Well, what a climax we saw to both the AFL and NRL seasons over the weekend, the year of the fairytale, with two incredible contests, exhibiting intensity seen only on the rarest of occasions. Players and fans alike were able to celebrate after two of the longest premiership droughts were broken. There was an incredible emotional release that was witnessed after not just seasons, but decades of not-quites and what-could-have-beens for both the Western Bulldogs and Cronulla Sharks.
Whilst both Grand Finals showcased tremendous athleticism and skill, it was not simply a one-off, but the culmination of years, particularly in the case of these two teams, of preparation.
So what is required to make sure athletes stay as fit and healthy as possible through a tough and gruelling season, and what can those in the business world, living their own hectic, busy lives, learn from it?
In the current age of professional sport, athletes have access to a myriad of support, including specialist coaches, sports scientists, physiotherapists, strength and conditioning coaches, rehab therapists, sports massage therapists, nutritionists, the list goes on. Not to mention A+ training and rehab facilities and access to various monitoring technology, such as heart monitors and GPS trackers.
All of these combine to provide constant feedback on an athlete at any given time throughout the season.
Most coaches will meticulously plan during a season, with periodisation key, knowing what training to do throughout a season and at what time. However, whilst there is a multitude of support, athletes are going to be at a disadvantage if they simply do not get the basics right – nutrition, rest and recovery – which similarly goes for anyone who leads a busy life. The level of expertise, quality and structures around athletes throughout a season are no doubt of great importance, but athletes need be empowered to take some personal responsibility:
- Ensuring the correct nutrition, eaten at appropriate times, will result in more consistent energy levels, with less peaks and troughs, leading to more effective performance, whether on the pitch, field, track or in the office.
- Recovery is of vital importance. Given all the information at their disposal, coaches must allow athletes adequate time to recover between matches, sessions and training days. This can be dependent on the intensity and type of training, travel involved around competition or timing within the season. Getting the right balance here is an acquired skill and one the best coaches (or bosses) have finely tuned. It is an exercise in relationship management as much as anything else. You can have all the monitoring systems in the world in place, but without an understanding of the individual, as well as the collective, effective progress will always be difficult to manage. Additionally, individual athletes will know their own bodies better than anyone. Knowing when to rest is just as important as knowing when to push through. The athletes who can push themselves to the edge, not quite over it, but just far enough, are the ones who are the most disciplined and will no doubt maintain performance for longer.
- Sleep, the oft-neglected sleep. This is where the body undergoes most of its recovery and especially for athletes with long, hard seasons, aiming for at least 7-8 hours of quality sleep each night will go a long way to keeping them on the right track. Again, the same applies to anybody who leads a busy lifestyle.
For most high-performance teams, all of the above measures are now closely recorded in athlete performance management systems. Like with most things in life, the more information you have, the better decisions you are going to make.
It enables the coaching and support staff to plan effectively, knowing when to push some athletes a little harder, when to perhaps back off a bit and generally enable the scheduling of the right sessions at the right time.
It also enables coaches and support staff to work closely with the athletes, to know what is working and what potentially is not. It is an education for all involved.
Mastering the basics allows athletes to be finely tuned to their bodies responses. It helps them know how their body is going to react under different circumstances, in response to different stressors and ultimately an understanding of what is required at certain times throughout a season, to perform when it really matters.
Lessons for the rest of us
Even though most of us will not have access to the same resources, concentrating on these basics will go a long way to enabling our everyday performance is of professional standard. Likewise for transitioning athletes. The process of recovery and injury management throughout their athletic life leaves them better equipped to deal with challenges, handle pressure and remain focused on targets and outcomes.
The commitment and discipline required around maintaining their performance, often for not just personal gain, but for that of the team, are the foundations on which their success is built.
Injuries come with the territory
As heartbreaking as it must be to miss a Grand Final, of which there were some high profile examples in the weekend just gone, injury in such physical and demanding sports is almost impossible to avoid across an entire squad. However, it is how these injuries are managed, as well as the effectiveness of the above-mentioned monitoring techniques, that ensure athletes are not over-trained or fatigued, and just as importantly, not under-trained, that will go a long way to ensuring the best players are on the pitch each week, performing for their club, teammates and coaches.
Coaching quality undoubtedly has a huge role to play and goes back to how well they understand their players and their relationship with them. Same goes for bosses and those in management positions. They can have all the expertise in the world, but if they can in no way relate to their staff, how can they expect their staff to perform for them?
Winning a Grand Final is a massive team effort. However, it would not be possible if you are not winning games in April, June and September. It is, therefore, essential that everyone is working together to ensure performance is ongoing and that it is understood to be the responsibility of all involved.