Using technology to integrate testing, training, and teaching

As technology has become commonplace in training, more and more coaches understand how to use technology. But getting the most out of any technology requires more than that. It requires seamless integration with training. Dean Benton is a master of integrating technology in the training process. As our site theme this month is technology and sport, it is only appropriate to get the master’s take on how to combine the two.

Benton has worked in many sports all around the world, but is most known for his work in rugby. In fact, he’s the coach that got me into coaching rugby by awakening me to the unique physical demands of the sport and the fun challenge of preparing athletes for the game when we first met in 2013. After several years as head of sports science for England Rugby, he returned home to Australia where he now works as national head of athletic performance for Rugby Australia. In this role he gets works closely with the athletic performance staff across Australia’s national teams, professional teams, and academy programs to align and enhance systems, structure, knowledge, and coaching across all programs.

» Related content: Become a member to get learn more from Benton, including our 2017 interview on rest and recovery, our 2018 interview about tactical periodization, and the more recent GAINcast 186 on testing.

MB: Buying technology is easy, but where many coaches struggle is in the next step after you open the box. Often the technology is underused, or it becomes a distraction. When I look at your training, you find the right balance. What helps is that you have a clear idea of how the technology fits in and what you expect from it. Could you explain a little more your philosophy when it comes to technology in training?

Benton: Technology should only be used as an ‘enhancer’ in a coaching environment, and not permitted to be a ‘detractor.’ Coaches need to be prudent and not allow technology to stop the flow of a training session, preclude observation skills, and preventing relevant conversations with athletes.

I do feel that currently technology is ahead of coaches’ capability to apply it. However, hardware/software platforms are becoming a lot more accessible and easier to use. Ultimately a coaching eye, experience and judgement are still required to interpret video/data and apply it to the practical environment. What can be heard, seen, or sensed, still largely cannot be measured. In many ways, it is better initially to learn how to coach without the use of technology.

I think it is important to point out that technology does not offer any shortcuts to gaining coaching experience. I have heard of a coach having their head stuck in an iPad and not even notice an athlete having incurred a hamstring injury during a late stage rehab running session.

MB: One key area where you utilize technology is in integrating testing in into everyday training. How do you attempt to integrate the testing into training?

Benton: It was Vern Gambetta that introduced me many years ago to the concept of training=testing and testing=training. I take this one step further and suggest the concept can be expanded to the involve interplay between training, testing, as well as teaching. It should be a blend – not either or. Essentially, you often cannot separate the modes, and in fact you shouldn’t try. Strategic use of testing equipment allows a mixture of training stimulus and feedback for both athlete and coach. That mixture often involves a question of major-minor emphasis. You’re doing all at once, but which one are you putting the emphasis on today or in this training phase?

MB: Let’s get into some examples then. You mentioned major and minor emphasis. How would things look when training is the major emphasis?

Benton: When training is the major emphasis we will choose exercises first and foremost for their training effect. But at the same time we are keeping in mind that the work should be measurable. Here the testing is informal, seamless, a means to monitor improvements, illicit intensity and often to intentionally create competition.

The first question you ask is what quality you really want to train. Depending on the answer, I’ll go in different directions with my athletes. Here are some examples that address different areas of speed and power training:

  • Acceleration – Simple 10m accelerations can be an excellent contrast in a gym environment. With low volumes, initial acceleration is safe and an effective way to assess, maintain and even enhance acceleration throughout the entire year with field-court sport athletes.
  • Maximum speed – Whether trained directly via 15-30m flys or attained via longer sprints, max speed can be easily measured with live GPS. Experience has taught me that difference in max speed assessment between timing gates, laser, and GPS is quite trivial for coaching purposes. Like acceleration, technology is an effective way to motivate, assess, maintain and even enhance max speed throughout the entire year with field sport athletes.
  • Short contact (< 250ms) plyometrics – Speed bounding over 20-30m, as outlined by Warren Young, is arguably the most specific resistance training you can do to enhance max speed as it develops reactive leg strength by way of the sprint action. The speed bound index (SBI) testing outlined by Young is a very effective means of getting athletes to self-optimize stride length and frequency to achieve a low index. Timing gates are obviously more accurate than a stopwatch. The Swift timing gate software has a function where the SBI can easily be calculated and feedback to athletes immediately. Because speed bounding is so close to actual sprinting, experience has taught me that the SBI is a lead indicator of when an athlete is likely to attain a new max speed PB. Furthermore, speed bounding velocity is ~15-20% lower than actual sprinting, which sees hamstring contribution being less than sprinting per se. As such, it is actually a safe way to maintain and even attain max speed indirectly in-season; it can be done in safely gym or field setting.
  • Long contact (> 250ms) plyometrics – The performance enhancement and injury prevention benefits of various rudimentary jumps such split jumps are significant. Unfortunately, sometimes an athlete’s effort can be discretionary as well as the inability to assess jump performance. Also, the nature of these types of jumps cannot measured on a jump mat. Fortunately, inertial measurement unit systems like VERT combine with an iPhone/iPad to offer a relatively cheap means of assessing jump count and height.
  • Rehabilitation/return to Run – Leading GPS companies now have very good connectivity to smart watches and iPhone/iPad. This permits a live and objective means of progressing running intensity. This is a great coaching aid where you have some athletes can be overly apprehensive, or others that are too keen to progress running intensity. It also brings a greater focus on intensity as the outcome rather than distance, which I think is very much a secondary metric.
  • Mechanical power (vertical or horizontal) – The training/testing of mechanical power as a modality well-researched. Modes can include, but not limited to Olympic lifts, jump squats etc. GymAware, Vmaxpro, and Push band are some of the leading products on the market. Sometimes we do not always see the transfer of what an athlete can produce vertically in the gym to what they need to do horizontally on the field, especially in contact situations in rugby. JB Morin (2016) has published some excellent research around the use of heavy sleds to train mechanical power horizontally. Simply using timing gates and Morin’s methodology it offers a more specific means to individually prescribe horizontal mechanical power development. Hughes (2019) has demonstrated there is an excellent correlation between velocity measured using linear position transducer as such, Gym Aware and the accelerometer-based Push device. This offers up the opportunity to compare what an athlete can produce vertically and horizontally. This can be achieved by simply fixing a Push device on a loaded sled, or tackle sled for comparison to a corresponding velocity vertical lift such as jump squat.
Major emphasis: Training
Minor emphasis: Testing
Area of Athletic Development Examples of technology
Acceleration training Swift Uno and Duo gates x 1 or 1080 Sprint
Maximum speed training Live GPS via smartwatch/phone or Swift Uno and Duo gates x 1 or 1080 Sprint
Reactive leg strength: Speed bounding (20-30m) Swift Uno and Duo gates x 1
Reactive leg strength (<250ms)/elastic leg strength (>250ms) Swift EZEJUMP jump mat or Vert
Return to Run (rehabilitation) Live GPS via smartwatch/phone or Swift timing gates
Mechanical power (vertical or horizontal) GymAware, Vmaxpro or Push band

MB: Those are some great examples. How would that then change if testing becomes the major emphasis?

Benton: When testing becomes the focus, we want more precise data in a more controlled environment. Rather starting with the question of what you want to train, the question instead becomes what you want to test. Here are some examples of how that would look again in speed and power training:

  • Speed qualities assessment / force velocity profile – The highest max speeds I have seen in the rugby codes are around 10.3-10.5m/sec. Max speeds of this magnitude are typically attained before 40m. Therefore, if you are using timing gates, I would recommend setting Swift Uno and Duo with 4 gates set up at 10-meter intervals. JB Morin’s force-velocity methodology can be applied in this setting via timing gate data or via use of video. The amount of information that can be gleaned when testing 25-35 athletes in the 45-60mins it takes is incredible. The feedback helps you quickly assess which athletes get directed to force development, force orientation, acceleration, or max speed focus.
  • Stride length and stride frequency – If we want to improve max speed, which is important for many positions for filed sport athletes it is important to know how their speed is derived. Speed is a function of stride length and stride frequency. As a generalization, it is advantageous for field sport athletes to have a max speed predominantly derived via stride frequency. However, every squat will have athletes across the spectrum when it comes to these qualities. Knowing where they fall enables programming and coaching to be much more accurate with faster results. A high-speed video camera is nice to have, but it is also very expensive. These days you have hand-held camera that you can buy over the counter that have adjustable shutter speeds. This allows stride frequency/length to be easily calculated as well as offering the means for gait analysis, i.e. the best musculo-skeletal screen possible. New apps even include this functionality.
  • Reactive leg strength (<250ms) & elastic leg strength (>250ms) – Warren Young and Carmelo Bosco pioneered a lot of the early research in terms of the assessment of explosive leg extensor qualities. A Swift EZEJUMP jump mat is a portable and effective means to collect reactive leg strength via a 30cm drop jump, which provides a reactive strength index. If you talk to the purists such as Young, to appropriately assess leg extensors qualities the arms should not be involved. Therefore, the countermovement jump is a twin to the drop jump with both jumps not involving arm swing. It’s important to point out, these assessments do not provide a meaningful training stimulus. However, they can be used effectively a diagnostic to reflect the attainment of explosive leg strength qualities, developed via broader programming.
Major emphasis: Testing
Minor emphasis: Training
Area of Athletic Development Examples of technology
Full speed qualities assessment & force velocity profile (acceleration & maximum velocity) Swift Uno and Duo gates x 4 or 1080 Sprint; video
Stride length & stride frequency (30-40m split) Video camera & SpeedLight gates x 2
Initial acceleration (10m interval) Swift Uno and Duo gates x 1 or 1080 Sprint; video
Max speed (30-40m split) Swift Duo gates gates x 2 or 1080 Sprint
Reactive leg strength (<250ms)/elastic leg strength (>250ms) Swift EZEJUMP jump mat, Vmaxpro, Push Band or Vert

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MB: How does the third mode, teaching, then come into the equation?

Benton: Frans Bosch’s book talks about knowledge of performance and knowledge of results in his book. As he puts it “movements learned with a great deal of augmented KP feedback (i.e. coaching & correcting) are less stable and less reliable especially in stress situations – for instance during competition.” The problem is that knowledge of result (i.e. how fast was the last rep) is often missing in training. A good coach uses knowledge of performance and knowledge of results, and portable technology can make that interplay easier. Here are a few examples:

  • Nature of ground contact time – Way back in the ‘80s Dietmar Schmidtbleicher classified jumps as being either below 250ms, or above 250ms in ground contact time. This always made sense to me as it creates a clear demarcation insofar as how you coach short or long contact jumps. An example of the former being a depth jump, where cueing could be hot coals. The latter being a vertical jump where you cue an athlete to intentionally invest time pushing the ground away. As per my previous example, placing 1 or 2 jump mats between hurdles or boxes is a great way to add objectivity and to teach how brief ground contact times should feel and sound. The same can be said when trying to teach an athlete in creating impulse with a stationary vertical jump or loaded jump squats. A Swift EZEJUMP jump mat, GymAware, Vmaxpro, Push Band or Vert can allow a coach to interplay between knowledge of performance/results. Often an athlete can instantly improve +5cm, or an increase in velocity simply by gaining an understanding of the concept of sequential triple leg flexion/extension.
  • Acceleration and maximum speed – It is not uncommon for field sport athletes to think that simply turning their legs over quickly is an effective strategy for accelerating effectively from stationary, or near stationary start. Making use of timing gates can allow a coach to move judiciously back-and-forth between knowledge of performance/results. Here with timing gates in the background and cueing an athlete to push the ground backwards to go forwards it allows an athlete to instantly learn the concept and experience improvements. The same teaching concept can be applied with teaching maximum speed technique. Although experience has taught me that max speed technique takes a lot longer to improve compared to acceleration and sometimes max speed performance goes backwards before it improves. However, I do believe it important to draw an athlete’s attention to relationships between positive technique changes and max speed improvements at an appropriate time.
Major emphasis: Teaching
Minor emphasis: Training
Area of Athletic Development Examples of technology
Teaching nature & length of ground contact (<250ms) Swift EZEJUMP jump mat, Vmaxpro, Push Band or Vert
Teaching sequential leg triple flexion/extension (>250ms) Swift EZEJUMP jump mat, GymAware, Vmaxpro, Push Band or Vert
Acceleration technique (knowledge of performance/result) Swift Uno and Duo gates x 1
Max speed technique (knowledge of performance/result) Live GPS via smartwatch/phone or Swift Uno and Duo gates x 1 or 1080

MB: How does the third mode, teaching, then come into the equation?

Benton: These days technology is so portable and user friendly it allows a quality of assessment that once was only possible in a lab. So now we have lab quality assessment with gym and field conditions. I cannot think of too many reasons or circumstances why you would not want to systematically use portable technology in any of the 3 modes with team sports.

A great example would be with national teams where you often work with small windows of time, which can prevent formal testing. When we test formally under conditions that lend itself to proper validity and reliability, training does take a back seat. In fact, to ensure athletes are prepared to test it may result in a loss of 3-4 days training, which you cannot always afford. That is, 2-3 days recovery from training before testing to ensure performances are not masked by fatigue and a day or half day for testing itself. The wealth of information gained through detailed formal testing is invaluable, but it is interesting that often athletes to produce better performances in the TRAINING/testing mode as opposed to the TESTING/training mode. I attribute this to being an absence of anxiety normally associated with formal testing.

MB: One final question. All this technology might sounds great in theory, but a lot of coaches work on a strict budget. Can these ideas be implemented on a budget?

Benton: Of course, it does depend on a coach’s situation. If a coach is self-employed and has a limited budget, then there several inexpensive iPhone apps that offer reasonable validity and reliability for speed/power assessment. But as the old adage goes, you get what you pay for. Many of the products I use now should be seen as 8-10 year investments. As such, I have found when I point this out to administrators, they often see the reasoning in this. You just cannot compare the results and details you get from some of the top tools in the market. Carl Valle recently wrote about some of the innovations behind the Swift timing equipment which really illustrates how such devices are worth the investment over the long term.