In elite sports, athletes maintain an incredibly hectic schedule throughout the calendar year. During the season, they spend the bulk of their time on competitive games, practices, and general maintenance, while during the off-season, top performers will spend upwards of 20 hours per week preparing for the physical demands of the upcoming season. For college athletes, you can add time required for academics, “voluntary” workouts, and team functions. It’s pretty easy to see why these high-level athletes are constantly teeter-tottering along the edge of overtraining.
To keep top players healthy and performing throughout the season takes an experienced coach who understands their athletes and knows when to push harder as well as when to pull back on the volume and intensity. With this in mind, here are a few suggestions I’ve seen of how coaches monitor their players to better understand when they should crack the whip to push their players or pull the reins and allow them to rest.
One of the most popular ways coaches monitor their athletes is using wearable technology. There are tons of different athletic wearable gadgets on the market today that track various markers of performance and recovery. Some of the most popular options are sleep trackers, GPS/accelerometers, EMG garments, and heart rate monitors.
Assuming they’re feasible for your team, sleep tracking devices can be an important piece to understanding how your athletes approach recovery (or their lack thereof). One of the better products I’ve seen is Whoop, which analyzes recovery, strain, and sleep. If you notice one of your players underperforming on a consistent basis, this tracking device can help you isolate the cause. Generally, an athlete who averages less than 7 hours of sleep over an extended period of time is not going to perform at their best.
GPS tracking data helps a coaching staff understand different performance metrics (miles run, speed, etc.) during a match or practice and can provide insight into the stress placed on their players since, theoretically, more distance equals more stress. There are several companies in this market, with Catapult Sports being the oldest and most well-known.
One of my criticisms of GPS devices, however, is the implicit assumption that distance equals stress on the athlete, as different body types, genetics, and anthropometrics play a much greater role than a strictly quantitative measure of distance. For example, if a football lineman and a wide receiver each run a mile, the distance is the same, but the stress and fatigue each incurs is incredibly different.
EMG garments have appeared on the sport technology scene over the last year or so and allow us to directly observe how much stress we’re putting on an athlete’s muscles both in real-time and from practice to practice. The previous scenario of a lineman and a wideout each running a mile shows how EMG is so valuable because it accounts for the differences in body type, genetics, and anthropometrics; it directly measures the stress that an athlete’s muscles undergo. Using GPS, we would not see differences in stress, but with EMG we see much greater stress placed upon the lineman as he fatigues as opposed to the wide receiver.
One of the most accurate and reliable companies I’ve seen and started using with my athletes in this space is Athos, which provides EMG compression apparel that mainly monitors muscular stress and muscular balance—think Under Armour and a medical grade EMG combined. I use it to establish baselines on my athletes from a stress and balance standpoint before monitoring them over time to either progress or regress my programming based on the goals for that individual athlete.
Also, the real-time biofeedback helps my athletes self-assess whether they’re executing a movement correctly and then self-correct much quicker than external cues alone. Self-assessment and correction like this allow the athlete to build more efficient movement patterns, which in turn, helps them improve performance and reduce their risk of injury.To get the most out of wearable tech, coaches must be realistic and have a plan. Click To Tweet
Ultimately, wearable technologies are becoming a fixture in elite sport performance, but to get the most out of the technology coaches need to be realistic about what they want to measure and, most importantly, have a plan for how they want to implement the technology with their athletes.
I suggest coaches do some research before purchasing new technology to find the right equipment for their team and organization, as there are many companies out there that tend to overpromise and underdeliver on their marketing claims.
Another great way to monitor athlete wellness—and one of the simplest—is a basic questionnaire that takes account of how your athletes feel at a particular moment. An old school method for sure, but it works and helps you get an idea of where your team and each athlete is on a given day.
The form will differ from program to program, but I suggest you have your athletes fill out a series of basic questions before every training session. Questions can include: “How many hours of sleep did you get last night?” “Do you have any areas of your body that are hurting?” and “How do you feel on a scale of 1-10?”
The questions should be specific and easily quantifiable. You don’t want an athlete just to say they’re “feeling okay.” Numbers are valuable and allow you to compare an athlete’s response from day to day. The questions should be the same every single day so you can monitor changes and trends over time to adjust training as needed.I use questionnaires to decide if I should push an athlete on a given day. Click To Tweet
I especially like to use these questionnaires for deciding if I should push an athlete on a given day. For example, if an athlete indicates they’re at a 9-10 or 10-10, I’ll talk with them to try to gauge the validity of that number before using that session as an opportunity to push their boundaries a little, depending on where we are in the season.
If we’re in an off-season strength and hypertrophy block, I might try to push the athlete by increasing the volume or intensity of the lift, whether by adding sets and reps, pushing a PR in a given lift, or progressing an exercise to challenge the athlete.
If we’re in an in-season maintenance block, I might use it as an opportunity to get some additional maintenance or skill-specific work done while keeping in mind the athlete’s upcoming game and practice schedule. How you push the athlete when they’re feeling good will always, first and foremost, depend on the individual athlete, where they are in their season, and their training priorities.
For tips on building questionnaires for your athletes, check out this article by Iowa assistant strength coach Cody Roberts where he dives into “Dos and Don’ts for Athlete Wellness Questionnaires.”
Finally, a very common way to gauge how your athletes are feeling on a given day is by using established “baseline” metrics for different performance markers and then monitoring how far each athlete deviates from that baseline before or during a particular training session.
For example, if a football lineman with a 400-pound max bench is struggling with reps of 315 pounds, he’s probably feeling a little worn down—or worse, there may be an underlying injury. Either way, it’s an indication to back off the volume or intensity for the day and investigate further.
It doesn’t really matter what performance measure you use, only that the measure makes sense for your sport. A bench press, for example, probably wouldn’t give great insight to how a baseball player is feeling.Resting heart rate is an easy performance measure that's useful across different sports. Click To Tweet
A performance measure I like that’s easy to measure and can be useful across different teams regardless of sport is resting heart rate (HR). Once again, establishing a baseline and monitoring deviations is the key to success. After you’ve established a baseline resting HR, if an athlete shows up on a given day with a significant increase, they’re likely not in a good position to be pushed throughout the day’s training regardless of whether that increase is attributed to overtraining, dehydration, or general stress.
Here are some best practices from the Mayo Clinic for measuring and recording restingHR in your athletes.
Wrapping It All Up: Collect as Much Data as Possible
With any monitoring strategy, the goal is to better understand where your players are on any given day. The better you understand your players, the easier it is to gauge objectively how ready they are to train or play.
Ideally, we’d like to have as much data as possible, but more data does not always equal better data, and sometimes a “less is more” approach can be the key difference with the teams and organizations that use these strategies successfully versus the ones that do not. At the end of the day, our goal as strength and conditioning professionals is to find which data allows us to move the needle regarding player performance and availability in our individual sport.
By correctly implementing some of the monitoring strategies above, coaches better understand their players each season and, in turn, know how to more effectively adjust practice and training to win more games.
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