What the experts say
Nigel Hetherington reviews the latest research material relating to coaching, exercise physiology and athletic development.
As the knowledge base of sport continues to expand and mature through both experience and the application of contemporary sports science, so the expectation of athletes continues to grow. This situation can be clearly argued to support the adoption of a long-term athlete development (LTAD) approach whereby realistic and attainable goals are set over a long period in the order of years in line with the athlete's physical and mental ability to develop and adapt. The upshot of this and, in particular the impact on the coach to the athlete, is that he/she might want to ensure that they adopt an approach based on LTCD - long-term coach development. In this modern climate of continuous development of the knowledge base it is entirely likely that a coach who disregards the LTCD principle may never see their athlete achieve their true potential. Worse still (for the coach), in an environment where athletes are becoming increasingly knowledgeable about their own events, the athlete may vote with their feet and look for a coach who can continue to move them forward toward their dreams and beyond .
Coaches, who can remain open-minded, are prepared to embrace new ideas and who regularly allocate time to keep up with fact-based findings and developments are more likely to enjoy the long-term continuous development of their athletes and share in their successes.
This regular feature sets out to provide a valuable resource to every coach by providing a brief review of some of the findings currently being made around the world by sports scientists and medical professionals and which are generally supported by published scientific studies.
Everyone is aware of the stresses placed upon athletes to deliver results whether it is to gain selection, stay in the team, retain pride and honour or simply to keep that scholarship or funding in place. However, spare a thought for the coach who also experiences both internally and externally generated pressure to continually perform. A recent study highlights the difficulty a coach may have in 'switching off' and dedicating time to other essential components of their lives such as relationships, leisure and, for most, just actually earning a living! The study goes on to provide a 10-point plan on developing and implementing a series of lifestyle-management measures for coaches. Proposals in the plan include 'leaving sport with sport' by, wherever possible, providing debriefs, reviews and future plans at the end of a session rather than taking it home; clarifying with athletes and parents when they may contact you by telephone (including mobiles / cell phones) and establishing a mentor coach who you can approach for advice and support.
A recent report highlights the dramatic role the coach plays in the training and reinforcement of an athlete's mental toughness, motivation, commitment and ultimately their willpower. Without these vital qualities the athlete will be unable to produce the required consistent intensity and effort in the training situation and as a result will not attain their true performance potential in competition. This is supported by a separate report on mental toughness and focus outlining the fact that during competition there are often defining moments that carry great psychological significance, when, for example, the momentum starts to shift in one direction or another. Rehearsal of strategies in training including the use of simulation training to 'recreate' the key moments of stress and pressure experienced in competition, but in a controlled environment, can be an invaluable approach to preparing the athlete for the very real challenges of competition.
This process is by no means limited to environmental or physical parameters. Developing competence in athletes in mental exercises including centering and imagery can lead to greater self-belief. A recent article highlighting ways in which a coach can encourage athletes to use imagery identifies recent information on imagery use and dispels some of the myths associated with this form of training. Four key areas where imagery can be employed are summarized comprising 'strategic imagery' where, for example, a gymnast may visualize their whole routine to increase the natural flow of their performance; 'goal-oriented imagery' based on visualizing the outcome - for example standing on a medal podium; 'arousal imagery', whereby the athlete focuses on a highly specific image that may actually bring about specific physiological changes such as raising or lowering of heart rate and finally, the use of 'imagery for mastery and maintaining control' through rehearsing various scenarios during an event and practicing how to react and deal with that situation through imagery.
One big challenge that continually faces the coach is to assess the effort level being made by the athlete in training as well as competition. Being motivated to train to achieve the end result is rarely enough. The athlete needs appropriate feedback to let both them and the coach know exactly where they are. Testing of athletes with a focus on the crucial aspects of measurement and evaluation is the subject of a report entitled 'Making sense of testing'. The report seeks to provide measurement and objectivity to some of the elements of performance that are usually more kinaesthetic or cognitive to coaches. From a motivational perspective routine testing of athletes in an objective way can be very positive provided realistic and meaningful tests are performed in the appropriate context.
A global area where more ignorance than knowledge and where more fear than practice reigns is the area of strength training. Emotional, subjective and purely anecdotal counter-arguments to the practice of strength conditioning activities have served to further muddy the waters over many years.
Recent publications are starting to redress the balance with one focusing on the importance of recognizing the relationship and differences between maximum strength training and a more complete approach to strength and power training to optimize performance.
A paper looking at the issue from a primary care perspective with children and adolescents concludes that informed clinicians could now reassure parents that, with adult supervision, proper equipment and realistic expectations, strength-training programs designed for children and adolescents are both safe and effective. Programs designed and delivered in this manner may be implemented for a child to gain a competitive advantage in sport without placing the child at risk of musculoskeletal and epiphysial (growth plate) injuries.
In a further paper having established that this form of training is not only safe but also beneficial to the young athlete the effect of different training frequencies on developing and maintaining muscle strength in children is investigated.
In one study strength increases in children are reviewed and physiological factors considered. The findings are developed into providing guidelines on frequency, intensity, duration, sets and repetitions as well as proposing compound or isolated exercises to enable those working with children to make better-informed decisions. Finally, in a recent article, the importance of making the strength training specific to the event is discussed with reference to speed in athletics. The author highlights the need to recognize the specific demands of the event and to identify specific exercises that will serve to increase acceleration and top speed running.
Coaches are becoming increasingly familiar with the idea that plyometric training can be very successfully used on the back of a specific strength-conditioning program and alongside power training to develop peak performance in many athletes. A recent report looks at how plyometrics may be adapted in terms of type and intensity for use by coaches working with young athletes. Reference is given to the considerations to height of any barriers or boxes employed, the nature of the training surface, footwear, technique and the number of repetitions as well as proposals for progression.
Coaches dread hearing the words, 'Sorry coach I can't train, I'm injured' or, 'Sorry coach I can't train, I'm ill'. The former sends most coaches into a flat spin since few are qualified in injury assessment and treatment. After initial diagnosis, all too often a long period of rest is advocated when it may actually be advisable to engage in a short period of rest followed by a carefully managed rehabilitation program.
A recent study looked into chronic Achilles tendinosis, a condition quite prevalent with middle-aged recreational athletes, whereby the tendon becomes thickened. After following a specific rehabilitation program based on heavy load eccentric calf muscle training 22 of the 25 patients not only reported improvement but also the re-measurement of their tendon thickness supported this. It was concluded that eccentric load training was critical in this improvement. The implication here to coaches looking at rehabilitating athletes with this condition is obvious.
Being ill is an unfortunate situation but a common occurrence for all athletes. For some however, it is all too common. A recent study looked at athletes with persistent fatigue and/or recurrent infections to investigate whether underlying medical conditions contribute to the fatigue and high incidence of infections that can occur during repeated intense training. Forty-one competitive athletes (22 male, 19 female) with persistent fatigue and/or recurrent infections associated with performance decrements had a thorough medical examination and a series of clinical investigations to identify potential medical causes. In summary the findings were highly revealing - conditions with the potential to cause fatigue and/or recurrent infections being identified in 68% of the athletes! The most common were partial humoral immune deficiency (28%) and unresolved viral infections (27%). Non-fasting hypoglycaemia was also common (28%). The study concluded that athletes with recurrent infections, fatigue, and associated poor performance might benefit from a thorough investigation of potentially reversible underlying medical conditions, especially when these conditions cause disruption to training and competition. Unresolved viral infections are not routinely assessed in elite athletes, but it may be worth considering in those experiencing fatigue and performing poorly. From the perspective of coaches there are clearly steps that can be taken or suggested to athletes if such chronic conditions have been experienced.
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About the Author
Nigel Hetherington was the Head Track & Field Coach at the internationally acclaimed Singapore Sports School. He is a former National Performance Development Manager for Scottish Athletics and National Sprints Coach for Wales. Qualified and highly active as a British Athletics level 4 performance coach in all events he has coached athletes to National and International honours in sprints, hurdles as well as a World Record holder in the Paralympic shot. He has 10 years' experience as senior coach educator and assessor trainer on behalf of British Athletics. Nigel is also an experienced athlete in sprint (World Masters Championship level) and endurance (3-hour marathon runner plus completed the 24 hour 'Bob Graham Round' ultra-endurance event up and down 42 mountain peaks in the English Lake District). He is a chartered chemist with 26 years' experience in scientific research and publishing.
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