Sport-specific requirements for skill acquisition and competition readiness
In last month’s issue, James Marshall gave a detailed account of periodisation strategies, outlining ways in which training elements and units could be positioned within linear, reverse linear, undulating, unidirectional and intermediate periodisation training plans (PP 198, June 2004). In this article, I will consider the application of periodisation to a wide range of sports and focus specifically on how it relates to competition and skill acquisition.
Under the ‘classic’ Matveyev model, the training year is divided into distinct training phases which, depending on their duration, are known as macro-, meso- and microcyles. As a rough guide, macrocycles last months, mesocycles weeks and microcycles days. Within each cycle, the key training variables of volume, intensity and specificity are manipulated to create the desired training effect.
Track and field versus team sports
Sports like track and field and swimming tend to lend themselves better to Matveyev’s original thoughts on periodisation than judo, football, cricket, rugby and tennis, for two key reasons:
- Their performance outcomes in training and competition are easily measurable. For example, the enhancement of CV ability can be intrinsically linked to heart rate and VO2max, and the development of strength and power to percentages of 1 rep maximum (1RM).
- They have a relatively low skill component.
This means that track and field athletes and swimmers can establish and work towards a readily quantifiable periodisation programme, which is not the case for the more qualitativetype sports, with their much greater and diverse skill requirements.
Let’s take a closer look at one such sport – judo. Although judo players need to condition themselves by means of weight training and anaerobic/aerobic activity, they also need to spend a great deal of time progressing to a more tactical, intuitive and (literally) combative competitive peak. This has led coaches in judo and similar sports to devise their own periodisation approaches.
For example, judo coaches regard time on the mat (ie time spent doing judo) as the key element of the training variable volume(1). As the competition macrocycle approaches, more time is spent practising the sport and less on general conditioning in order to develop peak performance. Although this may seem obvious, it is surprising how many coaches and athletes (whatever their sport) overlook this prime need and become preoccupied with developing strength, endurance and power at the expense of skill. Such an approach can result in impaired performance, regardless of improved condition – of which more later.
It should be noted at this point that coaches in the more qualitative sports can, and often do, also devise specific quantitative measures to help with periodisation. To take judo as an example again, the Polish sports scientist Sikorski devised 11 general and 23 judo-specific drills for the national team based on lactate production and heart-rate response. These are used to shape the training cycles.
Periodisation can be difficult to apply to team sports, which have a high skill component and extremely long – and often highly competitive – playing seasons. Let’s consider a real-world sporting example – the 2001 British Lions rugby tour to Australia.
The players arrived ‘down under’ after a tough domestic and international season, facing a very tough tour itinerary; yet, for reasons best known to the coaching and management staff, they were subjected to a highly demanding training programme. It was as if a mini-periodisation programme were being implemented within a very short period of time, with particular emphasis on contact training. This resulted in injuries to key players, including Dan Luger and Mike Catt. Many players commented on the tough regime and the fact that it left them tired before games(2).
So what should the Lions’ management have done instead? Maintaining condition from the previous long season rather than attempting to lift it might have been the best solution. It appears that for team and individual sports with long seasons, such as tennis, pre-season or inseason breaks are the best occasions for improving physical condition. Trying to develop more endurance or strength in-season (or very close to the end of a long season), when players are fatigued, can lead to injury and staleness.
Baker studied 14 professional and 15 collegeaged rugby league players over 29 weeks inseason in an attempt to determine whether maximum strength and power could be increased concurrently while attempting to balance the demands of playing and recovery(3). All players performed training aimed at increasing strength, power, speed, and energy-system fitness, as well as attending skill and team practice sessions.
All the players’ performances remained unchanged for the majority of the tests across the season (although the college-aged players did manage to increase their bench-press bests). The authors believed that the prioritisation, sequencing and timing of training sessions, both pre- and in-season, kept the players in prime rugby league playing condition. Improved condition was built pre-season, and then maintained throughout the playing season by the use of undulating periodisation.
Jump performance in volleyball
The specific physiological requirements of a sport are, therefore, equally important considerations for successful team sport periodisation. Newton and associates looked at volleyball and were actually able to improve the jump performance of élite players during pre- and in-season training(4). How did they manage this?
The answer is that in volleyball there is a very strong ‘match’ between what the players do in training and what they do on court. Volleyball relies more on anaerobic energy – and in particular the alactic (less than 10 seconds) energy pathway – than rugby and football, for example. This means that plyometric jump training (as used by these researchers) is much more likely to ‘fit’ and complement the actual physiology of the match situation, so reducing the interference effect and allowing for the enhancement of physical performance.
(Although sport-specific training is not the main focus of this article, coaches and athletes should always be on the lookout for training drills that fit the playing requirements of their sports as closely as possible. These drills should then be utilised throughout the periodisation programme.)
Squad rotation offers another means of maximising team performance. Elite football and rugby sides often perm their starting line-ups from their squads in such a way as to rest players and maintain and develop their condition. However, coach and manager must be in harmony if this approach is used and, of course, chairmen, fans, player injuries and the overall success of the team can always throw a spanner into the works.
I am also aware of how US national soccer squads have used specific training programmes based on highly detailed physiological data reflecting the requirements of each playing position. Mid-fielders, for example, will have to do more running on the pitch than defenders or strikers, and their periodisation plans are designed to reflect this difference and maintain predetermined VO2max and lactate threshold levels throughout the season.
The technique known as ‘undulating periodisation’ is probably the best option for the team sports coach in-season. This model combines much shorter training phases (days/weeks) with different modes of exercise and exercise intensities. Basically, the various ingredients in the training mix are cooked up at the same time; one day the emphasis could be on speed and power, the next on endurance and the next on skill and agility. This type of training should also help to reduce the interference effect, especially if it is closely allied to the requirements of the playing season and the recovery needs of players. Significantly improved condition is best achieved pre-season.
A model known as ‘double periodisation’ can elevate all markers of performance, but only for certain sports, particularly the power and speed track and field events. This idea arises from the original work of Matveyev. Within the double periodisation model, two competitive peaks are targeted in one training year. For example, a sprinter might compete over 60m during the indoor season and 100 and 200m during the outdoor season.
Matveyev estimated that, in so doing, the sprinter could expect a 1.55% improvement over the year, compared to just 0.96% had he used a single periodisation programme. For high jumpers, the estimated difference was even more startling – 2.4% for single periodisation compared with 5.05% for double.
The theory is that preparing for two competitive periods in one year allows for the continuation of higher and more specific training intensities, with little disruption to technical proficiency (skill acquisition).
Note, however, that because of the different physiological processes involved in developing a substantial and lasting endurance base, double periodisation is not recommended for those involved in endurance sports. Nor is it suited to multi-competition sports, unless in-season breaks are scheduled (as with the Scandinavian and Russian football seasons) to allow for a return to more general conditioning.
Also, for those sports that allow it, double periodisation should not be practised year in, year out; every third or fourth year, athletes should return to a single periodisation plan to enable them to ‘top up’ or improve base condition. This can be achieved by the use of longer, more general training-oriented macrocycles, which will not be truncated by the need to achieve competition readiness twice in the training year.
Many technical-event track and field athletes spend a great deal of time getting stronger and faster only to find that their actual performances are no better than they were in the previous year. This is often because they have not spent enough time applying their new-found physical abilities to the skill requirements of their event.
A long-jump athlete, for example, may find that increased sprinting speed does not produce longer jumps because he or she is unable to convert it into increased distance at take-off. Often the immediate reaction from coach and athlete is that more strength is required, but actually the need may be for greater skill. Optimum timing and technical performance can only be achieved by marrying the application of strength, power and speed to the skill required for the sport. Periodisation plans must take account of this and must not allow the development of physical condition to outpace technical requirements.
This principle has led to the development of ‘skill strength’ periodisation models (SSP). Utilised first by the Soviets, this method emphasises the development of sport skill at the beginning of the training year before more ‘power’ is added in subsequent training cycles.
Mental periodisation strategies
The application of sport psychology to periodisation has received scant attention and Balague is one of the few researchers to have addressed this aspect(5). She has developed a model in which performers’ mental preparation is progressed in tandem with their physical preparation throughout the various training cycles. It makes sense for different mental strategies to be employed during different training phases to maximise performance and bolster competitive readiness.
The culmination of months of periodisation may be over in a matter of seconds, so coaches must leave no stone unturned when it comes to performance readiness. The greatest, most detailed and systematic training plan possible will be no use if, finally, the athlete is unable to ‘perform’. According to former British national athletics coach Frank Dick, for track and field athletes (and participants in some individual sports) the nature of the competition macrocycle is determined by:
- the number of competitions an athlete will require to stabilise best performance;
- competition dates;
- how much recovery the athlete requires between competitions;
- any specific adaptations that may be needed for optimising major competition performance, such as time zone and temperature acclimatisation(6).
As Dick points out: ‘Competition is the only means of adapting to the stressor of competition, and to avoid its particular stress simply increases the stress potential of the next one.’ (This, incidentally, offers another reason for the progressive linkage of psychological and physiological preparation strategies.)
Coaches need to be fully aware of when and where they intend to put the conditioning of their charges on the line. Again, this is easier to ascertain for some sports than others. For example, individual sport athletes, with designated competitive seasons, can use low-key competitions as build-ups to major ones; and their competition meso- and microcycles can also be designed around their ability to hang onto peak condition. Team sports pose greater difficulties but, on the other hand, players may benefit from the fact that more peaks are possible.
As James Marshall pointed out in last month’s issue, very careful consideration needs to be given to recovery, especially during the competition phase, when the physical and mental drain is so much greater.
Designing the ultimate training plan is no easy task as there are so many variables to consider. I hope, though, that that you will now feel better armed with the knowledge and tools to proceed with the task.
- www.judoamerica. com/ijca/periodisation/
- Jason Robinson, Finding My Feet (autobiography), Coronet books 2003, p 137
- J Strength Cond Res 2001 May 15 (2) 198-209
- Med Sci Sports Exerc 199 Feb: 31 (2) 323-30
- J Sci Med Sport 2000 Sep:3(3) 230-7
- Dick FW Sports Training Principles P303 A&C Black 2002