Navigating Uncertainty in Sport
Written by James Mac Aodhagáin
Sports Scientist and S&C Coach - Team Wellington FC
A large part of my job is creating a balance in working-load. In the off-season, you can afford to take a little step back from football-specific tasks with more time in the gym or targeting known weaknesses. During the season, my focus is injury prevention. Injury prevention is not the avoidance of risk, but the navigation of it. The normal day to day of a coach has changed vastly in recent weeks. Now we are being called upon to navigate uncertainty as well.
Image: Team Wellington's James Mac Aodhagáin
In team sports, coaches have always had to balance moving parts. Athlete well-being has its obstacles. Be it, athletes not complying, or complex data collection methods, finding the right solution has required flexibility.
In my time at Team Wellington I have tried several solutions, but my approach has always been the same. Communication is the key to high performance. Now more than ever our communication skills are being put to the test. We are finding it harder and harder to gauge how well our athletes are performing in times of unprecedented uncertainty.
Normally we thrive on face to face interaction, but are now being asked to avoid it. The COVID-19 outbreak has left us isolated as we create physical and emotional distance to anyone outside our bubble. The athletes in our care require reassurance as much as they require monitoring. In the team environment, coaches have specific metrics we want to achieve. This environment is changing, and the way we communicate is changing too. Athlete well-being is becoming closer to pastoral care. Our physical isolation means our emotional connection is going to dictate the success of a performance program.
This isn't Orwellian data for data's sake. It is having the insight to ask the right questions. Athlete monitoring systems allow coaches to offer assurance and consistency. Before, I could set my wellness questions, schedule team training and get the athlete to rate their RPE, but now the training sessions are more specific, guided and session prescription is more transparent.
As soon as the first COVID-19 case arrived in New Zealand, it became obvious to me that we were bound for a lockdown. I researched the relationship between exercise and immunity and set a program based on my findings. I did two things, I wrote a hard copy of the program and circulated it among staff and players, with reasoning and purpose outlined within. Then I proceeded to integrate everything into Komodo Monitr.
The next step was communication. I love using Komodo Monitr to gather my data and give my initial follow up, but the real value comes from using the information as a trigger to ask the right questions. From the offset, it was clear that sleep was becoming an issue for my athletes. I started my process with why. This was less about bombarding the athlete with questions, more about engaging with them and being a source of reassurance. Those who weren't sleeping were generally players with normally water-tight schedules. Stressful work, commutes, high-intensity training sessions, and ultra-competitive games, all of which were gone in an instant. Now without routine, the first thing to go was sleep.
Sleep became the trigger to investigate. I worked with the players that gave me feedback to create a routine that was built around bedtime. By starting with bedtime we could work collaboratively to frame the day around good sleep and meaningful productivity.
I think it is important to note that some players follow my plan implicitly, others require a more individual approach. This is fine, trust in the relationship is essential. I have one player with no day job. He starts his day with yoga, follows up with some footwork and ball work. On alternating days he will either do weights or running and he will set aside some time for life admin and study, before starting his sleep routine. In comparison, another player is still very much engaged with his work schedule and he has to find different ways of working in his exercise. For him, the timing of exercise is key. With a moment’s notice, he might be required to jump into a Zoom conference or respond to an urgent email. His sessions are tailored to be short and sweet. They also can’t be left too late in the day otherwise it will interfere with his sleep schedule. None of this would be possible without the initial feedback from the athletes.
Image: Team Wellington at the 2018 FIFA Club World Cup.
It is important to remember that as a coach, you are both a resource and a guardian. Komodo Monitr has allowed me to steer the ship in the right direction on both of those fronts. The platform allows you to ask the right question, follow up on feedback and set plans for the future. In a time where a tangible end is not in sight, having a scheduling system in place gives you the chance to plan and execute like never before.