Assessing an Athlete’s Readiness

Coaching athletes is the most difficult endeavor I have taken on in my adult life.

Being an athlete is a lot simpler than coaching twenty or more individual athletes. Each athlete is unique in their:

  • Perceived exertion
  • Ways of dealing with stress
  • Abilities to recover
  • Discipline to recover (sleep, nutrition, etc.)
  • Nutritional habits
  • Personality (for example, some will communicate and some won’t)

Athlete testing and monitoring is just a way of gathering information. Your exact protocols for dealing with the information is where the art of coaching comes in. I have an entire class on athlete monitoring this semester, so you can rest assured you will also be getting your fill of knowledge. In this series, we will go into detail about topics such as:

  • Basic athlete readiness
  • GPS tracking
  • Velocity
  • Force plates
  • Detailed data tracking via excel
  • Wearables: the good and not so good
  • Psychological factors

Today we are going to start with basic athlete readiness because all of you can benefit from this knowledge starting Monday morning. Although it’s basic and easy to gather the data, it’s some of the most important data you can receive for your athletes.

Here’s why it is so important. Most of the research performed over the years on programming and periodization was collected in athlete populations in countries like Russia with state sponsored programs where athletes have perfect situations: food, sleep, recovery, etc. The same countries are also known to be riddled with performance enhancing drugs.

Does that mean we should ignore their data, and therefore ignore their programming suggestions? No way! Like with most research, you extrapolate the pertinent information and leave behind the impertinent. First we have to realize that our populations in America, much like the rest of the world, have jobs and/or school. That means they have stress outside of the weight room. They have exams, personal relationships, demands at work, and genetic psychological difficulties.

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Load and Response

When we write a program, most of us are great at taking into consideration the increasing stress implied by the program. However, many of us neglect the other stress in athletes’ lives. One thing we have to remember is that the acute response experienced by our athletes is training load plus life load. Therefore:

Training Load + Life Load = Acute Response

Training Load Considations:

  • Volume – this is simply the weight lifted times the repetitions times the number of sets. This can be tracked in the weight room or on a field of practice like football
  • Average Intensity – average percentage of one’s 1RM handled in a given period
  • Relative Intensity – can be defined as the weight you are using for X amount of reps, relative to the maximum weight you can perform X amount of reps for
  • Frequency – how often one trains or performs a given movement
  • Duration – how long one trains or performs a given movement
  • Injury
  • Diet
  • Sleep

Life Load Considerations:

  • Work
  • Study
  • Relationships
  • Stress
  • Life Events
  • Genetics to handle each

Accumulated ‘acute response’ leads to chronic response. The goal of most training programs is to produce an overreaching response in each athlete’s program right before a predetermined taper. This creates a supercompensation response. But without proper recovery, overreaching becomes overtraining. Then you have a problem that could equal months of a setback or an injury. Now let’s talk about the simplest way to prevent any of this.

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Daily Training Readiness

The easiest way to prevent overtraining is to assess your athletes’ daily readiness. Now there are some complicated and expensive ways, and there are some inexpensive non complicated ways.

Complicated and expensive daily readiness tracking:

  1. GPS – this is one of the latest instruments used in the strength and conditioning world. It tracking an individual athlete’s running speed, distance run, their position on the field, their heart rate, and their body’s work rate.
  2. Force Plate – for high force output sports, some coaches use a force plate to assess force output in movements like an isometric midthigh clean pull or isometric squat from a particular height.
  3. Inertial Measurement Unit – this measures the acceleration and angular velocity of an object along three mutually perpendicular axes. IMUs measure these quantities based on the physical laws of motion.
  4. Velocity Based Training – This measures the velocity of a barbell or person. Velocity is simply the amount of time it takes to cover a specific distance. An easy way to use velocity for daily readiness is to track the velocity of a certain percentage of an athlete’s 1RM in a given movement. If that velocity is 10% less than normal, it’s time to abort. If the velocity is higher than normal, consider pushing things a bit.
  5. Wearables – these monitor biodata including heart rate variability (which is a look at the sympathetic nervous system). Here’s an article that I wrote all about the topic: Diving into Heart Rate Variability. Wearables also monitor sleep resting heart rate, sleep quality, and respiratory rate.
  6. My Fitness Pal – this app allows athletes to track total macronutrients against the amount they should actually be consuming. The app also takes a look at activity levels and calories lost from heat.

Over the coming months, I will dive deep into each of the aforementioned systems, but today I want to give all of you insight regarding some very simple and inexpensive ways to monitor your athletes. I will also give you some insight as in what to do with the information.

Ask Your Athletes

Daily communication is so important. This is where it’s so important to be more than some data collector. You have to sincerely care about the people you are coaching. I like to ask the following questions on a daily basis:

  • How did you sleep?
  • What have you eaten today?
  • How’s school? Any tests?
  • How’s the girlfriend or boyfriend?
  • How’s life?

The goal is to get them talking. Now the problem is this information is very subjective. However, I can also assess their facial expression and their body language. Together with their feedback and body language, I can get a pretty good idea of their daily readiness. I can either decide to intervene immediately, or I can choose to watch them warm up. I can then determine how much I am willing to alter their program based on all data points:

Subjective data points:

  • Body language
  • Verbal responses to readiness questions

Objective data points:

  • Quality of movement in warm ups
  • Velocity of movement
  • Intensity used

For example, if an athlete gets to 70% of a given movement and appears uncoordinated, is looking tired and worn in his or her body language, and answered your readiness question by explaining they were up late studying for a major exam – then that’s a good day to back off, perform some low eccentric bodybuilding, and go home to get some extra sleep and recovery. It’s that simple, but for some reason a lot of coaches struggle with communication and observance of others.

Vertical Leap or Grip Test

A vertical leap is a very common high velocity movement that is used by coaches of athletes from power driven sports like weightlifting or track and field to assess their athletes. The key is obtaining that data from athletes during peak conditions. Then test the vertical leap under the same conditions for the daily test. For example if the original data was taken after a ten-minute warm up, you will need to perform a ten minute warm up prior to the daily test.

If the athlete’s vertical leap is 10% lower than normal, the coach might consider altering the daily plan. Some coaches adjust programs if the daily marker is 5% lower than normal. It really relies on the perception that you intended during the exact period of the training plan. Once again, if 15% lower than normal, I recommend aborting the session all together by performing some low intensity bodybuilding and then going home to sleep, eat, and recover. You can do this exact measurement with a grip test as well.

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These are just a few ways that you might assess the daily readiness of your athletes. The art of coaching comes into play with the actions taken from the data. Some coaches might decide to push through to incite an overreaching response. Some might have the athlete perform some bodybuilding and then go home and recover. Some might lower the volume and intensity slightly and then have the athlete continue the training session. Some coaches might have the athlete abort the session all together, go home and rest. That’s what makes a coach an artist. I just want to give all of you some more tools and skills to sharpen your game a bit. Over the next few weeks, I intend on taking this series a lot deeper. I hope that you all will come along on the ride.

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