By Carl Valle
Monitoring doesn’t need to be a burden or a high-tech solution, and some coaches do just fine with checking in and communicating with athletes about how they feel. I have been on both sides of the spectrum in my career as a coach, from measuring everything I can to just doing the minimum of recording problems or key findings in workouts. I have learned that the middle ground—an area that is hard to convince fellow coaches to be in—is likely the most reasonable place for most coaches.
I am disturbed by the “Measure What Matters” mantra that is popular today in some circles, likely a response to too much hype behind the sport science promise. While I totally agree with coaches throwing their hands up and not wanting to take the extra time to monitor, in this climate of accountability from evidence-based practice, it’s time to monitor your athletes and do something. If you are already monitoring your athletes, this article will help you do it better. If you are not, it will help get you started the right way.
What Exactly Is Sports Monitoring?
I may have glossed over the obvious need to define sports monitoring. Simply put, monitoring is taking repeated measures of an athlete to help guide the training process with relevant data. The definition isn’t exciting, but the monitoring arena needs sharper terminology. Some coaches and athletes use the wrong language interchangeably, and forget that the monitoring process is repeated and continuous through the period in which an athlete trains and competes.A monitoring program using several approaches lowers the chance of a problem growing out of control. Click To Tweet
The monitoring period of an athlete can be narrow with specific approaches, but the entire period should utilize a longitudinal approach and this is the reason a daily subjective questionnaire is vital. The benefits of monitoring athletes are:
- It leads to effective and succinct communication between athletes and staff.
- It reduces injuries and illness through the observation of trends and changes.
- It improves training outcomes by managing fatigue and power with greater precision.
- It helps you acquire more understanding of the training and recovery processes of athletes.
Monitoring can be low-tech or high-tech, or a combination of analog techniques and technologies. As long as the science is valid and reliable, and the process is sustainable, coaches should feel encouraged to use whatever method serves them best. Generally, a good monitoring program uses multiple approaches to reduce the chances of a problem growing out of control. Most of the decisions on how to monitor come from budgeting and logistical challenges, along with experience and expertise with the information collected.
Does Monitoring Work or Is It Just Hype?
Is monitoring athletes a doomed proposition or is it a golden parachute for coaches? The science is clear that monitoring can help reduce injuries and improve outcomes, but because the research is conflicting and not overwhelming, most coaches are not losing sleep over not monitoring. A good mindset to have with monitoring is more information that is relevant and valid will help solve the problem of errors in training, but the chaos of life will always throw a monkey wrench into the mix. It’s not that monitoring doesn’t work, it just can’t do everything.Monitoring can boost a training program, if the coach listens to the data. Click To Tweet
Most coaches want to know if monitoring will reduce injuries and illness, and improve training to raise the ceiling in conditioning and power. There is some evidence of monitoring being valuable in the research, but what is always discussed are the athletes that “get away.” My experience is that a monitoring program is only as good as the training program, but a training program can be boosted by monitoring if the coach listens to the data.
Treat monitoring like a fishing net: It’s only as good if the net is wide and the holes are small. Further to the analogy, you can only catch fish when you go into the water, and in today’s environment, you may have to travel farther out to get what you are looking for. I see so many coaches collecting one data set (narrow net) and using crude approaches (large holes). I don’t fault anyone for not having the time or budget, but if you are serious about making a difference, you must be dedicated.
It’s okay and acceptable to see injuries show up in a program, or an athlete fail because they didn’t make much progress. This will happen from time to time. However, it is not acceptable to do nothing to help an athlete with regard to monitoring, as avoiding monitoring responsibilities altogether is unprofessional and unethical today. Perhaps 10 or 20 years ago, just asking an athlete how they feel was common, but today you need to do more.
Nothing is guaranteed in life, so don’t expect monitoring to be a holy grail in training and conditioning. Most of what monitoring does is help young coaches remove negligence and foolishness from a training program, and allow experienced coaches to make more precise decisions. Monitoring doesn’t create better workouts; it just rewards better workouts by amplifying what is good about the system. Perhaps a better way to say this is that monitoring makes great programs better, bad programs less dangerous, and average programs above average.Monitoring makes great programs better, bad programs less risky, and average programs above average. Click To Tweet
Are Coaches Burned Out from Measurement and Sport Science Initiatives?
Monitoring and even training load measurement have lost a lot of momentum lately, due to the overpromising of sports technology companies and the rush to hire sport scientists at the professional level. It’s not that monitoring is not effective or sport science is not useful—the issue is likely the expectations and the lack of application. When coaches get spammed and harassed daily by cold calls and junk emails, it’s hard for them to have any energy to try something new. The hype and extreme marketing from companies and the cult mentality and political pressure from fellow performance professionals are both to blame.
Coaches are not burned out from doing too much monitoring or sport science—they are exhausted from the never-ending barrage of promises and the rate of research coming out. I am thrilled that Science for Sport has a Performance Digest, as a slew of scientific publications are released every month. Technology evolves so fast and the combination of the two creates so much change, the average coach gets overwhelmed and gives up or does just enough to feel like they are doing something. I don’t blame anyone for hating the word “monitoring,” but sometimes you just have to push forward and do what the science says and what your experiences tells you.
For example, I have gone from deep technology and science exploration to an organic approach and back to measurement. Only by removing part of my monitoring program did I realize what I was missing, but how many coaches don’t take that first step? Even worse, how many coaches give up after a half-hearted first attempt?
Emotionally, it’s easy to blame monitoring for not working when you need it, but nobody blames barbells for hamstring injuries or grass fields not being in shape when you need them to perform. Monitoring works, and you need to do as much as you can to put energy and time into it, as anything beyond reasonable is “over-monitoring” and unnecessary. Over-monitoring is when do so much that you can’t handle it. With the right resources, such as an athlete management system and experience, you can grow your program over time, but only tackle what feels good and is not such a burden that you dread the process.
What Are the Options for Monitoring Athletes?
When deciding on ways to monitor athletes technically, you have internal and external means. Most of the monitoring we see is passive or physiological monitoring like HRV to assess internal readiness, but monitoring can also be observation of the training load. Monitoring is a great term to assess internal responses to training, and managing is a better term for the workouts themselves.
Modeling is the new standard, as the connection to a great plan is constantly refined by the inputs of loading and the recovery information from monitoring. If you are not doing all three, it’s likely that the training process consists of too much trial and error. With the available science and coaching education, trial and error should only be for small details in training, not an entire training program.
Coaches sometimes place monitoring data into two categories, specifically subjective data reported by the athlete and objective data collected by the staff. Subjective and objective data are not oppositional—they work tighter if viewed correctly. What the athlete says to you is their way of communicating, and the objective information is not a lie detector test, it’s just what their body is telling you. Sometimes the data matches and sometimes it’s not congruent at all. Don’t be upset or feel that monitoring wastes your time, just accept that perception is not the same as mechanical workload.
Testing is not monitoring, but technically if the information can show trends in fatigue or similar, you can consider it part of a monitoring program. Usually, frequency is the differentiation between monitoring and repeated testing, with monitoring closer to daily and testing more connected to monthly. Since change in adaptation is slow, testing is appropriate for training, but monitoring health and fatigue needs to have a rhythm that allows for daily decision-making.Monitoring health and fatigue needs to have a rhythm that allows for daily decision-making. Click To Tweet
GPS—more appropriately called athlete tracking, thanks to new technology beyond satellite monitoring—is often discussed as part of monitoring. While, technically, training load is more on the management end of tracking, it still is good to use as a way to see fatigue or change. Training data is monitoring, but passive methods are considered useful because they don’t risk increasing fatigue or taking time away from more effective training. Vertical jump testing is a great example of collecting information on fatigue, but doing it every day is monotonous and it is unlikely that athletes will actually improve leg power from testing, like weight training provides.
All of these approaches are only as good as the data is valid and reliable. A change in firmware or a different protocol will taint the data and make it difficult to get trustworthy information. Data doesn’t need to be actionable immediately, as intervention after data collection is sufficient with some approaches. However, coaches need to invest in an internal investigation of their own program first, and not focus on making decisions without thinking because a number shows up and does the work for them. It usually takes multiple seasons to construct a solid plan to really use the information in a way that is near seamless. Some screening and testing may be immediate, but other data points take a while to really leverage.
Real-World Problems and Role Challenges
Now comes the meat and potatoes of the article, as I share some of the pros and cons of monitoring in the real world. If you are a coach and want to help your athletes, make sure everyone on the team is engaged or it’s going to be a long and painful process. While some coaches may argue that monitoring fails because of a bad culture, monitoring fails because those involved have separate agendas that may not jive with everyone else’s. Here are the six personas that coaches should consider before constructing a monitoring program.
Athlete: The most central person involved is the person competing, and they must commit to the process and see monitoring as part of their job. Monitoring is not a punishment; it’s someone else caring enough to take the extra step. Athletes tend to see monitoring as something the coach wants versus something they need. Athletes may just want to play, but don’t mistake their competitive drive for a lack of desire to prepare for competition. Athletes who tend not to care about training have no interest in monitoring, so if you have an issue collecting information, it’s likely because they don’t value training.
Medical Staff: The reduction of injuries with screening was all the rage decades ago, and orthopedic evaluations can spot some potential injuries. Still, the move from risk factors to risk from change with loading is now the new normal. Medical staff does care more about monitoring with return to play, since the need to bring an athlete back better is now under a more public microscope.
Sport Coach: A sport coach today is still in charge of most sports and most levels of competition. While a team coach has most of the responsibility to win, they are likely also the least informed about what is going on physically and medically. Monitoring can help coaches understand the cause and effect of training on the pitch or court, in addition to the interaction in the weight room. Besides the athlete, the most important person in monitoring is the sport coach, as they have the most influence on training load due to practice design.
Administrator: Management cares about more than just winning; they care about the image of the program and the business side of the team or college. Legal and budget aspects of sport must be valued, as sport science is only a part of a program. Everyone should see monitoring as a responsible way to support athletes and an opportunity to develop them. At the professional level, athlete development may be about creating value for trades or player deals.Everyone should view monitoring as a responsible way to support athletes. Click To Tweet
Sport Scientist: High performance demands a system based on evidence, logic, reason, and now data. The position of a sport scientist is now a part of everyday elite sport in both the professional and college ranks. Monitoring and interpreting the data is part of the sport scientist’s job, but if a team has no sport scientist, the responsibility lies with the medical and/or performance staff. Most of the research and progress in monitoring has come from the collaboration of strength, medical, and sport science initiatives.
Strength Coach: The most valuable person for injury reduction is the strength coach, and they are most likely the team member at the bottom of the totem pole. In the past, many strength coaches were simply reactive, and rendered into “recovery specialists” by overzealous team coaches doing too much too soon. Today, the role of the strength coach role is growing in importance, but they are still often the scapegoat for injuries.
More than anything, I wish I had focused more on other roles and their perspectives than on the methodology of monitoring. What holds most programs back is not the science or technology, but the political and job preservation agencies of the individuals. As I mentioned before, the pecking order from management to player support staff usually means that those on the bottom get replaced if losses or injuries occur, while those who are really to blame often come from the top. To avoid political finger-pointing or to improve true accountability, monitoring clarifies what is happening and what’s not to blame.
How to Balance Technology and the Human Element
Some coaches and even scientists have warned that too much technology could be a potential problem with athlete communication, or an individual developing internal abilities to gauge pace or effort. I don’t agree, and the research on biofeedback says that somehow objective feedback is a problem. In fact, using objective feedback is great for breaking through barriers.
On the other hand, I do agree that too much screen time is a bad idea for athletes, but that isn’t really a monitoring or technology issue—it’s a symptom of lifestyle choices. So far, no research has demonstrated that using technology to monitor an athlete has any negative effect on developing athletes at any level.No research shows that using technology to monitor athletes negatively affects athlete development. Click To Tweet
From a sociological perspective, it makes sense that face-to-face time is important with athletes, perhaps at no better time than now. The reason? Most of the information that gets lost with texting or typing is nonverbal, so it is important to have periods, even very brief ones, that provide a real presence. Technology isn’t designed to replace the human element; if done right, technology enhances it.
I would rather be alerted to a problem with wellness questionnaires and be able to enter a question or help someone than be left in the dark. What monitoring does is help improve the time everyone invests in training or rehabilitation, and additional monitoring removes the first few layers of small talk or awareness discussion. I would rather hit the ground running in training with preemptive questions or physiological data than be handed a live problem without warning.
Periods of time without technology or biofeedback can help athletes who are not listening to their internal perceptual signs. The polarized option of having an athlete not use technology but still be recorded is a great way for individuals to trust their own perceptual experiences and learn to listen to their body. I have no qualms with athletes wanting to connect to their own instincts more, but I do feel that coaches who have absolutely no objective feedback are letting ego get in the way of results. It’s not that technology creates a problem with athletes understanding and sensing effort and fatigue, it’s just the poor utilization of available technology that’s an issue.
Monitor What Matters to You and Your Athletes
Every coach and athlete uses a different training system, so the monitoring program you choose will be unique enough that some differences in what gets measured are highly likely. Still, some universal recovery enablers, like sleep and diet, are very influential to the process.You can only know what is valuable with monitoring when you actually do it. Click To Tweet
Another relevant point is that you can only know what is valuable with monitoring when you actually do it, so don’t scoff at anything until you have tried it for multiple seasons. Eventually, like measuring workload, you will see how the body responds from monitoring in the same way training teaches everyone involved. I have monitored more and more every year and, while nothing is flawless, the more I monitor while keeping the process sane and balanced, the better the outcomes are.
No program is perfect, and certainly no monitoring solution is either, but results come from knowing what factors assist or impair the process. Guesswork can never hold a candle to monitoring athletes.