Originally used in the dynamic world of business as a way to illustrate effectiveness—and therefore, where to focus energy to increase profit margins—“leading” and “lagging” indicators are useful concepts to direct and focus training. In the performance field, testing and evaluation can be seen as a means to validate our efforts as effective professionals (essentially, our profit margins): After X amount of training time, the athlete saw Y improvements in their strength, power, endurance, etc.Originally used in the dynamic world of business as a way to illustrate effectiveness, ‘leading’ and ‘lagging’ indicators are useful concepts to direct and focus training, says @JuanCTPerez. Click To Tweet
While this method of testing has its merits, it is very limited. For example, if Athlete A improved their squat max, it is safe to say that their strength has increased. We could also say technique improvements, among other things, are the root cause, but for the sake of this argument, we will call it a strength improvement. Additionally, if Athlete A’s 40-yard time, pro agility, broad jump, and vertical jump improved, we could use those all as indications of increased performance. While these numbers look great, they may have little to no carryover to what actually matters: the game.
This is where the concept of leading and lagging indicators comes in.
Leading and lagging indicators can provide more value in defining our roles as performance professionals. In the business world, leading indicators are metrics such as:
- Weekly number of sales calls and meetings.
- Weekly new customers.
- Monthly sales.
To dive in even further, a leading indicator is an indicator that might help predict future success. For example, all of the key performance indicators (KPIs) we track are an example of leading indicators. On the other hand, lagging indicators are:
- Annual or monthly sales.
- Annual cash flow.
- Customer satisfaction.
A lagging indicator is one that actually measures past performances. For example, in soccer, a lagging indicator for a team could be injuries, total number of shots, shots on goal, total number of passes, match possession in the opponent’s half, or wins/losses. If the lagging indicators are not improving, but the leading indicators are, then it may be time to choose new leading indicators that more accurately align with our goals in competition.
Determining Lagging Indicators
The first step in determining lagging indicators is to talk with the actual sport coach. While having an understanding of the game is vital, it is in no way a replacement for actually talking to the coach. In addition, obtaining the box score sheet after each game can be very valuable for the coach who likes to track data points.
This process is also helpful because leading/lagging indicators can be time-based. For example, in the postseason, lagging indicators might increase in a certain category compared to the preseason. This can be due to increased fatigue over the course of the season, which may have implications on what should be measured at that time. Perhaps you were measuring RPE as a leading indicator, when in fact you should have been measuring something more objective such as lower body power?
How to Select Effective Leading Indicators
The key to selecting effective leading indicators lies in the game itself. Typically, sports performance professionals have a reductionist approach where we analyze physiological metrics of athleticism—which are important, but may not have a direct bearing on the game. Chances are, we all know an athlete who wasn’t quite as strong as the competition but was still able to compensate and outperform them in game situations. One of the most notable examples is Kevin Durant, who failed to rep 185 pounds on a bench press at the NBA Combine while he was playing at the University of Texas—most would say that he has been fairly successful despite this shortcoming of upper body pressing strength.
While these physical tests may give coaches numbers to hang their hats on, more effective tests may be something like reactive strength index (RSI) for lower body power, vertical jump repeatability for power endurance, reactive agility, or something similar. The point is not in the actual test, it’s in the fact that these tests have some level of correlation with actual basketball skills such as rebounding and reaction time that may have a greater influence on the game outcome than an action such as bench press.
Internal vs. External Measures
This is a helpful distinction to define when determining what to measure. If a practitioner solely takes internal and/or subjective measures such as resting heart rate (RHR) and rate of perceived exertion (RPE), then only part of the story is being told. On the other hand, if the practitioner only takes external measures such as power output on a force plate, vertical jump height, or GPS metrics, then only half the story is still being told.One suggestion is to base your indicators on the most important factors in the sport, says @JuanCTPerez. Click To Tweet
At the same time, care must be taken not to have too many measures, as this may become unmanageable during the course of a busy season or during road trips and team travel. The measures must be able to be recorded quickly, consistently, and efficiently, even in a larger team setting. When taking these measures, intra (within the same practitioner) and inter (between multiple practitioners) rater reliability must be controlled for, so that the measures stay accurate over time.
Now that we have a common language on internal versus external, how do we select the most appropriate measures? One suggestion would be to base your indicators on the most important factors in the sport. For example, in basketball, power is very important, so one external measure you would want to take into account is either power output on a force plate or vertical jump height. This will give a picture on whether the training program is positively affecting that key quality.
In conjunction with measuring power, we can also measure RHR to give us a better idea of why we are seeing what we’re seeing. An example of this could again be with the vertical jump: If we see a great score on the Just Jump and then a subsequent tank for a period of time, we may conclude that the athlete just had a really good day and consider that score an outlier. BUT, if we have the RHR and see that there is a correlated elevation in HR at the same time, we may find that the athlete has been going through a period of stress and may be in a state of overtraining/under-recovering. This is just one example of how internal AND external measures can be beneficial, but there are countless others.
The Most Overlooked Measure
One largely overlooked measure in this technological arms race is the simplest of all—conversations with your athletes. This would fall into the category of internal and subjective measures. You can uncover a lot by SINCERELY asking the question, “How are you today?”One largely overlooked measure in this technological arms race is the simplest of all—conversations with your athletes, says @JuanCTPerez. Click To Tweet
The major missed part in this equation is the sincerity. If you have not fostered a relationship with your team where honest expression can be given, or you don’t have an actual relationship with the athlete, then don’t even bother with this one because the standard answer to avoid further confrontation will be “good.”
Having said that, we must take into account that this measure is not particularly quantifiable; still, there are things we can do to make it so. For example, after posing the question to your athlete, you can either let the answer fade into the wind as most coaches do, or you can track it through a total quality recovery scale (TQR). After compiling your team’s TQR scores, you can then adjust training as needed. While this method is not feasible for those with limited staff, it is something that can make a difference in training.
How Many Data Points?
One of the most common questions within testing is how many data points should I get? The answer: as many as you can take without disrupting training.
The standard college approach is to have a testing session when athletes arrive on campus, right before play starts, and then one postseason. If time and circumstances allow, then one testing session during the season can also be executed. If this approach is utilized, that only allows for three testing points a year…which means in a four-year cycle, there are only about 12 total testing points.
This approach may work in a given setting, but it’s by no means optimal. A more effective approach would be to implement exercises or simple “temperature checks” embedded throughout the training cycles. This could look as easy as implementing a Just Jump score and an RPE at multiple times throughout the week.
For example, if Team A seems to have particularly high numbers on the Just Jump mat after a velocity-based training day, it may be a good idea to implement a velocity-based training day before a game if your situation allows. In basketball this could lead to more rebounds, or for volleyball a higher number of kills. Likewise, if Team A reports that their RPE is very high after a particular training day, you may want to place that session as far away from game day as possible.
Measure What Matters
It would be easy to say measure A, B, and C for the most accurate depiction of what’s happening with your team, but the truth is this would be erroneous and irresponsible. While most sports share commonalities, it is impossible for me to know what is going on in your current setting, with your current coaches, and your current performance staff. If a measure is suggested, but you don’t have the means to record it, then it is ineffective. Care must be taken to work with the coaching staff of your sport, the athletes on the team, and your sports performance staff to see what can be done consistently and at a high level. In the realm of athletics, answers are always sought but hardly ever given.What matters in determining leading and lagging indicators? The answer is ‘It depends.’ …If a measure is suggested, but you don’t have the means to record it, then it is ineffective. Click To Tweet
Likewise, for the question of what matters in determining leading and lagging indicators, the answer is “it depends.” In my own coaching experience, I can definitively state that when athletes were not hitting their training percentages (leading indicator-external measure), and post training RPEs were higher than normal (leading indicator-internal measure), practice performance also suffered (lagging indicator).
When I took all these factors into account, I could clearly see that I selected the correct measures. While it was much easier for me to make on-the-spot adjustments for athletes who I had been working with for a while—and implement a recovery day when needed—these indicators proved particularly helpful for me when working with incoming athletes such as freshmen or recent transfers. If, after an adjustment period, the new athlete performed a similar workout as the rest of the team but was not hitting their particular numbers on a specific day or was very slow with their weights in addition to a high RPE, in conjunction with a high performance in a practice or a game, then a conversation was in order.
Many times, I was able to uncover that an athlete hated a particular exercise, and I could make an adjustment in order to make training more enjoyable and get better returns. However, when the same scenario occurred—but training performance was poor on multiple days and practice was not as sharp as it had been—I could see that the athlete needed a recovery intervention of some sort. While these particular leading/lagging indicators may not be the first choice for everyone, they have proven particularly helpful for me in my coaching.
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