The Importance of Athlete Monitoring by Tony Kauth

[Tony Kauth is currently a senior studying Exercise and Sport Science at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and an Applied Sports Science Intern at Athletic Lab.]

Why Monitoring is Important:

What if you never knew how your athletes were feeling? What if you started every training session with no consideration to adjust for how ready to train your athletes are? It would be crazy to consider this, but coaches do it all the time. You’ve probably asked your athletes at some point how they’re feeling. Whether you realize it or not, this is athlete monitoring in its simplest form. The amazing thing about sport science is that it allows those using it to get as complex as they desire. There can be a lot for a coach to consider, so the following are some ideas to understand why monitoring is important and how to find what’s best for you.

The Objective and Subjective Measurement:

When we ask our athletes how they are feeling, we gain subjective information. This is important because when athletes feel tired, stressed, distracted, or sore, they likely will not perform to their best ability. The problem with subjective information is that it does not tell us how physically ready their body is for training. That’s where objective measurements come in. It can be difficult to gain objective information, especially with large teams, but the value in this information is that it can be compared to the subjective data. An athlete may say they feel ready to train, but objectively their body is not, and training can be adjusted to protect the body. Alternatively, an athlete may say they are tired, but objectively, their body is responding well and training could be kept at a demanding level because the athlete is physically ready for it, so long as their attitude and performance does not diminish throughout the session. Saw et al (2016) suggests that subjective measurements are more accurate in reflecting acute and chronic changes in training load than objective measure, so if it is only possible to obtain one method, subjective data may be more beneficial. This being said, a mixed method approach, utilizing subjective and objective data collection, is still very useful as it allows for another comparison to be made and considered.

How to Gather Data:

When gathering data, the most important thing is to interrupt training as little as possible, which can be difficult especially for daily monitoring, but modern technology can help. With most athletes having access to their cell phone, daily surveys are a great way to gain subjective data. Explaining the importance of this and that their answers are only to help ensure their training is appropriate and beneficial, can help with adherence. Asking athletes to take the survey at a regularly scheduled time is also beneficial, such as when they wake up or right before training. Surveys can be as long or short as you feel necessary, but should only contain the questions that you as the coach find most beneficial. Searching online will provide countless resources to surveys already developed if you don’t know what to include. This could be produced simply by using a Google Form or utilizing a service such as Fit For 90.

Objective data can be more difficult to gather. Again, it is especially important that this data is taken in a fashion that interferes with training as little as possible and does not cause fatigue to the athletes. It could be possible to incorporate an objective measure as part of training, so long as the conditions are consistent for monitoring purposes. If your budget allows it, GPS data can be very valuable as it provides total distance covered, change of direction, and rate of acceleration. Many GPS systems have easy to use analysis software as well. Other objective data could include end range of motion measurements, reactive strength index (RSI), heart rate variability (HRV), or the talk test. It could even get as complex as saliva or blood sampling to measure hormonal and blood lactate responses to training. When selecting a test, it is important to understand which is most applicable to your sport and what you’re looking to use the information for, as some data is more or less beneficial for speed-power athletes versus endurance athletes.

Common Considerations to Make:

When monitoring athletes, there are numerous amounts of considerations to make. However, to be efficient, there are three main categories that should always be considered: fatigue, general stress, and readiness to train.

Fatigue can be looked at many ways. It is important to obtain an objective measure of muscular and central nervous system fatigue in order to better understand your athlete’s physical readiness. Sleep duration and quality is also a factor of fatigue. It is important to understand that while nine hours of sleep may be ideal for every athlete, most don’t obtain this, and many may not have to. Some athletes may only need six to seven hours of sleep to be fully rested, where others may need upwards of ten. Either way, most athletes could benefit from more sleep and a good guideline is to suggest to your athletes that they ease into increasing duration. It can seem like a daunting task to add one or two more hours of sleep, so increasing by fifteen minutes every week may be more reasonable and help athletes to create a good habit.

Stress can be very taxing on the body (2015) and ultimately lead to impairments in focus, energy, recovery, and fatigue. As coaches (especially in strength and conditioning), we intentionally put stress onto our athletes because we understand the adaptations that can occur and improve performance. While we plan this into their training, we must understand that the stress we create is one-dimensional. An athlete is only with us for 2-5 hours per day, leaving 19-22 hours for them to become stressed about other things in their life. Athletes often have other commitments alongside their sport training such as meetings, travel, film study, school work, and media engagements.

Fatigue and stress make up the third category of readiness to train. This can be defined many different ways but should consider things such as how well the athlete appears to be moving, their level of focus and desire to train that day, as well as some objective data such as end range of motion measurements or RSI. Monitoring readiness to train should consider a comprehensive analysis of the athlete’s well-being while analyzing their effects on the specific demands of the sport, or daily training session.

Utilization:

Some coaches place such a high priority on athlete readiness that they will end a practice early, or not even allow their athletes to train if they appear fatigued. Other coaches will push their athletes no matter their level of fatigue. Lack of readiness (due to fatigue or stress) could lead to decreased athlete safety, the coach should always make a strong justification for determining the effort and duration of practice. Otherwise, training under fatigue is likely best left to the coach’s discretion. Some sports are often competed under high amounts of stress, where training under similar situations may be beneficial, even if the quality of practice decreases. The opposite may also be true, however. The sport coach is likely the one who knows the demands of the sport best, and understands how their athletes will respond to training under less than ideal readiness and the benefits that may be gained. It is important to consider, however, that competitive anxiety does not appear to influence sport performance (Robb, 1990), and that athletes who keep stress low during training are potentially better prepared to compete (Gutmann et al, 1984). In other words, while many athletes experience competitive stress, the need to train in stressful situations for the purpose of increasing readiness to perform under stress in competition, may not be needed. While those of us working with athletes know that they rarely train, or even compete fully rested and ready, incorporating a method of monitoring can be a very beneficial tool to help us determine if we need to adjust our training to help our athletes succeed. The most important thing is to be creative with how you monitor your athletes and do what is most efficient.

References:

(2015). The effects of stress on athletic performance. Sports 961. Retrieved from https://sports-961.com/effects-stress-athletic-performance/

Gutmann, M. C., Pollock, M. L., Foster, C., & Schmidt, D. (1984). Training stress in Olympic speed skaters: a psychological perspective. The Physician and Sportsmedicine, 12(12). Retrieved from http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/citedby/10.1080/00913847.1984.11702009?scroll=top&needAccess=true

Robb, J. D. (1990). The effect of competitive anxiety and reinforcement on the performance of collegiate student-athletes. Retrieved from Oregon PDF Digital Dissertations. (Catalog ID: PSY 1489)

Saw, A. E., Main, L. C., & Gastin, P.B. (2016). Monitoring the athlete training response: subjective self-reported measure trump commonly used objective measures: a systematic review. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 50(2). Retrieved from http://bjsm.bmj.com/content/50/5/281

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Mike Young

Director of Performance at Athletic Lab
Mike is the Head Fitness Coach for the North Carolina Courage and North Carolina FC. He is also the owner and Director of Performance at Athletic Lab sports performance training center. He previously served as the fitness coach for the Vancouver Whitecaps and Carolina Railhawks. He has a PhD in Biomechanics, an MS in Coaching Science, and a BSS in Exercise Physiology and has coached Olympic and professional athletes in Skeleton, Track & Field, MLS and NASL Soccer, PGA Golf, NFL Football, MLB Baseball and Olympic Weightlifting. He has lectured around the world and authored 2 books and dozens of research and coaching articles.