Jan 29, 2015Recovered & Ready
At Baylor University, helping athletes overcome the stressors that can plague them in-season entails using the most advanced technology and a collaborative approach.
By Andrew Althoff
Andrew Althoff, MEd, CSCS, SCCC, USAW, is Director of Applied Perfor-mance at Baylor University and works as a Performance Coach with the football and men’s and women’s track and field teams. He can be reached at: [email protected].
Everyone sees what college athletes do during competition–the strikeouts, quarterback sacks, and personal-best times. What most people don’t see is that the starting pitcher is playing on four hours of sleep, the defensive end is struggling to lose weight, or the distance runner isn’t consuming enough iron. Those of us behind the scenes are privy to such details and do our best to help athletes overcome these challenges as they learn about choices, decision making, habits, and resolve.
Here at Baylor University, the responsibility of the Applied Performance department is to monitor and manage the stressors that bombard our student-athletes throughout the year and threaten their performance. We strive to integrate the physical, psychological, and social aspects of players’ lives into a practical approach to training. As we transition from the offseason to the competitive periods of each sport, this work becomes increasingly important.
Since athletes endure stressors from many different aspects of their lives, our approach includes an assortment of multidisciplinary tools. These include everything from communication techniques and technological innovations to personalized recovery protocols.
Stressors can affect the body in a variety of ways. A hamstring pull may result from a lack of strength, flexibility, or proper nutrition, but it could also spring from an all-nighter spent finishing a project, a recent illness, a previous injury, or even a stressful family issue. For this reason, we have created a program at Baylor called Project 1 that brings coaches, support staff, faculty, and athletic administrators together to monitor and measure the pressures facing athletes.
Project 1 dissolves the boundaries between different areas of the athletic department to promote an individual-first approach that puts our players in a position to succeed on and off the field. Members of Project 1 meet monthly to discuss the status of Baylor athletes. It is within this framework that Applied Performance operates.
For example, say a women’s volleyball player goes down with an ACL tear that requires reconstruction. This can be a devastating blow on many levels, and all Project 1 staff get involved. To start, there are practical issues. Will adjusting to crutches or a wheelchair make her late for class? How can our academic support staff help her with focus and concentration when she’s feeling weak from surgery? As a Baptist university, Baylor also works with its athletes to maintain a strong faith during this time of need, often calling on our team chaplains to assist.
After addressing the athlete’s mind and spirit, we turn our attention to her body, with our Performance Nutrition Department taking the lead. They start by modifying her nutrition plan since athletes have different nutritional needs when healing. This helps ensure the change in activity level does not result in unwanted weight gain or loss.
The sports medicine team then develops the athlete’s rehab and training schedule. Our athletic trainers work with our athletic performance staff to design and implement a customized rehabilitation regimen that also introduces the athlete back into team workout sessions to reconnect her with teammates.
Acute injuries are obvious stressors, but many other challenges our athletes face fester below the surface and remain hidden if we aren’t looking for them. Stressors will inevitably accumulate throughout the season, but our goal is to keep them at bay for as long as possible and minimize their impact when they do arise. To do this, Applied Performance has a three-part approach: being proactive, monitoring athletes’ performance with real-time feedback, and assessing their adaptations qualitatively and quantitatively.
Being proactive starts with educating our athletes. This is done through a combination of lectures, videos, Powerpoint presentations, and guest speakers. We utilize a variety of mediums to ensure we reach all athletes regardless of their preferred learning style. Additionally, our staff uses daily interactions to talk with players to make sure they understand how their habits and lifestyle choices impact performance.
Another important area is preparing athletes for the mental and physical demands of their sport. Throughout the year, we use simple daily tests, the functional movement screen, and the Omegawave readiness assessment to gather data on wellness metrics such as bodyweight, movement quality, soreness levels, and energy system scores. To use football as an example, we use these measurements to divide athletes into color-coded groups based on their physical needs. We have a white introductory group that emphasizes proper lifting technique, accountability, and expectations. The gold group’s focus is hypertrophy, while green is strength, and gray is power. The black group receives highly individualized programming, and the orange group is designed for athletes transitioning out of rehabilitation.
In addition to player-specific weightroom sessions, our staff optimizes recovery time by attempting to prescribe the minimal effective dosage on sets, reps, and intensity. For instance, if we can get the needed adaptation with five sets of four, we won’t do five sets of five. Additionally, we try to minimize soreness and maximize adaptation through simple recovery and regeneration activities at the end of training sessions, such as foam rolling, massage, cooldowns, and chiropractic work.
One final aspect of being proactive when managing stressors is monitoring how our athletes fuel themselves. Our athletic department has an excellent Performance Nutrition program, and its staff members are vocal in educating Baylor athletes about proper in-season nutrition and hydration. Baylor sports dietitians hold discussions on the importance of breakfast and proper meal timing and pay close attention to players’ pregame snacks and hydration levels to aid in bodyweight and composition maintenance.
Since many of the stressors affecting athletes are hidden, the best way to monitor them in-season is with constant evaluation. The Applied Performance department has several tracking tools at its disposal. Besides the Omegawave, our other methods include the Catapult GPS to determine a player’s overall status and heart rate monitors.
How we use these tools varies. For example, the Catapult GPS is ideal for watching fluctuation in several performance areas, such as change of direction, maximum speed, and distance covered. Meanwhile, athletes are monitored with the Omegawave before training so we can discern their readiness values from heart rate variability, central nervous system potential, energy system status, and heart rate.
More simple ways for evaluating athletes’ short- and long-term reactions to in-season stressors include monitoring basic wellness metrics like bodyweight, sleep, soreness, and nutrition. Bodyweight is measured prior to training so we can see how it changes during exertion, and sleep quantity and nutrition are evaluated post-training to ensure the athletes are resting and hydrating adequately.
Often, some of the most valuable information regarding how athletes are handling stressors comes from the performance and sport coaches who see the players daily and can spot physical adaptations even before they affect performance. We pay attention to how athletes are moving and report any changes such as stiffness, lack of power and explosiveness, or elevated breathing rate.
Besides monitoring how the athletes manage stressors during the in-season, our Applied Performance staff pays close attention to how their bodies adapt. We must remember both general adaptation syndrome (GAS) and the SAID principle (Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands) throughout this process. With the GAS model, we know that the body has a similar response for all stressors. Conversely, the SAID principle tells us that the body additionally makes precise adjustments to stress when it is applied and managed in the correct dosage. When these two principles are used together, we can use the offseason to acquire general adaptations that serve as the base for the demands of the competitive season.
Each wellness metric has an established norm both for individual athletes and the team as a whole. Derivation from the norm prompts us to look for stressors. If we start to see high levels of soreness or inadequate sleep schedules, it means the athletes are adapting poorly to increased physical demands or are not managing their recovery well. Therefore, we may alter our training plans or create additional educational pieces to help them.
NUMBERS DON’T LIE
Monitoring performance results in the accumulation of a vast amount of data, especially when we use the Catapult GPS and Omegawave. The next step is to assess our findings qualitatively and quantitatively. If everything is important, then nothing is important, so we narrow our focus to significant metrics only. To do this, we use a version of the SMART criteria and ask ourselves the following questions.
Specific: What are we trying to determine? Are we trying to measure the stressor or adaptation?
Measurable: How much? How often? How many? What is the normative data?
Actionable: Do we have the money, personnel, and facilities needed to gather tangible data?
Relevant: Are we measuring what we think we are measuring? Is this metric going to allow us to make a difference in managing stressors, or are we just collecting data?
Time: Will we have enough time to perform the assessment when scheduled and to the level of detail needed to obtain accurate data?
Once we have determined what data to focus on, we compare the most recent figures to past results and extrapolate them to forecast future numbers. By casting a wide net and funneling the information, we are better able to see trends and infer their impact on the individual and team, which helps us create more effective interventions and prescriptions.
If we discover any performance decline, it can indicate a need for more recovery. We have had great results at Baylor with massage therapy, yoga, weight training, and conditioning. While weight training and conditioning may be counterintuitive to recovery and regeneration, our data shows otherwise, likely because the corresponding release of hormones increases blood flow and boosts range of motion.
Overall, if we establish a good training foundation in the offseason and preseason, the athletes should have less physical stress in-season. Still, we must continually look for ways to monitor and manage all the stressors athletes face in order to boost their performance.
Technology is a crucial tool for tracking and monitoring, but information alone does not change behaviors. Only through teaching and communicating the importance of proper wellness habits, practical science, and decision making to our student-athletes can we successfully manage their stressors and make their time at Baylor as positive as possible.
Author’s note: This article was written in collaboration with personnel from all departments involved with Project 1.
SIDEBAR: CASE STUDIES
Here are two examples of how we monitored, managed, and helped our athletes adapt to in-season stressors:
Situation: Athlete A had a low vagal tone, poor aerobic score, and complained of chronic soreness after practices and games. All other wellness data were within norms.
Diagnosis: A low vagal tone and poor aerobic system development may be indicative of a lack of recovery from training. In addition, chronic soreness may be a sign of poor tissue quality, possibly from excessive work, lack of recovery, or improper nutrition.
Intervention: We had the athlete complete cyclic activity for 30 minutes or more three times a week, reaching a heart rate of 130 to 160 beats per minute each time. Self-massage followed the workout, and the player slightly increased their protein intake.
Results: Within two weeks, the player’s self-reported soreness decreased and aerobic score increased. Vagal tone returned to normal levels.
Situation: Enduring poor performance at practice and in competition two weeks before the conference championship, Athlete B had an excessively high vagal tone, low omega potential, and a minor hamstring strain.
Diagnosis: A high vagal tone coupled with low omega potential is indicative of an athlete’s body reducing the activity of the central nervous system and the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system entering into self-preservation mode.
Intervention: We introduced immediate passive rest to allow the player’s central nervous system to reboot. After this, we decreased the frequency of intense activity, both during sport practice and strength training, and replaced it with low-intensity work to maintain fitness. Lastly, we introduced more acidic foods into their diet to help promote increased sympathetic activation.
Results: Two days before the conference championships, Athlete B’s vagal score and omega potential showed improvement. While not yet within the norms, Athlete B had rebounded enough to compete in and win an individual conference championship.