Building Independent Athletes

BUILDING INDEPENDENT ATHLETES

By Mark Armitage
December 19, 2018

Having been fortunate to have spent the last 10 or so years working in professional soccer, one of my biggest learning experiences is the need to create a positive environment which empowers players to taken ownership of their own development.  

To create a current and interactive environment we (S & C coaches) have to embrace technology, not via gimmicks which might look ‘cool’, but those which can support (and perhaps guide and inform) our practice. One such area might be the use of on-line platforms for programming.

In my opinion these have numerous benefits which are extremely simple but effective. For example, how many people actually write anything anymore? In the modern world the thought of picking up pen and paper to write something down is almost an alien experience but people will automatically pick up a phone or tablet to input or find information.

Trying to be a ‘good’ developing S & C coach I used to spend the majority of my sessions running around the gym after players to remind them what to do next on their program or record their previous loads to facilitate longitudinal tracking and to analyse program progression and effectiveness. Looking back, I was more of a mad scientist!

Products such as PUSH have the potential to reduce or even remove such situations, enabling the coach to do what they are paid for . . . To COACH. Players can either have their programs on their phones, or if this is a distraction i.e. potential to use phone for other activities detracting from training, centralized tablets.

This could be particularly relevant for International organisations who frequently receive programs for their players from their parent clubs. This means that potentially every player in the squad could have a different program, on a different template, using different exercises, terminology, loading patterns, and periodization depending on the individual philosophy of the coach and/or club. At which point the national S & C coach merely becomes a firefighter!

Although it is by no means an intention of this article to promote a generation of ‘manual coaches’, technological advancements such as PUSH should help to enhance standardization and the collection of information in a smart, simple but systematic way ultimately improving shared practice and allowing coaches time back to do what they should do best . . . COACH. It is then that coaching preferences and individual philosophies can really shine.

Such coaching opportunities could also be further enhanced by better adherence and motivation of players. Players can view previous performances and thus have an incentive. Likewise, they can view their performance in every rep and set, hopefully improving the quality of the work. In time this information could be used to drive competition among the squad i.e. competing against someone of a similar physical profile, position or even team.

PUSH Band 2.0 delivers live feedback to the coach and athlete to enhance adherence and motivation

PUSH Band 2.0 delivers live feedback to the coach and athlete to enhance adherence and motivation

As a large generalization, there is still a reluctance of soccer players to push themselves in the gym due to the associated negative responses to resistance training (i.e. muscle soreness) and a largely cultural (especially in the UK) belief of not wanting to ‘chase numbers’. Velocity based training (VBT) could alter such paradigms because as aforementioned real-time feedback could improve the culture via competition (against oneself or others) and thus increase motivation. Furthermore, the load could remain relatively constant whilst challenge and overload could be driven by altering velocity.

Though variation might be a key weapon in the armory of an S & C coach, from my own self-reflection if you change something too frequently, you never get good at anything! With VBT the exercise could remain the same (really refining technical considerations) but obviously the velocity could change. Not only should this drive different physiological adaptations but also offer a different psychological stimulus/challenge.

VBT may also offer a relatively simple solution to the extremely complex task, that of periodizing strength work within a soccer season due to the number, frequency and importance of games. At certain time points in the season it may not be appropriate to ‘load’ players for sustained and irregular periods. This makes periodization extremely challenging because the majority of sessions become re-familiarization/re-conditioning, with load prescription almost becoming taboo through fear of how players might perceive, or react from, the session. As such could periodization be based off velocity whereby clear zones are structured throughout the season during which players select the weight to achieve this output. Not only would this empower the player, hopefully enhancing the culture, but it would almost be self-limiting. For example, if a certain amount of reversibility had taken place due to a period of non-training this should be directly influenced by the load required to achieve the outcome i.e. a certain velocity might be achieved with a lesser load.

Figure 1 illustrates a potential periodized VBT plan. When viewing this figure, it may be noted that velocity doesn’t have to be ‘fast’. In fact, as with more traditional methods it is possible to work across the force-velocity (F/V) curve but conceivably in a more accurate way.

Figure 1 – A hypothetical seasonal velocity-based training plan for soccer. *Anatomical strength is a term used by the author. **This figure is merely for illustration purposes only

Figure 1 – A hypothetical seasonal velocity-based training plan for soccer. *Anatomical strength is a term used by the author. **This figure is merely for illustration purposes only

Prescribing off velocity may also be preferable for those who are advocates of an autoregulatory approach. Autoregulation could be defined as “a form of periodization that adjusts to the individual athletes adaptations on a day-to-day and/or week-to-week basis” (Mann et al., 2010) (Please see previous article for further information - https://www.trainwithpush.com/blog/autoregulation-an-alternate-approach-to-periodization). Applied specifically to soccer this method considers the multiple stresses placed upon players in any given week/day. Not only might players respond differently to the same loads, it is logical to suggest that each will experience their own individually, along with different stressors at any given time (e.g. status in the team, recent performances, personal life etc.). This will mean players readiness to train will fluctuate although the teams lifting slot within that training week will remain relatively fixed (i.e. it may not be prudent to complete resistant training MD-2, MD-1 due to the potential for residual fatigue). Anybody who has ever trained themselves would have experienced that some days you feel great, and others you really struggle to complete the same task. This for me is an issue of prescribing loads based off a percentage of one-repetition maximum (1RM), especially since maximal strength can fluctuate daily (Padulo et al., 2012). Once more, instead the velocity of movement (within a certain band-width) will be fixed but the load required to achieve this can be altered depending on the daily performance capabilities of the player. This also opens another possibility of VBT, could it be used as a testing and/or monitoring tool?

Incidentally, this is another area of constant consideration within my practice, that of testing. Of course, I like information which enables me to program specific objectives and assess the effectiveness of such interventions but to what cost does this information come? To ensure accurate and repeatable results the work in the days (i.e. two) leading up to ‘testing’ will need to be tapered to ensure freshness and if testing is maximal it may be prudent to manage the subsequent day(s), again having a dramatic effect on a training plan which has little flexibility due to the frequency and importance of games. In a soccer population how relevant is testing such as 1RM? It is potentially time consuming with a squad of ~20 players, and how technically proficient are players to lift maximally? Due to environmental and cultural constraints as well as the training age of many players in specific lifts how likely is a 1RM to be reflective of the persons actual maximal effort? As such in recent times, especially in a gym setting I have tried to use my training sessions as testing opportunities i.e. if a person has managed to lift more weight (or at a faster velocity depending on the objective) with good form throughout the cycle then it is logical to suggest gains. Furthermore, this aligns to my personal philosophy which I developed during my time at Arsenal Football Club of “how well, not how much”, “how well and how much” and “how well, how much, how fast”.

I have often debated with colleagues and peers the topic of how strong is strong enough in our soccer population. Compared to other athletes and sports the loads soccer players lift in the gym might be less but I do not think people can regularly question their athleticism on the pitch. The movement complexities on the pitch and the physical qualities required to underpin these often-explosive actions at times are phenomenal, therefore by how much would making someone lift more change the outcome? As such I believe there is a ceiling height to some exercises, and whilst I always start with wanting to improve basic strength (or force production) qualities it is perhaps the application or expression of these capabilities which is as important hence a need to understand the force and velocity demands of movement/exercise. Moreover, when returning to the complexity of seasonal periodization within soccer if we wait until a player is ‘strong enough to progress’ we might never change the program!

As a practitioner I try to pride myself on my solid scientific knowledge but often contemplate the statement of “if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got”. We now live and work in an ever changing and dynamic world and we must continue to explore new ways of working. Again, not looking for the latest gimmick to make us ‘look cool’, but through technological advancements which can guide and inform our practice and that can support us deliver in an engaging and interactive way. Products such as PUSH might just be the answer.

Mark Armitage October 2018.jpg

BIOGRAPHY: MARK ARMITAGE

Mark is currently lecturing Strength and Conditioning and the University of Suffolk having worked in professional soccer with academy to first team and international players (Norwich City, Southampton, Arsenal and Huddersfield Town Football Clubs as well as the Football Association). He completed his BSc in Sport and Exercise Science at the University of Brighton, before his MSc in Strength and Conditioning at St. Mary’s Twickenham. He is an accredited Strength and Conditioning Coach (ASCC) through the UKSCA and is hoping to start a PhD alongside establishing his own consultancy business (East Coast Conditioning and Rehabilitation).