself a break to rejuvenate your mind and body. This period is normally referred to as “off-season”. Going through a competitive season, game after game, can wear you down and exhaust you both mentally and physically. Relaxing, recovering, and taking your mind off the game will help you get your edge back. But this period might take a toll on your level of fitness and performance since you are no longer practicing or working out. Especially if you have been taking a break due to an injury, you most probably have been resting and avoiding any practice at all. 

Players are normally advised to go through Active Rest during the off-season so that they do not show up completely detrained for the pre-season training. During the active rest period, athletes go through very light intensity sessions of training, which helps the body recover faster due to improved blood flow while putting very little or no stress on the body. Active rest normally includes cycling, swimming, yoga, very light resistance training, and running on the treadmill. So, it is important first to prepare yourself to be ready for the competition that the season will present. This “pre-season” preparation is the time for you to get your mind and body fit and ready to endure the season’s beatings. This will help you play an injury-free and long season. Most importantly, this is also the time and opportunity to improve on your weaknesses and focus on your game strategy. This will help you go into the season with more confidence and mental stamina.

Few things to consider when it comes to pre-season training:

1. Initial self-assessment

Your off-season might have lasted for 4-8 weeks. Even if you have been practicing active rest during this off-season, it is essential to understand your fitness level at the beginning of the pre-season training. If you are a member of a sports team, gym or club, they might already have methods of testing your fitness levels. If not, many mobile apps can help you with this. These apps usually gauge your fitness levels based on the number of bodyweight push-ups, pull-ups, and squats you can do at a time, along with speed and acceleration tests.

2. Set a realistic goal

You need to set a realistic goal for what you expect out of the pre-season training program. This should be taking into consideration your current fitness level. Setting an unrealistic goal will only demotivate you. So be practical on what you are trying to achieve. 

The best way would be to review your past season performances and choose areas where you want to improve. If you want to increase your running speed, include interval training and hill training in your training schedule. If upper body strength is what you are looking to improve, then weight training sessions can help you. Reviewing your previous games with your coach and getting his advice on improvements will help you a lot in this goal-setting process.

3. Record and track your progress

Each training session is supposed to take you closer to your goal. But how will you know if you are improving unless you track your progress? So, make sure you record your training activities daily.

Apart from the final target, you should have intermediate milestones to make sure you are on track. This will also help you understand if your training program is effective or whether you need to make corrections.

4. Include rest days in the training program

It is very easy for an athlete to get over-enthusiastic and start training every day. But this would be a grave mistake. Pre-season training should make you stronger and better and not end up making you tired for the actual season. Adequate rest is essential, and so, make sure that you include off-days in between training sessions. Take guidance from your coach to include sufficient resting time in the training program.

5. Build up slowly and gradually

It can be very tempting for an athlete to start performing at the full pace right from the start of the training program. Also, sometimes, athletes would tend to make huge jumps while increasing the intensity of the training. This will only result in injuries and ruin your training and preparation. 

Design your training program so that the intensity levels are according to what your body can accommodate comfortably and gradually. The body needs time to recover before you can put it through another grueling training session. As a thumb rule, keep a check on whether you are feeling soreness or pain any time you go for training. If you are still sore from your previous session, you might be over-training, and it is better to stick to light training for that day or even take a day off.

As an example, do not try to sprint on the very first day of your training. Sprinting requires the right amount of explosive strength and, sprinting after a gap could result in a hamstring or ankle injury. Instead, you should start with a proper warmup and sprint at 60% of your regular pace and then increase that slowly over the next few days.

6. What to include in the training?

Training for any sport should include sport-specific training. Soccer training should consist of speed and agility drills, ball control drills, drills for teamwork, and so on. Basketball training should involve drills to improve your jump and shooting, among other things. This is where your coach can help you with his experience. He can guide you with the required drills depending on your goals.

Basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said, “Fundamental preparation is always effective. Work on those parts of your game that are fundamentally weak.” Getting your basics right is essential. Make sure you dedicate some time to practice and improve on the basics of your game. But sports specific training alone will not help you become your best. Weight training is essential to gain overall strength. Core strengthening exercises are crucial to enhance performance and improve stability. Dedicating some time for stretching and foam rolling will help you recover faster from your workouts and make your injury resistant.

If you are nursing an injury, take advice from your physiotherapist for the course of rehabilitation. Take special care not to aggravate the injury while training your uninjured body parts. 

Also, do not undermine the importance of warming up before training and cooling down after the session. A 10-15 minutes session of warmup, which includes light jogging and dynamic stretching, will get your heart rate up and increase blood flow throughout your body. This will not only improve your training performance but help you to avoid injuries. After a session, brisk walking and stretching can help in cooling down and reducing your heart rate and breathing back to normal.

Prepare a regular training schedule and make sure your coach has reviewed it as his/her experienced eye can detect any potential faults. Every athlete requires a unique way of training, depending on the athlete’s capabilities. There might be better drills or workouts that your coach could suggest, which could yield better results.

7. Strategize

Whether you are part of a team sport or individual sport, you need to have a strategy to take on the opponent. You need to have a game plan based on your strengths and weaknesses. This will build up your confidence and help you keep your cool in stressful situations in the game.

A coach can help you here by pointing you to your weaknesses and giving guidance on how to work on them. Your sports coach can also help you understand how to modify your playing style so that you play to your strengths and avoid your opponent to take advantage of your weaknesses so that you are in control during competition.

8. Nutrition

A nutrition plan is a fundamental part of your training. All the hard work would be for nothing unless your body gets proper nutrition. Your body needs the raw materials to repair the wear and tear from the training and re-energize for the next session. You need to include the right amounts of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals in your diet.

The diet plan should be specific to the type of sport you are into. If you are a long-distance runner, you need a high carb diet to support your high energy requirements. If you are a boxer or wrestler, you might be looking to add more lean muscle mass for which a protein-based diet is essential.

Keeping yourself hydrated is very important for athletic performance. It is also essential for optimal cognitive and bodily function. Lack of fluid in the mass can also cause cramps and injuries. So, make sure you keep yourself hydrated all the time.

UFC champion Conor McGregor said – “My preparation is about precision. It is science.” It is essential to take a scientific approach to your preparation. A structured and well-planned pre-season training program can help you become the finest version of yourself and give your best in the upcoming season.