In our last article we discussed the use of competition as a driver of performance, as well as a factor in the last phase of return to competition. That article focused on how such factors could be manipulated in a team sport setting. 

In part two of this thread, we wanted to discuss how this may change for an individual sport. As discussed previously, we have had a number of conversations around the importance of competition in physical preparation and how manipulating the use of competition may in fact provide the greatest driver of adaptation. But how can you leverage this in individual sports?

In individual sports there are many opportunities to explore ideas, concepts and stimuli that may not be afforded to team sports. The main reason is that for many individual sports, a number of the competitions may not have the same importance that is afforded to each individual game across a season in a team setting. Individual athletes are often able to compete at various levels of competition and this in itself allows for manipulation of the type of competition and the level of stress that is applied. 

The same can be said for injury. Selecting the level of competition allows for exposure to stressors of differing levels and allows for the exposure to be graded in this return to competition phase. 

Typically in sport the main stress parameters that can be manipulated are.

  1. Intensity
  2. Volume
  3. Density
  4. Duration 

In team sport settings as we discussed in the last article, often the intensity and density are decided. The opponents will not play at an easier tempo because you are coming back from injury, and the schedule is usually set with all competitions having a level of importance to the teams overall success for that season. So with this in mind we highlighted that you can manipulate the total volume and duration of each stint of match-play. We also looked at manipulating playing position or opponent to drive skill development for an individual in a team setting. 

However in sports where the success is only applicable to one individual there may be scope to explore manipulation of all of these parameters. If we take swimming, riding or running as examples you can use selection of competition events to set the intensity that you are ready to be exposed to. And this works on the end of performance as well as injury. For instance if intensity is the factor that is effected by an injury a swimming athlete who regularly competes in 100m freestyle, may choose to complete some 200m races where they know that naturally the intensity of the event is lower. They can still compete to the best of their ability but are not concerned that the injury will exacerbate their injury issue and can have developed increased capacities over the longer distance as well as practiced their race and competition preparation.

Conversely in driving performance improvement for a 200m freestyle swimmer, they may choose to swim a number of 50m sprint races to work on absolute intensity and speed. By choosing this event they are imposing a supra-maximal intensity (for their normal 200m event at least) on themselves to improve their swim speed in preparation for their 200m event. This approach is not a revelation, however it is typical that during competition seasons, athletes and coaches tend not to experiment as much as what we believe is available to them. 

Another slightly different approach is to manipulate the tactics of your competition approach to practice areas that challenge your current capability. To give you an example 1980 400m silver medalist, Australian Rick Mitchell and his coach used early season competitions in a very interesting manner. This was particularly the case when the athletes that he was running against may not be that fast. They would manipulate the race by picking a disadvantageous lane (lane 1 or 8 for instance) and practice what it may be like in the first round of a major championships, where the lanes are allocated randomly. They would do time trials in the days leading into competition in order to practice the rounds of the major championships. And most interestingly they would practice tactics that may be needed in major championships such as running the first 200m of a 400m race at the pace of the Olympic final, even when they were aware that they were sacrificing the result of the smaller competition. 

This willingness to experiment and manipulate the competition focus is a clear example of how clever planning and use of competition may be the best way to create changes that you cannot replicate specifically in training.