By Carl Valle
Unlike track and field, team sports offer more challenges to designing workouts that satisfy tactical and technical needs while harmonizing with the human body. In this article, I dive into some very controversial topics, including metabolic power, mechanical load, lactate response, and finally the muscular recruitment theories of some sport performance professionals.
I waited about two years to write this as I didn’t have enough research to support the conclusions I’ve reached based on what I’ve seen. Nobody has been a bigger critic to GPS proponents than myself, and nobody has defended more the potential of new technology for reducing injuries and improving game outcomes.
Current Challenges: Monitoring and Managing the Training Load
A recent study on the practices and perceptions of monitoring soccer clubs internationally revealed some interesting survey data. The information Nassis and Akenhead discovered from their survey of about 40 athletes was a little disturbing. Their confidence in using heart rate, player tracking, and wellness surveys was shaky, and buy-in by coaches was far from perfect. Some teams didn’t bother with sRPE and training load. This revelation was the most important talking point about player monitoring during the last year.
Finally, we have honest insight into who is doing what and the problems they are facing. In a make-believe sports world where everyone claims to do things that would rival NASA, we now have some clear information that could serve as a launch pad for solutions.
Not enough coaches are talking about three primary problems, and that’s why we don’t have a grasp on what is possible and what is inappropriate with current technology and sport science. With trends hyped by social media that last only months, it seems that best practices are like gypsy wagons that come and then disappear at just the right time. The challenges we face now are the following:
- The team coach is not on the same page as the performance staff.
- The performance staff has their own opinions on the sport
- The technology does not provide the right service to small clubs.
I want to solve these challenges with creativity and innovation. Nearly every single article I’ve written lately includes links to the sport science and other articles. This time, I support my beliefs more aggressively with additional evidence because I am making burgers from the sacred cows that many coaches feel comfortable with. More importantly, I use a coaching perspective because science is only applied well in a vacuum, and as technology grows, more coaches are taking on chores that sport scientists are better equipped to manage. My solutions are not perfect, but the trains of thought at least have promise.
The goals of sports technology are the following:
- How can I convince my team coach to create better practices and substitution plans?
- How can I create a better sports performance model to maximize my resources?
- What can I do with the current sports technology I have and when is it appropriate not to?
Winning just one battle may win the war with elite sport since nearly everyone in a team sport has the challenges of working in high performance. Some coaches give up too early as it can be emotionally draining to receive poor feedback when suggesting a change. As someone who is purposely and professionally distanced, I have the luxury of assisting with change by seeing the collective landscape.
Solution 1: How to Perform Damage Control with Training Load and Athlete Exertion
If we don’t have control over training load, why do we bother measuring it? Two of my biggest pet peeves in sport are measuring what everyone can clearly see and measuring what is easy and convenient just to appear productive and valuable. Now that GPS player tracking systems have gone down in price, we see more and more opinions surfacing.
This is a great opportunity for sport. A few years ago, the six-figure tracking systems were like palm reading, only those who were gifted (had the budget) could tell everyone else in sports performance what to do because their data was both scarce and unique. As the research and technology have grown, more voices of reason are confirming what many smart coaches already knew–unless the team coach has a handle on practice loads, not much is going to change.
GPS-enabled wearables have two strengths. They passively aggregate simple and influential data that is objective. And they make it easy to understand cause and effect. One foolish argument against technology is that a coach already sees the information that the player tracking technology collects. This is true, but can one set of eyes collect information on every single athlete simultaneously?
The question is not what is better; it’s how a coaching and performance team can improve when everyone sees the same thing objectively. A team coach or head coach has a perspective that many strength coaches forget. They want to win by making the players perform smarter (strategy) or with more skill (technical). Although a team is evaluated by fitness level, a team coach is rarely evaluated on changes in athletic performance over seasons.
Performance coaches fight for what they need, which is usually timing of rest periods or leaving energy for strength training. To have a chance at convincing team coaches to sequence loading, we have to consider what they want or at least think logically about what they need. Ideally, a team coach will think like this:
- How do I use sport science to set up practices to work on tactical and technical needs?
- How do I allow enough time and energy for the strength and conditioning staff to succeed?
- When do I rest and when do I push athletes so we succeed in the short- and long-run?
- How do I evaluate coaching so I know what is working and not working well?
To get a coach to think the way we want them to, we must recognize what they need on paper and concentrate first on time and energy. After we divide time and energy, we can start looking at what’s left on the plate to see if we can organize resources for sequencing. Team coaches usually want to do certain practices, but they don’t have strong arguments other than having athletes learn plays and spend more time on “getting better.” When resources are finite, such as the human body, more pruning is required, and creation of hierarchies of importance will grow.
For sports with games played once a week or occasionally twice a week, such as professional soccer and American football, start by creating a weekly set-up and work backward. Reverse periodization is common and nothing new. With all of the hype, however, about performing activation the day before a game instead of resting athletes, some teams are still playing flat when the whistle blows.
Most of the problems encountered come from Sport Science Fiction–when an idea sounds scientific but is just not true. Even sports teams have conditioning programs that don’t follow old training principles, such as regeneration days after games that include lower body lifting sessions.Planning based on body resources and cumulative fatigue presents the most challenge. Click To Tweet
Planning based on body resources and cumulative fatigue presents the most challenge. Unless a team coach is responsible for disobeying nature’s laws of biology, the accountability will fall on the fitness coach or performance team. Reporting what is ideal based on current evidence must be compared and contrasted in a document or consequences will be placed entirely on the medical and training staff.
Solution 2: Designing and Developing Athletes with Available Resources
Once a real decision maker is on the same page with practice loads and sequence, decide what to do with the time and energy allocated for non-specific preparation. On average, the resources left for sports performance and sports medicine is scant, unless an athlete is hurt. A team’s coach and doctor are useless for hamstring or groin tears because they can’t coach or operate an athlete’s way out of a muscle injury. And no medical professional or performance coach will fire a sport coach because they politically work under them.
Some teams extract huge value from their performance staff, but way too many only frustrate the talented people they employ. They use their staff as service workers, not secret weapons. Rugby and American football don’t have the problem with the culture of lifting weights that we tend to see in baseball, basketball, and soccer. With skills valued so highly, many in these sports scoff at barbells and anything else that doesn’t include a ball.
Any remaining minutes or effort left in the day that could be used for solid training to globally improve an athlete often looks like residual training from practice. The law of specificity has checks and balances and an addendum to the law–the rule of transfer. As long as training makes an athlete better on the field, directly or indirectly, it doesn’t need to have a ball or visually mimic the sport.Player tracking is valuable when you have the freedom to train properly. Click To Tweet
If the freedom to train properly is available, player tracking becomes a more valuable tool and not just a replacement for conditioning responsibilities. If athletes don’t train without the ball, does a team need a fitness coach? Besides serving as a warm-up service or adult babysitter, we need to let sports performance staff do what they do best–develop players using the best available means and methods. Sports medicine staff and performance professionals want to achieve the following:
- Improve athletes’ on-field speed and conditioning.
- Decrease injury rates and reduce the severity of injuries that do occur.
- Maximize the length and productivity of player careers.
So how does player tracking technology improve these outcomes? Player tracking data and intervention responses help create working models for the sport science team to optimize. The data does not help us to make decisions. It helps other solutions work better when boundaries and structure are in place.
Here are some of the topics that create confusion:
Athletic Development Assessment. Raw athletic qualities are part of the equation, and general characteristics that are measurable give us valid and reliable ways to see change. Elite level athletes need fine-tuning, but most of the population needs to get better. Assessing athletes with simple field tests is not popular at the top levels. And this is one reason why athletes are getting hurt. They cease doing what got them where they are, or they don’t take advantage of what will keep them there and improve them. Combining field testing with practice monitoring teases out where to place resources.
Metabolic Power and Adaptation. The controversy with metabolic power is that more direct measures exist such as velocity and volume. I’ve written many times about simple measures that use easy math and have some value, like total distance covered or minutes played. We need to focus on moving away from something less mathematical to something more biological; we don’t need to debate whether metabolic power is the right approach. Fatigue is a real problem now, and how we fuel isn’t as important as how we drive when the gas tank is low.
Mechanical Load Management. An interesting theory about high-speed running concerns the implications of specific muscle groups having different risk patterns (proposed by Morin and colleagues). Some programs have claimed they reduced groin injuries by balancing out their practice distribution. But many of these teams are biased; healthy teams that are younger and release injured players are selectively reporting the truth. Once we’ve adjusted for total volume, mechanical load management should be prescriptive, not observational. And it should include interventions or better training design that add overload and reduce or distribute the load better.
Acute and Chronic Models. Acute and chronic workload calculations are popular because practice data with GPS tracking devices are easily funneled into ratios and algorithms. The problem is that arbitrary units are one step away from gross estimation. Without more granular targets such as hamstring injuries or ACL tears, it’s a fancy way of saying “too much too soon,” or an athlete is “out of shape and cannot handle practice.”
We can manage all of these factors with a high degree of validity and precision to make them useful, but player tracking without integrating other measures is lazy sport science and just pretending.
Solution 3: What You Can Do with the Sports Technology
Sports technology amplifies sport science, and sport science supports sports training. This last part doesn’t mean how to interpret charts and how to create better practices, it’s how to use information outside of GPS and accelerometer data for a more robust approach. This last solution is knowing when monitoring no longer adds value and how to cross-validate the collected data with direct measures.
In this final section, we put everything together by connecting the responsibility of the team coach so it’s in harmony with the fitness staff by reversing the order. What we can do to get athletes better and more resilient comes first. Worry about games later. Although this sounds counterintuitive, many teams already do this without realizing it.
Eccentric Capacity Profiling. Gross eccentric abilities must show up in a field test or why spend so much time tracking it? Addressing eccentric strength does not mean doing cute mini-hurdle routines, it means having a maximal capacity to overcome gravity beyond concentric levels. Eccentric strength also is not just being elastic, as many talented athletes can find ways to use their genetics to redirect momentum. Make sure to address eccentric strength year-round and that it comes from training and not additional skill testing of an athlete who is gaming either from familiarization or by cheating.
The Raptor Test pairs nicely with eccentric load scores of most major GPS reports; two eccentric workouts with very small volumes can maintain levels throughout a season.
Lactate and Muscle Fiber Responses. I’m not against V02 Max measures for extreme endurance sports, but a lot of people highly misunderstand aerobic fitness. Many coaches prescribe heart rate zones without doing heart rate testing. Even if one does real lab or field testing, the aerobic system still runs on two legs. The ever-changing status of fresh legs and running efficiency from mechanical changes and body composition are the reasons most conditioning programs are guessing. If you do not do a hard field test, you will not improve an athlete’s ability. You are staying within the capacity of other teams that are not willing to change either.
My favorite part of a repeat sprint test is the first run, an all-out bout that tells the coach what the athlete is willing to do, and the rest is showing the decay of that ability. For the record, we don’t prepare for RSA abilities doing submaximal runs with abbreviated rest. We just go harder fresh and do more lower intensity volumes.
Mitochondria, a topic that requires a separate article, functions when athletes train with alarming effort and courageous volumes. An athlete can get 3-4 times more proliferation than sedentary populations, so it’s worth increasing number and function of this special organelle.
Microdose sprints every week during the warm-up, and track time to peak velocity, distance, and absolute velocity.
Secondary Adaptations. Morphological changes in the heart and capillaries are gaining interest again. But it’s not worth talking about if we’re not measuring these two indices and providing workouts that elicit these adaptations. Most of the time, conditioning adaptations are not clear enough, hard enough, or long (volume) enough.
It’s worth noting that many endurance sport adaptations in the cardiovascular system give clues that the body is responding to the work given to that sport; they are not ergogenic benefits that team sports can harness easily in games. Most of the conditioning benefits will provide small benefits in accommodating to heavy training loads weekly, not just winning in the final minutes. Still, secondary adaptations do show up on the backend but are less direct and clear in benefit. So it’s better to push changes in the front, such as absolute abilities that are global.
Balance the growing changes in density and high-intensity efforts in sport with more lower aerobic style options during the season and after the season.
Medical Modelling. Specific training comes with such baggage as overuse syndromes and unique injuries. Find a sport you love, and you’ll find a specific injury connected to it. Cross-training in the 1990s failed even though the intentions were good because it was random. It had the same problems, just in a different flavor.Polarized training decreases injury in the same way polarized conditioning increases performance. Click To Tweet
I believe polarized training with specific and general options helps decrease injury in the same way polarized conditioning helps increase performance. Many athletes work on highly isolated skills over and over again because games and practices don’t afford access to rehearse such options. When we let athletes do more skill work by breaking it into pieces and follow the laws of overload and progression, we can prescribe general work to lower risk by reducing joint strain.
The recuperation runs or workouts we see with some clubs and teams that have an arsenal of talents get away with practicing less, not because they’re resting but because the only way for players to stay at the top is to keep their skills sharp since they compete so much. Practicing tired, even with motivated talents, dulls the knife. One can argue that reinforcing skills is just polishing the apple too much, but it’s better to have a razor sharp brain with skill and fitness over an overloaded brain that is tired.
Replace 20-30 minutes of unmotivated practice with something general, and monitor both the heart rate response and work outputs once a week.
Having a consistently good program is better than a brief stay at the top followed by a crash down to reality. Forcing perfection in a team sport is like a former Olympic sport performance professional living in his or her fantasy. Too many team sport staffs know that the cream will rise and skilled talents will make everyone look good, so their training standards are kept to fluff work. Because athletes have done amazing things without training outside their sport, many resort to not rocking the boat and hope that injuries happen to other teams.
Ironically, training or resting to avoid injury usually produces the same results, but they happen on the field instead of with the strength or fitness coach. By simply hitting a reasonable standard of development, we can resolve many of the emerging injuries and inconsistent play.
Additional Resources and Breaking the Vicious Cycle
Don’t get me wrong, we will face situations that are utopian in support but scant on talent. Or the talent is high, but the culture and leadership are toxic. The hardest job I left was one where the team was full of great people, but their culture was happy with being good and not the best. The leadership was content with good attendance and not placing last. The lack of stress created stress.
I’ve also been part of programs that expected championships each year. They handled anything but winning poorly, and this ate at me. I have helped many athletes hit personal bests, and I’ve also tasted humble pie at championship meets or games where my athletes got beat or leapfrogged. When things go well it’s easy, but it’s very lonely when things go poorly. That’s when it’s good to call other coaches in the same boat, but who are just a little in front.
Reading the research every morning is my compass, but other coaches can help create a map or navigation chart. When I first started in sports technology, I had two obstacles that were very arduous: not knowing the sports I was helping with and not having a blueprint from the companies on what to do with it.
Instead of following the leader and mimicking the naked emperors, I went with my gut and addressed things that would make me cringe if my colleagues visited. After that, I could strategize the details but only with a foundation of principles. I’ve made plenty of mistakes. Not repeating them and making them smaller is how we can all improve and avoid staying static.