Conditioning For Sport Coaches
Updated: Sep 16, 2021
I will be upfront from the get-go that my goal with this article is to convince you as a coach to no longer do gassers, suicides, poles, etc. and provide you with some alternatives. Conditioning is the most commonly butchered activity from pee wee all the way to professional level. We will go into what conditioning really is, what it is not, and ways to get more out of your players.
WHY ARE WE SO BEHIND?
There is no question based off logic and science that our current conditioning model is making athletes slower, contributing to early burnout, and increasing risk of injury. I think there are a couple reasons we still are stuck in the stone ages with our conditioning:
Sports medicine professionals suck at communicating and putting away the science books and actually having a conversation with sport coaches.
Sport coaches struggle to let go of things that are familiar and comfortable. So we see a lot of “that’s what we did back in my day” and "that's what Kentucky does" thinking surrounding conditioning.
Being in “good shape” is an easy thing for a coach to control, so it is the low hanging fruit coaches enjoy picking.
OUR STARTING POINT: The Energy Bucket
I first want to establish a starting point. We have a bucket full of water. The water is representative of our energy levels. Things like good sleep, smart exercise, good nutrition fill the bucket with water. Things like poor sleep, poor nutrition, overtraining, bad relationships, stressful exams, etc. empty the bucket. Each of your athletes is given a limited amount of water. Some more or less than other based on how they manage the previous factors. We as a sport coach have a responsibility to be good stewards of that water. Our goal should be conserve as much water as possible while also getting the most bang for our buck.
This is our starting point, and we will refer back to it as we progress.
LET’S DEFINE CONDITIONING
Conditioning: To prepare an athlete for the demands of their specific sport.
What are the demands of a sport?
Movements: shuffling, backpedaling, sprinting, jumping, landing, etc.
Rest: How long between plays, series, exchanges, etc.
Work: How long does the average play, series, exchange, etc. last?
Forces: Is contact with the ground or opposing players part of the game?
Reactions: to the opponent, to the crowd, to the situation, to the coach.
Each sport will present with its own list of demands. It is important to have a general idea of the demands of your specific sport because our conditioning should be preparing us for those same demands.
It would make sense that if the role of conditioning was to prepare us for the demands of the sport; the more our conditioning looks like our sport the better return on investment. If I want to be a good swimmer, sure riding a bike might give me some cardiovascular benefits, which will subsequently help my swimming. However, if I used that same amount of energy and used it to practice swimming, it would help me swim better than biking every could.
We want our conditioning to look like the sport as closely as possible to get the most bang for our buck.
MY ISSUE WITH SUICIDES, GASSERS, ETC.
My beef with these common conditioning tools is that AT BEST they are addressing 1-2 demands of the sport and are nowhere near specific.
For instance, during suicides demands we may address:
Linear (straight line) sprinting.
Change of direction.
We only would be addressing two demands of the sport with suicides and are leaving a lot on the table. Plus, I would argue we are actually addressing ZERO demands.
In regard to “sprinting”, no matter how hard you push your athletes, they will always self-preserve and run <85% of their max speed. There is a difference between sprinting and running. You sprint during your sport; you run during suicides.
In regard to COD, there is a difference between COD in response to an opponent (chaotic) and response to a line on the floor (predictable).
Hopefully, it is clear to you that:
Suicides/Gassers are addressing few to no demands of your sport.
Suicides/Gassers might provide some benefit, but are not specific enough to be a good return on investment.
This is not a good use of the limited amount of water in our bucket.
MY ISSUE WITH DISTANCE RUNNING:
Another common tool for conditioning is distance running. Unless you are a cross country runner or MAYBE a soccer player, I would argue that you should not be running distance for the "conditioning" benefits.
WORK : REST RATIO
Again, we need to look at the demands of your sport. The Work : Rest ratio is the ratio of activity versus rest during a game.
Some common examples supported by research:
Football - 1:5 - every 10 seconds of activity is followed by 50 seconds of rest.
Soccer - 1:3:2 - 10 seconds sprinting, 30 seconds jogging, 20 seconds walking
Basketball- 1:3.6 - every 10 seconds of activity is followed by 36 seconds of rest.
With this information in mind, it would not make a lot of sense to run distance for conditioning. It is both not specific as well as a poor use of our limited amount of water in our energy bucket. We would want our conditioning to match the work AND rest intervals as closely as possible. For my basketball athletes, I would want 10 second bursts followed by 36 seconds of walking or jogging rest.
FATIGUE IS NOT THE GOAL
As I hinted in my last point, fatigue is often the coaches measure for whether or not they did a good job conditioning. Accumulated fatigue results in decreased performance, increased likelihood in injury, increased burnout, and ultimately post season slumps. Fatigue is unavoidable - but we as coaches do not want to unnecessarily contribute to it.
I would rather be 100% fresh and 80% conditioned then vice versa. We treat "in shape" as the most prized possession of athletics, when in reality being fresh is going to pay off greater dividends in the long run. Fresh athletes make runs in the fourth quarter and post-season, while fatigued athletes fall short.
What is the most specific conditioning to your sport? Playing your sport!! Simply playing your sport will be the best return on investment in terms of conditioning and skill acquisition. In stead of wasting he last 15-30 min of practice with suicides, lets scrimmage at game speeds and develop sport conditioning AND sport skill simultaneously. This is a much more efficient use of our time. During the pre/off season, playing open gym/scrimmaging 2-3x per week will be PLENTY of conditioning assuming playing at game speeds.
Occasionally we are not always able to play our sport. While I would encourage you to get as close as possible to playing your sport (running routes on a partner, grappling with a defensive lineman, playing 1 on 1 pickup, practicing soccer moves, etc.), there are times where we need alternatives.
Here is a checklist I use as a filter to ensure I am getting the most bang for my buck out of my alternatives:
Is it specific?
Is it reactive?
Reacting to a partner
Is it competitive?
These are just a few examples to get your creative juices flowing! As always feel free to reach out with questions!
Big Cat out🦁