A structured process to improve training quality

In the age of big data, quantities have taken over the attention of many coaches. Quality, on the other hand, often takes a back seat as it is not as easily put in a spreadsheet. Yet when we look at high performance, quality is the factor that defines coaching and performance. High training quality is the basis of world-class coaching; it is what separates excellent from average coaching. Quality of performance in the arena is also directly proportional to quality of the preparation. You cannot hope for high quality performance with low quality preparation.

Most coaches recognize the importance of training quality. The Principle of Specificity proposes that we should train the way we want to play. If we want to play with high quality, then training should reflect that: skills and tactics should be rehearsed in similar, or greater intensities to those experienced in competition, with a parallel focus on quality. Quality is nevertheless often forgotten as it is not as easy to assess as intensity or other quantities. Famous German high jump coach Wolfgang Ritzdorf articulated how the quantitative and qualitative approach to training can be viewed from a coaching perspective: “Intensity is a measure of 100%; quality is a measure of perfect.” How do you measure perfect, many coaches ask? The concept of attaining training perfection is simply a complete adaptation to the environment, but it is always over the horizon. In other words, it is the pursuit of excellence, which is something can indeed be measured.

It’s accepted that the collective assessment of training quality can be challenging, but currently is doesn’t get the attention it deserves in team sports. Below we propose a simple model for understanding training quality, assessing it, and integrating it into your coaching processes.

Understanding quality

Quality vs Quantity

Quantity and quality are often pitted against each other like foes on opposite ends of the spectrum. While they are clearly distinct concepts, coaches should not be so quick to entirely separate them. Quantity and quality are related. If we want to ensure training is like the game, part of that will be ensuring specific objective quantitative targets are met (speed, volume, etc.). Without those quantities, the quality will never be there. But there are also other factors that contribute to quality as well, even more so as the playing environment becomes more complex as it does in team sports. In many individual sports, quality and quantity overlap even more. A good quality effort in the shot put is often simply a good quantity. Quality is measured by the end quantity (distance thrown) which is a factor of other quantities (speed of release, angle of release, height of release). In team sports the scoreline is the result of a much more complex interplay of factors, making the focus on quality even more important, but also more difficult for coaches to identify.

Over the last 20 years, sport science has done well in providing detailed quantitative information about what successful team sport athletes do in their training to develop sport-specific physiological capacities and performance. GPS tools show us how much and how fast players move in training and games. At times, GPS is seen as a coaching tool to regulate team sport training intensity. However, GPS is simply an aggregate of movement and a surrogate measure of training intensity. Whilst seductive, appeasing GPS metrics can sometimes divert attention away from what matters. The endless pursuit of GPS metrics, both in terms of volume and intensity, won’t lend itself to better training quality; often it can do the opposite and be to the detriment of training quality.

Whilst to not trivialise the value of GPS, it can sometimes make certain variables overly valued because you can easily and objectively measure it. There are many other indicators of intensity that are important – many of which can’t be objectively measured, but certainly observable and critical to game models. These factors can be heard, seen, or sensed, but still largely cannot be measured. Examples being effort, enthusiasm, energy, execution and sustained concentration etc.

Defining training quality

In 2023, Norwegian sports scientist Thomas Haugen, a professor at Kristiania University College in Oslo, published a paper with colleagues. The authors offered a definition of training quality—also offering ways that athletes and coaches can improve it and methods to evaluate it. Haugen et al. conceptualise that training quality reflects that the effect of training is dependent on more than the mere product of training load (e.g., duration, intensity, frequency). Furthermore, authors stating, “coaches and athletes describe key factors leading to success, they often highlight how they work and why training practices are performed, indicating that the quality of the training process and execution of training sessions are key factors separating the best from the rest.”

The Norwegian group propose that there are two dimensions to training quality: 1. the quality of the holistic training process, which involves broader, long-term planning; and, 2. the quality of a specific training session

Understanding the dimensions of quality

Quality is also a multi-dimensional topic. For example, you might have perfect execution of a training component, which in one sense could mean high quality. However, if you have selected the wrong component or wrong intensity, then it will not help you improve your performance, and the overall training is of low quality. Therefore, quality must be understood and assessed in multiple dimensions.

From a team sport perspective training quality can be seen from three dimensions:

  • Macro (the right things for the team) — the quality of broader planning. This would centre around a game model, appropriate to players’ capabilities, principles of play, the team’s aims and provide clear direction to the long-term training process
  • Meso (doing the right things in the right order) — the quality of standardised training weeks. The appropriate sequencing of horizontal and vertical alternation, which is the basis of performance stabilisation. How the development of physical qualities are integrated with the development of the game model. It is possible to select training content within your training week, execute it well and for it to be regarded as high quality. However, it may be incongruent with your game model and therefore, in reality poor quality.
  • Micro (doing things right) — the quality of individual training sessions, allied to the game model and game plan. Where the process of intention and execution is assessed against the goals of each respective session. As coaches we must ensure the integral link between tactics and behaviours. For example, components of a game model are drivers for the frequent appearance of certain behaviours. Furthermore, skills and physical qualities are inextricably linked – guaranteeing this is best done via a qualitative process. As an example, being the quick-accurate execution of many sporting skills require dual tasking, with sprinting being the other skill. To evaluate this requires a qualitative coaching eye.

Practical applications of training quality

For high quality training to be achieved consistently, it requires essential shared responsibilities for both the athlete and coach:

Athlete — once educated by coaches, it is an athlete’s responsibility to ensure they are physically and mentally ready to train. Physical preparation to train includes: adequate sleep, pre-training activation and nutrition, focus and concentration in training sessions, discipline, diligence, capability to learn and openness to feedback post session is vital.

For athletes to genuinely be engaged in driving training quality there must exist a strong sense of ownership and belief. For this to exist, coaches must engage and involve athletes in the three levels of planning, execution and debriefing. Athletes are our greatest sources of information—on the proviso as coaches we ask the right questions. As the great swimming coach, Bill Sweetenham says, “Great coaches observe what athletes cannot. Great athletes feel and understand what coaches cannot.”

Coaches—coaching experience, knowledge, andragogic and/or pedagogic skills are a prerequisite. Well-developed planning skills—in particular how to apply tactical periodisation principles is a significant advantage. A substantial amount of discerning training quality is about listening, sensing, but also well-developed observation skills. The ability to sell, influence and collaborate with athletes, particularly senior athletes in a group, is essential to engagement.

The assessment of training session quality is a constant cyclical process and central to learning – ideally faster than your opposition.

Pre-session assessment:

  • As a coaching group, defining the goal(s) of the session
  • Relationship to the game model-plan and desired behaviours to respective components
  • HOW the session will be coached and coaching roles
  • Consensus on what exactly quality looks, sounds and feels like
  • Which coaches will be intensely ‘zoomed in’ with coaching and which will be ‘zoomed out’ in terms of observing
  • Methods, time, equipment
  • Quantitative intensity (GPS) and qualitative intensity (e.g. tactical concentration) that reference the game model
  • Extrinsic and intrinsic feedback
  • Athletes’ understanding

Assessment of execution:

  • System for real time feedback from athletes and co-coaches. Video, observation, notation etc
  • Ability to ‘coach and adjust on the run’ to ensure accuracy and economy of feedback
  • Balance of ‘training time’ vs. ‘talk time’

Post-session assessment:

  • Hot debrief on field. Particularly if a formal debrief isn’t possible. This would involve coaches, support staff and athletes as appropriate
  • Use of notational intention and execution debrief questionnaire. Ideally in electronic format to ensure accurate post tour season review
  • Identification of gaps, key learnings, action required and allocation

Final thoughts

Often within team sport competitions there does not exist a much variation in terms of what teams do in their respective training environment. However, what distinguishes teams is how they do it, a deep understanding and ownership of why. Further evidence of the importance of assuring training quality can commonly be seen when a less experienced coach takes over from an experienced coach. Whereby the same training schedule and programming does not return the same level of performance. Having clear sense of what is quality between athletes and coaches is essential. The vehicle for this being a robust planning, execution, and debriefing process.