Technology Accelerator

In recent years technology and S&C coaching have grown so closely interwoven that at times it seems we can't move without a mandatory "setup" period in which the minions wheel out the plethora of devices required to quantify what is happening before our eyes.  Is this a good thing?

It always amazes me that when I catch up with friends working in high level track & field, that the most prevalent piece of technology is still a stop watch, and in more recent times an iPad or phone from which video review of skills can be conducted.  Have team sports gone too far?

The English Cycling team for the Summer Olympics in 2012 took this path even further with committed investigations into the mystical realm of "marginal gains".  Christian Cook was one of the leading proponents, seeking to summate multiple "marginal gains" in order to achieve a collective significant improvement in performance.  Anecdotal evidence, if you can call it that (Gold medals) would suggest that they were successful in their endeavors.  Is this an appropriate path for field sport athletes?

From my perspective, I think the answers about technology in team sports are multi-factorial.

As accountability goes up (basically meaning more money is involved), quantification must go up to fuel the fire.  As S&C coaches, finite control over our environment becomes an ever more technical and demanding proposition.  With many things out of our control (see Team Training Design article HERE), data becomes critical to knowing where the risks lay.  Similarly, Head Coaches, Football Operations Managers, CEO's and Boards all want to know more about what is going on.  So where budgets allow, we flood the environment with a glut of data, some good, and some junk. We haven't gone too far but I think we have lost sight of the fundamentals.

We are now producing young S&C coaches that are focused on what GPS tells you and what you can measure with a linear rate encoder.  Few seem to have any idea how to quantify a variety of training modalities if they are not surrounded by technology. If this is referenced back to developing players/athletes sometimes I think technology has a way of dragging young coaches away from the fundamentals of physical preparation.

What is happening at the levels of sport where technology is not as readily available?  Recent discussions with some of my Mentorship Coaches has confirmed my obseravtion that there is an expectation that they need to discuss technology indices to really get a handle on their players, yet those tools are not at their disposal.  Where is the drive to find a way?  Where is the creative analysis, the thinking outside the square?  Maybe it is a reflection of the iGen...if there isn't an app for it we shouldn't bother ourselves with it.

As a coach who started his career well before GPS and commercial grade rate encoders, I think it is critical that we teach young coaches not just how to survive, but how to thrive, in the absence of the current technology gluttony.  Therefore, when available, technology becomes an accelerator, not the basis upon which you operate.

Technology is an accelerator, not a generator of momentum - Jim Collins “Good to Great"

Well rounded S&C coaches should know the first principles of coaching skill...the eye and the stopwatch. 

Here are four core "trade-craft" skills for S&C coaches.

Pattern Recognition is the cornerstone skill of the S&C professional.  At a basic level understand the patterns of movement you are aiming for, and learn to recognize the "road blocks" individuals present with that limit the attainment of the required pattern.  At a more sophisticated level, know the "normal" movement patterns of your athletes.  Look for and assess changes on a session-to-session basis.  Following periods of heavy loading accumulated fatigue may manifest in pattern alteration.  Pay particular attention in contact sports, where significant bruising or "corks" can alter movement patterns within a few days.  The compounding of an altered movement pattern with the implementation of a new loading stimulus can result in either acute damage or the development of more chronic issues that may in turn take weeks to unravel. 

Stopwatch Skills...the principle weapon of an S&C coach.  Stopwatch skills should be considered with the reverence of a Jedi Master's light sabre!  Can you assess the opposition's recovery ability?  Can you assess bar speed with a stopwatch?  Can your team of S&C coaches all hand time a flying 20m sprint to within a 0.1sec error margin? Mine can!

Check out these three simple stopwatch skills that should be in any good S&C coach's repertoire.  More importantly, for coaches not in high budget programs these skills may advance what you can deliver tomorrow!

Recovery Rate - Respiratory rate is linked directly to heart rate which in turn is widely used to determine exercise intensity.  If you can see an athlete and you can count, you can estimate their workload by counting respiration rate.  I have been using this technique for years to make quick assessments of how my players are going in training.  More importantly I have used it to assess opposition players in both Test Match Rugby and in the AFL.  In Rugby it was far easier as I was always on the sideline directly adjacent to play.  That said, I can assure you that at times the coach's directives to players were altered on the observation of opposition players struggling with the pace of the game.  The guidelines listed below are just that...guidelines (I won't be answering know-it-all comments about accuracy).  Clearly there are many individual variations for which this system can not possibly account.  This tool is intended as a guideline to assist quick assessments "on the fly" in a practical low tech environment.

Exertion Rates
>45 breaths/min working near maximum
30-45 breaths/min solid but very sustainable
<30 breaths/min cruising

Recovery Rates (all in breaths/min)
>45 dropped to <30 in ~45sec good recovery
>45 dropped to 30-35 in ~45sec "feeling the pinch"!
>45 dropped to >35 in ~45sec "struggling"

Bar Speed - For Bench Press simple...determine your end points and use 3 reps to limit error.  Shot putters traditionally aim for the maximum weight they can lift for three reps in three seconds. Starting timing from the top position and stop when the bar is returned to lockout.  Compare weight at three seconds to 1RM.
3RM3sec > 80%1RM - focus on developing greater maximum strength.
3RM3sec < 80%1RM - focus on developing greater power.

I have used this concept in the past for squat using an extended range of 6sec for 3 reps.  In addition I used a piece of thera-band (elastic tubing) to designate the bottom position for each athlete to maintain range.

Speed - Flying 20m.  My coaching staff are drilled in this area so that I can be confident in the times that are relayed to me either in group training or rehab.  By way of explanation, timing lights are too slow when training large squads at once.  Similarly, due to the way our schedule works at present, key rehabilitation sessions are often run adjacent to football sessions limiting the amount of equipment that can be on the field (even in professional sports, due to circumstances beyond your control sometimes basic skills are required).  Start timing at the first footfall past the 20m markers.  Watch is stopped as the center of mass passes the 40m marker.  Between tester variance should be minimal (~0.1sec) per rep.  Average the reps out per set to allow for variability at first footfall.

While these techniques are not research standard, they are most definitely practical tools that work.  Remember the key to using these skills effectively is to be consistent in how you are executing the measurement.

Always focus your energies on what has the greatest impact on your program. For most of us in team sports (at any level) it is focusing on getting the fundamentals of physical preparation right.  Any data collected must support this endgame.

The investigation of “marginal gains” is definitely an appropriate pursuit in the right environment.  The "right" environment is likely to be one in which the athletes are matured in their preparation and the gains are becoming harder to come by.  My experience in football codes is that there is always room to get better at the basics.

Know and understand new technology, but don't be a servant to it.  Don’t depend on technology to drive the quality of your program. Use it as an accelerator to take you beyond solid fundamental practices.


1 comment

Carl Valle

It’s not rocket science to know I am commercially interested in electronic timing, and I find the use of hand timing is like using rocks or random stones and using them without weighing for strength training. True the eyeball test is helpful, but for velocities one hundredth means something in sport, and the one tenth measure is nice but frankly a little off base.

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