Two methods to break down complex sports

In many ways, track and field coaches have it easy. When I am coaching a hammer thrower, for example, I have just one athlete to worry about, one movement to train for, and one technique to master. Athletes in open-skilled sports, on the other hand, have a much more difficult puzzle to put together. How do coaches decide what to focus on in training and programming in such a situation?

Even the simple is complex

I spoke a bit too soon when I said track coaches have it easy. Just because we have just one movement to train for doesn’t make coaching simple. The hammer throw is itself complex, containing a combination of speed, strength, agility, and rhythm. If we want to improve an athlete’s performance, we can look at the topic from many angles.

First, we can break down the movement into its component parts and focus on the part of the movement that is the most important or needs the most improvement. Last month the IAAF just released detailed biomechanical reports from the 2017 World Championships which can help coaches in this task. For example, strength plays less of a role at the start of the shot put than it does in the hammer throw. In the rotational shot put, the implement starts out at about 15% of its release velocity as the athlete starts to turn. In the hammer throw, on the other hand, the implement is already at 50-60% of its release velocity at the start of the throw. This has an obvious impact on specific strength training for each event: in the hammer throw we use exercises that focus on building strength at all parts of the throw, while in the shot put most of the specific strength exercises focus on the release movement.

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Another method is to do a simple statistical analysis. Correlation is not causation, but we can learn from it. If we see that none of the best throwers are good at running marathons, then maybe we can skip running. If we see that all of the best throwers can also throw heavy stuff far, then maybe we should focus on some special strength work. The final analysis is more nuanced than this, but you get the point. In his book Transfer of Training in Sports, Dr. Anatoliy Bondarchuk showed how he applied this method to all track and field events. It formed the basis of his training that produced numerous world record holders and Olympic champion (and a Swiss champion in myself).

Breaking it down

Both of these examples show how some simple yet relevant numbers can go a long way in helping coaches. Unfortunately, the same type of work hasn’t been carried out in most field sports yet due to their complex nature. The moneyball movement has started to quantify many sports like baseball or basketball, but those calculations are more often used for tactical decisions or player scouting than in player development.

Mark Bennett is one coach trying to take a new path with his work in rugby union. Last year Bennett took over as Head of Sports Science and Medicine at the RFU, England’s governing body for rugby. One of his side projects is to help coaches better quantify the game along these lines. In an upcoming article in Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, Bennett uses statistical analysis to find the performance indicators most relevant to match outcome.

» Related content: Bennett explains a bit more about his research as a guest on Episode 102 of the HMMR Podcast.

The goal of the project is simple: if we determine that one part of the game best determines the outcome, then coaches can break down what skills and physical qualities are needed to do that, and train them accordingly. His conclusion is that open-field abilities based around an effective kicking game, ball carrying abilities, and not conceding penalties when the opposition are in possession are the most relevant predictors of success.

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The next step is to define what physical qualities translate to success in these parts of the game, but in the meantime coaches can already learn something from this approach. Rugby teams traditionally dedicate significant time set pieces. If they rarely predict success, could that time be better spent elsewhere?

Connecting the dots

Frans Bosch uses a different approach to deal with complex problems. Rather than identifying the most important elements of the game, he tries to identify the most important things all the elements have in common. In consulting with John Pryor and Japan Rugby leading up the last World Cup, they identified common themes amongst movements, and tried to train those so that athletes could replicate them in more situations throughout the game.

When I interviewed Bosch about his book Strength Training and Coordination: An Integrative Approach, he explained that building blocks for movements are more common than you think. Tennis and rugby might look quiet different, but they have similar building blocks. If we find and identify those, we can potentially make all parts of the game better at once.

Finding what really matters

The approaches of Bondarchuk and Bennett and Bosch might seem quiet different, but they have one major thing in common: they both want to break down the sport into what really matters. You can’t focus on every nuanced part of the game if you want be the best . Bennett finds what part of the game, while Bosch finds what part of the movement are the most important. If you combine the approaches, they could become even more effective: Bennett identifies kicking and ball carrying as the most effective, so perhaps developing the ability to keep options open for the athlete, as Pryor implemented with Japan, would be a wise approach. Only time will tell, and a little more research too.