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Understanding Sports Demands

Observing youth athletes during soccer games, I often hear parents and coaches on the sidelines expressing bewilderment, exclaiming, "Why are you walking?!" This comment tends to emerge after a player has exerted significant effort sprinting down the field. It's almost as if they expect the child to be a tireless robot, immune to fatigue. Recognizing the diverse demands of sports and considering factors such as the athlete's age, position, season, and level of play, is essential for setting realistic expectations and devising appropriate training strategies. A simple way for parents and coaches to identify how much an athlete should train each week is to have the athlete not train more hours per week than their age.

Measurement of these demands varies across sports, but a common starting point involves assessing external and internal loads. External load quantifies the physical activity performed by the athlete, such as distance covered or number of sprints, and can be gathered through wearable devices or manual recording. Internal load, on the other hand, gauges the athlete's physiological response to the exertion, which can be monitored using tools like heart rate monitors or the rate of perceived exertion (on a scale of 1 to 10) multiplied by duration.

Preparing athletes to meet the demands of their sport is the cornerstone of coaching. This includes tactical and technical development, transfer of skill, exposure to game-like pressure, strategy, and more.  Identifying a starting point of an athlete’s current fitness, strength, and skill and an end goal of where they need to get to includes understanding the sport's demands. 

For example, elite women’s soccer players competing in domestic matches covered a total distance of 5.97 miles (attackers), 6.63 miles (midfielders), and 5.97 (defenders).  The activities performed within that total distance were between 29.1 – 35.7% walking, 39.7 – 45.4% jogging, 12.3 – 18.2%, and 8.5 – 12.3% sprinting.  Of the time spent sprinting, 90.3% lasted under 4 seconds with 64% under a 2-second duration. With this data, spending time in game-like situations would lead one to train in repetitive short sprints compared to longer sprints to reach appropriate fitness levels. The average demands in total distance covered by a high school female soccer athlete playing outside back may be around 4.02 miles while an athlete playing in an NCAA Division 1 game with two overtimes may reach 9.57 miles. There is a large variation in external load based on multiple factors such as age, position, season of play, and level of play. 

External load data is a part of what is included in sports demands. Additional components include decision-making, contact, change of direction, and more. A way to capture this data is through the internal load.  Identifying the rate of perceived exertion brings all this into perspective. A goalie might not cover much distance but may include more impact, decision-making in the most demanding parts of the game, and contact. This can be gathered with the rate of perceived exertion and duration. Applying this data would lead a coach to design practices based on the demands of the upcoming sport with the current athlete’s level of fitness, strength, skill, and sport IQ. 

We must remember that every athlete has an optimal load. By exceeding that load, athletes are often sidelined due to injuries or poor performance due to fatigue and other factors. By finding and helping athletes reach their optimal load and meet their sports demands, the risk of injury is reduced and performance is improved. We must always remember that recovery is a part of sports demands. As athletes’ recovery times shorten, it indicates he is becoming more fit and better prepared to meet his sport demands. So when a young athlete stops to walk during a game, let’s make sure we understand if she needs recovery from the demand placed on her body before making another run.

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