Thoughts 11 – Patrick Peterson

Pat is an Athletics Associate at Army West Point

1) Regressive Progressions

One of the early concepts you learn as a performance coach is the idea of progression within a program. Periodization and phase potentiation are designed to aid in athletes success by checking boxes before moving onto new modalities. This is a necessary step in long-term athletic development, as mastery of fundamental skills will expand the potential for the more complex tasks.

However, in viewing time as a resource to be optimized, it is of paramount importance that the performance coach is able to discern what does and does not deserve immediate attention. Coaching intensive progressions can only be a hindrance of primal movements such as sprinting, jumping and throwing. In the collegiate setting, contact hours with athletes in the weightroom are often compromised for time on the pitch, field, diamond, court etc. so it is not unreasonable to assume that linearly progressed block practice of primal movements is compromised as soon as your athlete steps onto the pitch for a game of pick up where practice is random and varied. There, as they have been all their lives, they will be asked to perform such movements hundreds of times under duress and fatigue over the course of a single session.

Moreover, these skills are innately uncoachable. There exists in the brain neuronal circuits known as central pattern generators that when depolarized rhythmically produce action potentials to generate what we know as motor patterns. These central pattern generators act independently of descending inputs and sensory inputs. Adding layers of coaching cues and constraints these tasks only acts to slow them down. Charlie Francis argued that sprinting was a hindbrain activity and focusing on minor details and constraints requires forebrain input. In movements like sprinting and jumping with ground contact times as low as 150 ms and 250 ms respectively, there is little time for forebrain activity. Let’s practice what is relevant, not necessarily robotic and repeatable. After all, if you are worried about teaching volleyball players how to properly jump 4 weeks out from pre-season, your concern should be in recruiting, not the weightroom.

2) Language Barriers in Sport

Last weekend I had the pleasure of seeing Dr. Brad DeWeese speak at the ETSU Coach’s College, a conference that every practitioner should make a priority to attend. Dr. DeWeese spoke on (De)Constructing the High Performance Model. Since then I have not been able to stop thinking about one of the many great talking points he made. Dr. DeWeese emphasized the need for a common lexicon amongst the coaching and support staff. Having uniform terms and language for all aspects of your team’s performance, analysis and goals helps to unify the staff and athletes around specific goals.

Knee- jerk reaction for me was to think “well, of course.” However, the more I think about it the more I can see how this is an area we all have room for improvement on. Too often are these disagreements seen through the lens of the coaching staff. The sport coach wants to use the term “fitness” or “conditioning” for what you call “energy system development.” Your concern is that fitness has the connotation of aerobic capacity or output when your actual targeted adaptation is repeat sprint ability (RSA). In your mind, what coach fails to see is that your definition (RSA) has a large alactic capacity component to it. In coach’s mind, your methods of training RSA is actually High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) and the rest intervals are far too long to elicit any real “fitness” adaptation. Perhaps coach does not understand that recovery from high intensity bouts is a predominantly aerobic process. Maybe you are failing to see his concern: that coach wants to high press more this season and although implementing active recovery as part of your session will diminish the alactic return, it will more closely mimic the demands coach will place on the athletes.

What have we neglected to see here? The final and most important piece, the athlete. The aforementioned back and forth is a prime example of the issue with a coach-centered model typical of sport in the United States. Somewhere in the crossfire lies the athlete’s perception of desired training adaptations and how to realize them. Your best players won’t be concerned as to whether it is RSA or HIIT, what the rest interval is composed of or if the sport coach or the performance coach is right. The athlete will ultimately use whatever nomenclature is commonplace in their environment. That being said the practitioner would benefit from finding a middle ground and using the common language of the program and sport as a whole, regardless of their past experiences. Once that has been the practitioner can always add frosting to the layer cake of the team’s model (not the coach’s). If the team wants to refer to RSA as HIIT then so be it, just be sure to clarify when you plan to move from capacity and repeatability  to quality and output.

3) Set Expectations and Make Prerequisites the Process

This thought is closely tied with the last. Meaning, the common language needs to be established before the key performance indicators (KPIs) are determined. If your sport coach envisions things like “explosive power” and “speed” as performance attributes of their ideal player then it is important to understand how he sees those as expressed. Coach might understand that “explosive power” can be expressed in short area change of direction but does not attribute that to the first few steps of linear sprinting. A typical KPI for power would be measurement of high force low- moderate velocity like that of a 10 meter dash. Does that fit the common language of your team?

You may benefit from laying out your phase periodization model for the staff and players so they know what attributes are to be peaked and exactly when. Otherwise you may find yourself explaining to your team why their 10 meter or 5-10-5 time has stagnated or worsened during the General Preparatory Phase (GPP). Following the completion of a GPP may be a better place for establishing a baseline for KPIs than it is for seeking improvement in such measures. Just as it is important to know that coaches and players will always revert to the eye test. If your team is on board with the process and knows the necessary prerequisites for speed and power include relative force production and the capacity to reproduce force then you may not find yourself having to answer the hard questions. Questions like “why have I gotten slower?” during an aerobic capacity phase or “why do my legs feel heavy?” during your strength endurance block. When everyone involved can see the destination and fully understands the path it takes to get there, then you can expect a common understanding of where the team is at every point in the process.

4) Beware of Biometrics

Load monitoring and auto-regulated training has a long way to go before we can say that it trumps a well periodized plan. I will not say that the body’s adaptations are linear or even undulating in nature. There are far too many factors at play in that equation. I’ve tried (and failed) to apply predictive measures to performance. The truth of the matter is that there is nothing black or white about measures of recovery and readiness. The environment is just too volatile, like trying to invest in Enron during the Clinton era. There are too many feedback loops in the body that super-compensate and adjust to change to say that any one biometric is the end all be all of recovery or readiness.

For example, Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is one that has been commonly used. No matter how hard we as practitioners may try to standardize the measurement of HRV, there are a ton of confounding variables that go into it. Most commonly daily waking HRV is used to monitor load and adaptation. I have seen 3 and 30-day moving averages used to make inferences. When the acute measure varies either positively or negatively from the chronic measure it can be said that there may be a significant trend arising. Individual standard deviation from baseline has also been used. I would argue that these two methods rely too heavily on past measures. For this reason, exponential weighting may be a tad bit more sensitive to the current environment (anecdote).

The reality is that HRV is an outcome and not a factor of overtraining syndrome (OTS). HRV is part of an allostatic negative feedback loop that will decrease the variability of HR to account for stressors and return to homeostasis. The Root Mean Square of Successive Differences (RMSSD) provides our measure of HRV. Most simply put, is the square root of successive differences in R-R intervals and is, of course, then sensitive to sample size. The conventional minimum of short- term- interval HRV is defined as RMSSD measurements of 5 minutes in duration. Most apps being used today we are looking at ultra- short- term HRV (<5 min) with durations as low as 30 seconds. Without getting too deep into the weeds here, I would just like to ask, are we then taking snapshots of clinical measures and applying them to the larger picture of overall adaptation?

Try taking a baseline measure like ultra- short- term HRV of 30-60 seconds, lie supine for another minute, then take it again. Let me know how much your measure changes. Now take the same measure after you have woken up, drank coffee, sat in class all day and then walked to the training facility. How different is it now? Inversely, how many times have you woken up feeling like you got hit by a train then went about your day before your training session and outperformed your expectations?

To be clear, I am not calling for the end of HRV as a monitoring tool or any biometric for that matter. Instead I would suggest erring on the side of caution to avoid knee- jerk reactions. Confounding variables can often lead to misinformation and with such measures being in the hands of the athlete, you may be breeding a sense of helplessness. Dr. Andy Fry at the University of Kansas, one of the leading researchers in OTS, reminds us that OTS is defined as a decrease in performance measures and not necessarily biometrics. Pairing the two together can be of benefit to the practitioner as they look to retrospectively analyze the efficacy of their training program. On the contrary, being a reactionary coach can often lead to undertraining and negatively influence the athlete’s perception of their ability to respond to training loads.

5) The Public Eye

Watching some college football broadcasts the past few weeks has ignited this next thought. I’m sure by now, most have seen ESPN’s feature on The Evolution of the College Football Strength Coach. If you haven’t, then you have, of course, seen the sideline antics of a select few. From the outside looking in, the general public’s perception of Strength & Conditioning is that it is a juice monkey’s jungle of hype and theatrics.

Even without these short films and exposés, our image has been tarnished by circus exercise videos of celebrity athletes like Lebron James and Antonio Brown. The appeal to authority logical fallacy gives undue credit to these modalities as those who know no better may see it and think “well if Lebron did it then it must work.” This train of thought is, of course, devoid of context. It is much harder for the unaware public to discern whether these taboo methods are effective or not. This may be anecdotal, but no walk- on I have ever seen would benefit from unstable surface training.

While watching a recent college football game between two programs with new coaching staffs I saw one vastly superior team lay waste to another. In the midst of the broadcast one of the announcers pointed to the winning team’s recent overhaul of the weightroom, addition of a dietician and emphasis on sport science as a contributor to their recent success. What the announcer failed to mention is that the losing team had done almost the exact same thing this offseason. This leads me to think, maybe if the public had knowledge of this they would not be so quick to attribute success to athletic development. This may be for better or for worse but perhaps if some level of accountability were placed on strength & conditioning and sport science in the public eye, we would see a push for more competent hires in our field. Again, this could be a double edged sword knowing the nature of the media. I will be interested to see how this develops over the coming years, especially with the emergence of the load management debates, a thought for another article.

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