Simple Ways to Monitor Athlete Nervous Systems

The performance of a coach’s athlete sometimes seems to be a mystery.

I have personally spent hours putting together a program only to have an athlete perform poorly. I have thrown programs together only to witness lifetime personal records.

What does all of this mean? Is it luck? Well, the truth is sometimes it is – but there are so many factors we aren’t accounting for that could very well be the reason for success or failure.

PNS and CNS

Right now, I mainly coach my athletes at Lenoir-Rhyne University – along with my high-level super studs from around the world trying to dominate. On any given day, my athletes are dealing with high workloads, stress from exams, relationship issues, lack of sleep, time constraints, forced skipped meals, financial worries, fluctuating biorhythms, and more. All of this leading to PNS fatigue or worse CNS fatigue.

Now this is not an article debating CNS v PNS fatigue. I find those arguments interesting, since really, they work so closely together. At the end of the day, the peripheral nervous system is either following the orders of the central nervous system or sending the CNS information.

You can think of the CNS as the CEO of the entire body making all of the big decisions, and the PNS as workers on the street either carrying out the orders of the CNS/CEO or sending the CNS/CEO information being gathered on the street (aka our bodies). However, it’s this information being passed to the CNS that actually stimulates a sympathetic nervous system response or a parasympathetic nervous system response.

The goal is to spend more time in a parasympathetic nervous system state, since that is a more calming state for the body. The more we can stay in a parasympathetic state will relate to improvements in digestion, respiration, lower blood pressure, and a reduced heart rate. All of these factors leave the body not only feeling fresh and ready for training, but physiologically the body is ready to perform.

On the other hand, when an athlete spends excessive amounts of time in a sympathetic state, their heart rate is increased, blood pressure is increased, digestion is impaired, cortisol is released, and adrenal glands are fatigued. None of this is good for an athlete trying to improve, especially at the higher levels.

Measurement

What can a coach do to help? We can only suggest that our athletes get sleep. We can only give suggestions regarding proper nutritional choices. We can tell them until we are blue in the face to get off of their cellphones an hour prior to bed, and yet they are still in control of their lives. Does this mean that we are powerless? May it never be!

We have the power of data collection, which can help us predict trends. Here are a few data points to track:

  • Questionnaire
  • Test/Cortisol Ratios
  • RFD
  • Velocity
  • Vertical Leap
  • Absolute Strength

None of these matters unless you consider the relationship with the variables or variables of importance. For example, as a weightlifting coach I need to see how each variable trends with the snatch and clean and jerk of each athlete. If the snatch and clean and jerk are numerically unaffected by a particular variable, then that variable is definitely not as significant in relation to performance. I might consider that particular variable regarding overall health, but it probably won’t matter in relation to improved performance in a competition.

Let’s take a look at each variable. We’ll discuss how the following information could easily help coaches in track and field, powerlifting, weightlifting, and just about any sport.

Questionnaire

What are the questions you are asking your athletes? Here are a few that I suggest:

  • Rate your sleep on a scale from 1-5
  • Rate your nutrition on a scale from 1-5
  • Score your overall rate of perceived exertion on a scale from 1-5
  • Rate your stress levels in the classroom on a scale from 1-5
  • Rate your stress levels regarding your relationships on a scale from 1-5
  • Rate your performance anxiety on a scale from 1-5

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If you are coaching higher level athletes, you might consider separating out the nutrition and sleep into categories of their own. You can look at sleep on a few different levels. A simple way is tracking the number of hours of sleep per night, and the other is with a wearable like the ‘Whoop’ tracking the quality of sleep. You can do the same with nutrition, tracking total calories and preferably separating the macronutrients. It would be really wise to see how sleep and nutrition trend with performance. Normally those two will trend really closely with performance within a range.

What I mean by a range is that performance will be fairly stable from 7-9 hours for most – but when they dip below the 7 hours, performance will tend to be almost immediately affected. The same can be said for nutrition. Most athletes can fluctuate 250-500 calories, but if they drop below that range, obviously performance and recovery are affected.

Test/Cortisol Ratios and levels

This seems like quite the task, but there are some simple tests out there that are actually somewhat affordable. The endocrine system gives us some real insight into which branch of the autonomic nervous system is really running the show. If your athlete is spending the majority of his or her time in the sympathetic nervous system, then their cortisol levels are going to be elevated. Once again, the key is establishing trends.

Rate of Force Development

There are several ways to measure RFD, but in simple terms it is the time it takes to reach maximal force production. A force plate is needed for a reliable reading, so this one might not be practical for everyone. This is one of the advantages I have with being in the university setting. RFD is normally going to trend well with sprinting, weightlifting, throwing, or jumping.

Velocity

This one has become the favorite of many top strength and conditioning coaches. It’s a bit more simple to measure than RFD, and thanks to my friends at GymAware, it’s now quite affordable with their ‘Flex Unit’ (Discount available here). One way to easily track trends is to pick a percentage that can easily be elicited by the athlete on a daily basis like 75-80%. Like RFD, velocity will normally trend nicely with explosive movements like sprinting, weightlifting, vertical leap, and throwing.

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Vertical Leap

If you have a jump mat, this one is very easy to monitor on a daily basis. Since the vertical leap is simply a product of RFD, this one can be a nice fill in. The key is to ensure the athlete is performing this and all the tests in the same manner. Preferably, you will want to ensure the athlete works out the same time of day with the same warm up, same verbal cues, and same motivational encouragement. If an athlete is competing with another student during this test, they need to compete with the same student athlete every day.

Absolute Strength

Now some people don’t like the idea of squatting heavy or deadlifting heavy on a consistent basis. However, working up consistently to 85% in the back squat, deadlift, or bench press (while monitoring the velocity) isn’t so demanding on the body. However, this will show trends in strength improvements in relation to explosive movements. Coach Dan Schaefer (soon to be Dr. Schaefer) did a great job of this with the track team at Florida State University while he was their head strength and conditioning coach.

Next week I am going to release a video teaching you guys how to build an excel sheet that will show trends, and that will tell you the correlation. Your sheets will look something like this:

I believe the next trend in strength and conditioning is going to be athlete monitoring – with an emphasis on data collection along with correlation. It’s already started with sports that have lots of money on the line and is slowly making its way into the more niche sports like weightlifting. You could use this type of data collection for weightlifting, powerlifting, sprinting, throwing, and many other sports with quantifiable outcomes.

Understanding the data is only half the battle. When a coach knows what to do with the data, then they’re dangerous to their competitors. Individualization is the future of all sports including the strength sports. It’s only with data that a coach can truly quantify his or her decisions. Therefore, you can either stick your lip out grumbling about how you don’t need this, or you can take some time to learn. Whether you become obsolete or not is up to you. I am simply trying to help all of you.

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