What makes a great performer?
Our role at APA as S&C coaches is to create the best all round athletes possible. We do not specialise in just a single method of training as some other companies do (Parisi Speed School, West Coast Strength for example). Our niche is creating the best athletes on their field of play. A talking point amongst the coaching staff in recent weeks has been the application of ‘cognitive factors’ in the training environment. There have been arguments for and against and we will discuss this topic in today’s blog.
Firstly it is important that to create a great athlete, he or she needs many components of fitness, these are a given and widely understood and accomplished, however what separates the top players from the rest is the ability to utilise the physiological adaptations they have accomplished in the performance environment. In order to do this they must be able to perform skilled actions under changeable circumstances, with confidence and in all likelihood on a repetitive basis. How does strength and conditioning training fit into this equation? Surely the most skilful player will be the winner?
Let’s start with strength training; the aim of strength training is to illicit a physiological adaptation to the muscles to generate a greater force. This force can then be applied to movements such as running, throwing, kicking, punching, tackling etc. In most sports speed is a vital factor to winning. Being stronger makes you faster, therefore strength training and sprinting combined will make you faster (linearly at least). Some sports require the ability to maintain speed over a long time period – the marathon for example – previously trained for as an endurance event in which getting in the mileage was the key factor, nowadays coaches have incorporated speed training into their athletes’ regimes. This is because the person that wins the marathon is the fastest person over that distance. Long duration events require an increased ability to supply oxygen to the muscles and remove waste products. This ability can be improved through training the body to increase mitochondrial densities or volumes in order to achieve greater oxygen exchange in the muscles. Aside from muscular hypertrophy, neurological adaptations and flexibility/muscle imbalances, these are the main aims of the physiological adaptation process garnered through TRAINING.
In high level sport strength and power levels do not discriminate the more successful athletes
Now let’s look at some other areas that would typically fall under the remit of the S&C coach. Agility, balance, co-ordination, power, reactivity and ultimately winning are all elements that require skill acquisition and cognitive input in great demand alongside the physiological challenge. The ability to achieve success at the top level of sports is not decided by strength and power amongst an equal field, but by the ability to transfer skill acquisition into performance (Ives and Shelly, 2003). This could be argued that in order to reach the top level of performance, physical prowess is a determining factor; therefore all the top players will have similar physical attributes in terms of strength, power and speed and it is only the level of performing skill based tasks under pressure that creates the ranking in terms of the best performers.
This is where we at APA feel we have the upper hand. Some of training modalities we use with our cohort of tennis players encompass both the physiological challenge and the sport-related cognitive and perceptual demands. This is the environment under which our athletes learn to utilise their physical qualities in a more challenging and competitively stimulated situation. Research has shown that training is more effective in a cognitively stimulated environment (Ives and Shelly, 2003).
Value of practice and training
Ives and Shelly (2003), discuss the difference between what is called a practice session and what is called a training session. Growing up I played football and would attend ‘football training’, I learnt to pass, head, shoot, tackle etc and did some physical development, but not much (maybe because the level wasn’t that high). This environment could be considered a PRACTICE environment rather than a training environment as the key focus is on improving movement techniques, strategies and the mental skills needed for peak performance. Since then, when I joined university I became part of the American Football team and would attend ‘practice’ 2-3 times a week. Seeing as this was a new sport to me with a new set of demands and skills to learn the key to becoming successful at it was repetition of learned skills – in other words practising. Around this time I also began my journey into strength training, much like many of the young athletes I coach nowadays, I had to learn how to squat, lunge, push, pull, twist, Olympic lift properly before I could begin to train these movements. Because I had a background in being strong – manual labour work around the house when growing up – once I had learnt the skill of the exercise I was able to develop my training ability in that skill quickly. Because of this I was able to become highly skilled and adept at the game, whilst continuing to improve my physical ability and it enabled me to win many matches and championships. This highlights the point that learning skills (again at a young age by preference) can lead to becoming adept in training by subsequently preparing for improving physiological adaptations during later training.
But ‘training’ also needs to have a cognitive component right?
Otherwise we are just going through the motions? Now clearly not all physiological systems training should be done as cognitive training. For example, hypertrophy training requires a protocol different from the one used to train the neural coordination system. Hypertrophy training may constrain movement exploration, yet may promote certain muscle adaptations, like increasing muscle size, that are building blocks to functional performance.
But if we can assume that since this blog is more about making physiological tasks have a cognitive component we need to consider the point that performing skills (even in the weight room) needs to be mindful. This can be achieved obviously with heavy loading which require maximal intent but what about submaximal loads? How do we cultivate and accelerate mental effort to tap into that cognitive component??
The recent burst in ‘functional’ training – training to meet the demands of the environment and placing the athlete in, a mentally challenging environment to illicit cognitive interaction and greater learning and transfer of skills can and has been successfully utilised in sports training. Vern Gambetta brought this into the gym domain with a message to make movements integrated, multi-directional and proprioceptively enriched. This should be applied to all training including strength and power training but so far it has mostly been applied to a lot of single leg balance challenges that are more suited to being a part of a circus act than an exercise that will actually improve performance.
So why don’t we make strength training more ‘functional’ or is the action of gaining strength ‘functional’ by its own definition as it assists in improved performance? A further question still remains if additional cognitive training can be beneficial in the strength training environment where the stimuli of lifting increasing more demanding loads or speeds of movement is the skill in itself. Is their further need for ‘stress’ to placed in the strength training environment?
To help us answer these questions we can draw on a journal article by Ives and Shelley (2003) who discuss the following key points:
MENTAL EFFORT: The challenge
When the athlete has more variability they learn more adaptability and in the end the skill is more robust. When athletes are free to generate their own movement solutions during practice they learn more adaptability when faced with novel performance situations, which may be particularly important for higher-level performers. As such, functional training within an appropriate psychophysical environment provides a setting to exploit movement variability as a mechanism to enhance an athlete’s adaptability, creativity, and spontaneity— all of which can be argued to be hallmarks of the best performances in sport.”
Now we have introduced the need for directed mental effort, attention, intent and movement variability we can introduce the application of these aspects into a coaching framework involving discovery learning.
In summary we can view the role of the coach as guiding the athlete to optimal performance through giving them a clear instruction on the intent we are looking for, and a few attentional cues BUT letting them solve the movement problem!
Working with more Advanced athletes
Now for more advanced athletes where a basic motor pattern is already learnt and there is less variability in the skill then there is a danger that the athlete can get stuck in the motions of doing the reps with less engagement. Here we can introduce the next level of complexity by building in constraints to re-introduce movement variability that was previously now not present.
Weight room example:
So we’ve already seen above that playing around with the equipment and foot position etc can introduce some nice constraints to challenge the movement. But there’s one obvious thing we can do to introduce more movement variability!
Combining a physiological task with a sports skill:
I just wanted to finish by giving another example of how a coach can enhance learning through introduction of constraints: This is perhaps the best way to enhance the specificity of physiological adaptations.
Fabrizio Gargiulo with contributions from Daz Drake
Ives, J.C. and Shelley, G.A., (2003). Psychophysics in Functional Strength and Power
Training: Review and Implementation Framework Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research,
Wulf, G., N.H. McNevin, T. Fuchs, F. Ritter and T. Toole, (2000). Attentional focus in complex skill learning. Res. Q. Exercise. Sport 71:229–239.