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How You Can Train Athletes with Minimal Technology

24 July 2019 Ben Cartwright football, soccer, athlete, technology

Imagine a world where instead of swiping right on a dating app, you initiated a conversation with someone you found attractive at the supermarket.

Or a world where instead of sending a passive aggressive text, you confronted someone face-to-face.

Or a world where instead of looking down at your phone, you walked with your head up and admired your surroundings.

Or a world where instead of relying on Facebook to remind you of a friend’s birthday, you used the hippocampus in your brain to remember it.

Or a world where instead of staring at data and charts, you made eye contact with your athletes and asked them how their day is going.

Maybe I’m an old soul, but I miss the days of when glowing screens didn’t run our lives.

If you’re an avid reader of this blog, you’re either a sport scientist, soccer coach, or strength and conditioning coach who has dabbled in the use of technology, or who uses it full-time.

But before I dive in, I’m going to a take a wild guess you chose this career path to help human beings.

To coach.

To teach.

To connect.

To communicate.

To that end, technology has its way of making these things wane if we aren’t cognizant or aware.

 

And in the sports world, athletes are becoming numbers, data, equations, rankings, avatars, and so much more.

More flabbergasting to all of this, athletes are humans just like yourself, who want to be heard, supported and encouraged through their sport and life pursuits.

They need conversation.

They need active listening.

They need actionable solutions.

They need critical thinking.

They need creativity.

They need sweaty high fives.

They need hugs.

They need good old-fashion coaching.

 

Now before all of the science guys come at me, hear me out: this article is not to poo-poo on sport technology.

If I had $10,000 of cash collecting cobwebs in my closet, I would buy GPS units with the bat of an eyelash.

For one, I see value in using technology as ammunition against coaches, and to ensure they’re not idiots and don’t program endless sprints the day after a game as punishment.

I see technology as a valuable load monitoring tool to tweak strength sessions and volume for the week.

I see it as helpful information to make sure players who play less have the chance to work out harder during a micro-cycle and not get deconditioned.

I see it as a way to elicit a high intensity conditioning effect during my anaerobic, speed endurance sessions and to call players out if they’re not going hard enough.

I see it as an insight into my players’ top speeds, mileage coverage, change of directions, eccentric loading statistics, souls and so much more.

Okay, let’s shift gears for a second.

As much as technology in sport has helped players stay healthy and improve their performance on the pitch, I’d argue if you don’t have access to it, you can still help them immensely.

Look. I’m an American youth soccer strength and conditioning coach in the private sector, and after the seven years I’ve been at this, I’ve had no ACL injuries, no hamstring strains, and a roster of athletes continue to D1, D2, D3 and into professional programs. Better yet, they’ve become amazing humans with fulfilling careers and lives when their soccer careers came to an inevitable end.

I guess I’m doing okay for using printed paper and ripped binders as programs:

Or, who uses an obsolete vertical jump mat:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fN6mwaUWn8M

Or, who uses, not hi-tech machines, but the burly lacrosse athletes as added chaos for my soccer players:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l9zf9RFV10k

Yeah. I don’t use any technology. I don’t have the privilege to use it. Admittedly, the furthest I’ve gotten as a soccer performance coach is using heart rate monitors.

 

It’s nothing grandiose.

It’s nothing that will shout, “look at me! I have fancy gadgets!”

It’s nothing that will impress people on Twitter.

It’s nothing that will get clicks and followers.

It’s nothing that will make reality tv.


It’s simple.

Just like a handful of other private sector performance facilities, we are a successful business that has flourished for almost two decades at the youth, academy, college, and professional levels for both lacrosse and soccer athletes.

And with minimal technology, we’ve made one hell of an impact.

So how do you train athletes with minimal technology?

Let’s do this:

1. Use time-based or Ratings of Perceived Exertion methods.

Without GPS trackers, how do we know our players are receiving a desired conditioning effect?

Enter time-based training and Ratings of Perceived Exertion.

For the sake of brevity, here’s a nice breakdown of conditioning under a time-based model:

- Maximal Speed Endurance: 30-40 seconds of work, 1:5 work-to-rest
- Maximal Repeated Sprint Ability: <10 second of work, 1:5 work-to-rest
- High Intensity Aerobic: 1-4 minutes of work, 1:1 work-to-rest
- Maximal Speed: <10 second, 1:10 work-to-rest

If you find that athletes are not eliciting these conditioning effects under these time standards, it may be best to move to Ratings of Perceived Exertion, where they rate their feeling of intensity on a scale of 1-10:
 

Of course, this is a tougher one because athletes might not always be telling the truth. But given you’re a professional who instills hard work and autonomy in your players, they will be honest when it comes to RPE.

Better yet, when they’re saying their RPE out loud after a conditioning run in front of their teammates, they feel much more held accountable. I highly recommend trying this.

Okay, story time.

This summer, I had all of my athletes work up to 9/10 on the RPE scale for a continuous 50-yard shuttle run, and when one athlete finished I asked their score and they said, “9/10.” However, they weren’t out of breath, able to hold a conversation, and were cracking jokes. The best part? One her teammates called her out and said, “no! You’re a 4 at most!”

So what happened the next go around? The girl who lied then pushed herself because her teammates took notice and held her accountable.

When using RPE, I suggest you have everyone announce their personal rating because when the rest of the group is listening, there’s no hiding.

I’d be remiss not to mention there’s tremendous value in competing, too:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_FSdR95qOcA

One more thing: if you’re lucky to snag yourself some heart rate monitors, awesome. Here’s a nice breakdown of what to look for in the energy systems:

- Maximal Speed Endurance: > 90% HR max
- High Intensity Aerobic: >85%-90% HR max
- Moderate Aerobic: 75%-85% HR max



2. Communicate for load monitoring.

Because sometimes, it’s easier to have this conversation:
 

Me: “How many minutes did you play this weekend?”

Athlete: “80 minutes.”

 

Me: “How do you feel today?”

Athlete: “Extremely sore.”

Me: “Okay, then you should stay away from the eccentric single leg deadlifts and change of direction in a few days.”

Athlete and I high five.

To give you another example with a totally different athlete, here you go:

Me: “How many minutes did you play this weekend?”

Athletes: “80 minutes.”

Me: “How do you feel today?”

Athlete: “Not sore. Ready to lift.”

I then dug deeper in that conversation to figure out why she wasn’t sore after 80 minutes of playing. They played an easy opponent, won 5-0, and played possession the majority of the match. Chances are, this athlete did not change direction, reach maximal speed, or cover that much mileage this match since the style of play was very composed and nonchalant.

So what did we do two days after the game?

Deadlifting, pull-upping, lunging, single leg squatting, and small-sided playing.

But, what about lying about soreness? Ah, yes. Good one!

Again, it’s all about observing and knowing your athletes. If they’re looking lethargic in the gym, form is declining on strength lifts, their focus is off, then something may be whacky.

Always communicate and observe. That’s what coaches are meant to do.

 

That’s all that needs to go down. When in doubt, communicate with questions that showcase how the athlete is feeling mentally and physiologically. Also, observe their body language, exercise technique, and demeanor.

Taking the conversation beyond athlete-to-coach, it’s critical to communicate with team coaches as well. Some of the best coaches I have worked with on load monitoring and strength and conditioning training are the ones who blast out their schedules, tournaments, ID camps and practice sessions to me, and update me by the hour of what is going on.

You bet I’m tweaking my programs weekly and hourly.

 

Tournament on the weekend? Monday will be yoga and mobility.

No games for two weeks? We are using this in-season “window of opportunity” to speed train, lift heavier load (80-90% 2-3 sets, 1-5 reps), and add in more eccentric work.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yhMNu5qCNUw

Last night’s practice was 1v1, 2v2 and 3v3 drills on a large pitch? The gym session the next day will be only sub-maximal strength with nice, graceful deadlift pulls.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wnf-ros3VOM

This is where soccer specific knowledge of the game from the performance specialist comes into play. Knowing what drills produce what physiological effects is paramount to monitoring load and tweaking your gym programs.

Have common sense.

But moreover, think deeply about the game, and simply about gym training.


3. Change behavior with nutrition.

Newsflash: you can toss all your meal plans in the trash.

Are you handing your players food measurements, portion sizes, macros, and calories on Excel sheets and graphs and pie charts?

Well, aren’t you cute!

Of course, it is wise to educate them and break down the numbers, but nutrition needs to be an ongoing conversation, too.

The problem with nutrition nowadays is people know what’s wrong, yet still fail to execute a radical solution. We all know greens are better than fried food. We all know water is better than alcohol. We all know apples are better than potato chips. We all know 1,000 calories a day is not ideal for a soccer athlete.

No amount of hypothalamus brain tests are going to solve whether your athletes love or hate themselves, and tie what they eat to these deep emotions.

Here are some tips for behavior change:

- Provide your players with samples of healthy snacks
- Eat in front of them (lead by example).
- Ask them, “what foods bring you to life?”
- Ask them, “what foods bog you down?”
- Ask them, “are you eating out of love or hate for yourself?”
- Really have them get clear on the above questions.


4. Write down and progress load.

On the first day of off-season here, my athletes get their programs in a thick binder.

“This looks like an encyclopedia!” they exclaim with smiles on their faces.

Receiving their programs is like getting a gift during the holidays: not only is it infused with novelty, written with care, but it is filled with love and customized movement prep to fit what they need extra help with:

Too, in order for athletes to progress load on their own terms, they need their own pen and program.

If an athlete has to do 3 sets at 8 reps for an exercise, and by the 8th rep they feel they can do a several more (Reps in Reserve Method), I always tell them to go up 5-10 pounds.

If they feel on that 8th rep they only could squeak out only one more, then they may be at a great weight that allows them to do good form, but it is still a grind.

There’s power in writing down load each week. It allows athlete to be autonomous in their progress and hold themselves accountable with their feats of strength.

5. Use your eyes to look for imbalances.

There’s a ton of high-tech machines floating around the sport science space that tell us if our athletes have asymmetries, weaknesses, faulty biomechanics, excessive knee valgus, or a left earlobe smaller than the other. And many of them are tremendously accurate.

But again, not all of us are privileged to have these all-embellishing toys, so what do we do? Use our eyes.

It’s not hard to see excessive knee valgus that makes you want to bang your head against a wall.

In fact, if an athlete is performing a movement and I’m cringing even just an itty bit looking at form, something needs to be fixed. And you as the professional has to be able to catch this.

As strength coach Michael Boyle says, if it looks like sh*t, it probably is.

To that end, if I see an athlete shifting their hips to the right when coming up from a squat, you bet I’m adding in extra unilateral glute medius work to their program:

If I see an athlete not grooving hip mobility enough during a lateral squat, you bet I’m adding in the slideboard and increasing their lever arm by having them extend their arms:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vEyMnsHgdV8

If I see an athlete collapsing their posture in athletic stance, you bet I’m adding in Chaos Ball Hugs to hone in on this:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sDi1VIvG0MU

Or, if hip shifting and favoring of one side is apparent, I may switch completely from bilateral to unilateral movement:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lVjXGHVAoUo

 

Erica Suter is a soccer strength and conditioning expert in Baltimore, Maryland and has been working with youth soccer players across the world for over seven years. She works as a full-time strength coach at JDyer Strength and Conditioning, where she designs in-season, off-season and pre-season programs for soccer players in Maryland. In addition to being a tenacious and passionate in person coach to hundreds of athletes, she consults with youth coaches, clubs and players worldwide in the realms of strength and conditioning, load monitoring, and mental skills training. She is a published writer and the author of the Total Youth Soccer Fitness Program, which has sold copies to soccer coaches in over 20 different countries across the world. 
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