In this article we will begin to think about the role Strength & Conditioning plays in athletic development and management. By breaking up the various qualities and components you might be able to review your own program and consider which areas you should invest more or less time and resource, or perhaps which are your programs strengths and weaknesses thus guiding appropriate allocation for the biggest return for investment.
How well COULD you move – physical potential
Mobility: Can your joints move where they need to during performance. If certain joints are restricted you will be forced to compensate by using other joints that are less suited to the task and more prone to deteriorate. A common example in basketball is restricted movement at the ankle, causing the knee to pick up extra and inappropriate loads leading to an overuse injury developing, such as patella tendinopathy.
Stability: Can your joints stabilise in the various positions they find themselves in during sport performance. Does your body feel comfortable, supported and controlled in these positions? If not it won’t let you be powerful in them. This is often a big problem for junior athletes, and girls in particular. Often their young bodies are more flexible than they can properly control during high speed game movements. This becomes a bigger problem as players become more physically developed, and speed of movement increases, since this increases forces and loads on the joints. While quite often young players will appear to lack flexibility, but it is generally a protective mechanism the body has put in place since it doesn’t feel supported or ‘safe’ in those positions of greater stretch. Over time this develops into a true flexibility issue (physical rather than neural). This is primarily a stability issue, not a flexibility issue. They might lack mobility, but the solution in this case is to improve stability.
Tissue Quality: This refers to how easily the muscles move over the body and one another. The muscles are connected through ‘fascial chains’ which are thin sheaths allowing muscles to work together transferring energy more effectively throughout the body. If muscles develop scar tissue or become ‘sticky’ then they will not stretch as easily, or as evenly, and will not transfer force and signals as efficiently to other muscles, thus hampering performance. Massage, foam rolling, stretching, mobility workouts and appropriate warm-up and recovery tactics, including proper hydration, all help with tissue quality.
How well DO you move – physical & motor learning/coordination link
How well does a player choose to move? Do they reach heel first on their first step or do they lean forward and push back with a powerful sprinting step? Do they use their arms to lead or assist their change of direction moments or are they lower body dependant leading to energy leaks through the torso? You can make a player strong and powerful in the gym but if they don’t move well in competition then they will not appropriately tap into their physical potential developed in the weight room. Movement cannot be simplified into isolated categories of strength, speed, or power, but is a coordination pattern which must be learnt and needs to replace older habits. This takes some time and is more complex than simply teaching a player to move better in the gym with the blind assumption of seeing transfer to competition.
Often you need to consider why a player might have developed these inefficient movement habits in the first place. The body is constantly problem solving and trying to find the most efficient way to complete each day’s tasks based on the players physical potential at the time. For example if a player has a coach who runs long, hard training sessions, or plays them for entire games, then that player will likely learn to conserve energy and will develop movement patterns which are not characteristic of an ‘explosive’ player. This is because they have been trained to conserve energy. They’ve learnt that if they go too hard to early, they have nothing left in the tank later in the practice session or game. The bodies default trend is to conserve energy. This should be a good reminder that a players brain and body is always learning and refining habits, so it is vitally important that we consider what we are exposing them to and the potential for negative learning to occur.
How EASILY do you move in key moments
How competent is the player during the key game moments (acceleration positions, change of direction positions, lateral movements, deceleration positions etc)? Spending some time reviewing these positions, and then finding ways to challenge performance inside them allows the players to ‘learn’ how to become most efficient in these moments despite changing environmental factors (by tweaking the exercise). When players feel more comfortable or resilient in these positions they will be more likely to get into them when performing. You might work on a players power transfer on their first step by using step up variations through to a triple extension, or you might work on their reactive control inside their triple threat or defensive stance by using paloff press variations or med ball catch and throws in these positions. As players become more skilled at appropriately transferring energy in these moments, they will find that during similar movements in competition that they move quicker and more efficiently since their body is more comfortable in these situations.
Keep in mind that when linking game moments like these, often increasing the weight or resistance reduces the speed of the exercise. In game moments, speed and force go up together in a linear manner (since body weight stays the same, so velocity of the player is the difference), whereas in the gym we tend to rely on increasing the weight to increase load or force, which in turn slows down the movement – the opposite of what occurs in the game moments we are targeting (think of a heavy squat vs jump squat). Using med ball throws, or plate ‘punches’ (pushing a weight plate away from your body forcefully in a game moment position) forces you to brace through your entire body in a very quick instant, to effectively transfer energy without overloading joints. These become useful sprinkled throughout your gym programs as a means of transferring the more traditional compound strength exercises back to relevant game positions.
Earlier we mentioned the role environment or training styles has on habit development, but the players individual physical potential and moment resilience also play a role. For example if as a player goes through a growth spurt their core control suffers and they struggle to deload their back during explosive movements, then the player will not put themselves in those positions. This might lead to a player consistently staying tall in their defensive stance rather than dropping down to an appropriate height. The solution is not to simply tell the player to ‘get lower’. Since the player doesn’t feel comfortable or resilient in the lower position you’ll be fighting an uphill battle against the players protective mechanisms. However if you were to improve that players core control with exercises allowing the player to ‘learn’ how to more appropriately brace the core in gradually lower positions, more like the defensive stance, then you will have a much easier time coaching them into a lower stance. If the body feels comfortable and resilient in the lower stance, and finds that they can react quicker in this position, then the body will work with you in changing the habit to one in which the player starts in a lower stance. This teaching method is the same used in the shooting technique article series, when rather than making constant adjustments to upper body technique issues, we unlocked lower body power to reduce the demands made on the upper body to push, rather than guide the shot, thus correcting or at least making it much easier to correct the upper body technique flaws.
Are muscle groups working appropriately?
France Bosch has brought to light the role appropriate function plays in rehab and performance and is an important piece to consider in your program. For example in competition the calf is primarily used to transfer power from the hip and quad/hammy through the lower leg and foot and into the ground where it is then propelled forwards or upwards in a run or jump. In this moment the calf is acting in an isometric manner and shouldn’t undergo much of a stretch. In fact if it is successful in acting in an isometric manner there will be very little stretch and very little muscle damage. It is when fatigue or inefficient movement sets in and the calf begins to stretch and shorten that muscle damage increases and fatigue increases exponentially. Yet much of our training for the calf complex trains it to transfer force in a stretch/shorten manner. Not only this, but as we increase load on the calf, by increasing the weight used in a calf raise, the slower the exercise becomes, making it less relevant to game moments and only increasing the potential negative learning effect.
If muscle groups are not working as they should, then they are being exposed to a loading type which they are not most structurally suited and are more likely to break down over time or transfer the loads to other muscle groups which are in turn loaded inappropriately and overloaded as they struggle to both perform their own role as well as that of the deficient muscle group for which they are compensating.
If you think about the above points as long term targets, where you intend to see improvement over time with sessions devoted to the various components, then the warm up should be complimentary in that it addresses the same areas, but with a reduced intensity. Your training sessions are about increasing the size of the glass (potential performance ability) and your pre-session warm up is about ensuring the glass is as full as possible.
Pre-game isn’t where you want to see flexibility improvements take place, but you do want to get the athlete to a point where they have their baseline level of flexibility restored. The same goes for muscle activation and movement quality. The warm up is not the time to improve strength, but you do want the appropriate muscles activated and firing. You can’t spend too much time teaching movement habits in most warm-up settings, but you can throw in cues to help the athletes ‘grove’ their movements, so that when the session starts they are firing and ready to go both from a physical and coordination perspective.
You should emphasise mobility and stability of key joints involved, activation of key muscle groups or of game movements and then ramp up the running intensity so that players have experienced at speed the major movement types that they will be subjected to in the training or game that follows. Loosen up, wake up, ramp up.
This is your active recovery/foam rolling/massage/stretching and any water or ice based recovery you might do. You want to flush the system while beginning the process of restoring tissue quality and joint mobility.
One aspect which tends to be undervalued is the ability to ‘switch off’ the sympathetic nervous system to properly allow the parasympathetic to kick into gear and ramp up the recovery process. Integrating a diaphragm breathing based exercise or similar yoga concepts into your physical recovery is an easy way to achieve this and boost your physical recovery routine.
During exercise you’re in a catabolic state, breaking down resources to meet the demands placed on the body. On top of this your immune system is compromised as all resources are pushed towards immediate performance. Ensuring you’re getting something in immediately after exercise (protein & carb based shake for example) and a good meal soon after is an easy way to create an anabolic environment for repair to occur and to help settle the stress hormones while ramping up your immune system.
During exercise athletes enter into a very acidic environment as their body undergoes a plethora of chemical reactions to break down and provide energy. This is an environment that is not conducive to cell repair and if too much time is spent in this state, increases the chance of developing tendon and bone issues. Two cheap supplements that show promise in off-setting this dry, acidic response while improving bone, tendon and joint repair are bi-carb soda and boron (borax).
Players need time off to refresh. Sometimes they might have enough simply inside the time allocated for physical recovery, other times they might need more than this allows. Certain players will refresh with the group, others will require time on their own to recoup and recharge. Some might have certain activities that let them switch off and feel like they’re recharging and it’s important that they’re able to find time to integrate these into their schedule. This aspect of recovery is more an art than a science and can only be properly tailored through spending time engaging with the athletes.
Monitoring training loads though the easily implemented RPE x duration method is a very useful tool for picking up fluctuations in the athletes training history which can indicate poor performance or injury. Training Stress Balance or TSB is currently a hot topic with a lot of evidence behind it. TSB takes a rolling weekly load and compares it to the earlier month to identify spikes. If training loads are increased too rapidly, overuse injuries are likely to follow.
However it’s one thing to know when a spike has occurred, and then do what you can recovery wise to try and offset it, but the real benefit comes in anticipating the upcoming training schedule and making adjustments to prevent large spikes in loads, instead ensuring more gradual build ups while avoiding large drops. There are plenty of good articles reviewing TSB so if you’re not using it, jump on google. Or if you already are using it but havent been using it to forcast upcoming training then consider making that change ASAP.
In basketball in particular, it is also important to consider the type of training with respect to tendon loads. Two training sessions might be rated a 7/10 RPE and have gone for a duration of 90 minutes, but one could involve much more half court drills and 1v1 while the other was more free-flowing the in the full court or with less competitive work. The one with more half court work and 1v1 drills will have a higher ‘tendon-load’ and needs to be considered with regards to days off. You don’t want to smash the tendons then train for 2 more days before a rest, this is a recipe for tendinopathy. This is particularly useful for basketball, in AFL you might be better off tracking and considering high speed running volume given the hamstring loading in particular.
So there you have a few ways to categorise and review your own athletic development and management programs. As mentioned this is only the tip of the ice-burg in many of these areas, but if you have anything that’s missing, suggestions or something you’d like to discuss further, make sure to drop a comment and we’ll get back to you.