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How to Approach an Off Season

The off season is hard. It’s a constant tug of war between letting your hair down, relaxing and pursuing other interests outside of your athletic pursuit; and letting yourself go too much, leaving you with a tough and arduous mountain to climb to get back to your previous fitness levels.

Often, training in the off season can feel like a chore. Without an upcoming game that weekend or any structured regime, motivation levels can be low and you can find yourself asking: “Why am I doing this?”. It is important to remind yourself of your ‘why’, what do you want to get out of your sport, your career? There will be times when you wake up and literally cannot be bothered. Just remember, anyone can train when they’re feeling good, great athletes train when they don’t feel like it.

From my experience in the AFL, you get conditioned to think in a weekly cycle: one meeting, one training session, one game at a time. Then you do it all again the next week. It is the same pattern for a yearly cycle. The phases of a yearly cycle include the off season, pre-season, in-season and if you’re lucky enough, finals, which is a whole different ball game. Let’s focus on the off season.

“Anyone can train when they’re feeling good, great athletes train when they don’t feel like it”

The off season. It can range from 2 weeks to 3 months, depending on the sport. I see 3 main priorities for an off season:

1. Relax and let the hair down

2. Let the body heal physically and refresh mentally

3. a. If sport specific: prepare for the pre-season

b. If a young athlete: play a different sport

1. Relax: the grind of the season is over. You’ve had (hopefully) a successful season and now is the time to celebrate and have a break. In my experience it is hard to train or play every day of the year. It can be done, Michael Phelps claimed he did it for “5 or 6 straight years” on the Tim Ferriss Show podcast (link below), though I would say he is the exception rather than the rule. Socialise, go to some parties, travel, sleep in. Get it out of your system.

2. Heal: no doubt you may have some sore spots from your season. Now is the perfect time to get on top of those. My advice would be to get any niggles checked out by a physio or a doctor. Sometimes it is the easy thing to say: “I have 2 months off, the pain will naturally disappear”. That may be so, but I have also seen these niggles not fully resolve and rear their heads once your activity starts up again. Rest may be the answer, but check with the professionals, you may have to do specific exercises as well as to rest to fix the problem.

Refreshing mentally is also important. Yes, it may be a break from the rigours and stress of the sport. It is also a good time to set goals and identify areas of improvement for the upcoming pre-season. Getting your mindset right takes effort but gives you a plan which is refreshing in itself.

3. If you are a one-sport athlete, whether it be as a professional or a semi-professional, you will most likely have a sport-specific off season conditioning and weights program. This is designed to maintain a base level of fitness, work on areas of improvement and reduce injury risk for when pre-season commences. This is a great time to work on some areas of improvement, without the stress of preparing for a game that weekend.

If you are young however (17 and under), it might pay to play a different sport in the off season. For me, it was Cricket in the Summer and Football in the Winter. Keep your options open. You might find you enjoy another sport more, or have talents you never knew you had. Other sports can develop hand eye coordination, foster different movements and you meet new people. Don’t specialise too early!

A 400m track: Football players live on these during an off season

This was my yearly cycle for an AFL footballer. This is just an example. Each sport has its own stresses and season lengths so it would be different for say, a golf or tennis player who competes year round on the tour.

Season finishes

Week 0 – 2:

No training. Socialise, let the hair down, travel, footy trip, awards nights etc.

Week 3 – 4:

Commence running and weight training. Slowly build loads. Travel and do things you didn’t get a chance to do during the season.

Week 5 – 10:

Slowly increase intensity of training. Target specific areas of improvement.

Week 11 – 14:

Pre-season commences. Club determines training. Switch on.

Week 15 – 16:

Break from the club. Maintain training loads.

Week 17 – 24:

Pre-season. Increase in intensity. Switch on.

Week 25 – 48:

In season

Week 48 – 52:


Every athlete has different circumstances. Be it age, sport, level of competition, work/study commitments etc. Your personal plan may very well be different to your teammates. Above all else, plan your off season, use a calendar and set goals you would like to achieve. Assign time for social events, experiences and training. It needs to work for you.

Michael Phelps and Grant Hackett talk all things Swimming:

Listen from the 27 minute mark


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