Principally speaking, a needs analysis is defined as the process of evaluation that identifies areas of focus that require attention within your domain. These are typically split into general and specific, whereby “gaps” are discovered and targeted. A needs analysis is not exclusive to the realms of strength and conditioning (S&C), but is a widely adopted practice (or at least should be). For the strength and conditioning coach, the general needs analysis typically takes the form of understanding the underlying physiological demands of the sport, the basic movement principles and the process of training these qualities to maximize sports performance. The specific layer to the needs analysis is then identifying the key strengths and weaknesses of each athlete and creating areas of focus that inform an “individualized” programming approach.
A needs analysis is an important component of an S&C’s approach. For me, conducting a needs analysis has proved pivotal in transitions between environments (such as; moving to the collegiate sport setting in the USA, and transitioning from my primary sport background of soccer to basketball). My needs analysis process is also a good reflection exercise (i.e. looking at my first every youth soccer needs analysis performed in 2010 brings a few laughs). When it comes to a needs analysis, I am often surprised when I speak to younger coaches and interns about performing a needs analysis (or to show me their needs analysis) and am met with blank looks or fumbled explanations of physical qualities in the sport they are interested in. Typically, they are pretty well versed in S&C methodology, but oftentimes don’t understand the sport (especially if they didn’t play it growing up). So to that point…
IS THE NEEDS ANALYSIS BECOMING A DYING ART?
The answer should be a resounding no. For almost every position I have been interviewed for, some form of a documented needs analysis has been required during the process. For the younger coaches reading this, you best get your needs analysis formatted and presentable. Even the seasoned veteran coach (who likely has more knowledge than is on paper), it’s good practice to revisit the needs analysis and to specifically look at the individual categories and components of it (these should change as the athletes you work with also change).
The goal of this post is to recap some important details of the needs analysis and provide a framework for conducting a needs analysis within your environment.
Upon writing this post I came across an interesting article in the Strength and Conditioning Journal; “Writing a Needs Analysis: Exploring the details” (Scroggs and Simonson, 2021). I would recommend for you to also read this article as herein we build off some of their suggested principles and thoughts regarding the needs analysis process.
Within the aforementioned article the authors suggested that there are 4 steps in the needs analysis process.
Goals and priorities
Identify constraints and resources
These steps are some good headlines for coaches to start creating their own needs analysis. The authors also give a detailed breakdown of each area (worth reading). There are many similarities upon reading this paper that I saw in my own needs analysis process and the article I wrote. However, I propose a slightly altered structure to build the needs analysis. One I think offers an overall 1 page schematic of the structure of a needs analysis.
CREATING A NEEDS ANALYSIS:
As mentioned earlier the “gaps” that a needs analysis looks to identify can be categorized as general and specific (as can be seen above). The first step in the general category is that of the SPORTS CHARACTERISTICS. In the Scroggs and Simonson, (2021) article they refer to this as the event. Being a domain expert in S&C will only get you so far without an underlying knowledge of the sport. However, for most, this should be a fairly simple exercise. For example, you can start by watching the competition, make notes of the format, duration, rules, scoring etc… then delve a little deeper, how many times does the individual/team compete, how is the season typically distributed across the calendar year, what are important dates to consider in the season (e.g. winter break or world championship cycle etc.). As those questions continue, I believe the sports characteristics begin to blend into the specific categorization. In which we are then introduced to another common S&C practice, THE ANNUAL PLAN. Though not strictly considered a part of a traditional needs analysis, the annual plan serves as an overall structure whereby the S&C coach details their various training cycles and begins to shape the framework of the training plan. I will cover more details of the annual plan in a later post, but it’s important to recognize that this process should serve as a key part of your formal needs analysis (after all it identifies when you can implement all the good stuff you find from the other parts of the needs analysis which we cover below).
The next component of the general category is what I view as the SPORT SCIENCE category. Too often sport science and S&C get distinguished as different disciplines due to delineation of formal roles in sport performance departments. This is one typical misconception of what sport science actually is. The S&C is as much a sport scientist as a coach. Particularly when it comes to this part of the needs analysis. Here the S&C uses current and existing knowledge to formulate some key understandings of the PHYSIOLOGY, BIOMECHANICS & PSYCHOLOGY of the sport characteristics. This is when research within the specific sport becomes useful and for most sports there is a ton of it. Therefore this is the sport science research process of the needs analysis:
The sport science research process may feel like the most cumbersome within the needs analysis as there is a lot of research to read and only so many hours in the day. It may also be tempting to start with the most recent research review, absorb the key information and be done. After all that would be the latest summary of the previous research. However, I would recommend starting with the top 2-3 papers (either the best match or most cited papers in the specific area) in addition to a review. This may not always provide the most recent results – so it may give a better perspective to the history of the sport and development of research in this field. For example you may use the Pubmed search engine and look for basketball competition demands, to begin to understand the underlying physiology in the sport. In this search we yielded 102 results. If I do that same search in google scholar we get 107000 results. Now from both search engines I would begin to quickly make a list and save the papers that are most cited / have the most relevance to my search. You can also add operator terms into this search to refine the process somewhat and look for different phrase combinations. But if we took the top two hits from each search we would have research from 2020, 2017, 2018 and 2010. This seems like a good place to start covering a 10 year span of the literature before moving on to the reference list of each paper and/or different research papers you have identified.
So you begin collecting the research articles and have started to read. But there are so many papers for these different categories and you want to optimize this process to begin adding details to your needs analysis. I typically use the following framework when approaching research:
When performing this process, the key information in relation to your needs analysis can then be extracted and stored. For those papers that have interesting methods and in which interesting results are shown, I like to revisit the whole paper to get a sense of the inspiring references from the introduction and discussions. Some purists may look at this and scream you should read the whole paper properly cover to cover. However, I argue that with the above approach you can determine very quickly whether the paper is worth the time commitment versus moving onto the next article in your pile.
Once a general understanding of the sport science principles (i.e. physiology, biomechanics and psychology) have been made, the needs analysis can be continued by detailing TRAINING METHODOLOGIES that can be identified within the sport. This can come from research sources and discussions with other coaches. Again the same principles apply of identifying the characteristic and detailing the main modes and methods to train it. For example, in soccer a popular methodology is to utilize small-sided games, which reduce the playing numbers, pitch dimensions and durations of work/rest in an attempt to simulate the demands of the 11v11 competition. Though mostly coached by the primary sport coaches, an understanding of the physical and psychological demands of these drills is important for the S&C to understand as they may utilize such knowledge to complement other drills or mimic these demands elsewhere in their exercise prescriptions. Additionally, typical training methods applied by other S&C coaches can be explored that may influence how the coach programs. This in turn can inform the specific annual plan related to the training periodization used for your sport.
The other general category would be that of INJURY CLASSIFICATION within the sport. It is important to understand what injuries occur, the potential mechanisms and the expected injury risk and rate for the sport. Again these can be compiled from the research (INJURY EPIDEMIOLOGY studies) which classify the typical injury occurrences from the sport from injury survey data. The S&C coach can also use online web resources which also contain details of injuries from their sport (e.g. fantasy football website that provides data on why a player is out). This collated data can create a picture of what injuries you are expected to see as a result of participation in the sport. This can then begin to inform the target areas for the INJURY REDUCTION STRATEGY process. Once again the research framework can be applied here too, to detail the main methods that others use in an attempt to reduce injury occurrence (or in other cases reduce recurrence).
Moving onto the more specific category of sport science, this is where I begin to consider TESTING AND MONITORING. Having identified the key important components of physiology, biomechanics, psychology, the training methods and common injuries, it is important for the S&C to pay attention to how to test and monitor these within their environment. Again the process of developing a testing battery can take the form of looking at what is done in the research, by other practitioners and what the team/individual has done in their sport. For some sports (e.g. sprinting) the event is the test (so to speak) and therefore consistent attention would be paid around the distance and time to complete it during training and competition (creating a consistent monitoring model). For other sports surrogate measures of performance would be used (e.g. basketball) whereby the sport isn’t purely determined by physiological outputs, but as practitioners we look to measure the important constructs we have identified earlier in the needs analysis.
The important part to developing the testing components of the needs analysis is to use the research as a guide to finding valid and reliable measures, which are most importantly sensitive to change. This can get overwhelming for some coaches, especially when they realize there is a little more error in their hand timed flying 40 yrd sprints than first thought. Nevertheless, this component of the sport science research process will provide a sense of understanding of what error we would expect with each of our tests, and what changes have been considered meaningful and real by others within their environment. We can also go one step further by evaluating these tests in our own environment too. However, a golden rule is that the test you have identified has to be practical. For example you may wish to monitor countermovement jumps in the sport of basketball. You have done your research and found that force plate jumping is used to provide a valid and reliable means to assess this quality. However, you don’t own a force plate, so therefore replicating this process would be more difficult. This is another important part of the needs analysis (in this case an environmental constraint that you must consider). This would require some more research to identify alternative options that may fit the budget (e.g. a video phone application). This is an obvious example but one that can help refine the needs analysis approach.
Another specific category is that of the ATHLETE CENTERED ANALYSIS. Technically the above development of the testing and monitoring falls under this category. As the testing and monitoring is provided to analyze the athlete. However, within the needs analysis model this is more so the question(s) that as a coach you should be exploring in relation to the individual athlete and the team. Within the individual athlete centered analysis, traditionally an S&C would evaluate the TRAINING HISTORY of the individual (i.e. the training age and their exposure to strength and conditioning practices in the past). Two potentially overlooked areas for the individual athlete are their goals and training preferences. Starting with the latter, the ATHLETES’ TRAINING PREFERENCES are important to consider. From my own experience I have oftentimes tried to force feed principles of training, without understanding what the athlete actually likes to do first. Starting with their likes can give you an understanding of their level of comfortability with training approaches. This doesn’t mean abandoning your training principles, but it does give a gauge of what things you may need to educate the athlete on in the future (i.e. using your testing measures to show why a particular training method may reap benefits for them). The INDIVIDUAL ATHLETES’ GOALS are important to explore before telling them your goals for them. This again guides you in the direction of how to have success with this athlete, whilst also forming a means of comparing your own S&C goals for this individual against their expectations. When these align – perfect. When there are differences – you now have a means of discussion in the future to target with this athlete.
Another part of the athlete centered analysis considers both the INDIVIDUAL AND THE TEAM. Here we highlight the INJURY HISTORY, following some of the principles discussed within the general categorization of injuries within the sport. It is also important to apply this analysis to your environment. For example, exploration of the teams typical injury rates can be compared to the broader sport injury rates highlighted in the research or through league wide analysis. This comparison provides a means to assess if the team is below average or above average for what is expected. This analysis again provides a means of specific target development for injury reduction strategies when applicable. The injury history process should also focus on the individual athlete. For example an athlete with a history of ACL tears may require a different monitoring strategy or training approach to maintain their qualities and prevent further implications (as these individuals would have increased risk compared to others who have not sustained an ACL tear in the past). Within the individual injury history I like to take the past season and past 3-5 years as frames of reference (with the exemption of potential catastrophic injuries that happened earlier in their careers). This is based on the assumption that a minor injury sustained greater than 3 years ago likely bears less weighting the further away from the rehabilitation process (again with the exemption of catastrophic injuries).
The other component to consider is the COACHES REQUIREMENTS. It is useful to know the goals and plan the coach has for the team and/or the individual athlete. For team sports this could mean identifying if this player is a starter, bench player or reserve. This knowledge is valuable for an S&C coach as they will likely be tasked with applying different training strategies for each individual that falls under each of these categories. Again recall earlier that we want to note the individual athlete goals, now we can combine this comparison to what the goals are from the sport coach too. This creates a trifecta to eventually compliment the S&C targets and goals. This I would consider the final step (highlighted in red on the above schematic) as bringing the components together to create the S&C TARGETS. Utilizing all the information within the needs analysis to set both team and/or individual targets for each athlete. This is the last specific step as this creates the feedback loop for future reflection and analysis (subsequent iterations of the needs analysis). These strength and conditioning targets become one of the ways to define success within your domain, resulting from the art of producing the needs analysis. I believe this to be the most important reason and validation to perform a needs analysis, as this can be used as evidence within your S&C process, showing how decisions are driven with identified objectives. This provides a means to evaluate efficacy of the S&C delivery throughout the season and calendar year, in which a reappraisal of the needs analysis would be conducted for further continuation.
To summarize, the proposed needs analysis framework serves as a guide for S&C coaches to conduct a formal needs analysis within their environment. It is up to you how deep down the rabbit hole you wish to go with this. In my opinion it is best practice to complete a needs analysis when entering a new environment or new season, to which it should then be revisited each offseason to make relevant updates and assess whether seasonal targets have been met, before refining the process. Upon completing a general needs analysis its likely a number of areas will not need constant updates. However best practice (at least for me) is to add the latest research findings within the general categories as time goes on. It is more likely that the specific elements of the needs analysis will change to a greater extent with time (as rosters change and coaching styles etc..). Therefore the athlete centered aspect of the analysis is an important focus, to which a complimentary monitoring process should be added to enable the S&C coach to further evaluate as time goes on.