• Jason Wulfsohn // MSc (Med) Exercise Science

Editor’s musings: Of horses and water

I must confess that before I attended the CONQA Elite Sports Summit (ESS) last week this article was perhaps heading in a direction of some self-pity and frustration. Thankfully, I was inspired, did some reflective thinking, and set to change this article to something more constructive than a childish whine. Anyway…

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink… but you’ll be judged on whether or not it drinks!

Despite my previous article title being about horses and carts, I am not developing an affinity for the despicable creatures. The truth is that I was recently introduced to this new version of the classic saying by a teacher. It is especially relevant in the private school context, in which parents are forking out hundreds of thousands for their precious cherubs to get the best education possible. Teachers are expected to get their charges to apply themselves, raise their marks, and rack up achievements while contending with the little muppets’ desire to put in as little effort as possible.

The amended saying struck a chord with me because I’ve been fighting an uphill battle with regard to compliance in both training and monitoring. You’ve done your part. You’ve got some great training programs and have set-up a helpful monitoring system. But unfortunately your charges don’t do their part. Very frustrating to say the least, but more importantly, it’s your job to get this #%$& done. So you’ve got to make a plan.

At CONQA ESS I was struck by Mark de Stadler’s differentiation between compliance and commitment. Essentially, he was saying that compliance comes from intellectual engagement, but that true commitment involves both intellectual and emotional engagement. Once people are engaged intellectually and emotionally, their buy-in will be stronger. You can have the best training programs and monitoring systems in the world, but if there isn’t buy-in and the training and monitoring doesn’t get done, well, you’ll be judged on this. I’ve spoken to many sport scientists and S&C’s, and it’s very apparent to me that this is a challenge that all of us experience to some degree. In the literature you can see that even at elite European football clubs the compliance isn’t as good as you might think (see table 1)[1]. So, I’m moving on from expecting compliance and being frustrated. Now I want to put this energy into creating a culture and environment that will be conducive to commitment.

As Neupert et al. (2018) suggest there is a lot published about the science and technology for training monitoring, but there is less to be found on creating environments to achieve the desirable behaviours[2]. I did manage to find that Saw et al. (2017) provide some guidelines for creating a team culture for monitoring: 1) Define the purpose of monitoring, 2) Establish guidelines regarding data access and use, 3) Define individual roles and responsibilities, 4) Provide education, transparency, and feedback, 5) Build confidence and integrate the system into the normal routine[3]. Perhaps we can extrapolate this to creating a culture for training and monitoring. So, practically, where do I start?

No “I” in team

The very first thing (step 1) that needs to happen is to meet with the coaching staff and discuss the team’s goals, purpose, and their plans. The environment and culture, as well as resources and available staff, will determine your methods[4]. The environment and team culture is ultimately driven by the coach, not the sport scientists or S&C. So if your superiors aren’t bringing good culture, you’re probably going to have a tough time. However, I’m arrogant enough to think that I can at least guide and influence their thinking. My step 2 is probably a bit of an artistic take on that of Saw et al. (2017), but I would discuss with the coach my guidelines and recommendations for training and monitoring. Thereafter, the discussion would need to move onto our various roles and responsibilities (step 3). Who is required to be at which training sessions? Who is doing the health and injury report? Who is sorting out the match-day meals and water bottles? There are so many things that need to be established and they will be very context dependent. A school sport example would be coach, manager, and sport scientist arriving and all asking who brought the water bottles. Oops!

Education and feedback

Step 4 is where I need to up my game. In my current capacity, I’ve often felt pressed for time and wanted to get the boys training as soon as possible, so as to maximise training benefits. If I’m honest with myself, this was short-sighted, and I think I actually did them a disservice. Having spent a bit of time with former Springbok and Sharks S&C Mark Steele, I observed how he almost pedantically explained the “why” for his training. It’s tempting to power on ahead with training, because as we’ve said, you’ll be judged on the results. However, I’ve seen the error of my ways and now firmly believe that you’ll get more out by putting more time into educating the athletes. Furthermore, it would be wise to educate not only the athletes, but the coaches as well[3]. Coaches’ commitment to what you’re trying to do will be vital to your cause.

Feedback can take two forms; that of feedback on training during or just after training, or feedback of results or progress to athletes and coaches. In terms of training feedback, visual or verbal kinematic feedback helps the athlete improve their training and verbal encouragement can aid training, but also motivates the athlete because the practitioner is perceived to be showing an active interest in the athlete[5]. Then, feedback of results is vital for both coaches and athletes, as the coaches will use it to inform their decisions and the athletes will be more committed when they know that their information is being used and is beneficial to their training and performance[2]. A word of caution from the literature is to avoid making disproportionate training modifications based on feedback, as this can discourage athletes from honest engagement[2]. This is quite an interesting topic and I could go on, but for the sake of brevity I’ll leave it at that.

Keep on keeping on

That last step is less tangible, but one must make sure not to lose steam with the system. Sometimes it can be a bit tedious, but it’s necessary. Hopefully, through a strong team culture and your education and feedback, all stake-holders gain confidence in your system and processes. Now wouldn’t that be a perfect world.

  1. McCall, A., Dupont, G. & Ekstrand, J. Injury prevention strategies, coach compliance and player adherence of 33 of the UEFA Elite Club Injury Study teams: A survey of teams’ head medical officers. Br. J. Sports Med. 50, 725–730 (2016).

  2. Neupert, E. C., Cotterill, S. T. & Jobson, S. A. Training Monitoring Engagement: An Evidence-Based Approach in Elite Sport. Int. J. Sports Physiol. Perform. 1–21 (2018). doi:10.1123/ijspp.2018-0098

  3. Saw, A. E., Kellmann, M., Main, L. C. & Gastin, P. B. Athlete Self-Report Measures in Research and Practice: Considerations for the Discerning Reader and Fastidious Practitioner Athlete Self-Report Measures in Research and Practice : Considerations for the Discerning Reader and Fastidious Practitioner. Int. J. Sports Physiol. Perform. 12, 127–135 (2017).

  4. Burgess, D. J. The research doesn’t always apply: Practical solutions to evidence-based training-load monitoring in elite team sports. Int. J. Sports Physiol. Perform. 12, 136–141 (2017).

  5. Weakley, J., Wilson, K., Till, K., Banyard, H., Dyson, J., Phibbs, P., Read, D. & Jones, B. Show Me, Tell Me, Encourage Me: The Effect of Different Forms of Feedback on Resistance Training Performance. J. strength Cond. Res. 1 (2018).

#Behaviour #Communication #Conditioning


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