Rethinking Periodization – Part One


I have been thinking a lot about Periodization lately. I see the term misused and abused. I see blind imitation of a model that is outdated and passé. These outdated and antiquated concepts pervade the coaching literature and are taught in the “Training Theory” section of coaching education schemes. Any connection with current reality is purely coincidental. The following three-part post is my attempt top shed some light on the area from my perspective. I my 42 years of coaching I have carefully studied this area and worked to apply the concepts first to individual sports and in the last 20 years to team sport settings. I have learned a lot, I learned to read between the lines in the translated articles, I learned the disconnect between what we were allowed to see and what actually happened. Hopefully what I have learned is reflected in the following post. If nothing else I hope this will stimulate a dialogue on the subject that will result in a contemporary model.

Periodization is simply planning. It is something that effective coaches have done forever. Planning gives direction and purpose to the training. It also provides a context to evaluate performance aside from wins and losses or personal records. Periodization is a concept not a model. It is a systematic attempt to gain control of the adaptive response to training in preparation for competition.

There is little “hard science” to substantiate Periodization. It is mostly based on scientific inferences rather than hard scientific evidence. On the other hand there is an immense body of coaching evidence going back into the early twentieth century that underscores the key elements of what eventually became known as Periodization. These key elements are:

  • Systematic approach
  • A strategy to distribute training loads in relation to competition goals
  • A defined structure for progression
  • A sequential building block approach
  • A set time frame for execution of the plan
  • All components of training are addressed
  • In pursuit of specific competition goals
  • Reflects the undulatory nature of the adaptive process
  • Systematic manipulation of the variables of volume, intensity and density
  • A method for monitoring training and evaluating competition results

The concept of Periodization works the best when the majority of the variables can be controlled. The most important variable is that of competition. Recognizing that success in the competitive arena is the ultimate goal of any plan or training system. Therefore control of the competitive schedule is essential to the success of any plan. One of the stated goals of Periodization is optimum performance at the desired time, whether an individual competition or a series of competitive efforts. Today the undefined nature of the extended competitive calendar represents the biggest change from when the concept was formalized in the 1950’s and 60’s. There is an abundance of high level competitions at the elite level and also for that matter at the developmental level that do not allow for long developmental periods of training.

It is important to frame Periodization within the concept of the sport development system. The diversity of our nation has always been an overwhelming strength in the development of our elite athletes for international competition. This diversity resulted in a “non-system” sport development system. We cannot blindly copy the traditional eastern European Periodization models. Our sport system operates in an entirely different socio cultural political milieu. We must take the principles and concepts and adapt them to our current reality.

Periodization as a concept is certainly not new, or particularly contemporary. The name may be new to many, but it first appeared in coaching literature in the fifties and sixties. Periodization as we know it today was articulated by L.P. Matveyev who studied specific sports and looked at the periodic and cyclic nature of training necessary to achieve peak performance at the time of major competitions. The nature of Periodization as it has evolved represents a reflection of the socio- cultural reality of the countries where the concept was first articulated rather than any science of the cyclic nature of performance. The science came later in order to better quantify and verify the concept.

After the Russian Revolution the Soviet Union organized virtually everything in society into five-year plans. Specific measurable production goals were articulated and all effort was directed toward the achievement of those goals whether it was agriculture, industry, or education. It was only logical that this approach would eventually be applied to the sport development process. Therefore, when they decided to pursue sport internationally as a glorification of the communist system, the same systematic long term planning that was used in the rest of society was applied to sport. Rather than five or ten year plans the time period in sport development was the quadrennial cycle culminating every four years in the Olympic Games. They recognized that success in international sport, especially as the stature of the Olympic games gained more international prestige in the sixties and the seventies, would result in a validation and glorification of the communist system.

It is also important to consider the impact of two world wars fought on the European continent. World War Two devastated the male populations of what was to become the eastern bloc nations after the war, as well as Germany, England and France. The Soviet Union had 21,320,000 people killed out of a population of 194,000,000, included in this number were 7,720,000 civilians killed. Germany had 5,600,000 killed out of a population of 78,000,000 including 2,300,000 civilians killed. In contrast the United States had 292,131 killed out of a population of 129,000,000 with no civilians killed. (Goralski, 1981)

In short after the devastation of WWII there was no talent to waste! Systematic development of the limited human resources for sport development was a necessity if they wanted to compete. Periodization was a tool to enable those countries to optimize their human resources. It is also important to consider that physical culture was an inherent part of the communist ideology. A healthy physically fit populace was needed for a strong military.

Matveyev was one of many who formalized the concept. Because he was Russian, and the Soviet Union was the dominant geopolitical force in the communist bloc, Soviet ideology tended to prevail even in sport. This explains the dominant influence of the Soviets in the literature of training methodology. Certainly, there were others like Harre in the GDR who made significant contributions. Still, most of what we see in the literature today, including the work of Tudor Bompa, who has done much to popularize the concept in North America, is basically a rehash of the Soviet literature. Not much has been done to modify, study, change or adapt the concept to the contemporary challenges that exist in sport today. Over the years most of the science underlying Periodization has been in the form of studies of overtraining and lately there has been a focus on the periodization of strength training. Although today there does seem to be more sports science research directed to studying training adaptation which certainly has the potential to add science to the art of planning. (Rowbottom, 2000) The international sport environment is very different today than it was twenty years ago. Where previously the focus was the Olympic Games as a culmination of the quadrennial plan, now there are frequent world championships in many sports. Competition schedules are not clearly defined. In most sports, especially at the elite level, there is no defined off-season. None of the literature on Periodization has ever effectively addressed team sports. In addition one would be naïve not to recognize the huge impact of systematic doping on the development of the former eastern bloc sport development systems. In fact much of the cyclic nature of classical Periodization was based on sophisticated manipulation of drug cycles. (Franke & Berendonk, 1997)

We should also be aware that the strict control of the athlete’s lives inherent in the socialist system was key factor in the success of classic Periodization model. Competition schedules were carefully planned and strictly adhered to. Once the athlete was identified their lives were strictly controlled. This control certainly did not exist in the west nor does it exist today except in Cuba and to a certain extent in China. Even though it may be a value judgment, we certainly recognize the limitations and human cost of such an approach. Nevertheless we must consider that factor when we look at the training literature on Periodization from the former eastern bloc nations and attempt to adapt those principles to our society. This control allowed the system to limit competition and control many variables that we are unable to control in our society. There was an emphasis on volume loading and long periods of general preparation leading up to a few major competitions that is unrealistic in our system and unrealistic in the sports world today. To apply the concepts of Periodization to our reality we must challenge these notions, they must be framed in the context of our “non-system.”
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Vern Gambetta

Vern Gambetta

Director at Gambetta Sports Training Systems
Vern is the Director of Gambetta Sports Training Systems. He has been the a conditioning coach for several MLS teams as well as the conditioning consultant to the US Men's World Cup Soccer team. Vern is the former Director of Conditioning for the Chicago White Sox and New York Mets. He has lectured and conducted clinics in Canada, Japan, Australia and Europe and has authored six books and over one hundred articles related to coaching and sport performance in a variety of sports. He has a BA in teaching with a coaching minor and an MA in Education with an emphasis in physical education from Stanford University.
Vern Gambetta


Athletic Development Coach & Consultant. Founder of GAIN Network. Proud dad. Love to read everything.
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