The 2018 Winter Olympics concluded this past weekend with Norway finishing first in the medal count for the first time since the 2002 Salt Lake City games. Coming only once every four years, competing in the Olympics is a goal few athletes will ever achieve throughout their careers.
As such, competing in the Olympics requires not only world-class skill, but also elite-level planning and player development strategies. As well as individualization, all high performance programs should include these three principles: progressive overload, specificity, and active monitoring.
Progressive overload is the key tenet to every successful high performance development plan. In general, progressive overload refers to a gradual increase in stress placed on the body in an effort to produce various forms (e.g. physiological; cognitive) of adaptation.
Periodising a program enables structured overload in accordance to a player’s competition schedule. Athletes are then capable of their peak performance at crucial times throughout their competitive season. Failure to appropriately overload (poor timing or excessive) often results in sub-optimal performance and, in worst cases, overuse injuries.
Unfortunately, we still see this in elite sport and as one recent article from The Guardian shows, Olympic athletes are prone to overuse injury. Plans that utilize progressive overload in the context of competitive timelines (allowing for optimal recovery time) give athletes the best chance maximize their development, stay fresh and be at their peak when it matters the most.
In line with progressive overload is sports specific training. Athletes need to train how they play or compete. Far too often athletes are exposed to training overload that isn’t specific to the demands of their sport.
Consequently, athletes develop adaptations unrelated to their sport (e.g. performing steady state running for football fitness work, will make players good steady state runners and slow football players) and accumulate of unnecessary fatigue that increases risk of injury. Training programs that take sport demands into context are far more effective and efficient.
In my team sport experience, conditioning drills that include the essential components of the game for overload (i.e. playing the sport itself with various game modifications to focus on specific components of fitness) is the best way to ensure the athlete is preparing for the demands of their sport, from a fitness perspective.
Last but not least is about collecting baselines and monitoring. Utilizing strategies to track subjective and objective data relating to wellbeing, recovery and load provides vital information on the athlete’s current ‘readiness to perform’ status. Monitoring key performance indicators also tracks progress towards their development goals.
Coaches, medical and performance staff can then keep a close eye on the athlete, enabling them to identify any potential issues and intervene before any issues occur. Moreover, baseline measures are extremely useful to provide objective standards for rehab monitoring and return to play protocols.
So there you have it. The three key tenets to high performance programming. Approaching each situation with these principles in mind will allow you to be more confident that your programming holds less risk for injury and ensures long term athlete development.
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