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Reaching the Top: How Coaches Can Strategically Train Athletes to Meet Sports Demands and Minimize Injury

We all want to reach the top: be on a winning team, score the winning goal or basket, stop a penalty kick, or be the outstanding player of the game.  In short, it is to be our best, play at our best, and meet our competition.  But do we know what the competition looks like?  What are we training for and how do we get there? 

Truly great coaches and performance and medical teams understand that reaching the top starts with a plan based on an understanding of the following:

1.      The sports demands of the game: physical, technical, and cognitive demands

Physical demands include total distance covered, the intensity of a game (meters covered per minute), high-intensity running distance, duration of sprints, intensity of tasks, collisions, tackles, wrestling, jumps or lateral movement, and recovery time needed between high-intensity activities (work to rest ratios).

Technical demands include the number of passes, shots, hits or pitches, skill involvement, and game-specific actions. 

Cognitive demands include the mental load associated with your sport such as information processing, complex decision-making, focus, attention, and working memory.   

2.      The current fitness and technical level, and cognitive capacity of their athletes

3.      What it takes to progress athletes from their current level to the competition level while limiting injury risk.


A coach organizing random practices without a purpose is a recipe for mediocrity and often injury.   Applying the knowledge gained within the professional and Olympic coaching, sports science, and medical community to understand the demands of the sport and transferring the principles to the youth level is essential due to the level of play being asked of young elite athletes.   This will help to develop efficient training strategies to prepare resilient athletes to compete within their given sport and level of play while keeping a full roster of healthy athletes. 


Training takes time with best practice and sports science methodology combined.  Where does a coach start to progress his athletes along the continuum of athlete resiliency and being ready to compete?  First, we must state that athletes must have some responsibility in their training.   Athletes must come to training having a base aerobic fitness and strength level.   At the elite level, athletes should already have an age-based training history of high chronic loads, with an understanding that recovery has been integrated into their training loads and fatigue is monitored.  Next, understanding the risk factors and the value of injury prevention and a performance-based warm-up and cool-down should be considered an essential component of any training.   Making the time now takes less effort and time than injury rehabilitation.

Now the focus of the training can be determined and training drills set in place with the consideration of several factors.  First, the age of the athletes and level of play, second, the season of competition such as pre-season or in-season, third, the amount of time given to prepare, fourth the identified limitations of the athletes, and fifth, the athlete's position.  The goal here is to identify the gaps between the demands of the sport needed to compete and the current limitations of the athletes to the time a coach has to prepare his team.   We will extrapolate the data found at the professional level within women’s soccer in–season competitions.  We will focus on the physical demands of the sport and the differences between the training tools used and the game demands.


One development tool often used by coaches is the use of small-sided games.  This includes drills that replicate game-like situations in a smaller format.  Small-sided games using open drills improve physical fitness and technical skills while increasing cognitive demands, leading to more game-like situations.  A question to consider is, how well do the chosen training drills reflect what players need to do in competition?  To do this we must first understand the competition demands.

When thinking about the physical demands of a team sport, some high-speed running may be required at times but the game usually consists of short, sharp efforts (acceleration, deceleration, change of direction) separated by low-intensity work.  When comparing the physical demands within small-sided games and international matches, Gabbett in an unpublished study determined that the number of sprints, duration of sprints, (2.1 seconds) relative distance and high-intensity running were similar.   He also determined that there was more low-speed activity in small-sided games (m/min) (91 ± 14) compared to international matches (80 ± 6) and a higher number of repeated-sprint bouts in international matches (4.8 ± 2.8) compared to small sided games (1.0 ± 1.3).  He also determined that only 1 in 5 players obtained what they needed to compete when it came to both skill involvement and repeated sprint bouts through small-sided games.

How can this knowledge be used by coaches of youth sports?  Combining both small-sided games and standalone physical training appears to be a good option in preparing athletes to meet their sport demands in this instance. 

Within the same study, the recovery between sprints (s) in small-sided games (7.7 ± 3.1) and international matches (5.8 ± 4.0) and the recovery between repeated sprint bouts (min) in small-sided games (31.4 ± 12.7) and international competitions (20.1 ± 8.3) showed that small-sided games had longer recovery times between sprints and repeated sprint bouts (3+ sprints with an average recovery of less than 21 seconds between sprints).  (Source Spencer et. al 04) 

How can the implementation of recovery be applied by youth sports coaches? Training strategically with a selective number of sprints and sprint bouts with the correct amount of recovery time is recommended to prevent a gap between training and competition demands.  This will also help prepare their athletes to tolerate the demands of competition while eliminating unnecessary training. 

We must also recognize that the physical, technical, and cognitive demands all place a certain load on each athlete and the training load must be understood and accounted for when implementing training progressions and allowing for recovery, to improve athlete resilience and their ability to meet the sport demands of competition, while minimizing injury risk.





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