Western Bulldogs player Will Minson hones his skills mid-season.

Mid Season Training is not just about Fitness

By John Quinn

Perhaps the greatest challenge in coaching is to develop a training program that simultaneously meets the physical and technical (tactical) objectives of both the team and the individual players within that team.  An initial overview of the season includes various training phases.  These include pre season preparation, specific preparation, lead in games, in season games (including finals), off season break.  The division of the season into these different phases is termed periodisation. Other considerations in the program construction would include appropriate breaks such as byes, allocations for travel, shortened weeks and so on.

When working in a team environment such as football, the coach needs to be mindful of the capacity of each individual within the team.  Younger footballers in particular offer distinct challenges for the coach and his/her attempts to plan a training program.  This, in part, is due to other demands and pressures such as school.  One should also consider that many young team members also participate in other sports and as such are involved in training and competition away from football.  The physical demands for growth and development should also not be underestimated.

In this article, we are going to look at training for Australian Football in the mid season.  Consider that all of the pre season preparation has been done.  Further, your team has completed half of the season and you now have around 10 weeks of footy to go before the finals begin.  Regardless of how your team is performing and where they are placed on the ladder you, as the coach, have some questions to ask.  One of these is going to be how well the individuals within the team are handling the training and competitions that they are involved in.

Fitness Considerations
So how do we know if individual team members are coping with the work that is being given to them?  Once the season is underway, how do we maintain a set level of performance?  Well, that is the basis of in season training and the program needs to adapt to the abilities and performance level of each player. 

The first consideration from a fitness perspective is whether the changes relate to fitness, fatigue or development.   

Fitness
If a player appears not to be coping with a given training load, is it due to the fact that he is not fit enough?  Possibly.  If this is the case, then you need to look at the initial training done in preparation and look to revise that in future seasons.  For now, there is no shortcut to increasing fitness mid season.  It is a systematic and consistent application of training that brings about results and ultimately the physical changes in an athlete.

Fatigue
Could a decreased performance in your player not be a sign of poor fitness levels but more so that the player is fatigued and simply needs more recovery time or a different training stimulus?  Look to include different sessions now and then and don’t be afraid to give players an easier night at training.  Remember that once the season gets under way, the key session for the week is actually the game – not the coach’s Tuesday training run at the local park!

Development
If you are working with younger players, is a decreased performance, or an apparent inability to adapt to training, a possible reflection of an inappropriate program?  It is not uncommon to see young players of any sport attempting to do training that is designed for senior athletes.  If your players are not coping with training, could it be that the prescribed sessions are not meeting their personal development needs?  If you are the coach of younger players, be sure as to what your role is.  If it is that of development – skill, physical, personal – then so be it.  If you can accept that skill is the most important aspect of the game of AFL you should look at this as a key indicator as to the effectiveness of your training program. If, for example, by the mid season your players are so fatigued from the training and playing loads that they cannot perform their skill level to the maximum, then you as the coach must look at the overall training program that has been devised.

There are several ways to monitor the effectiveness of a program.  These include performance outcomes (games won/possessions/disposals); field tests (speed, strength and endurance); consistency of performance (from game to game and within a game).  However, to monitor training and the player’s ability to cope with the weekly demands of the game, one should look at the following formula:

FITNESS - FATIGUE = PERFORMANCE 

Fatigue represents the overall training load for each individual.   When you consider the individual characteristics of the player (age, training background, level) and apply a training program of volume and intensity, the effectiveness of your program will be largely determined by the above performance equation.

Training loads have two components – internal and external.  The external training load is what was actually done in a session. This can be measured by distance, GPS units and the like. The internal training load relates to how an individual responded to a session.  This includes measures like heart rate, blood lactate, oxygen consumption along with measures such as rate of perceived exertion (RPE).  Other tools used to measure internal training load include questionnaires such as RESTQ and DALDA. The session – RPE method along with RESTQ (Recovery-Stress Questionnaire for Athletes) and DALDA (Daily Analysis of Life Demands for Athletes) offer arguably the most practical approach to assessing internal training load.

While the program will be initially defined by what training is to be done, the ultimate success of the program will be determined by how each individual in the team responds to that training.  To this end, the focus during the season should be on internal training load not on the external training load.

Rate of Perceived Exertion
Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) provides a practical approach to measuring training load and individual impact of training sessions and games. Approximately 30 minutes post session each individual player is asked to give a rating based on Borg’s Scale from 1 – 10 to describe how difficult they found a session to be.  The scale is reproduced below:

Rating

Description

1

Rest

2

Very, very easy

3

Easy

4

Moderate

5

Somewhat hard

6

Hard

7

8

Very Hard

9

10

Maximal

Then simply multiply the individual’s RPE with the duration of the session.  For example, if a training session went for 80 minutes (including warm up and warm down) and an individual rated the session RPE of 6, then the overall score for the session (for that individual) would be 6 x 80 = 480. 

In isolation, this figure may not mean too much.  However, in comparison with the rest of the team and also looked at cumulatively over time, the RPE load figure may be significant.  It has been shown that a Session – RPE training load (in AFL) of more than 2000 units per week is associated with poorer performance.

Evidence has shown that too much load during the season reduces the subsequent match-specific running performance.  This is most likely due to factors such as muscle damage, inflammation and carbohydrate restoration.  This is also a very good reason to avoid hard training sessions in the 48 hour period post games.  Punishment sessions post losing games are sure to exacerbate the problem if the key factor causing poor form is fatigue.

To further enhance the monitoring of players in season, the use of RESTQ (monthly) and DALDA (daily) questionnaires is highly recommended.  Copies of these can be found at www.quinnelitesports.com.au. Questionnaires can highlight issues impacting on players outside of football and can be useful in establishing a more complete picture.

Finally, open and regular communication with the players from both a team and individual perspective will provide an excellent source of information as to whether players are suffering fatigue during the season.  If this is indeed the case, the solution may be as simple as a reduced load session, changed venue, altered tempo – or even a night off! 

At the start of the season, it is common to set both individual and team goals.  This can also be broken down to positional goals, or line goals, and so on.  At the mid season point of the year, these goals usually reflect a desire to maintain a high level of fitness, continue to develop technical and tactical ability,  minimise injury  and injury risks and avoid disruptive conditions such as cold and flu.   Whilst the technical and tactical goals may not be able to be assisted by use of systems such as RPE, many goals for the season can be monitored by way of how each individual in the team is coping.  This method also brings into greater importance the real need to factor team and individual recovery into and between sessions.

Summary

Team performance over the course of a season is determined by a number of factors.  Perhaps the most significant of these is a player’s ability to back up week in week out.  As the grind of the season begins to make its presence felt, it is imperative that the coach is aware of how well each and every one of the players is coping with the demands of training and games.

It is therefore recommended that the coach implements the following:

  • Rate of Perceived Exertion Measures
  • DALDA
  • RESTQ
  • Communication.

This provides a simple measure that can enhance a player’s overall performance.  It can assist in maintaining focus on in season goals, maintaining fitness levels throughout the year, minimising injury and injury risk and potentially avoiding disruptive conditions such as cold and flu. It is a great communication tool that may just make the difference between a winning finish to the season or a gradual performance decline.  It’s as simple as asking the question: ‘how are you coping” and perhaps more importantly, listening to and acting upon that answer.

John Quinn is High Performance Coach at Olympic Park Sports Medicine Centre. He runs his own injury rehabilitation, athlete coaching and sports consulting company. Previously he was Head Fitness Coach and High Performance Manager at Essendon Football Club for 10 years and was a team coach for the Australian athletics team at the Sydney Olympic Games.

This article appears in the June edition of the Coaching Edge magazine. 

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