Periodizing to better reign—this motto is irresistibly pleasant, and far be it from me to throw the concept of periodization as a whole into oblivion. Some aspects of the classic model are clearly unsuitable for team sports, but the need for logic and organizational work and the concern for progress are absolutely fundamental in creating a physical preparation plan. Trying your luck with a chaotic and capricious approach to training won’t bode well for your athletes. It is entirely possible to schedule team sport training—and even to choose from a number of quality models—and many minds much sharper than mine have revisited this question.
It is clear, however, that few completely extricate themselves from the framework of the dominant thought that associates human performance with an industrial process. We always find an obsession with productivity; with performance being the equivalent of the “plus”— easily measurable using various quantitative tools (weight on the bar, 40m time, final score, etc.).
Increasing this productivity requires, as in the industrial world, a division of labor. To lift a load, each muscle-bone-tendon-ligament unit performs its task—like a worker—and transfers energy to the next unit, like the product flowing down the assembly line. According to this vision, performance results from a simple assembly of elements and can be deconstructed and reconstructed at will. Each component of performance, each physical quality, has its place in this immutable chain. Reversing two steps in the process, such as developing anaerobic capacity before aerobic capacity, inevitably leads to a result that is at best not optimal and at worst failing.Whoever is wise enough to respect instructions and rigorous enough to reproduce the procedure in their environment has in their hands the recipe for the physically prepared player. Click To Tweet
Periodization acts as a guarantor of the final rendering, exposing the stages and defining their order in the production chain of human performance. Whoever is wise enough to respect instructions and rigorous enough to reproduce the procedure in their environment has in their hands the recipe for the physically prepared player.
The Productivity Question (Quality vs. Quantity)
Reducing human performance to a question of productivity makes it necessary to consider the problem of capacity as central. Capacity in this sense indicates quantity:
- How much energy is available?
- How many reps performed?
- How many laps at what speeds?
- And so on…
Any increase in capacity must result in an increase in performance potential. Being able to produce more than your competitors is the key to success. But this logic, which puts capacity on a pedestal, greatly underestimates the problem of quality.
Strength and conditioning staffs are equipped with tools that measure all kinds of abilities, but hardly any are able to provide information on the quality of the effort being measured. Players are rewarded when capacity improves far more than they are when quality improves. The expected standards are quantified; the statistics displayed often praise the quantity. Yet the human body is cunning, and when one is determined to reach a certain mark—number of repetitions or time—it is possible to employ a multitude of movement strategies to achieve this, making capacity only a partial gauge of actual performance.Players are rewarded when capacity improves far more than they are when quality improves…putting capacity on a pedestal greatly underestimates the problem of quality. Click To Tweet
Perhaps it is the scoreboard illusion that has led us to view capacity and performance as interchangeable. In most team sports, winning is equivalent to scoring more points than your opponent—but the acquisition of points rewards the quality of execution, not the quantity of execution. It is always possible to win with less ball possession than the opposing team and despite fewer scoring chances than the opposition. On the contrary, from a physical production point of view, I have experienced defeat many times while having proof, in terms of GPS data, of the superiority of my team.
If we question the industrial and mechanical vision of performance to promote an ecological and dialectical vision, then the concept of periodization gives way to that of maturation. To adopt this premise is to be convinced that the whole is different from the sum of the parts. The combination of physical qualities does not deliver the perfect player.
Performance cannot be dissected into multiple, self-contained components. Every physical quality, every aspect of performance, develops by interacting with all the others, caught in a complex web and inseparable from the whole. Performance should be seen as a factorization and not as an addition. Performance reflects maturity and not productivity: the obsession with ability gives way to that of mastery. The “philosophical” distinction may seem superfluous, but the essential lies in the practical adjustments that result from it.
First of all, if we place mastery—and not capacity—at the center of the process, the principles that govern the concept of progressivity in the classic periodization model:
are instead replaced by:
The Risks of Starting from “Development”
The development phase, in classical theory, is always the one that is introduced first. For each physical quality, but also in the organization of a season as a whole, the volume precedes the intensity, and the specificity of the training increases. It goes without saying that if capacity is the fundamental issue, then it should be targeted as a priority. The volume before the intensity thus finds a double justification.
This prioritization is supposed to protect the athlete by preparing their body by means of a progressive overload, and it respects a structural hierarchy: a developed aerobic capacity contributes to recovery between intense efforts, and a significant muscle mass increases the capacity for strength, for example. If it is obvious that within the same session the intensity must be progressive (a warm-up is always necessary), it is not clear that a training block dedicated to aerobic capacity affects the athlete’s ability to tolerate high-intensity speed or effort sessions later on.The protective effect of a high volume of running at near max speed doesn’t lie in the increase of a sprint capacity but in the acquisition of a motor pattern that is both efficient & stable. Click To Tweet
On the other hand, we have been able to study and demonstrate that sprinting regularly is the best way to reduce the risk of injury during a sprint. This example shows concretely that the benefits should be attributed to mastery, not ability. In this case, the protective effect of a high volume of running at near maximum speed does not lie in the increase of a sprint capacity but in the acquisition (as the exposure to the exercise increases) of a motor pattern that is both efficient and stable.
This quality of movement is largely responsible for the resilience displayed by the athlete. The change in motor strategy is a known and sought-after symptom of fatigue, a recognized factor in injury, and a reliable means of separating novice and expert in a task. When a motor pattern is deeply rooted, it is achievable at a lower energy and cognitive cost.
Mastery beats ability at every opportunity. The player able to frame their shot during the last action of the match is the one who masters this gesture to perfection. Consider players A and B, both last scorers in a penalty shootout. Both players have been through the entire game and are on the verge of exhaustion.
Player A stands in front of the goalkeeper. Player A is in great physical shape, only experiences a 15% decrease in their movement accuracy, and their level of mastery of the movement in question is equivalent to 7/10. Player B is more of the “Maradonian” style. An exceptional technician, Player B mastered their shooting perfectly, a 10/10. On the other hand, their little epicurean aspect means that they are less tolerant of sustained effort than Player A, and when they do appear in the small circle, their gesture experiences a large disturbance: 40%. Player A therefore shoots with a mastery score of 7-(7×15/100) = 5.95. In front of them, Player B achieves a strike with a mastery of 10-(10×40/100) = 6. Despite a lower capacity, the latter has more chance of succeeding in their crucial penalty attempt.
Beginning the process of training for a physical quality with an extensive stage focused on the development of the capacity, puts the athletes at risk of acquiring suboptimal movement strategies and adopting a great variability in their motor pattern. Whenever you must perform a large number of repetitions without a keen grasp of the task at hand, the body’s natural response is to change the way it performs the movement as the fatigue builds up. Moreover, high volume is usually accompanied by very moderate intensity and low exercise complexity. This combination allows you to get the job done without having to be precise.
In the sequence of repetitions of bench press during a protocol of hypertrophy, changing the spacing of the feet, lifting the lower back, or varying the trajectory of the bar does not create failure of the movement, and it even allows a gain of capacity by recruiting muscles differently. On the other hand, during a heavy clean, the timing of the triple extension, the starting position under the bar, and the trajectory of the latter are all fundamental criteria in the success of the exercise. The same is true if you compare jogging and sprinting. An endurance effort leaves the possibility of changing the inclination of the pelvis, the length of the stride, or the degree of movement of the hips, while sprinting efficiently requires maintaining a posture and a cycle of very precise strides.
Once a high volume of well-executed movements has been achieved, it is unrealistic to think that this will have a positive effect on the performance of motor tasks that are more complex and performed at higher intensity. The transfer does not occur from the ability to perform a movement many times with little precision and intensity. It occurs from the ability to perform that movement fewer times but with much more precision and intensity. So, it is done in the reverse direction: once an athlete acquires the ability to perform a movement with great control and intensity, they can develop the ability to repeat that movement.When we consider this change in the direction of the transference, we accept that mastery must precede capacity. Click To Tweet
When we consider this change in the direction of the transference, we accept that mastery must precede capacity.
The Alternative: A Maturation-Based Model
Practice, therefore, is the first phase of training in the maturation model. The objective of this phase is the acquisition by each athlete of an optimal motor pattern in each movement considered critical for performance in the sport.
The intensity and volume are moderate, which allows the search for precision with each repetition. The individualization of training is at its maximum, and each athlete evolves at their own pace, focusing on perfecting the motor pattern already acquired. Unlike the development phase—which in the classical model encourages competition between players and surpassing oneself—the practice phase of the maturation model avoids the comparison between different individuals at all costs. The concept of practice replaces that of development both in a micro-cycle and at the level of the global plan.
For example, in a micro-cycle dedicated to power, where the power clean and the countermovement jump are designated as the main exercises, the first step is the acquisition of an optimal and stable motor pattern for these two movements. The intensity, volume, and variation of exercise used are individually determined depending on the athlete’s level of mastery.
From the perspective of an overall plan, the preseason begins with a practice phase, where the most sport-specific physical qualities are trained through the stabilization of optimal motor patterns in the fundamental movements associated with these qualities. Take the example of rugby: considering acceleration as a determining quality, the practical phase targets the individual appropriation of the posture and the technical components necessary for performance for that physical quality.
As for repeating high-intensity efforts, it is during this period that an athlete can master them before repeating them. So, going to the ground and getting up, accelerating and decelerating, changing direction, wrestling, etc.: all these aspects require a posture, a technical component, and an attitude—a motor pattern—that should be fine-tuned. The passage from this practical stage to the next stage is not subject to a time constraint or dictated by a theoretical a priori. For each of the fundamental movements, the player can move from the practical stage to the training stage once they demonstrate that they have acquired an optimal and stabilized motor pattern.
The appeal of a practice phase to start a preseason also lies in its perfect fit with the technical, strategic, psychological, and emotional needs that exist at that point in a season. At the start of the preseason, it is absolutely necessary for the coaches to develop in the players a mastery of the technical fundamentals specific to the positions, as well as strategical principles defining the adopted style of play.
In this period of transition, where it is impossible to measure yourself against opponents and therefore difficult to build up confidence, it is important that athletes feel recognized and that they can objectify their progress. In long and exhausting seasons, creating an enjoyable and positive environment in the opening weeks promotes group cohesion and reserves the difficult moments (which require great psychological and emotional resilience) for the end of the season, when this will be decisive.Increasing mastery in different areas gives the player a feeling of control and progression, which in turn causes an increase in self-confidence and belief in the training program. Click To Tweet
Increasing mastery in different areas gives the player a feeling of control and progression, which in turn causes an increase in self-confidence and belief in the training program. The absence of significant fatigue, intolerable muscle pain, and negative experiences allows maximum assimilation of the technical and strategic components absolutely crucial in team sport performance.
This approach contrasts with the unfolding of an early preseason according to the classic model. On most teams, the start of the preseason is characterized by physical harassment, heavy aerobic workouts, and hypertrophy where sweat and intestinal discomfort become bargaining chips for a bit of respite as fatigue builds up at high speed. Players, switched to survival mode, struggle in vain to memorize what coaches expect of them.
Second Phases: Intensification vs. Training
In the classical vision, the intensification phase follows development. After spending some time doing high volume, the needle is pushed toward intensity. At the micro-cycle level, the problem posed by this method is simple: In the absence of prior mastery of the main movements used, the addition of load or the increase in velocity can either compromise the initial nature of the prescribed stimulus or even create a maladaptation in the player (too much fatigue, muscle problems, etc.).
At the overall level, the transition to the intensification stage is accompanied by a change in targeted physical qualities, which undermines the motor patterns acquired during the development phase. For example, endurance work often gives way to repetitive high-intensity efforts. The increase in velocity demanded requires the use of a different running technique than is sufficient to keep up with the development phase. Likewise, the transition from a protocol of hypertrophy, or maximal strength, to that of power requires the introduction of movements absent from the previous phase.
Going through a phase of technique-oriented learning and the acquisition of these new motor patterns would require giving up the increase in intensity for a while, which at this point in the overall plan would be compromising. Logically, the choice then falls on the acceptance of suboptimal and variable motor strategies, despite the increase in the energy cost (and therefore of the associated fatigue), the increased risk of bad adaptations, and the lack of efficiency, to ensure that athletes maintain the expected intensity.
Finally, this stage of the training plan is intended to be more “specific” to the sport practiced. The exercises chosen are supposed to replicate the demand of the field more faithfully. In the gym, the mode and speed of contraction, range of motion, and orientation of the body are chosen to faithfully reflect the reality of athletic actions. On the pitch, the way of moving, the attitude with and without the ball, the speed of execution, and the intensity of the contacts mimic those encountered in matches.
The ability to perform these specific exercises with maximum intensity is critical for adequate preparation for competition. Before they can be performed multiple times with great intensity, these “specific” movements must be mastered perfectly; otherwise, because the loss of precision is inevitable with the accumulation of fatigue, the result may take a comedic turn. This problem of intensity without mastery is responsible for most of the criticism leveled at the CrossFit method. So, why go through a phase of development where we practice at moderate intensity movements that are not considered representative of the sport, before attempting to introduce both high intensity and specificity despite the great difficulty of simultaneously improving these two aspects?
If the logic is purely bioenergetics (aerobic capacity before anaerobic capacity) or structural (more muscle mass before learning how to use it to produce power), nothing prevents starting with what is specific to the activity practiced in the field. Technical running skills, exposure to speed development, and acceleration have a metabolic component, and they also improve aerobic capacity. The technical work of weightlifting or plyometric movements generates a gain in muscle mass.
The second phase of the maturation method is “training”—after practicing, to acquire a mastery of the motor patterns necessary for sports performance, this know-how is applied in a context approaching the reality of competition. At this stage, just like in the intensification stage of the classical approach, the intensity is increased, whether through the load used, the speed of execution, or the pressure exerted on the player while they realize the movement.The goal of the training phase is to progress toward the ability to maintain an efficient motor pattern despite an accumulation of fatigue or stress. Click To Tweet
However, the quality of movement is not sacrificed to ensure this intensification of the practice. The goal of the training phase is to progress toward the ability to maintain an efficient motor pattern despite an accumulation of fatigue or stress. At the micro-cycle level, compliance with the prescribed intensity while maintaining the quality is made possible by the individualization of the movement used.
At the level of the overall plan, the training phase situates what was practiced in the program’s first stage. In terms of technique and strategy, work in opposition makes its appearance, the situations are more complex, and the time allocated to perform a gesture or make a decision is similar to that found in competition. The loss of quality is not accepted at this point in the plan, and the intensity only increases as performance stabilizes.
The given bioenergetic, structural, or mechanical goal is achieved with the choice of the most suitable individual movement variant. As the evolution from the practical stage to the training stage is individual—fruit of the maturation of the movement’s mastery— when the objective is to complete a high-intensity training, it is normal that certain motor skills an athlete is unable to totally control are replaced by a less-specific variant they can master better.
Achieving this balance between specificity and intensity makes it possible to obtain an optimal adaptation of the athlete to the training load by ensuring that the energetic, structural, or neural sessions are limited by energetic, structural, or neural factors (and not technical). Likewise, specific movements fundamental to performance in sport are protected against the reinforcement of compromised and ineffective motor strategies, which is inevitable when the level of intensity exceeds that of mastery.
The fear of not being ready to face the reality of competition too often haunts preseasons. In a frenetic race against time, coaches rush to tick all of capacity’s boxes without worrying too much about whether athletes have achieved mastery, as if to clear the air at the start of the competition. All team sports coaches and physical trainers know that a championship is not won in the first month, and yet it remains difficult to accept taking the time to do things right. Ability wins the first games of a season, that’s true. Excellence wins the finals and creates cycles of domination.In a frenetic race against time in the preseason, coaches rush to tick all of capacity’s boxes without worrying too much whether athletes have achieved mastery. Click To Tweet
Implications of Realization and Competition
The classic periodization method concludes its progression with the realization phase. Players are expected to reach their state of maximal performance during this phase. A simple temporary decrease in the training load while maintaining a high degree of specificity leads straight to the phenomenon of overcompensation. As competitiveness and self-achievement have been brought to the fore during the first two stages of the program and reach their peak as the preseason draws to a close, their preeminence fades as soon as the season begins. A brutal surrender appears.
- The euphoria of the realization phase—those last moments of preseason when the measured physical performance is flattering.
- The joy of finally being able to leave behind the days of hard work that never end, with their procession of pain.
- This fear of constantly breaking under the ever-increasing demand imposed on organisms.
All this gives way to the anxiety of the unknown represented by the plunge into the sporting season.
Suddenly, execution quality in the technical movements as well as in the fundamental movements is crucial. Being physically heroic is not a sustainable performance strategy. Teams at the top of the table very rarely need to be physically heroic. The technical mastery, the quality of movement execution, allows them to save energy and dominate.Teams at the top of the table very rarely need to be physically heroic. The technical mastery, the quality of movement execution, allows them to save energy and dominate. Click To Tweet
While the classic periodization cycle results in temporarily maximized physical performance, it nevertheless makes technical and strategic performance vulnerable. Going from development to intensification then realization, the players are always exposed to technical and strategic problems in a condition of prior fatigue. Throughout the preseason, muscles and brains, stormed by relentless demand, struggle to access energy resources. In the absence of matches to win, physical performance emerges as the main goal to achieve and feeds the ego and the athlete’s need for feedback much more satisfactorily than video analysis of technical and strategic training.
Weakened by this race for intensity and physical exhaustion, the player’s cognitive state has difficulty keeping up. This relative neglect of strategic and technical aspects, this acceptance of constantly compromised learning, is finally felt when the competition begins. Often, during the preparatory meetings, the very average performances are explained by means of vague justifications such as the “lack of automatism” or the “lack of rhythm.”
The lack of automatism is unforgivable after several weeks devoted to collective training, and rather reflects a flagrant lack of control, which is a fundamental principle typically omitted in the training process. The lack of rhythm is unjustifiable after a period of working on physical qualities. The pace is none other than the technical and strategic demand for a match that, not sufficiently controlled, gives rise to additional energy expenditure that physical preparation cannot replicate. When the concept of periodization is applied to the letter in team sports and physical preparation takes center stage, then we often must wait to switch to the competitive season and refocus on the practice of sport to see teams eventually progress.
The maturation concept meets the problems posed by the implementation phase by proposing the idea of the competition phase. The result now occupies a preponderant place. This stage of the competition is the only one that allows the use of non-optimal motor schemes and variability in movement strategies to obtain a temporary benefit and demonstrate an inflated isolated performance. To best prepare players to face the reality of the games, the competition phase occupies the last weeks of the preseason. The stake for players is clear—find solutions regardless of the problem posed.
This phase tests the ability to adapt when control is lacking or insufficient. The sessions are created to push athletes to their limits, sometimes through physical overload, sometimes with the accumulation of environmental constraints. This phase focused on targeting capacity is also the shortest. Once the mastery of basic motor schemes is ensured and the necessary energy, structural, and neural qualities are stimulated, mental and physical resilience is considered the cherry on the sundae.
Where the classic periodization philosophy considers physical capacity as the base on which to build technical ability, the maturation method proposes an inverted pyramid where the technical mastery is necessary for the development of capacity. The advantage is that when you educate players on the importance of mastery during the preseason, doing things well becomes a habit. Having integrated that the performance is synonymous with saving energy, players won’t alter their optimal motor strategies unless it is necessary to get the job done. When the technical gesture or movement is compromised, the athlete full of mastery does not panic and instead selects an appropriate alternative.When you educate players on the importance of mastery during the preseason, doing things well becomes a habit. Click To Tweet
At the end of a season, the team that dominates is not the one that has succeeded in minimizing the effects of fierce competition weeks on the physical ability of its players, but the one that experiences the least decrease in execution quality despite the decline of the former. The best teams advance on all tables—national, international championships, cups, etc.—and they also have more national team players. Their staff faces a quantity of additional matches compared to the weaker teams.
The best teams are therefore those with the lowest training-to-competition ratio, which certainly deprives them of the opportunity to accumulate the necessary training volume to maintain capacities of various physical qualities other than by match participation. If neither the unspoiled preservation of the physical capacities acquired during the preseason nor the implementation of multiple comprehensive “reload” cycles during the season to arouse several temporary overcompensations is really possible, and if, moreover, the best teams also are those most exposed to “detraining” certain physical qualities, then maybe the question of capacity is not a good lighthouse.
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