Subjective indicators and body charts can be the most useful way to monitor athletes, if you do it properly, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
For the last few months, I have seen an alarming shift in athlete support, specifically an attack on sport science by a lot of coaches in the strength and conditioning community. It seems anyone who elects to use just a fragment of sport science is immediately labeled a “lab coat,” lumped together with coaches who are “book smart,” and assumed to be unable to teach lifts or write workouts. This is disturbing because the biggest influence on athlete injury rates is not coming from the sport science staff, it’s those with firsthand access to the athletes.
In this article, I cover the political issue with monitoring and give a firm recommendation that you should consistently do something that improves both communication and record-keeping for an athlete’s health. In my experience, subjective indicators and body charts can be the most useful way to monitor athletes, if you do it properly. I outline how coaches can take the classic questionnaire and turn it into a digital assistant, rather than running around trying to collect data like a census staffer. If you want to make your life a little easier, make sure you read this article a few times, as you’re sure to find ways to reduce headaches and save time.
What Subjective Monitoring Can Do and What It Can’t
Subjective monitoring is a process where athletes share at-a-glance information about their readiness and perceptions of training and competition. You don’t need much, as athletes can share their feedback on the effort of a workout and give competitive mood states if they are asked and are willing. Asking the right questions, such as willingness to train, energy levels, quality of sleep, and even their soreness is particularly useful when the process is conscientious and honest.
The issue we sometimes see at high levels is that the daily grind of collecting such information can get stale and difficult to sustain if athletes feel it’s a waste of time. If subjective indicators are mandated, honest and precise information can be lost to politics and if you don’t adhere to best practices. Subjective indicators are just communication that is consistent and simple, and nothing more. The added value comes when you use it to understand what the athlete is quickly telling you, and the real art is in the deeper questions you ask when you get to see the athletes later. Even more useful sometimes is automation, where athletes can access services instead of running around chasing staff for their needs.
The use of subjective indicators does have a lot of value, but it’s not a replacement for what normally occurs between professionals such as coaches and their athletes. You can’t outsource the human element to coaching, and several solutions to physiological monitoring utilize subjective indicators to connect what the athlete feels to their biological responses to training. So, subjective monitoring is both timeless and necessary to get the most out of your training. The scientific support is there, and I know for me it’s vital when working with large groups.
You Are Not as Good as You Think You Are
I have heard all the arguments and even made up better ones myself. Coaches often brag about their abilities to read athletes, see fatigue from training, and have conversations. Most of the points are near comical, because even if you have the best intentions, you will find the true answer to monitoring is that athletes either don’t want to know the information or feel it’s a pain to collect.Even if you have the best intentions, you will find the true answer to monitoring is that athletes either don’t want to know the information or feel it’s a pain to collect, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Unfortunately, many coaches are indeed correct and sometimes monitoring with subjective means is just not helpful, as perceived exertion can be misleading. On the other hand, I will say the process of subjective monitoring is more important than the numbers and dialogues, because it increases communication and thinking. The common excuse for alternatives to monitoring is always this:
- “I simply ask how an athlete feels.”
- “We don’t have time or money for monitoring.”
- “Our team can’t get athletes to fill them out.”
The above points are realities, and the truthful answers are usually uglier. My issue with the “discussion coaches” is that most training and team practices are with groups, and how do you really ask all the information at once with a soccer team or sprint group? Good luck constantly asking an athlete before training every day how they slept, as some athletes are not with a strength coach daily. With all the retweeting of sleep research and adolescents, we love preaching to athletes to get better sleep, but seem to forget about getting “confession time.”
Most of the time only the obvious problems surface clearly, such as an athlete limping in or coughing, which are both reactive consequences of not monitoring properly. Does the conversational-style approach work then? Conversational-style monitoring will always be a step behind comprehensive wellness monitoring. I have seen a basketball player struggling with a bad sprain fail to get support from anyone for days, as most scholastic programs don’t have a great staff-to-athlete ratio. And how is the coach recording all their “interactions”? If their memory is so great, then they should be able to recall what the athlete said months later—something we all can agree is very improbable.
The second excuse is the weakest. If you don’t have time to monitor, you likely need monitoring to free up time. The strength coach who is overworked will need monitoring to delegate responsibilities correctly to either sports medicine or their team coach. Sometimes parents and teachers need to be involved with monitoring, as lifestyle is an important part of athlete recovery and health.
Plenty of cheap or free survey products exist, and the better ones include body charts and other subjective tools that help with communication. Since nearly every product works with smart devices, athletes can discard the old training log and Scantron sheets of the past. You may not be able to respond or service an athlete, but recording and acting on serious problems is a responsible act of coaching. In addition to the coach, it makes sense that all athlete data is serviced by other staff members. It can’t all be left to the strength coach or sports medicine staff.
The last excuse is sometimes a real one. The athletes who don’t find value from surveys are usually the ones that are not compliant with anything, and as athletes advance, they become more independent and it’s more difficult to change their behavior. Don’t fight it. I recommend using subjective indicators to manage the calendar and athlete support.If you don’t make subjective indicators a solution, wellness surveys become another sport science project just collecting dust, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
For example, one team struggled each year to get athletes to use the wellness survey in the morning. When they reinvented it as a reservation tool for massage and other services, compliance was 100% because it appeared to be a calendar tool. If you don’t make subjective indicators a solution, wellness surveys become another sport science project just collecting dust.
Body Charts Tells the Story
A few coaches asked about the use of the smart fabrics that have come out, expecting me to promote wireless EMG and heart rate data. I explained quickly that while I was a fan of the products able to collect meaningful information, subjective feedback with body charts was likely—pardon the pun—a better fit. A healthy athlete who is coping with stress or small niggles doesn’t need smart fabric; they could benefit from thermography far more. Most programs don’t have access to such technology, and if they did, they should still use body charts to communicate their reported screens and discomfort. Pain is a complex responsibility, and sometimes it’s not a biological problem, but not communicating what the athlete is experiencing isn’t helpful either.
Regardless of background, the most universal language is visual art, because every athlete can shade or touch where things are bothering them on a screen. A strength coach doesn’t need to speak another language when they see a body chart look like a war zone, and the information immediately can help a staff observe changes over time. While foam rolling and other self-care fails to really do what is claimed, anything that can catalog and transmit important information regarding an athlete’s muscle and joint system is great for all involved.
Subjective Indicators – The Worker Bee for Coaches
A coach should view subjective indicators as a swarm of data working for them, not against them. Several coaches stopped using subjective monitoring tools because it was not worth the effort, as they tended to get lost in what to do after they got the information. On average, most of the problem with subjective indicators is not the information, it’s not having a workflow to use the information efficiently or the authority to change the training if you work with a team coach. Olympic sport is different, but it still requires a group of people all being on the same page.
To me, subjective indicators are daily bursts of flying insects, bats, or birds working in harmony. Instead of seeing all of the data as a tidal wave and drowning, think about directing that information and energy to the right places. Automating the process as much as possible empowers coaches to leverage their experience by anticipating problems before they occur. Let’s expand on this a bit.
Automation is about triggers, conditions, and, of course, actions. Collecting information is obviously important, but that’s the easy part if an athlete sees the value exchange. The conditions are where a coach saves time and filters what needs to be done immediately and what modifications are necessary. Actions are just what coaches intuitively do on their own, but instead of being reactive, it’s being proactive at the highest level.
With every burden we have today, it is clear that automation streamlines and even removes them. Technology works and can work for us, but you need to have a plan and success story waiting. I work harder than ever now at being intelligently lazy later, and that is because I am tired of intensity and love freedom. Coaches deserve that, and subjective indicators are just a menu of the needs of the athlete disguised as a survey.The most important aspect of subjective indicators is they record the information straight from the horse’s mouth, giving athletes an opportunity to express their needs, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Sometimes you will have to add more horsepower to your subjective indicators by reinforcing with objective monitoring the response to training internally. Other times you will need external loads or basic workouts overlaid to see the cause and effect. Remember, data is not just information; sometimes it’s packets of action and insight if you have a start and end for a process. So many coaches talk about autoregulation with strength training, but not taking in the recovery and only focusing on barbell speeds misses the point with the soul of biofeedback. Autoregulation needs more than a warm-up or work set to maximize human interaction; it requires more inputs and a deeper understanding of how recovery and adaptation work together.
Finally, the most important aspect of subjective indicators is that they record the information straight from the horse’s mouth. They give an opportunity for the athlete to express their needs, and even including a small box to type in their notes allows them to go beyond rating elements of recovery status. We live in a weird time, where the diary we have is likely a social media account. This is far different than decades ago, when a long-form diary was hidden under the bed or safely put away for logging one’s life. Athletes deserve to be able to access their daily tracking, and if needed, a team can audit it to better help all involved.
The Art of Monitoring the Human Athlete
Perhaps the most important section of this article is not about data or science, but working with people. I have found the surprising and paradoxical gift that is athlete interaction skyrocketed the more that it was monitored, provided it was practical and not time-consuming. Note that I didn’t say “invasive,” as I think we need to realize that the average person is more alone today even as they are more connected.
The inspiration for this article was actually the mental health statistics of athletes, not just the regular population. Even champions who may be successful are suffering, but it seems that doing something constructive and responsible isn’t very common. It’s fair to say that every coach should be a crusader for athlete well-being, and an organized way to perform a caring surveillance is only logical.
Nearly 10 years ago, the book Alone Together hinted at how technology hurts our souls, and today I agree that the glowing tablet or smartphone is likely doing more than emitting blue light. A coach could make a case that we don’t need more technology to fix a technology problem, but the reality is we need to fight fire with a fire hose and some technology. We need more meaningful and distraction-free relationships, as real attention is arguably the best gift anyone can give today.
We have smartphone settings so that we aren’t distracted drivers; athletes need device setting so they’re not dejected humans, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
I made a plea to include device-free zones with athletes in my old post on hacks, suggesting a sanctuary from digital strain. It will not fix everything, but recommending athletes have set schedules for browsing and checking email, and even reminding them about text etiquette, can severely reduce screen time and still let athletes function in a modern world unscathed. We have smartphone settings so that we are not distracted drivers; athletes need device settings so they are not dejected humans.
As you can see, we need to engage in coaching development beyond interpersonal skills and getting athletes to buy into what we are doing. It requires a real foundation of tools. The ability to work with people won’t be learned through online lectures or bestselling leadership books; it comes from a lifelong dedication to the craft and involving others in a way that harnesses the latest training science.
Your biggest takeaway should not be that I am trying to convey the urgency of collecting data; my recommendation is that we can ask better and more important questions. When you have a head start from a position of understanding, the time you actually do spend with each athlete is more meaningful. Data and the human element are not actually oppositional; they are synergistic and symbiotic to each other.
Athletes want to know you are listening—taking action, even if it’s just checking in, communicates that you are at least taking responsibility and ideally caring for their needs. Monitoring is a process of listening, hearing what is shared, and communicating support or decisions based on what is found. It doesn’t stop with training and sports medicine—monitoring is about the entire athlete, including their lifestyle, health, and emotional needs.
Don’t Monitor for the Data, Monitor for the Person
Monitoring is a wide-open area for coaches, as it ranges from casual interaction to the most comprehensive and sophisticated demonstration of science imaginable. Most coaches will fall in the middle, trying to do enough to be meaningful, but also trying to not ruin the athlete experience by treating them like a guinea pig. The truth of the matter is that someone needs to take ownership of an athlete’s health, and when something bad happens, we can’t point fingers anymore.Someone needs to take ownership of an athlete’s health, and when something bad happens, we can’t point fingers anymore, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
On a brighter note, a lot of coaches can save time and make their programs even better with some simple monitoring practices that anyone can do or afford. I have become a staunch advocate for monitoring after seeing impairments surface after my gut told me there was a problem. Having the right information now has helped me ward off bigger problems by managing the smaller ones effectively and efficiently. Monitoring may have been an option in the past, but I am sure it’s going to be a right for athletes in the future.
Since you’re here…
…we have a small favor to ask. More people are reading SimpliFaster than ever, and each week we bring you compelling content from coaches, sport scientists, and physiotherapists who are devoted to building better athletes. Please take a moment to share the articles on social media, engage the authors with questions and comments below, and link to articles when appropriate if you have a blog or participate on forums of related topics. — SF