Thursday, September 30, 2010

Planning and programming of training in sport games

I started this article in May 2010, before coming to Boston, but I have never finished it. My plan is to use it as a template to write a book in near future. 
This unfinished article covers structure of sport games and starts with the analysis part which is where I stopped. I may finish this one day. Anyway, enjoy!

Planning and programming of training in sport games


            As strength and conditioning coach in team sports (a sub-group of sport games) I wanted to express my opinions regarding problems to planning and programming of training in sport games and present a possible solution. It is also a great time to do so – before the biggest sport event after Olympic Games: FIFA World Cup that will be held in South Africa. I really want to finish this article before I can sit back and relax, drink a bunch of beer and cheer for Serbian National Team.  Hopefully I will have some time to do so since I will be at MBSC in Boston doing internship. 

          Before you start reading this article, please note that it represents my thoughts on the problems and possible solutions and that you should look at it as 'critical thinking discussion' and make your own solutions. As always, I somehow needed to put my thoughts on paper (don't all writers has similar 'urge' to do so? Like something is making them to do it... plain weird!) to fulfill my strong rationality and possibly gain feedback on it via healthy critical discussion which I hardly await. Look at this article this way, not something written in stone or another internet-guru-said-so dogma.
Classification and structure of sport games
            When one friend of mine, Ognjen Milić called our common friend Jovan Buha (currently doing internship with Chicago Bulls) and asked what I was doing, his sarcastic remark was „Mladen is doing some classifications!“. I am famous within the circle of my friends and athletes to be very 'pedantic' regarding terms and classifications, since wrong or poorly defined terms lead to wrong thoughts and wrong thoughts finally lead to wrong actions and decisions. This can happen very often, especially when people use same words for different stuff, or argue about the same stuff with different terms. It happens all the time. 

             So, to fulfill my extreme rational 'fetish' of classifications, before we even start to identify problems of planning in sport games, we need to deal with... drums please... classification and terminology (yeah, I know – Boring, but important and I will try to keep it short and interesting, or at least, as Lyle McDonald pointed out, make you fall asleep a lot easier). Having this well defined will as a result provide us with the tool with which we can define problems and solutions without too much confusion. 

            For sport games classification I will use classification template from Teaching Sport Concepts and Skills book which is a recommended resource (see the literature and suggested reading section). 
         The authors classified sport games to following categories: (1) Invasion games (2) Net/Wall games, (3) Striking/Fielding games and (4) Target games. 

Invasion games
Net/Wall games
Striking/Fielding games
Target games
·         Basketball
·         Netball
·         Team handball
·         Water polo
·         Soccer
·         Hockey
·         Lacrosse
·         Rugby
·         Football
·         Ultimate Frisbee
·         Badminton
·         Tennis
·         Table tennis
·         Pickleball
·         Volleyball
·         Racquetball
·         Squash
·         Handball
·         Baseball
·         Softball
·         Rounders
·         Criket
·         Kickball
·         Golf
·         Crouquet
·         Bowling
·         Lawn bowling
·         Pool
·         Biliards
·         Snooker

            Here is the short description of each game category from the book (page 20-21). 
 Invasion games. In invasion games teams score by moving a ball (or other projectile) into another team's territory and either shooting into a fixed target (a goal or basket) or moving the projectile across an open-ended target (across a line). To prevent scoring, one team must stop the other from bringing the ball in its own territory and attempting to score. Solving these offensive and defensive problems requires similar tactics in various invasion games even though many of the required skills are different. For example, while players must understand the need to shoot in order to score in both floor hockey and team handball, the striking and throwing skills used to shoot in these two games are very different. Movement off the ball is common across all invasion games. Offensive players must move without the ball and position themselves so that they can receive passes from teammates and threaten the goal. The defensive components of invasion games are also similar in that players must mark or guard opponents and must pressure the ball carrier before attempting to win the ball. Effective decision making is critical, with players deciding whether to pass, shoot or move with the ball and deciding to when, where and how to move when they do not individually possess the ball.

Net/Wall games. In net/wall games, teams or individual players score by hitting a ball into a court space with sufficient accuracy and power so that opponents cannot hit it back before it bounces once (as in badminton or volleyball) or twice (as in tennis or racquetball). In all these games shot placement is at premium in that players must hit to an open space in order to win points. Court awareness is important so that a player can move an opponent around the court in order to create the spaces needed to attack. On the other hand, players must also defend spaces, usually on their side of the net, to best position themselves to return the ball. Player needs to decide on their own strengths and weaknesses, and of those of opponents, before selecting and executing skills. Decisions by any player must also account for the court positioning of all players involved in a game.

Striking/Fielding games. In striking/fielding games such as softball, baseball and cricket, players on the batting team must strike a ball with sufficient accuracy and power so that it eludes players on the fielding team and gives the hitter time to run between two destinations (bases or wickets). As in net/wall game, player attempt to place the ball in gaps between fielders in order to maximize the run scoring of each hit. Decisions regarding where (accuracy) and how (power or placement) to hit a ball are based on the positioning of the fielders and on the type of ball or pitch delivered. To prevent scoring, players on the fielding team must position themselves so they can gather and throw a ball to the base or wicket to which the hitter is running before the hitter reaches it. Fielding decisions, particularly those concerning a fielders positioning, are based on the relative strengths and weaknesses of the pitcher or bowler and of the batter, and also (perhaps) on the score in the game.

Target games. In target games, player score by throwing or striking a ball to a target. Some target games are unopposed (e.g. golf, tenpin bowling) while others are opposed (e.g. lawn bowling, croquet, shuffleboard) in that one participant is allowed to block or hit opponent's ball. In opposed target games, players prevent scoring by hitting opponent's ball to disadvantageous position relative to the target. Decision making is much more individualized than in other game categories, primarily focused on the player's own personal strengths and weaknesses or perhaps on equipment, such as in selecting a club before a shot in golf.  

            The take home message here is that the sports from the same game category (e.g. soccer and field hockey) shares similar if not the same tactical problems, yet they differ in technical/movement solutions to those problems. This is the foundation of the concept of transfer of tactical knowledge in games (see „Teaching Sport Concepts and Skills“ for more info on this very subject).  So, the next time someone tells you „You know, my sport is really special and really different from other sports“ you can show him finger (note: this is a joke!). Taking also into account physical preparation needs of sport games, we can conclude that sport games are more similar than different, but remember: the devil is in details! 

            On the following picture I tried to develop a conceptual scheme of the basic structure of all sport games, which we will use for further discussions, where I will mainly refer to examples from invasion and net/wall games. 

            As already noted, games (especially from a same category) share similar tactical problems, which can be further divided into problems of (1) scoring, (2) preventing scoring, (3) restarting play and (4) transitioning. This is the same as phases of the game: (1) offense or attack phase, (2) defense phase, (3) restarting play (e.g. goal kick-off, throw-in, free kick, corner kick) which can be in offense or defense phase for a given team and (4) transition. Transition is a short, but very important phase, between attack and defense phase and vice versa, where the players must re-organize (in tactical and strategic sense, but also from one psychological/mental state to another) from attack phase to defense phase (e.g. when they loss a ball possession) or defense to attack phase (e.g. when they steal a ball). In basketball, for example, transition phase is very well defined (the carry-over of the ball toward opposite basket/half of field) compared to volleyball, where transition phase happens every time the ball goes over the net and is more subtle. Anyway, transition phase is very important and as a proof of this there is a higher and higher percentage of the scores done through fast attack and counter-attack. Thus, for a team to be successful it must also have very quick and efficient transition phase. 

            Since the mentioned phases are common to all sport games, individual games do have their own special elements which are sub-groups of the mentioned four phases of the game. Ok, now the mentioned „my-sport-is-special“ guy can show me the finger (note: this is a joke!). On the following picture there are conceptual elements of volleyball game. I know this is not important for the further discussion, but I wanted to you my sleazy graphs and volleyball knowledge (note: this is a joke too!).

Without going into volleyball structural analysis, the take home point is that there is a lot of similarities between games in terms of tactical problems, and where they differ are solutions to those problems, especially in on the ball skills or technical elements/skills. 

            Solutions for mentioned tactical problems are (1) decision making or tactical skills, (2) on the ball skills or technical elements/skills, and (4) off the ball movements or movement patterns. 

            Decision making. Decision making can be further divided to (1) decisions while in possession of the ball (team on attack and defense) and (2) decisions while not in possession of the ball (team on attack and defense). It is interesting to note that most of the time a given player is without the ball and only small percentage of the game he is in the possession of the ball. This is why decisions while not in possession of the ball (both in attack and defense) and off the ball movements are very important, so much that it can be said that the games are played without the ball. Anyway, even being at very low percentage of the game, on the balls skills and on decision while in possession of the ball are the ones that usually decide on the final outcome. As we said, devil is in details. You can look at this as famous „iceberg under water“ concept. 

            What we usually see when we watch a given game is the player that is in the possession of the ball and a small area around him, because that's where the action is. But, as iceberg on the picture shows, decisions while in possession of the ball and on the ball skills are only the tip of the iceberg (important though; remember the devil?), yet the gross amount of the game is played 'under the surface' or without the ball. Laypeople don't see this, and even a lot of coaches fall into trap by using short-sighted approach to qualitative analysis by looking only at the 'tip of the iceberg'. 

One example of this 'spotlight phenomena' (please put copyright on this term) is that when looking at the player in possession of the ball and the players around him, an observer will for sure note how much there is high-intensity movements, running and stuff, which can lead to poor training suggestions (e.g. utilizing too much glycolitic work). Even if inside the 'eye of the cyclone' (sorry for being poetic) there is all the rage, at a bigger scale players are trotting around most of the time. Ten to fourteen kilometers in ninety minutes is the number that is usually thrown as a result of time-motion analysis of soccer. Well, that is on average 6.6 to 9.3 km/h for the duration of the game. You are right, that is a real slow jog, even a walk. More important, the goalkeeper is doing similar values. 

This is why seeing the forest from the trees is so important, along with having perfectly defined terms, classifications and other fancy stuff I am good at (note: this is a joke), because this will not lead us to poor thoughts and poor actions and training decisions.

What makes a good decision making? Currently, this is a hot topic of research, but in short it is perception skills or being attuned to specific environmental cues which comes with a lot of specific practice (solving and solving and solving tactical problems again and again). If I  want you to learn to multiply, would I ask you to multiply 2 X 6 ten times in a row? No, because you will do multiplying only during the first trial, and later only mechanically repeat the number 12. The solution is to guide the players toward discovery by putting them into more and more difficult tactical problems and demanding of them to solve it („2X6? 3X4? 6X7?“).   

As a strength coach I should probably mention that in agility tasks, advanced players have shorter reaction time, because of their better perception and decision making skills. Usually, a lot of S/C devise change of direction drills (“sprint there, carioca over her, cut at that cone, decelerate over here” kind of drills) as agility training. Note that those drills are not without meaning, just they lack perceptual and decision making component. I have just saw a coach training a boxer with ball catching to improve his ‘reaction’. Guess what, isn’t going to happen, since catching a ball and evading the cross or throwing one are two different skills with no transfer and with very specific and different perceptual cues.  Similar thing happens in agility training in sport games: coaches put the drill out of context and forget about the environmental cues that are very specific and crucial. I almost got in a fight with one coach saying that serving machine in tennis or volleyball is very good investment. I told him that is B.S., since the receiver doesn’t practice perceptual skills and decision making. This is same to ‘iceberg concept’: people think that the key is what they see, but instead the important thing is ‘under the surface’. If someone is interested, I have written a final paper on the subject of agility (“Training and testing agility in sports”), but unfortunately it is only available on Serbian. Anyway, I will return to this subject later on with one the ball skills and off the ball movements. 

It is also interesting to note that decisions are usually not the result of 'conscious' processes (except during the initial phases of learning – verbal cognitive phase), but rather emergent unconscious process. If you think, you are already too late. Have you ever wondered “who decides” when to shoot in basketball? Are you making a conscious decision when to shoot, or the decision somehow emerges and you just do it? What about when you are too anxious (for example in front of loud audience) and you start thinking what are you doing and how? Yes, you suck in that situation, making sloppy moves and poor decision, and making yourself spiraling down into more anxiety. Without going into the philosophical problems of the “contra-causal free will” and all that dualism~naturalism, determinism~free will squiggles, although I would love to quote Daniel Dennett, Sartre and even Buddha (note: yes, a joke!), I must admit that decisions seems to be emergent, self-organizing processes that depends on the environmental cues, perceived affordances (see the ecological psychology) and inner states (e.g. fatigue, anxiety) without too much conscious contribution. Have you ever wondered could you have done otherwise? Well, that is philosophical question and I suggest you look at some Daniel Dennett YouTube video (note: it may seem as a joke, but it is not; if you are really interested into philosophy, according to Kant, the problem of free will is one of three major problems of philosophy and the modern cognitive psychology, and yes I am that weird!)

  So, the goal of the decision making training is to make athletes more attuned to specific environmental cues by manipulating constraints of the game. You should allow athletes to discover solutions and guide them to it, rather than telling them what to do. If you are more interested on the topic, I suggest you check literature on constraints-led approach of skill acquisition and ecological psychology

This brings me to the problem of set plays vs. developing intelligent players. I am by no means a fan of either/or logic, but I rather think complimentary (you know, that yin-yang shit). Too many coaches insist on developing set plays or schemes that are not flexible or sensitive to perturbations that happen in a game. So you have „do this or you are going out you MF!“ coaches that insists on doing set plays in strict way defined by themselves. He also have an „action book“ which players need to memorize to the bone, and when he calls an action you have to do it as defined by the book. Very orthodox and very dogmatic. Those coaches usually devise X-0 games/drills (e.g. 3-0, 5-0, 11-0), meaning that players practice defined patterns of movements or set plays without opponent and usually only with a markers or something. You know: run there, do that, return here, etc kind of drills. When they try to use this in a real game/match, change one thing, and you will get confused players that don't know what to do.

On contrary, developing intelligent players means „teaching them how to fish“, attuning them to specific cues in a game, teaching them tactical principles, and allowing them to make decisions on their own. Contrary to set plays, one should utilize good evaluation of strengths and weaknesses of his own team and individual players and opposing team (this is called strategy or game plan). This kind of information represents a form of constraint that can guide players to better decisions. One can also devise a small sided games, where one uses information collected by scouting opponents, e.g. if the team is about to play against a team that have bad defense when attacking from the flank, the coach can guide his players to attack from flank by giving more score points for such an attack, or something like that. 

As I have said, I am complimentary kind of guy, and that means that both (set plays and emergent decision training) can and should be used depending on the goal and the context.  Which one is better: a hammer or scalpel? If you want to hit some nail, for sure hammer is better, but you don’t want to do the surgical procedure with it. Context and goals determine the tool/approach you are going to use. My opinion is that teaching them how to fish is better long-term solution compared to giving them a fish which is better as short term solution. Sometimes you need both. 

To conclude, decision making is emergent process constrained by environmental cues, experience, perceptual skill, and inner states (e.g. fatigue, anxiety).

On the ball skills (technical elements/skills). On the ball skills are the ‘tools’ (along with off the ball movements) with which athletes usually solve tactical problems, and these technical skills are the elements that distinguish games within category. Technical skills are those special details. Depending on the sport (and specific role or position within), technical skill proficiency may be of utmost importance. Take for example volleyball. Since it is more or less tactically simple game (due it’s predictable patterns of pass-set-hit and no physical contact) compared to, for example soccer, the technical proficiency is of utmost importance. This is because contact with the ball is very short, and if one player screw up, sequentially the whole team action will be screwed. 

What is motor skill? In short, motor skill is the ability to solve motor/movement problems. Usually, people are only perceiving and thus defining as motor skill the perceived movement. This is tip of the iceberg, too, and I don’t think that splitting decision making and/or perception from the equation, except for sake of discussion is a way to define motor skill.  Motor skill is more than movement, and it cannot be put, practiced and acquired when separated from it’s environmental context. I again recommend checking ecological psychology and constraints-led approach literature. 

For example, take passing in soccer. If you practice pass mechanics against a wall, you will not gain perceptual-movement couplings needed to really judge the distance and thus power needed to successfully pass to a moving teammate. This is not the skill, it is a mechanical action, a dead pattern. Again, take care of not using either/or logic; sometimes you need to isolate the skill from the environmental context and practice it’s mechanics. But if you really want to develop skill, you need to develop perceptual-movement coupling in more and more complex ways. In motor control literature, this is called simplification. Taking soccer passing example, one can practice passing when standing with a teammate, then moving, then adding passive opponent, etc, etc. 

There are numerous questions to be answered regarding the motor skill acquisition, whether the blocked is better or worse than random practice, whole practice versus part practice, slow motion practice, usage of descriptive versus prescriptive feedback, guided discovery and stuff like that. If you are interested on the topic check out the suggested reading section. 

It interesting to note that traditional games coaching/teaching puts great emphasis on acquisition of technical elements. “But coach, when we are about to play the game?”. Yes, it takes years to master certain technical elements, and their development should always be present, more or less, in every training session, but they can also be game-like (with performance goals for example) and fun, compared to boring drilling. Also, the concept of working technique allows a beginner to practice decision making and learning tactical skills in modified games and have fun, by utilizing modified technique, which serves a temporal vehicle toward perfection of the technical skill. You can find more about this concept in Play Practice by Alan Launder. 

 Kicking out decision making, by devising drills with known what to do, where to pass, etc, is a way to emphasize technical skill training and this can be created to be more fun, by demanding a given performance (e.g. the winner with the most precise passes avoids doing push-ups). This will create competitive game-like drill that is fun.

It is interesting to note that Teaching Games for Understanding (TGfU) model of sport games learning, which is the basis of this article, uses the following session structure. You start with a modified game, and then you ask questions to athletes regarding a given performance factor (e.g. tactical skill or technical skill) and guide them to solution, then you isolate and practice that performance factor in modified small sided game or game-like drill, and then you finish with a modified game where the players can utilize what they have learnt. This goes well with the Socrates opinion that “real insight comes from inside”, meaning that practicing isolated drills first, without making the athlete aware of its function in a given game, and not guiding them to the insight that improving that particular element will improve their game play is very short-sighted. As an athlete I always wanted to know why we are doing what we do. Making me go through a self-revealing modified small sided-game and making me see the cause-and-effect, instead of telling me, will make me more aware of the importance, more motivated and more reflective.    

Some prominent coaches  in martial arts have also come to same conclusion to what was told here, like Matt Thornton from Straight Blast Gym, and Rodney King and his Crazy Monkey Defense (which I highly recommend to anyone interested in martial arts).

Since if this article may represent a nice template for a book I am planning to write, I will not go into too much details and discussion regarding the decision making and motor skill acquisition. But, I need to cover couple of more fundamental concepts.

Fist, does optimal/perfect technique model exists? You know, “Do it like this or else!”. Recent research on variability of human movement have brought some new insights on this issue. To make the long story short, there is no optimal/perfect technique. Athletes always show an amount of variability and variability is good, because it shows the flexibility and adaptability of the movement system (as a side note, a variability in human physiology have gained a lot of interest which can be for example showed by more and more interest in HRV, or heart rate variability). Which means that we should not insists on “dynamic stereotype” and mechanistic view of the technical skill, but rather allow our athletes to experiment through a given right to make mistakes and to allow them to find their own optimal motor/movement solution, taking into account our guidance and knowledge of biomechanical principles of effective and efficient movement.  Principles are important, not “stereotypes”!

Technical elements or technical skills can be further divided into fundamental and advanced. As you know, you need to master the fundamentals first. But, a lot of people forget that. Keep it simple, and do the basics first. 

Every technical element has three phases: (1) preparatory phase, (2) execution phase and (3) follow through phase. Each of these three phases has its own (1) perceptual, (2) movement and (3) conceptual or tactical components. When analyzing or instructing technical skill, one should be familiar with all these factors.  I suggest a look at “Sport Skill Instruction For Coaches” by Craig Wrisberg

I must also notice my own quest to answer the difference between skills and abilities. This complementary pair (skill~ability) is the basis of contemporary training theory and the splitting the training into practices and training, or skill learning and conditioning. Further, this is also fundamental of having a strength coach and head coach. One deals with abilities and other with the skills.

Well, aren’t abilities just generalized motor skills? If you ask a powerlifter he will for sure tell you that squat is a skill, but we usually use squat testing to assess the maximum strength of the legs, and make correlations toward given skill execution. This way, we define motor abilities that are underneath a given motor/technical skill. We say to do an efficient skill of spiking and/or blocking in volleyball, one should have explosive strength in the legs (which is again assessed by jumping). But aren’t abilities and technical skills just different motor skills with more or less transfer between them (depending on the level of the athlete and their own individual levels)?

Just today I was doing medical check-up for my driving license. When I entered psychologist room, she gave me to do basic reaction time test, and then she put me on some device where you need to track the needle down some course by rotating two wheels, one with right hand and the second with the left hand. I asked her, what the hell this has to do with driving. She replied that the test was supposed to test hand-eye coordination, which is very important for driving. Yeah, right! I didn’t want to go into the scientific argument, because others are waiting for the same test, but this is the stuff I have the issue with. Are there any general abilities at all, or specific skills with more or less transfer between? IMHO, tracking needle, even if assess some hand-eye coordination, it assesses hand-eye coordination in needle tracking, not driving.

As a part of our coach education, we must be able to do various motor and factor analysis, and make statements regarding which ability is underlying a proficient skill execution (cross study). Then, if we improve a given ability, then the skill execution will improve (longitudinal study). This is may be called common sense and it represent the basis of strength coaches education and coaches in general. Chicken or the egg problem? Or maybe not? “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”, as Shakespeare will tell you. This is the problem I am currently contemplating and ought to find complimentary solution to this.

Off the ball movements. Finally, the bottom of the iceberg. Off the ball movements can be done when the team is attacking (e.g. supporting) and when the team is in defense (e.g. covering). 

Based on Ian Jeffreys' work on agility, we can classify off the ball movements into three categories: (1) initiation, (2) transition and (3) actualization movement patterns.

Initiation movement patterns. With initiation movement patterns, athlete is preparing to initiate or change motion. This normally involves a very short and quick movement that allows athletes to start or change the current movement, usually in response to an external stimulus. Typical patterns include cross-step, or a directional step,  plyo-step, lateral cutting or cut-step, hip turn and so on (see DVDs by Lee Taft for further information on the mentioned movement patterns). Motor abilities necessary to perform these movements are explosive leg power (triple extension), the relative strength (strength in relation to its own weight), reactive strength, eccentric leg strength, the strength of the lateral hip muscles and hip rotators, as well as quick repositioning of the feet (known as Quick-feet) to the optimum position for achieving maximum ground reaction force. 

Transition movement patterns. With transition movement patterns the only concern is to keep athlete in a favorable position in which he can perceive and respond to the external stimulus from the environment. The aim of the transition movement pattern is not the achievement of maximum speed, but rather, optimum execution of transition movement patterns is geared toward achieving optimal body posture and maintaining it for a quick response. In most sports, movements such as running backwards, sideways movement (known as side shuffle), small steps (known as chop-steps) and walking are the most common transition  movements, and are rarely performed over long distances or with high intensity. Motor abilities that are necessary for the execution of transition movements are local muscular/leg endurance (due static positions, e.g. the base position, the athletic position) and aerobic endurance (due the fact that transition movements represent gross amount of movements done, usually as low intensity and between more intensive initiation and actualization movement patterns, during which athletes must recover and replenish his ATP/CP stores).

Actualization movement patterns. Actualization movement patterns ultimately determine the success of movement sequence, and usually include a technical skill or sprint to a certain position. At this point, athlete reacted to the stimulus, and his goal is to reach a certain position as quickly as possible, or to perform a technical skill, characteristic for the sport. In an attempt to reach a certain position as quickly as possible, athletes will often use the quickest way of motion, and that is the straight line sprint. Actualization movement patterns may also include a cross-over run, high-intensity side shuffle. Motor abilities necessary to perform actualization movement patterns depends on the technical skill executed, but for a linear sprint (usually and acceleration from 0-40m, even shorter in most sport games) the following abilities are necessary: explosive leg power, reactive power of the legs, relative strength of the legs.

There can be numerous combinations of initiation, transition and actualization movement patters that are specific to a given sport. Ian Jeffreys have also developed his own system of agility training in three phases. In the first phase, the athlete is focusing on developing isolated movement patterns. During the second phase the athlete is focusing on the specific combinations of movement patterns, especially a transition between them. In the third and final phase, the athlete is focusing on performing movement patterns in a game-like drills (e.g., tag game, small sided games, 1v1, etc).

It is also interesting to note the difference in sprint technique of the sprinters and the sprint technique that happen in a sport game, for example rugby. Mark Sayers compared sprinting technique of elite sprinters and of rugby players and noticed some important differences. Due different needs rugby players run with lower centre of mass (due collisions and due the fact that they need to be prepared to change direction, and “running tall” is not a solution), higher forward lean with hunched posture and shorter strides. This is another proof that optimal technique does not exist and pushing it on the “dynamic stereotype” can cause a lot of troubles. Context defines the appropriate movement solution, not anyone’s dogma.

I am not saying that teaching optimal sprinting technique (it is questionable whether you can actually teach it or it emerges when the key factors are at its place) doesn’t have place in team sports, but rather that coaches should identify and be aware of the differences and “don’t fix if ain’t broken”. Another option is to teach the athletes to “switch” from athletic-like sprinting technique, toward the technique demanded by their sport and situation on demand. Teach them how to fish.

If you are still awake and following, we are finish with this structural analysis of sport games. We have defined the phases, components and patterns and hopefully we are now able to see the forest from the trees. Now, I want to discuss other useful types of games analysis which results we can use to help us plan the training. Hold on, the ride has barely begun.

Levels of analysis of the sport games

As you may have noticed already, I am trying to explain the “big picture”, so you don’t get lost in the minutia, or in other words, enable you to see the forest from the trees. In my humble opinion this is what is important: seeing the big picture and having critical mind. Devil is in details though, but if you focus too much on the details, you will get lost and the devil will take you. Coach Mike Boyle used the Big Rocks example all the time, and this is it. If you have the big rocks in place, there will be always place for sand or even a can of beer (note: you need to know the story to get this one). 

What is the purpose of analysis? I don’t think there is a single answer to this question, but I may actually try. The purpose of analysis, IMHO, in pragmatic point of view is to give you information that you can use to guide your training. Period. If the information provided by analysis is neither useful nor practical it is worthless. Further, this practical application of analysis involves numerous aspects: like providing a model of competition activity of a game, providing insights and identifying factors that correspond with a given element of play (factors of success), modeling of training process, tracking training effects, etc.

In my opinion (and I may be wrong) there are three levels or types of analysis: (1) game analysis, (2) player evaluation and (3) analysis of training load.

GAME ANALYSIS. Game analysis involves numerous types of analysis of game play during the game itself. Except the structural analysis (which we have already covered) there are three main types of game analysis: (1) notational analysis, (2) time-motion analysis, (3) functional analysis.   

Notational analysis deals with analysis of technical (on the ball skills and off the ball movements) and tactical elements/decisions, their number and frequency, variations, efficiency and quality in a game. Usually, the specialist is doing this kind of analysis (in volleyball there is specialist for statistics) by “noting” a given elements, or with modern technology a computer with a good software can do this. The purpose of this analysis is to acquire insight into the frequency, efficiency, variations and quality of a given elements, which can be used as a feedback or in evaluation of strengths and weaknesses of own team and the opponent. 

Time-motion analysis is similar to notational analysis except that is also includes time or the duration of a given element along with intensity. The purpose is to get insight into the frequency and duration of a given element, their combinations and relative contribution to game time. This also includes distance covered (total and at various intensities of movement), number of sprints, number of RSA (repeat-sprints with short rest), and work-to-rest ratios during the game, along with a bunch of other data, which all can be expressed as the mean value or in given periods of the game, which can give us more insight into fatigue and pacing strategy (please take a look at the article by Edwards and Noakes and by Tucker), of a given player of the whole team. This can give us the insights into engagement of particular player, sub-unit or the whole team, along with providing us with the information that we can use to create specific conditioning training sessions. Actually, the whole book can be written on this topic and actually there are many of them. I plan getting my hands on “The Essentials of Performance Analysis: An Introduction” by Mike Hughes and Ian Franks. Don’t know why, but I guess I will find something interesting in it. A decent time-motion analysis in soccer which we can use as an example can be found in article by Gabbet and Mulvey

Functional analysis involves tracking of physiological parameters during the game. It usually involves tracking of heart rate (HR), oxygen consumption (VO2), blood lactate level (bLA) with the purpose of giving us the information regarding the structure and dominance of specific energy systems. This can be expressed as average values, maximum-minimum, and percentage in a given zone or across different time periods during a game. Yeah, this type of analysis gives us the stupid data like: 30% alactic, 40% lactic and 30% aerobic which I didn’t manage to use or find a particular method of using except for stupid ones. 

Most confusion comes from this type of analysis and as I have said earlier if we have confused ideas, we will have confusing thoughts and thus confusing actions. This usually happens when lab-coats try to correlate steady-state data to intermittent exercises like sport games and draw conclusions. Take this point for example. It was shown that average HR is pretty much same across various sport games, around 80-85% HRmax. Same energy expenditure? Not really. HR depends on a lot factors including energy expenditure, like arousal, dehydration, temperature. Saw that good looking babe across the street and the heart start hitting? This basically tells us that we should take great care when interpreting functional analysis data.  Same thing for bLA. The reported average values across the sport games are around 4-10 mmol/l more or less. What we can conclude from this data? Will more prepared athletes have higher or lower average HR or bLA? How can we use this data in training? Can we impose the same logic we use in steady-state lab-coat testing to intermittent activity? I don’t think so. We still need to improve our understanding of physiology of intermittent sports and only in recent years researchers started to identify this problem. 

Anyway, we MUST NOT use functional analysis in isolation of time-motion analysis. Sometime coaches say: “You are not ready. Your heart rate was too high!” or “You are not giving your best. Your heart rate was 130bpm most of the time”. Even worst thing to do is to use absolute numbers, like HR (not percentage of HRmax) to compare two athletes. Don’t be that coach. You can’t draw any conclusions of functional analysis without referring to time-motion activity; you need to put things into context and it all depends. Things are not that simple as having a given HR or bLA. 

The common error coaches do is to look at average HR which is around 80-85% HRmax and the max values goes to 95-100% in given periods, have a mentioned “spotlight phenomena” idea of game actions and decide that to succeed you need to run 300 yard shuttles  every single day. Please note that I am not trying to throw baby with a bathwater here, but rather explain this common error IMO. There is time and place for glycolitic power/capacity training but not every single day from day one. As would late Charlie Francis tell: “Watch the player, not the ball”. I have already pointed out that most of the time (going up to 90% of game time) players are without the ball doing off-the ball movements in offense and defense phases, which are usually of low intensity. So basically, players are performing high-intensity actions  of short duration interspersed with low-intensity activity.

To be continued....

Joint-by-Joint approach and Warm-up

The following 'article' was made during the June, 2010 while doing internship at Mike Boyle Strength and Conditioning (MBSC) in Woburn, MA. We had a homework of doing review of Joint-by-Joint and Warm-up DVDs by Mike Boyle. I shared short review of both approached and some of mine opinions/critiques/concerns. Enjoy!

Joints have needs. They are differently built, and they have different function in complex human body and its movements. It could be said that over time movement evolutionary shaped our joints to fit our movement needs. Since the human movement is interplay between stability~mobility[1], different joints contribute to this continuum between these complementary conceptual pairs in different degrees.

Since every joint has possible 6-degrees of freedom, 3 of which are rotational (or physiological) and 3 of which are translational (or accessory), it can be said that each of these degrees for each individual joint has a point in stability-mobility continuum space. This is a movement classification system for different joints and they differ at different degrees of freedom by their structure (cause structure dictates function, yet function over time shaped structure as evolutionary process).  Thus, it is hard to put individual joint at one group (either stability or mobility), but rather their individual degrees of freedom for a given movement task.

According to constraint-led approach to motor control, human movement is an emergent process that happens under the constraints. In this example, joints can be considered constraints, along with their individual 6 degrees of freedom and their corresponding stability~mobility space-point. Thus, in some way joint constraints shape the movement (along with other constraints).

Mark Comerford basically identified one complementary pair in his writings: give~restriction. Basically, since joints and tissues constraint movement patterns, a problem in one joint (or in one or more of his 6-degrees of movement) or musculo-fascial tissue may cause (although it is hard to specify causation, since it is usually circular causation that is happening) a problem at different place. In simple words, a restriction at one area may cause non-physiological „give“ at same place (different movement plane or different degree of freedom) or at more distance place(s). The „give“ is where pain is, and is usually cause by restriction at a different plane (joint or musculo-skeletal tissue).
 Physical therapists identified couple of give~restriction issues in human body, and this is the concept that Mike Boyle refers to as joint-by-joint approach. Since some joints (at some specific degrees of freedom or movement planes) are more prone to develop „restrictions“, they need more „mobility work“, while other joints are more prone to „give“ and develop pain, so they need more „stability work“ or at least less mobility work. Mike Boyle, based on this concept identified a given structure:

·         Ankle joint needs more mobility
·         Knee joint needs more stability
·         Hip joint needs more mobility
·         Lumbar spine need more stability
·         Thoracic spine needs more mobility
·         Scapulo-thoracic joint need more stability
·         Gleno-humeral joint need more mobility

Although I would answer „it depends“ to this classification (main reason is that we should talk about different degrees of movement at each joint under specific movement context) it is pretty simple and understandable to provide practice guidelines for the trainers and coaches. But we must remember there is more to it.  

One aspect that Mike talks about is the difference between flexibility and mobility. According to Mike, flexibility is a property of muscles, while mobility is a property of a joint. I may be wrong, but my opinion is that is just linguistic issue. Flexibility is a specific motor quality that is task dependent, and basically can be classified to active, passive, static, dynamic, etc. Anyway, there are different limiting factors (or if you want constraints) to the specific expression of flexibility. Sometimes, it is a muscle issue, sometimes it is a ligament/joint issue, sometimes it is just a pain threshold issues (usually this is what limits passive static flexibility). Thus, in this example Mike Boyle refers to different constraints that limits the flexibility in a given joint and his different planes.

In his warm-up approach, Mike Boyle tries to address different needs of the joints, according to joint-by-joint concept, along with following this concept in strength training design (a nice joint-by-joint approach that includes different degrees of freedom for upper body is presented in Eric Cressey's Shoulder Savers series and Building and Efficient Athlete DVDs). Basically, the structure is following:

1.      Foam roll to address „restrictions“ in musculo-fascial tissues
2.      Isometric stretch, that utilize 3D stretching concept to further address common „restrictions“ in musculo-fascial tissues
3.      Activation work, to „wake up“ given muscle groups (usually glutes, hip rotators and scapulae stabilizers) that are in a „give mode“
4.      Dynamic mobility to further activate and warm-up the body (and to decrease any negative effects of static stretching), imprint some appropriate movement patterns and provide a progressive transition to main workout

The choosing of the means (exercises) within each group depends on the joint-by-joint concept and the difference between linear and lateral training days. 

Some of my thoughts on this approach are the following:
·         There should be more stretching of the upper-body, like traps, pecs
·         There should be more upper body activation/warm-up like push-ups, different kind of arm swings
·         The warm-up is somehow generic. 

I would love to further elaborate on the last point. Even if there are more commonalities in athlete needs or universality  (we learn the physiology of humans, not different athletes) as defined by joint-by-joint, some athletes need more individualized approach. This is the complementary pair: universality~individuality. My point here is that although the warm-up should be  the „same“ (universal) for all athletes, some individuality must be provided. Some athletes need more upper body warm-up, some are more „robust“ and don't need as much warm-up, some need more time to warm up their problematic areas. It is true that young athletes need to learn good warming-up principles and procedure, but more experienced athletes have their own „routines“ and at least we should provide couple of short time periods where athletes are able to do some of their own warm-up, like 1-2min periods at the end of every part of the warm-up where athletes after they finish with universal exercises, can  address some of their individual needs (for example do more rolling for upper body, or stretch the quads more because they feel sore, do more upper body dynamic exercises cause they feel sore/stiff, etc). My point here is that there should be universality, but there should also be individuality. If we want to teach athletes how to fish, we must give them options to choose, but guide them to good choosing. I know it is hard to do it due time-constraints and facility design and logistic (staggered groups), but this is just my opinion and I am providing it for further elaboration. 

Another points is that this warm-up is geared toward context we have at MBSC facility. Since I work with soccer players on the outside, I must address that we need to adapt the warm-up for that kind of context, especially if we warm-up in the mud and under the rain. This is why understanding concepts and principles rather than memorizing routines is more important: it is going to give us solutions under different contexts.  

In summary, joint-by-joint approach is worth studying but we must remember that there is more to it, along with its implementation to MBSC warm-up which is generic routine constructed with specific context in mind which is MBSC facility and logistics.

Just for the example, here is the warm-up we did for a boxing practice (beginners) on April, 2010 in Zrenjanin, Serbia, with coach Milan Piperski.

Warm up structure:
General Part
1. Joint circles and easy short stretches
2. Dynamic warm-up and some BW exercises
Specific Part
3. Specific boxing drills (some technique work and footwork by Kenny Weldon)
4. Shadow boxing (not seen on the video)
Around 20min total.

Please note that this in NOT how we warm-up every time or THE warm-up we do, and not the warm-up you should or must do. Again, this is just an example, and it is one training session taken out of context. Most of the American readers will  find this just  plain weird or maybe unnecessary and long, especially the 'joint circles' part, but please note that this is how we warm-up from elementary school. And I agree on the point that it look like "gey mating ritual". But if you think more about it, aren't all warm-ups and training protocols started from the rituals? Religious, war, etc?

[1] Squiggle sign ~ represents a complementary pair. See Complementary Nature website for more info