Following our last article we had a few discussions that opened up some thoughts and ideas that are not always explored in sports performance. We mentioned this in the article, however it may have not been obvious that the clear area that changed for the Melbourne Football Club was philosophical more than anything. The general premise was that you should look to extend the capability of athletes, and specifically not shying away from minor issues. But the question that must be asked is what training is important to push? Is it all training, or is some of the training more important to complete?

This past week I had a student join our track team to start a placement.  And interestingly our discussion reasonably early on fell into the philosophy of how we approach training, and also how we approach rehabilitation as well. It was clear that because the student has a background coaching swimming there is a reasonable gap in the approach to what drives performance in the preparation of the athletes that they coach and what we do with a team of sprinters. 

I asked the question, what influence does the culture of the sport, and even more the culture of Australians have on the way we approach sports preparation? This may appear esoteric but it clearly starts to affect the way we approach problems. To give you an example, a gross generalization is that the more volume that you do, the better you will be prepared. And I asked the student, do  they consider the volume of lower or moderate intensity training as valuable in the preparation as the volume of high intensity training? It was not something that is always discussed in sports performance. In my mind at least moderate intensity training never prepares the athlete for competition as well as high intensity training. But generally we look at total volumes of training rather than the capacity to complete very high or competition intensity volumes. This may not be surprising to athletes who are considered speed power athletes, such as sprinters and weightlifters. But for field sport athletes and in particular endurance athletes there is often much less discussion on increasing the volume of competition intensity training. This is why the popularity of small sided games has been so significant in field sports. It drives up the volume of training that is at or above the intensity of competition. And whilst we didn’t explore it deeper in the last article, the idea that was more pressing in the philosophy change by Darren Burgess, was the idea that the intensity of training was going to be very high every session. They were going to push the capabilities at competition intensities in training day in, day out, even when athletes were a little sore. And this area for me was more relevant. 

But why is this approach not more obvious to most of us in sports performance and injury management?

Clearly it is open for debate on why this is the case, but to me this is influenced heavily by historical understanding of sports performance, physiology and even the Australian psyche. 

If we firstly look at sports performance, a significant amount of sports performance is still influenced by the early literature in sports preparation, the work of Leo Matveyev and the preparation of soviet athletes still influences what is taught and what people do in rehabilitation. What is this approach? It is a sequenced development of physical preparation and relies on the idea that there is a transfer of more general (and usually lower intensity) training into more specific qualities required for competition performance. Understandably this has been questioned and altered in the preparation of many sports over time. However, its foundations still linger in Australian sports development. And I believe that one of the reasons is unrelated to sports specifically and is cultural. Australians pride themselves on being hard workers. We dislike people that we would consider lazy, especially in sport. You hear from coaches all the time talk about the talented athlete that could be so much better if they weren’t so lazy. These are the athletes that only seem to show up in competition or game simulation. They are often not overly interested in general preparation, they just show up when it counts. And it is easy to say they are lazy and that if they just adjusted their attitude they can be better athletes. However I take a slightly different view, that is that the best athletes are intelligent and efficient with their energy. They know what work makes them better and for many they enjoy the specific training much more than anything that is more general in nature.

But is there any merit in this attitude of avoiding the obsession with general lower intensity training? Well the research across multiple fields of physiology, biomechanics, motor learning and coordination are all demonstrating the same key feature. Specific stimuli create specific adaptations. So when training is specific and in particular at the intensities that approach or exceed competition intensities then you are more likely to see improvements in capability in sports performance. And this is the philosophy that seems to underpin what Burgess discussed in his thoughts on the preparation of the demons. 

The key feature of improving athletes performance is increasingly being demonstrated by increased high intensity training capacity. It is no more eloquently put than to say that competition is the best training. And therefore the job of sports performance professionals and health professionals is to create an environment to expose athletes to training that builds these features. I will leave a caveat that this does not discount lower intensity training that may create foundational features in any way in the ultimate performance of athletes. However if you want athletes to be well prepared, the further you get from the competition activities and intensities, the less prepared for the competition they are likely to be. Your job therefore is to implement training that will support completing as much of this competition specific training that you can, increasing the capacity to complete this training over time. You should see across training periods and especially across multiple preparation periods such as multi year development that the volumes of higher intensity training that can be completed grows over time. In essence athletes should become able to complete more higher intensity training in year two compared to one and more in year three than in year two and so on. This begs the question of how we structure our training during preparation periods such as preseason training and what this means when you have athletes at different stages in their careers. 

In our next discussion we will look at how you can use competition and specific training to enhance these features by manipulating your training parameters within a preparation and competition phase but also from season to season.