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This Notes From article is brought to you by Jordan Cassidy (@Jordy_Cass). Jordan is a National Performance Coach in Applied Sports Science and Strength and Conditioning for the Hong Kong Rugby Union.

Each year the Australian Catholic University hosts their summer seminar to bring together world leaders in high performance sport and athlete management. This year at the two-day event, day one was the Coaching Day and day two was entitled Understanding Data and the Performance System. For Sports Discovery, Jordan has focussed on the coaching day. Meanwhile, Jordan has written a second article detailing the data and performance system day for the Data Tips for Sports Science site available here. To see this year’s schedule in more detail click here and for more information on ACU’s Masters in High Performance Sport program click here.

I was fortunate enough to attend this two day conference in Melbourne over the 5/6th of February. It was such a valuable learning experience and there were many take homes for me. I just want to say thanks to all of the presenters who spoke and all of the staff at ACU who put the event together, in particular Stu Cormack, Rich Johnson and Emma Grella.

Coaching In Sport

This was a fascinating day and it was unbelievable to hear the insights of each individual in their own specialist area. There was a good combination of academic and practical experience presented throughout the day, which highlighted for me the many ways in which a person can develop their craft.

Dr. Alex Natera

Alex Natera was first up and presented on Strength and Power development for an AFL team. His current job role is as Strength and Power Coach at GWS Giants AFL club in Sydney, but he has previously worked in many individual and team sports all around the world. All of this wide-ranging experience has contributed to the development of his philosophy.

An interesting comparison he made was traditional weight training (heavy loads) versus coordination strength training (bands/chains, variable resistance). His thoughts were that a combination of the two brought about the best results and this showed in his programming as he might go from a block of traditional weight training, to a block with bands/chains (variable resistance), and back to a block of traditional weight training. It comes down to a phrase he use a couple of times throughout his presentation, and that is “there are many ways to skin a cat”.

Communication is always important both with players and other staff members. Communicating with other staff members is crucial for periodization in particular and at the Giants, plyometric load, strength load and running load (Very High Speed Running load in particular) all must be regulated against each other. Two methods that Alex uses to periodise his training are number of working sets and reps in reserve. Two very simple methods to quantify the amount of work that players are doing in the gym and the intensity of that work. This indicates that basics matter and while they use more sophisticated methods of monitoring training loads, these are two simple measures that can be adjusted very easily and help educate the athlete on where they should be on a given day.

In-season, Alex has 3 methods in particular to continue to make strength gains: low impulse, sub-maximal loads (velocity) and isometric. Although it is never an aim to negatively impact on-field performance in a football player, it is important to continue to try and make improvements and strength gains throughout the year, and these are an example of some of the methods that can tick the required boxes.

There was much more to the presentation that I have not included here, but it was fantastic to listen to someone with so much knowledge in this topic talk about how a professional team aims to improve strength and power all year round. There is plenty for me to improve on and many new ideas to implement.

Dr. Duncan French

Duncan French joined us on a video call from Las Vegas to talk about programming for combat sports. A vital point that Duncan made early on was that the exercise that a strength and conditioning coach may use, or the method that s/he may implement is not important. What performance coaches are chasing is the adaptation. This reminded me of something Dr. Liam Hennessey said at a conference in Setanta College in Ireland back in 2015:

Methods are many, principles are few. Methods may change, but principles rarely do.”

Training UFC fighters, the aims are pretty simple for a performance coach – increase energy production and from that, increase energy utilization.

It is difficult to make a plan of longer than 2-3 months for UFC fighters and coaches as fights do not get arranged a long time in advance. It could easily be the case that a fighter has less than 2 weeks to prepare for a fight.

Training camps are a tradeoff between weight management and performance optimization. Typically, fighters come in for 8 week training camps in the lead up to fights, termed “fight camps”. These are 8 weeks long because of tradition and that is the way it has always been done. Duncan detailed a possible alternative for fighters:

  • 6 week GPP
  • 6 week SPP
  • 4 week competition phase

He also mentioned a couple of periodistaion strategies that could be used e.g., block periodisation (Bondarchuk and Issurin) and Vertical Integration (Charlie Francis).

In the Q&A that followed, Duncan was asked about how he deals with the many different cultures that he comes across in the UFC. While many have different beliefs, religions etc., one common trait with all fighters is that they all love to work hard, and it is important to tap into that strong work ethic.

Lachlan Penfold

Lachlan Penfold’s presentation was about programming the on-field component for an elite sports team. This was one of my favourite presentations from the 2 days.

The key question that Lachlan begins with when including anything in the program is: how will this make them a better football player? In the past, physical preparation and tactical-technical preparation have existed as two separate islands. An example he gave was:

“One smart buck came up with the great idea to say ‘oh well, I’ll take them for sprints at the start of training and you can do footie after’ or ‘I’ll do conditioning at the end and you can do skills with the players at the start when they are fresh.”

This is a trap I have fallen into and I hope I wasn’t the only one to feel slightly stupid when he said this! While this may be good planning, it represents the wrong mindset. The physical, tactical, technical and psychological components of training must be trained together, as they are not isolated in a game.

It comes down to a philosophy:

Develop the capacity of the system and adapt the system to the sport you are playing

or

Develop the capacity of the system by playing the sport.

Nick Winkelman (Head of Athletic Performance and Science, IRFU) has also termed this as – get better at your sport by playing your sport!

An example Lachlan showed was about developing speed. Rather than developing speed through straight line repetitions prior to them engaging in rugby related training (I have been guilty of this as recently as last month; this is an example of physical performance existing on a separate island to technical/tactical performance), we should look at developing skills at speed. Principles for developing speed can remain the same – high intensity efforts, long rest periods. The GPS data from a ‘skills at speed’ session or block might show high HSR/VHSR, but a low m/min value.

This is an example of tactical periodisation, which was discussed later also by Dean Benton. In Lachlan’s programming, the physical component is the governor, so the physical dictates the tactical.

Lachlan also spoke about the use of GPS in training. GPS does not necessarily give answers, but it allows you to ask better questions – specifically around game demands. He spoke about Grant Duthie’s work around peak game intensity (PGI) analysis and how the game demands dictate the training demands.

I thought this was an outstanding 30 minute presentation and one which has brought many questions in my own training philosophy and approach.

Dr. Warren Young

Dr. Warren Young gave an outstanding presentation on agility in team sports, which was heavily research-based but still had many take home points for the practitioner.

One of the first points Warren made was that agility is not the same as change of direction (CoD) speed. Many research studies claim to test agility, but actually test CoD speed. Agility is an open skill, whereas CoD is a closed skill. Agility has a reactive component and an element of decision making (as a game scenario would) and CoD has no reaction or decision making.

This is an important consideration in physical preparation as implementing a CoD training program with a team will not necessarily carry over to improved agility in games. This is a similar principle to tactical periodisation – for agility training to be effective, there must be a physical component and a cognitive component. Anticipatory skills have been shown to be very important

Agility in team sports is task and sport specific:

  • Agility requirements can differ for attack and defense, namely footwork, strength demands and cognitive demands.
  • In order to become more agile in a particular sport, a player must practice playing that sport. 
  • Agility must be controlled and safe. For example, a defender cannott over commit to leave him/her-self exposed. Optimal is better than maximal (Fergus Connolly, 59 lessons)

Warren then spoke about offensive agility, which I found very interesting. He detailed three types of strategies – side step, shuffle and split step. The shuffle and split step are more deceptive for defenders but all three must be trained as each can be used at different times. It is important to equip the athlete with many different tools to enable them to execute the right skill at the right time.

Dean Benton

Dean Benton also spoke about tactical periodisation but, in contrast to Lachlan Penfold, the tactical component was the governor of everything else. This is a model identical to what is used in soccer, where the head coach and technical coach would dictate the periodisation of various components throughout the week. Dean mentioned he had spent three days with Alberto Mendez-Villanueva in Qatar to really understand this philosophy (no matter how experienced you are as a practitioner, you should always be humble enough to learn). He also mentioned the work of Raymond Verheijen, claiming that while he can sometimes be a controversial character, he is also a smart guy and his work in tactical periodisation is worth reading.

Dean discussed the 7 principles of tactical periodisation. Two of those principles that really stood out for me were performance stabilization and concentration.

  • Performance stabilization: this principle means that you repeat a training stimulus until the team adapts to that training stimulus. Dean summed it up by saying that consistent training gives consistent results. How a team plays on the weekend is a result of how a team trains. Afterwards, the question was put to Dean about how to measure when a team adapts to training. As it is not a stopwatch sport, improvements can be largely qualitative. Here, observation of execution through the coaching eye is a key determinant to see if the players have adapted to the stimulus. This requires an honest assessment from coaches to evaluate if players are getting better throughout a phase of training. It is overly simplistic to look at certain GPS variables within a training game and think higher numbers = better performance.
  • Concentration: this is an element of preparation that must be trained. Both players’ capability to concentrate and their capacity to concentrate. In a tactical session, where players are learning a lot of new plays or systems and structures, the GPS report from the session might indicate that it was low intensity, but with the amount of new information players had to take on board, their concentration levels had to be high. This concentration leads to a high intensity session.

In terms of macro-planning, there are three steps to putting together a long-term preparation plan for a team (simple steps on paper, but more than just words on paper). Step one involves the head coach and assistant coaches coming up with a game model – how they want the team to play. Step two is assessing the game demands to evaluate what is the coaching and backroom staff preparing the players for. The third step is assessing training demands against game demands.

This third step is the primary reason Dean uses GPS. In Dean’s words, GPS monitoring for performance is about training optimization, not training load management. The ultimate aim is to improve game pace. He also referenced Grant Duthie’s work around PGI analysis. Dean’s philosophy is to prepare players for worst case demands, not the average demands of a game.

To sum up tactical periodisation, all on-field training must be linked to the game plan. Simply adding a ball to a small-sided game that has no tactical resemblance to the game model is not linked to the game plan.

Dr. Shona Halson

Recovery, like strength, conditioning and speed, must be programmed. How often does this happen? – Probably not enough. Shona spoke about the importance of periodising recovery like all other elements of a training program. Two publications were mentioned:

  1. An Integrated, Multifactorial Approach to Periodization for Optimal Performance in Individual and Team Sports – Mujika et. al (2018)
  2. Recovery and Performance in Sport: Consensus Statement – Kellman et. al (2018)

There is evidence to suggest that recovery can blunt adaptation, but there is always a trade-off on whether or not to include recovery strategies (e.g. ice-baths) in a training program. On one hand, you have the blunting of adaptation. In a period like pre-season this may not be the ideal scenario as the aim is for players to maximally adapt in preparation for the season ahead. The other aspect is improved training performance with recovery modalities, where the focus is more on performance rather than adaptation. In the short-term, it has been shown that recovery strategies can enhance acute performance, indicating that the competition period is not a time to remove recovery from the program.

Shona shared the resource on the link below to help in deciding whether or not to include ice baths as part of a training program:

http://www.mysportscience.com/single-post/2016/06/16/Ice-Baths-for-Recovery-Black-white-or-somewhere-in-between

Shona then went on to talk specifically about sleep as it being one of the three pillars of performance, along with training and nutrition. Shona listed the biggest disturbers of sleep, with the top three being lack of priority, social media and stress/anxiety.

Athlete education is critical for making sleep a priority and reducing social media screen time before bed. Many athletes may not prioritise sleep simply because they are not aware of the positive benefits it provides. Again, education of the effect of handheld devices on brain activity can assist with increased sleep duration.

The final point Shona made was how the language we use with athletes can have a big impact on our athletes’ behaviors. Simply replacing “get enough sleep” with “get more sleep” can make a difference. Rather than reinforcing the negative effects of a lack of sleep, make athletes aware of the positive effects sleep can have. Athletes must be aware of the fact that poor sleep every now and again can happen, where poor sleep over a longer period can be more detrimental. If athletes worry about poor sleep the night before a game or before team selection, this can amplify their stress and anxiety.

Leadership in High Performance Sport

This was a fascinating session where Dr. Denise Jennings of Hockey Australia and Leigh Russell of Swimming Australia both gave presentations on their role with their respective governing bodies, which was followed by a questions and answers session hosted by Stuart Cormack.

There was a huge amount to take from this session, with some of the major takeaway points being:

  • Part of Dee’s role at Hockey Australia is to create a pathway for players to transition from underage squads to the National team (LTAD model). She must also create the same networks for staff to ensure that there is no drop in performance support standard when one of the team behind the team moves on. Hockey Australia works off a centralised model so having a clear and shared ultimate goal of making the national squad in Perth is possible.
  • Leigh’s situation at Swimming Australia is slightly different, in that there is no centralised model, but Swimming Australia has 10 High Performance centres around Australia. This can make it difficult to implement the high performance plan around Australia, as athletes may come together for a training camp in one location for one month, but then return to their individual clubs and coaches around Australia. This means Leigh can only influence those not employed by Swimming Australia by influence, not control.
  • Both Dee and Leigh highlighted the importance of having robust discussions within your team. A trusted environment must be created to allow for this challenging of ideas. It is important to note that any questioning or challenging must take place behind closed doors. Once the backroom team steps out to deliver their support, they must have a shared vision and common goals.
  • Both programmes operate on extremely small budgets in relation to professional clubs around Australia and the rest of the world (AFL/EPL clubs). A limited budget brings about an increased focus on what is important for the program. When Dee has an opportunity to bring on another full time member of staff, she asks herself the question “Where can I get the most ‘bang for my buck’ with these hours?” She must evaluate what is the best value for money and time. Dee also stated how important collaborations with Universities are – taking on Masters and PhD students to work and research for Hockey Australia is a great way to place intelligent people within the governing body.
  • Leigh made a point about always having perspective in your role. Sport is full of passionate people, but sometimes it needs dispassionate people to evaluate a situation with a clear mind and judgement, and without their ego stepping in. She went on to share how she looks after herself while working in the highly demanding industry that is high performance sport: 1) live in the moment – understand what a privilege it is to work in elite sport and 2) don’t take yourself seriously – do not let yourself be defined by the work you do or the results your team of athletes get.

Thanks to Jordan for the insightful write-up of this event. You can connect with Jordan on Twitter and LinkedIn. Be sure to check out his article on day two, understanding data and the performance system, on Daily Data Tips for Sports Science.