Sport Psychology

SSA Blog: Warm Weather Training

This weekend sees the Premier League make way for the 5th round of the Emirates FA Cup. Only 7 Premier League teams have reached this stage leaving a number of clubs with the opportunity for a winter training camp.

England hosts the only major European league without a winter break, for those teams no longer in the competition FA cup weekends are increasingly used for that role.

Liverpool, Southampton, Newcastle and West Ham have taken advantage of the extended break before their next fixture, while Everton, Tottenham and Manchester United are considering a trip to sunnier climbs in the next few days.

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For Liverpool this will be the second warm weather trip since the turn of the year. Jurgen Klopp justified the getaway when saying “There’s nothing good about going out of competitions, but if you are out you can suffer or you can use the time”. So why do clubs value these mini camps so highly and what are the supposed benefits?

There is very little direct research on the topic in Premier League Football. However, the proposed benefits can broadly be broken down into 3 categories, Mental, Physical and Tactical.

Mental

In 2016 a study by Smith et al, showed mental fatigue having a negative impact on running, shooting and passing performance in football. A training camp, even for a few days, allows players to remove themselves from the pressures of performance and possibly wider lifestyle concerns which can support mental recovery and therefore performance.

As we all know a change of environment can be enough to help impact our mood. When that change includes a perceived benefit, such as sunny warm weather, the response is often positive.

A training camp also offers a controlled environment with less distractions. Players and coaches can benefit from extra focus and use it to reinforce positivity among the group, remove negativity and deal with stress in order to prepare for the final few months of the season.

Physical

In 2012 a study of Premier League players found that 65% of the sample were deficient in Vitamin D in the winter months (Morton et al 2012). A warm weather training camp with greater exposure to sunlight will help alleviate this problem and the related decrease in performance almost immediately.

The increased sunlight and warmth also helps maximise training times. With less time needed for warm up, more time can be devoted to training with the goal of improving or maintaining players fitness levels. Linking back to the mental benefits, it is often easier to run double sessions, players being motivated by warmer conditions. With longer daylight hours, less warm up time, the quantity of work can be improved.

When away on these trips the club has greater access to the players, for example, they are not driving home after training. This gives the club enhanced oversight of players’ recovery, ensuring they are maximising the value of training.  

Tactical

Southampton Manger Ralph Hasenhuttl, pointed to better weather conditions making it easier to train tactically because “you can work in a good atmosphere”. If players are not distracted by trying to keep warm and dry, they have greater mental capacity to take in tactical messages. The warmer weather also makes it easier to spend time on relatively static or slow-moving blocks of tactical drills.

Developing team cohesion also plays a large part in training camps. Research has consistently shown a link between cohesion and performance (Filho et al 2014). For new players coming into a side via the January transfer window or players stepping up to first team level, these camps provide an opportunity to create bonds at a personal level and adjust to the tactical demands of a new team in a less pressurised setting.

Warm weather training camps are much more than a chance to get away and top up a tan. For clubs, they provide a chance to prepare players for the remaining months of the season. For players it’s a welcome relief from the pressures of Premier League life and for staff they create a conducive working environment aimed at maximising performance needs - whatever they maybe.

With the Premier League introducing a winter break from next season, expect to see all clubs jet away for an extended break in the sunshine. With the need removed to find an artificial gap in fixtures, hopefully it will be a catalyst of more than 7 Premier League teams to make it through to the 5th round of the Emirates FA Cup…     

 

Sport Science Agency uses its insight and expertise to tell performance stories and unlocks their value for brands, broadcasters and rights holders. If you want to know more about what we can do for you, drop us a note via info@sportscienceagency.com and we can arrange to go for a healthy vitamin packed drink. 

SSA Blog: Sport Science in 2017

With 2017 drawing to a close we look back at three significant stories that shaped the sport science year and will continue to have an impact into 2018, both inside and outside the performance arena. 


Nike Breaking 2
Without doubt the biggest sport science story this year was Nike’s attempt to break the 2 hour marathon barrier. The 2 hour barrier is one of athletics last great challenges. Indeed, it was postulated as long ago as 1991 that a time of 1.57:58 was possible under perfect conditions. Nike’s project was four years in the making and brought together some of the best minds in sport science as well as an interesting group of 3 athletes who had been drawn from an initial 60 strong cohort. 

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The combination of Nike’s financial backing, scientific excellence and some of the world’s elite performers lead many to believe a sub 2 hour time would be possible.   
As the project developed, it became clear that this would not be a legitimate world record attempt during one of the major marathon events. From a sport science point of view, this didn’t matter. If anything, it makes it more exciting as it allowed the sport science team to think the unthinkable and take the athletes outside the usual constraints of racing in order to seek the limits of human endurance.


Every aspect of performance was examined with an obvious emphasis on the training and preparation of the athletes.  Areas such as VO2max, Lactate Threshold and Running Economy were all evaluated at the start of the project to identify who the researchers thought were the athletes with the physiology capable of sustaining the training load and having a realistic chance of hitting the sub 2 hour goal.  


But physiology is only part of what makes an athlete great. Other areas the researchers looked at included the course, environmental temperature, humidity, altitude and obviously, being Nike research, the shoes. The researchers also became increasingly interested in the psychology of their runners. Ultimately the effort didn’t manage to produce a sub 2 hour performance - Eliud Kipchoge came within 25 seconds of achieving the goal. That is less than a second per mile.


When evaluating the effort, the main performance benefit seemed to come from the drafting formation, developed using support runners throughout the record attempt. Nike commissioned wind tunnel research to ensure they positioned support runners in the most effective formation to maximise the drafting effect. This finding may have huge potential for distance running in the future. In cycling, drafting and protecting the GC rider is a long-established principle. Running has always been seen as a more individual sport and while runners will often train together, rarely do they compete in such a strict team formation.


Nike’s Breaking 2 didn’t manage to achieve athletics' last great barrier, but with its drafting and team formation research, it has provided a model for how it might be achieved both in a scientific experiment and ultimately in a major city marathon.         

The Rise of the Aging Athlete
As human beings live longer, and medicine and sport science continue to develop, it should be no surprise that athletes have been able to take advantage and extend their careers. Roger Federer, Tom Brady, Zlatan Ibrahimović and Serena Williams have all dazzled fans, media and fellow performers this year despite their relative age, which has left people searching for the secret elixir of these supposed super agers.

Roger Federer 2.jpg


As with much in sport at the elite level, an athlete’s ability to maintain performance into their 4th decade is a mix of genetic and lifestyle factors. Generally, the key anabolic hormones associated with muscle growth and maintenance begin to decline in the mid to late 30’s. This can have a particularly profound effect on an athlete’s ability to produce power which inevitably has an effect on performance elements such as sprinting, acceleration, striking force and change of direction speed.


New developments regarding training, diet, injury prevention and recovery strategies have allowed more athletes to maintain their careers into their early to mid 30’s. However, the ability to perform at the highest level needs to be supported by a strong motivational drive to train and also the emotional intelligence to accept limitations and plan in order to peak for specific periods during the year. 


Sport science will continue to elongate athlete’s careers. Better understanding of the genetics, training responses, diet and recovery will combine to support the physiological demands. But the greatest elements in the near future will be development of psychological and intellectual understanding to further help athletes develop the mental skills needed to cope with managing the latter stages of sporting careers.


This generation of athlete, with the support of developing sport science, has proved that age is no longer the barrier it once was. This has altered perceptions as to the impact older athletes can have. It will pave the way to extending athlete contracts and the age profile within which elite sport operates.
       
Welfare and Winning
Athlete welfare hit the back pages this year following a number of allegations made by athletes within the Olympic sport system. The cyclist Jess Varnish lead the wave of criticism directed at National Governing bodies funded by UK Sport and subscribing to the so called ‘no compromise’ strategy focused on Olympic and Paralympic success. 


The treatment and culture within which athletes were expected to perform began to come into question. Had the ‘no compromise’ system that has seen unprecedented Olympic success over the past decade been at the expense of athlete welfare? Or is an elite performance environment just that and not everyone can handle the demands they are faced with?


Athletes and coaches were asked for their opinions and experiences with many defending the systems that had helped them achieve their sporting goals. But the allegations kept coming.  


National governing bodies have employed performance lifestyle experts for a number of years in order to support the wider lifestyle aspects of athletes. The goal was to support athletes in developing world class performance habits while they are away from the track, pool or velodrome. However, for some, when the sport becomes all encompassing it can easily become too much, pressure builds, motivation dips and performance inevitably suffers. 


Across sport, coaches and athletes will have different approaches, views, interests and motivational strategies. This is no different from any workplace. In the major professional sports, players have the ability to move and perhaps find a team that ‘fits’ their outlook and personality. Within the Olympic system in the UK, each sport generally only allows athletes one major training environment within which they have to adhere to the culture and expectations that are often entrenched. 


Performance systems are key to producing success. The continuity that exists across the British system has turned Team GB into a global sporting powerhouse (compare this with the relative reactionary approach seen within football). However, these systems need to continually evolve and develop in order to support athletes from a broader talent pool, often that broader talent pool is a consequence of their own previous success. 


Elite sport is tough. Many with the physical talent, simply don’t have the psychological resilience, drive or desire to sustain the training load and lifestyle sacrifices needed. Pushing athletes mentally as well as physically is part of the selection process. It allows coaches and performance managers to assess how athletes perform under pressure and ultimately evaluate if they are developing the required skills to win on the biggest stage. This will mean athletes taken out of their comfort zone, it will mean pressure to perform in training and it will mean being able to meet high standards across everything they do, with consequences if these challenges cannot be successfully met. 


The challenge of sport science is to recognise the individuality of athletes and create systems that can dial up or down the support and challenges that athletes need in order to progress their careers, be that within the sport or leaving it to focus on other challenges.


As we look forward to an Olympic year in 2018 the trajectory for sport science is only upward. The increase in financial rewards across professional sport, the global attention an Olympic Games brings and the continuous health challenges we face, all look to sport science for support. The development in technology, the increased interest in psychology and advances in genetic medicine will provide new avenues for sport Science to explore in the coming years. Who knows what 2018 will bring, but you can be sure sport science will be at the forefront.      
 

SSA Blog: To Captain the Pride

Lions selection is always a hot topic. This year’s entire RBS 6 Nations was played under the shadow of the Lions tour to New Zealand. Every game (involving the home nations) was analysed within the context of who had done enough or otherwise to earn a place on the aeroplane to Auckland.

But perhaps the most intriguing selection topic was that of the captain. The previous captain Sam Warburton had been replaced at national level by Alun Wyn Jones. England’s highly successful leader Dylan Hartley was facing a fight for selection at hooker from, amongst others, Rory Best, who’s Ireland side had defeated New Zealand and England in major tests of his leadership.

As we now know, Warren Gatland has put his faith in Sam Warburton. Warburton becomes only the second player to lead the Lions twice. But with his form suffering while captaining Wales earlier in the year and his open admission that he didn’t feel “comfortable” with captaincy prior to the 6 Nations, why has Gatland decided Sam Warburton is his ‘go to’ guy for the biggest role in northern hemisphere rugby?

The Lions is a unique sporting institution, the captain is therefore unlike any other. Fans and media often hype the role into some form of mythical Anglo-Celtic worrier spirit and other such battle based analogies when discussing what they want from a captain. But in the calculated, professional world of elite sport, there is much more to it.

Unsurprisingly the scientific literature believes leadership and effective captaincy can have a marked impact upon performance. However, the role of a captain, its demands and the attributes required to be effective have received very limited scientific investigation. In one of the most comprehensive studies examining captaincy, Fransen and his team (2016) surveyed over 4,000 sports people. They highlighted four broad leadership functions relating to captaincy. Tactical, motivational, social (team spirit) and external (dealing with the media etc). This all feels very straight forward, the problem they found was that almost half of their surveyed cohort felt their captain didn’t fulfil any of these fundamental functions, so by implication, they wouldn’t support enhanced performance.         

While Fransen et al, (2016) provides a good platform, rugby presents a very specific captaincy test. It isn’t like football and other team sports, as the captain’s role is more significant. Recognising this, Cotterill and Cheetham (2016) looked specifically at the experiences of elite rugby captains. They highlighted 9 ‘super-ordinate’ themes and within those, 55 ‘subordinate’ themes following extensive interviews with professional club and in some cases ex-international captains.

Cotterill and Cheetham’s research shows the vast responsibility and expectation associated with captaincy in modern rugby. The diversity of these themes, from conflict resolution and motivator through to on pitch decision maker and player liaison officer, are a far cry from the Warrior type picture often painted. But the Lions isn’t normal rugby, it’s not club rugby, it isn’t even International rugby. The Lions represents a different challenge altogether. And that is perhaps the most compelling reason why Gatland trusts Sam Warburton to lead the 2017 side both on and off the field.

In interviews regarding his decision, Warren Gatland made very little, if any, reference to the traditional qualities associated with captaincy. Many of the other candidates for the role have been praised for their passion, described as natural leaders, motivators with an ability to galvanise and lead a team. Instead, Gatland has focused on the ability to manage game situations and in particular communicate effectively with the referee. In Warburton, Gatland has prioritised the softer elements of captaincy. A self-assured team player, who showed maturity prior to and during the 6 nations when his own form had dropped and the Welsh captaincy was removed.

Cotterill and Cheetham conclude their 2016 paper by suggesting the need for further clarity regarding the role of the captain and the skills required. They imply traditional views surrounding what makes a great captain need to be challenged. The Lions tour will be brutal, hard hitting, relentless rugby. The skill levels, determination, drive and motivation among the touring party are unquestionable. With this in mind, the experience, calmness and game management that Sam Warburton brings as captain would appear to be the right choice. At this level, the captain is surrounded by Lions with big hearts ready for the big stage. To win the series the captain doesn’t need to be the best Lion…

He needs to get the best from his Pride.