Soldiers often talk about what makes it possible to survive the psychological trauma of combat. From the special forces guys I've been lucky enough to know, it seems it comes down to one thing...mates!
The bonds developed in depths of training, then implemented in the field of combat serve to develop a camaraderie that can rarely be equaled.
How then as S&C coaches in team sports can we learn from this?
It means stepping back form the science to some extent. It means setting some boundaries for how far you are prepared to go, understanding the risk profile of your group and then designing sessions that truly "MATTER" in the context of what the athletes are being asked to do.
As many football codes spend a vast majority of their time training in specific team and skill based drills this design process needs to happen in consultation with the coaching team. Obviously a working knowledge of the particular issues confronting your team is critical to communicating effectively with football coaches.
Here are a few of the variables that I use to "spark up" the nature of a session to ensure we "practice" the right mix of effort and resilience to push through the toughest elements of a match.
Pressure comes in many forms. It comes as a physical entity, most challengingly in the shape of fatigue, but it also presents as a psychological entity. The ability to "will" the body on is the stand-out feature of almost every elite athlete that has every lived. Even more specifically, it is not simply the ability to endure physical pain, it is the ability to make the right decisions and to interpret the information presented often under extreme time and speed pressure.Simply fatiguing the athletes is not enough. If it was CrossFitters would be the best athletes in every sport in the world. It takes planning, insight and creativity to implement a drill or session that imparts not only the physical aspects of the sport (and never miss them for that is what we are measured on) but also the true specifics that actually help out team get better at what they are supposed to do...play the game!
While skill acquisition specialists and developmental psychs would say "don't coach negative"...there is a harsh reality to this world that our current Gen Y tend to forget..."when you fuck up someone has to pay the bill!" Put simply, there is a significant consequence to error in the elite world of sport. Yes, mistakes happen, and you will never eradicate them, but practicing to avoid mistakes at all costs is of extreme value, not to mention understanding that when things go bad the only way out is "to work your way out!".
In AFL, if you turn the ball over you need to run...fast defensively. Rugby Union knock the ball on, ref plays advantage and it doesn't matter where you are or who you are opposed to, you need to make a hit!
It is an old school method, but accumulating penalties runs or burpees will make players think about making the percentage play next time around. Being more creative, try switching the player who made the error, plus possession to the other team, make the remaining players work harder to get out of trouble. I'm sure the defending players will make him remember.
Time (or lack there of...)
Nothing creates pressure like the lack of time. Make recovery periods judiciously shorter, limit talking to stop communication about the next play, prescribe volume achievements (scores etc) in a restricted time to force the play.
Destroy all sense of control for the playing group...have coaches scream random messages right in players faces while they are trying to organize, distract players with bumps/contact, put players in unaccustomed roles (ideally ones they may get to in a game), limit one team from communicating, have players turn away from the opposition or cover their eyes to make them read the setup quicker. The list is endless...be creative!
Generating the fatigue is easy...setting up good decision making opportunities is harder. It is often easier to target only a small number of players at once in a session for this treatment. Limit rotations in and out of the drill when others get a break, add small elements like burpees to up the metabolic load. Watch carefully for overload, but be clear, the aim is to prepare the athlete to make the decisions that can win the big matches. Account for the load and monitor the adaptation...but don't avoid the stimulus because it is hard.
A vs B
Be careful of A vs. B practice. By virtue of it's nature, the A team will never be skill overloaded because they are superior to start with. From a distribution perspective ensure that this form of training does not constitute the bulk of your team training overload. Easiest to ensure the coaching staff rotate this method in and out of the program.
What's The Worst that Can Happen?
What ever it is in your sport figure it out...and train it, hard! Two men down, one score behind, running up hill and into the wind. Every game has it's worst case scenario, its up to you to find it. For some games it may simply be training the variable that creates the biggest headaches e.g. positional changes, players caught in the wrong positions or reduced numbers.
Its great to be creative, but don't ever forget that when team training becomes the bulk of the physical loading then the outcome of that session is what you are measured on. The ability of a team to function under duress is critical to success and it is the skillful design of training sessions that gets you where you want to go.