Building upon our last article I have had a number of discussions with colleagues about using competition strategically to develop certain features that you cannot always get in training settings, or at least are not as easy to attain. Even when you set up training at the same intensity and regularity of a competition. The major factor that is often missing is not the physiological stressors of competition, but the emotional and psychological features that relate to the way athletes and coaches approach competition compared with training. It is definitely not my analogy, but it appears to be apt, is that training (even competition simulation within training) is like a practice exam, everyone knows that the results don’t really count. It is the attachment to the meaning of the outcome, rightly or wrongly, that will shift the desire to participate at a higher level of capability when it is in an official competition. 

So this begs the question, how can you use competition to develop performance or return from injury effectively?

The answer lies in the discussion of a couple of areas. These may be related to an individual and they may encompass a whole group or team. Clearly this will vary when working with individual vs team sports. 

Let’s start the discussion with team sports, as this may seem difficult at first but in reality is clear when you see the key drivers that you desire. We will return to individual sports in the next article. 

To begin, we will use the example of a field sport athlete that is coming back from injury into a team. When they have fulfilled the majority of the return to sport criteria that the medical team has set, the performance team and medical have to decide how they will bring these athletes back into competition. Do you train your way up to complete match readiness and play full game time on return? Or do you build them back into competition gradually? 

With the development of GPS and monitoring technology there has never been a better time to integrate the data that we track into the return of athletes to competition arenas. Now I will argue that competition exposure is much more valid as a form of readiness for highest performance, compared with training. I can understand those that like to train their way to peak condition, but from my experience it is not only rare to see it, it often leaves big gaps in the athletes preparation. So with this in mind, there the two most common and well defined ways to do this is to expose the athlete to lower intensity, higher volume (such as playing in the reserves team) or by playing reduced game time in the top team (higher intensity, lower volume). This decision will often come down to the strength and position of the top team within their competition, the contribution of that individual player and depth that the team has to have a player only playing reduced game time. 

Whatever the decision made is, the key features remain similar to the principles employed in all return to sport. Choosing the stimulus that will increase the readiness the most for that individual is the key and then extending their ability to deal with the stress of that stimulus until it meets or even exceeds the requirements for their ongoing involvement in competition. In this way graduated minutes of game time, particularly if it is at the desired intensity of match play is likely to allow the performance and medical team to use the competition to effectively return the athlete to their best. 

But what about for improving performance? How can you use competition in a team setting to drive performance?

As we have stated in a number of articles, competition provides the best form of training and preparation for overall performance development. Competition therefore provides the greatest opportunity to explore how to use this to the advantage of both individuals and their teams. Now this may seem as though I am suggesting that coaches and teams forfeit short term performance for long term development. And in some ways this may be true, but ultimately the only way to drive the needle is to create stimuli that extends the current capacity of that team and its individual members. This may take many shapes and involves an intricate match between the way in which you organise training and how it is then implemented into competition. 

There are a number of ways to do this. 

  1. Within a competition setting employing tactics that may be different to the usual playing style or at least having developed a few variations is likely to assist with creating increased flexibility against different teams. Employing these tactics may take time, and they may take practice under competition stress, which does leave teams open to errors through this learning process, however ultimately provides the opportunity to adapt to different teams and game situations.
    1. With such experimentation it may occur when you have certain players on the court/field, allowing teams to exploit the strengths of those individuals.
    2. Alternatively such a tactical change may be employed for short periods throughout a game, allowing players and staff to test, and assess how well these tactics function in this setting without committing to it for the entirety of the match play.. 
  2. At an individual level a similar approach may be conducted by placing players in disadvantaged positions to extend learning. The disadvantage needs to be tough enough to create genuine need for adaptations to skill sets, but within the grasp of possibility of that individual. This is often achieved in two ways.
    1. Playing an athlete in a position that they do not regularly play, but requires the skills that they are looking to develop.
    2. Or playing them against an opponent who has the skills that you are looking to develop or require the defensive skills that need to be developed by that individual. 

The key with this is selecting a period of time and a level of opponent that is within the realm of development of that individual. This type of idea is similar to managing training loads. You would not increase someone’s training intensity or volume by 80% from one week to the next, so it is important that you do not do the same thing in regards to the difficulty of their skill learning experience whether it is playing in an unfamiliar position, or against a more skilled opponent. Clearly with this example, much of the introduction to this type of stimulus may be conducted in training settings, with the graduation of these interventions tested and implemented in competition over time. 

These are clearly basic examples that we have given for teams and individuals within such teams. The idea that we want to highlight more than anything is that competition should be seen as the greatest learning opportunity available to athletes, coaches and support staff.