The Academics of Training

Continually testing your athletes’ performance will enable you to better customize their training.

By Vern Gambetta

Vern Gambetta, MA, is the President of Gambetta Sports Training Systems, in Sarasota, Fla., and the former Director of Conditioning for the Chicago White Sox. He is a frequent contributor to Training & Conditioning, and can be reached through his Web site, at www.gambetta.com.

Training & Conditioning, 11.3, April 2001, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/tc/tc1103/academics.htm

Think back to your school days. Whether it was high school, college, or grade school, we were all taught similar subjects and progressed through the system by meeting certain standards. Along the way, progress was continually evaluated through tests.

Now, use the same model for your athletes. Consider every competition a big exam. For them to succeed, you must train their abilities. But you probably won’t be able to do that optimally without continually testing them along the way and identifying and correcting any weaknesses.

One of our biggest responsibilities as performance coaches is to find the most effective manner to evaluate our athletes’ efforts and progress in training, as well as competition results. A good, sound assessment program will provide needed guidance and direction to make training as meaningful as possible.

Testing = Training
Testing and training go together like hand and glove. Evaluation through testing is an ongoing process that will determine the direction and content of training. Therefore, it is important to build testing into every stage of the training plan.

The traditional approach has been to schedule specific days for testing, usually at the beginning or the end of a yearly training cycle. This usually consists of criteria tests that profile the athlete with respect to the biomotor requirements of a particular sport.

Over the past several years I have grown increasingly uncomfortable with this approach. Testing only twice in a yearly cycle gave me good baseline information, but it did not provide much insight about the athlete’s ongoing progress. Yet this information is crucial in making day-to-day and week-to-week adjustments in the athlete’s training to obtain optimum adaptive response.

As I began to work with an increasing variety of sports, I quickly saw the need to of incorporate day-to-day testing into the actual training process. While this may seem a bit extreme, I assure that you can continually test your athletes while still training them, and not fry them.

The solution is to follow the concept that “testing equals training and training equals testing.” As we’ll see below, in Fitting It All In, you don’t need to stop each athlete every few minutes and run him or her through a battery of tests. At various points in each training session, there are distinct windows of opportunity to get feedback as to the effects of training. It is imperative to take advantage of these periods to look for this feedback (his or her response to a given component of training) and utilize it to plan ongoing training.

Training is cumulative, so it is important to keep the big picture in mind. Ongoing evaluation enables us to keep everything in proportion and perspective. The challenge is to make testing meaningful to all concerned—the athletes, coaches, and medical support staff. You are testing for feedback and verification that the training is achieving the desired results.

When you are testing, it is important to consider all of the following:

• Know what you are looking for. There are periods of training where you should see marked improvement and other times when you should see stabilization or even slight regression on certain tests. Remember, the tests should reflect the training.

• Know what you are going to do when you find it. If you see regression, what adjustments will you make? Conversely, if you see unexpected improvement, what will you do?

• Testing helps to individualize training. There is much individual variability in adaptive responses to different training stimuli. Two individuals could have the opposite response to the same training session or training cycle. Testing can identify how each individual will respond and allow training adjustments to be made accordingly.

• Testing will give constant feedback to the athletes and coaches as to the effects of training. Do not wait until competition to ascertain training response; be proactive by regularly testing. Testing must dovetail into training. It is an integral part of the whole training spectrum. It is important to remember that the goal of testing is to determine each individual player’s athletic qualities relative to the demands of his or her position and the game. I am not interested in comparing an athlete against some arbitrary norms, but I am interested in intra-individual comparison—comparing him or her against him- or herself.

• Test what you are training! If you are in power phase, your tests should reflect the emphasis on power training.

• Assess progress toward a goal. This also enables you to set realistic goals and adjust the goals accordingly.

Do not use testing to:

• Select a team. Team selection should be based on results in the competitive arena of the actual sport. Tests can verify what you see or do not see during competition, but they should not be the sole criteria for team selection.

• Predict performance. Testing can be used as a status report on progress toward a goal. But performance in the actual game, match, or meet is dependent on so much more than the physical capacities identified through testing.

The criteria for any test is that it must be:

• Reliable. The same results must be obtained each time no matter who is doing the testing.

• Valid. The tests must measure what they purport to measure. For example, a speed test must be a test of speed—not speed endurance.

• Practical. The test must be easy to administer and interpret. It must yield information that the coach and athlete can understand and use or it becomes testing for testing sake. Do not have so many tests that you gather more information than you can use. This will confuse all involved.

A Multitude of Tests
There are a wide variety of tests that satisfy these criteria. One of the most important is biomechanical assessment. This used to be outside the realm of possibility for most people, but with the availability of digital cameras and simple analysis programs, biomechanical assessment is now a viable option at any level of performance.

Assessment of each athlete’s biomechanics is something that should be done during workout and competition to establish baseline measures. Then you can continually compare to that baseline. It does not have to be extremely sophisticated to provide very good information.

The “test set” concept from swimming is another excellent tool to assess current training status. This simply means that you have certain indicator workouts that are interspersed throughout the training year that are indicative of the athlete’s training progress in pursuit of a specific goal.

In addition to the baseline information and training progress, it is also important to always know how far the athlete is off of his or her best performance level. For example, in the special preparation phase with my 400-meter runners, I like to use a six-minute continuous hill workout progressing to 2 x 6 minutes of hills with three minutes rest. The goal is to see how many hills each sprinter can run in six minutes and to see if he or she can match that number in the second six-minute set. This workout gives me a good reading on each athlete’s ability to handle more intense work of a special endurance nature.

At different times in the training year, how much variation between an athlete’s current performance and his or her best performance is acceptable? I follow the guide of Gennadi Touretski, the coach of Alexander Popov, world record holder in the 100-meter freestyle. Gennadi feels that at anytime in the training year, Popov should not be further than 10 percent off of his best performance. To ensure this, periodic testing is incorporated throughout the training program.

Fitting It All In
The simplest way to incorporate testing often while still training your athletes is to buy into the concept that “testing equals training and training equals testing.” Thus, when conducting assessments, the best place to start the process is with the warmup. This is your first opportunity each day to evaluate the effects of yesterday’s workout as well as the athlete’s preparedness for today’s workout. Include tasks that test the athlete’s balance and coordination. This will offer good feedback as to the athlete’s state of readiness. And have alternate or contingency plans available based on what you observe during the warmup.

One must also learn to time and measure everything that is reasonable to measure during a practice. Dean Smith, former men’s basketball coach at the University of North Carolina, made use of this throughout his coaching career. He quantified everything in practice. If he was running athletes through a shooting drill, he kept track of every shot made versus missed, and he made sure each athlete was aware of his stats. The UNC women’s soccer team adopted this concept with great success.

In sports like swimming and track and field, which are much more quantifiable, timing and measuring can be incorporated on a day-to-day basis even easier than in sports like soccer and basketball. Essentially, it is good record-keeping that enables you, the coaches, and the athletes to know where things stand at all times. For a specific example of a training/testing session, see Sidebar, “Interpreting The Test Results,” below.

While acknowledging the important role of testing, we must be careful not to draw too many conclusions from one series of tests. Only after several tests have been conducted periodically throughout the training year can an in-depth profile of each athlete be determined. In most instances, the tests will indicate deficiencies that were already identified through observation of training and game performance. But they serve to further pinpoint those deficiencies. Tests give specific numbers to compare for improvement and motivation. But remember, the ultimate test is the actual competition.



Sidebar: Interpreting The Test Results

Athlete: Professional soccer player (forward)
Phase of Training: During training camp (preseason)
Purpose of Tests: This battery of tests was used to evaluate starting ability, core and leg strength, explosive power, and power endurance. All tests were electronically timed to ensure accuracy.

10-Meter Start
The athlete should use a standing start off the right foot, then repeat starting off the left foot (indicates which foot is forward). This tests the athlete’s ability to accelerate. A deficiency here indicates a lack of strength and/or poor starting technique. It would be best if there were as little difference as possible between the two times. That would indicate symmetry starting off both legs, which is desirable in soccer.

20-Meter Flying Start
Have the athlete begin running twenty meters back from the start to ensure that he or she is at top speed during the 20-meter test distance. This indicates top-end speed. This is also used to indicate closing speed as expressed in meters per second. This is how much distance a player can cover in a particular time. A deficiency here indicates a lack of speed due to lack of power (also indicated on repetitive jump test) or poor acceleration technique.

50-Meter “Ajax” Shuttle
Set two lines 10 meters apart. The player begins at line A, then runs and touches line B, plants, and returns to line A. Have him or her repeat this five times for a total of 50 yards. This test indicates the ability to start, stop, and restart. A deficiency here indicates a lack of functional leg strength and core strength. For an athlete at this player’s level, a score under 10 seconds is considered very good.

Bengsbo “Intermittent-Recovery” Beep Test
This is a 20-meter multi-stage shuttle test. Set two lines 20 meters apart. On your auditory signal, the athlete runs from one line to the other. The time between signals gets progressively quicker, so that the athlete can easily make it from one line to the other in the span between the first two signals, but by the 40th or so signal, he or she will have trouble making it in time. This test assesses specific endurance in terms of the utilization of oxygen. A deficiency here indicates a lack of overall work capacity. One thousand meters is considered the minimum standard to be able to play 90 minutes at the highest levels.

Jump Test—Squat Jump
Have the athlete start in a stationary squat position with the thighs parallel to the floor. This tests the contractile properties of the muscles, which relates to the standing start.

Jump Test—Counter-Movement Jump
The athlete should start in a standing position and quickly squat down and jump as high as possible. This tests the elastic properties of muscle, or basic explosive power. Performance on this test relates to the 20-Meter Fly. It would be best to see a significant difference between height on squat jump and counter-movement jump.

Jump Test—Repetitive Jump
Have the athlete perform as many counter-movement jumps as possible in 15 seconds. This tests power and power endurance. Performance on this test also relates to the 20-Meter Fly.

The following are specific training recommendations based on all test results.

10-Meter Left
Best: 1.83 sec
Average: 1.86 sec
Range: 0.6 sec

10-Meter Right
Best: 1.77 sec
Average: 1.80 sec
Range: 0.7 sec

20-Meter Fly
Best: 2.45 sec
Average: 2.48 sec
Range: 0.5 sec
Maximum Velocity m/s: 8.16

Illinois Agility
Best: 16.00 sec
Average: 16.05 sec
Range: 0.1 sec

Ajax Shuttle
Best: 10.73 sec
Average: 10.79 sec
Range: 0.6 sec

Beep Test
Distance: 920 meters

Squat Jump
Height: 0.464 meters

Counter-Movement Jump
Height: 0.484 meters

Repetitive Jump
Number of Jumps: 15
Average Height: 0.414 meters
Power: 31.16 w/kg

Evaluation: His jump tests indicate good power potential, but it does not show up in the speed and agility tests. Also, this athlete tends to take too long a first step. These traits are reflected on the field in his inability to gain a step on the opposition.

Thus, acceleration work should be practiced twice a week, with drills involving short bursts with an emphasis on good technique. Work agility the same day as acceleration. Here, the emphasis should be on quick change of direction and footwork. But ultimately, this athlete should be doing some agility work each day!