I have had a few discussions this week with colleagues and students about preparing for competitions particularly across a season of longer duration. The literature is relatively clear on what will prepare athletes to perform well at major competitions, with much of the work discussed by researcher such as Inigo Mujika and Greg Haff suggesting that key features are important in elevating performance from training periods to competition periods. These are founded on the idea that fitness levels are maintained for much longer than fatigue, therefore if fatigue can be subdued, the fitness capabilities gained in training can be expressed in competitions. But more recently I have been exploring these ideas by seeing competition very differently to what I once did. Particularly throughout a competitive season where there is an end major competition, how do you approach the competitions that are of lesser but still reasonably high importance in your overall development. And how would all of this change in a team sport where all competitions are generally important?
Let’s explore this from a few angles.The first is to see what drives the needle on performance in your activity or sport.
We have all seen it before in sport. Athletes or teams who perform at a much higher level earlier in the preparation than after they have done a taper or come to a peak. They could still be in the bulk of their preparation or they are yet to drop off volumes significantly and they are producing personal bests or are scoring goals freely and winning games. And then as you shift towards the important competitions or games for the season, the coaches reduce the training loads to move towards a peak and their performances plateau or even drop off. Why?
Firstly it is important to identify what drives performance in a particular sport. To give an example, a recent study taken from cycling, Kordi et al 2021, suggests that measures of maximal voluntary torque and W’ (a measure known as the curvature constant) are well correlated with cycling performance outcomes. The study looked to identify how such measures come about and which physiological systems underpin their performance. Because the W’ measure is related to ongoing production of torque, its foundation is associated with neuromuscular output and their appears to be strong correlations with quadriceps muscle size and cross sectional area. This study starts to suggest that if you want to maximise this measure of performance for cycling, effort must be put towards maximising the function of these muscle groups at all times. Because the application of forces occurs in a sustained fashion, measures such as early rate of force development appear to be of less importance, highlighting that in preparing for competition success in cycling may be less about factors that optimise early rate of force development such as neurological ‘freshness’ and more about maximising sustaining force output for sustained muscular efforts. Why this is important is that it suggests that certain types of training leading into these competitions are likely to increase performance, and in this case potentially higher volumes of strength or moderate to higher intensity cycling may actually assist with performance, compared with sports that require early rate of force development measures that are more highly susceptible to increased volumes in the lead up.
This concept lead to discussions surrounding what is the best preparation for different sports throughout competition seasons and how maximising the major components of that sport will allow for sustained abilities to perform on a regular basis throughout a season. For instance a major physical component of field based sports performance is repeated sprint ability and the aerobic and anaerobic foundations that support this. For this reason, reductions in running loads, either in skill based settings or external running throughout a season and within the lead up to major competitions, can actually be a factor that reduces performance of these physical features. The concept of tapering a field sport athlete, or maintaining their best level of preparedness must address this component regularly, and in fact lowering the volume of this type of training too much is likely to reduce the performance in these athletes.
The discussion then naturally extended to the idea that athletes will express their abilities in competition if they have the right tools on which to call upon. And it is incumbent on us as professionals to have developed or maintained these features in order to allow them to express them when it matters. I have heard multiple sports performance professionals discuss the concept that during a season, identifying and maintaining the key drivers for performance is like having the ability to juggle multiple balls at the same time, your job is to get them all into the air, and be sure to keep them all their throughout the competition cycles. The key being that when the competition season gets hot, you should still have all of the balls moving.
These discussions made me reflect on the need to remember what drives the needle on performance, to understand and assess these features throughout the preparation and competition season and not forget to ask your self whether you are you sending your athletes into the arena with the right tools to get the job done. Because sometimes, just sometimes we send them in with a beautifully designed hammer, when what they needed was a set of screwdrivers.