Nov 2, 2017
Line It Up
Heather Engel

In-season training for University of Louisville field hockey has one goal: make sure athletes are ready for game day. Getting a clear shot at achieving it means minimizing injury risk and maximizing performance.

This article first appeared in the November 2017 issue of Training & Conditioning.

In Stephen Covey’s book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, habit number two is: “Start with the end in mind.” The “end,” as it pertains to in-season training for University of Louisville field hockey, is the competitive slate. We must ensure that each athlete’s preparation is periodized so they are at their peak for games.

However, the best predictor of success during competitions doesn’t come from our average fitness score, vertical jump height, or 40-yard sprint time. Rather, it comes from having our athletes healthy and ready on game day-in other words, our best ability is availability.

To ensure this, we split our in-season training approach into three key areas. It starts with minimizing the risk of injury by creating Injury Risk and Performance Profiles. That’s followed by maximizing athlete performance through the collection of subjective and objective data during practices and games. Then, we put it all together in a structured weekly training plan to optimize team success. Combined, this progressive and holistic approach helps us fulfill our overall program mission-to “Build Athletes and Prepare Champions.”

Recently, we’ve seen these endeavors pay off on the field. The Cardinals have made three straight NCAA tournament appearances and ended the 2016 season ranked ninth in the nation after spending 10 weeks in the top 10. In 2017, we’re optimistic that our in-season training approach will continue to keep us ready for game days.

LOWERING THE RISK

Understanding and minimizing the chances of injury is a key part of team and individual management throughout the season. So before the games kick off, we compile an Injury Risk Profile and Performance Profile for each field hockey athlete. These help assess their level of preparedness for competition and how likely they are to sustain a noncontact injury.

Once a player has completed her preseason medical physical with the physicians, our sports performance coaches work alongside our sports medicine and performance nutrition staffers to complete her Injury Risk Profile. When compiling information for this, we look at five predictors of injury:

• Previous injuries in the last 12 months. This involves injury data collected from the sports medicine staff, with a special focus on noncontact injuries.

• Movement quality, which we measure via the Functional Movement Screen.

• Neuromuscular control, which is determined using the Y-Balance Test.

• Body composition, as calculated by a seven-site skinfold test.

• Conditioning level. We use the beep test to evaluate aerobic capacity and a repeated sprint test to determine anaerobic power and capacity.

These assessments all have a minimum standard that athletes need to meet, and anything below those levels is flagged. Appropriate resources (sports medicine, performance nutrition, and/or sports performance) are then used to modify the training plans of players who fall short of our marks. So if an athlete has sub-standard movement quality, she will begin to focus on unloaded fundamental movement patterns, such as squat, lunge, hinge, step, and push, before adding heavy loads or increasing intensity.

The Performance Profile is sport specific and evaluates the qualities that are related to the physical demands of field hockey. These include: speed, reactive agility, power, strength, aerobic capacity, anaerobic power, and anaerobic capacity. As with the Injury Risk Profile, there are standards associated with each test, and any score below the standard is flagged. Then, an individualized program is implemented for the specific athlete to improve the deficient qualities.

For instance, we perform the beep test to evaluate aerobic capacity. The minimum standard for an estimated VO2 max is 49.2 milliliters of oxygen per minute per kilogram of bodyweight. In the short term, athletes who score below this level are prescribed limited reps and volume at practice. In the long term, their training program is adjusted to further develop aerobic capacity.

PERFORMANCE BOOST

Once we’ve addressed injury risk with our profiles, we gather as much objective and subjective data as possible throughout the season to maximize athlete performance. Each player wears a GPS tracking unit and a heart rate monitor during every practice and game. In addition, we record athletes’ session rating of perceived exertion (sRPE) and distribute wellness surveys daily.

Objective data from the GPS devices and heart rate monitors allows us to evaluate both the external and internal loads the athletes experience during the season. External load (mechanical load) is the physical work done by the player-total distance covered, high-speed running distance, number of accelerations versus decelerations, and so on. This is measured via the GPS units. Internal load (metabolic load) is the physiological response to the work done and is tracked by the heart rate monitors.

Subjective data from the sRPE and daily wellness surveys provides insight to the way each athlete perceives the difficulty of practices and games. To obtain the sRPE, we have players record their RPE for each practice and game on a one to 10 scale, with one being “nothing” and 10 being “exhausted, near impossible.” Then, we multiply this number by the duration of the session in minutes. So if an athlete reports a RPE of seven for a 90-minute practice, sRPE equals 630 (7 x 90).

The resulting value represents the training load for that session. The load helps quantify what the athlete felt in relation to what she actually did, and we look at it in context with the current week and the previous month. Each athlete’s load is compared to her individual training history, not the team average.

Our other subjective tool-a daily wellness survey-provides insight into athletes’ sleep, soreness levels, mood, and fatigue. Players complete this survey every morning during the season. Each variable is compared to baseline norms and team trends in the context of training. Our goal is to manage what we do during the week so that players’ scores are positively affected before game days. Beyond the data, our wellness surveys provide entry points for conversation and education.

WEEKLY SCHEDULE

By combining our injury reduction efforts with our objective and subjective data, we can plan our in-season training appropriately. How we load our athletes through the week and how they handle that load ultimately determines their readiness for game day.

The in-season schedule of practices and lifts are determined by when we have games. A typical week includes contests on Fridays and Sundays, four practices, and lifts on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Strength training compliments the goals of practices, and the conditioning levels of the athletes are maintained with pre-planned and periodized volumes and intensities. In addition, we individualize all lifts based on our preliminary assessments and performance tests.

The above loading schedule provides a sample week of in-season training, with the black bars representing distance targets and the red bars indicating intensity/high speed running targets.

A typical practice day with Louisville field hockey begins with a team warm-up led by the primary performance coach. This has become a staple of the program, and it’s executed with great attention to detail. The warm-up starts with a jog around the field, followed by a mobility series targeting the ankles, hips, and thoracic spine. Then, athletes perform a stability series that includes isolated core activation before jumping into a landing mechanics routine. Following that, change of direction mechanics are incorporated, as well as dynamic movements that prepare players for sport-specific actions. The warm-up ends with reactive agility drills involving accelerations, decelerations, and re-accelerations. These are associated with dominant cues of the game in response to a coach’s voice, a player’s movement, or the ball.

Tuesdays are typically the most physically demanding practice of each week. The tactical focus of this practice is speed of play, primarily achieved through small-sided games that include a high number of accelerations and decelerations. These activities place a high demand on the quads, hip flexors, and adductors. Therefore, our corresponding strength work emphasizes lateral plyometrics, along with squatting, lunging, and stepping movements. Specific exercises on Tuesdays include lateral long jumps, front squats, sled pushes, and the like.

Wednesday practices are shorter in duration, with higher intensity and longer bouts of running at high speeds. This practice is designed to prepare the athletes for game demands, as well as for “worst case scenarios,” such as overtime games or contests that are played above average work-to-rest ratios.

Just like our Tuesday sessions, the physical demands of Wednesday practices are complimented in the weightroom. Strength work emphasizes linear plyometrics and hinging movements, such as box jumps, linear long jumps, pull-throughs, Nordic hamstring curls, and shoulder-supported hip extensions.

Upper-body exercises are integrated on both Tuesdays and Wednesdays. These movements include weighted pull-ups, plyo push-ups, inverted rows, and dumbbell bench presses, along with isolated core stabilization exercises (anti-extension, anti-rotation, anti-flexion, and anti-lateral flexion).

On Thursdays, we include an “extra needs” training session to address movement quality and strength and conditioning needs. This workout marks an opportunity for athletes to improve any weaknesses identified through our initial performance assessments. An individualized program is created specific to the needs of each player who participates.

Every day ends with a post-practice recovery routine. This always consists of a light jog and a mobility series and may also include a short yoga session, additional soft-tissue work, cryotherapy, and/or massage.

A critical part of post-practice recovery is nutrition. Our performance nutritionist coordinates meals, snacks, and recovery shakes to match the needs and demands of each player and each session. In addition, the nutrition staff places a huge emphasis on equipping athletes with the knowledge and resources to make good decisions when meals aren’t provided to them.

As a sports performance staff, we are athlete-centered, assessment- and evidence-based, coach- and technology-driven, performance-focused, and seamlessly integrated with the coaching and support staffs. When we minimize injury risk, maximize performance, and optimize team success during the season, we can successfully Build Athletes and Prepare Champions.

UNIFIED MESSAGE

When it comes to planning in-season strength and conditioning for the University of Louisville field hockey program, working seamlessly with the coaching staff is essential. To start, communication is key. We have weekly staff meetings that include sport coaches, operations, sports performance, academics, mental performance, sports medicine, performance analytics, and performance nutrition to discuss all areas and all athletes. Beyond these meetings, we are in frequent communication across many platforms.

Using the information gained from this constant exchange of ideas, I always ask myself, “What makes Louisville field hockey successful?” when planning our in-season strength and conditioning work. Every team and coaching staff is different, so I take the time to understand our squad’s specific style of play. This further helps me understand the needs of the program and speak the same language as the coaches to create a unified message for the athletes.

At Louisville, our program’s focus is “Fit and Fast.” Offensively, we are an up-tempo passing team, and we play high-pressure hockey on the defensive end-quick on the transitions and counterattack. As a result, I emphasize high levels of relative strength as a prerequisite, and we develop total body strength, aerobic capacity, anaerobic power, and capacity. Further, “Speed 101” (body positions and patterns) and speed development (linear, lateral, and multidirectional) are complimented by our strength and power training. It’s my role as a sports performance professional to prepare the athletes for the demands of their sport and the specific style of play the coaches expect to be executed on game day.


Heather Engel, MS, CSCS, SCCC, USAW, FMS-1, is a Senior Performance Coach for University of Louisville athletics, where she serves as the department's Speed Development Specialist. She works specifically with the field hockey, women's soccer, and women's lacrosse teams and can be reached at: [email protected].


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