Preparing to perform – Some philosophical considerations.
Typically, the term “preparing to perform” is associated with the later stages of the preparation phases of periodization, whereby emphasis has shifted from general preparation, through specific preparation, and finally into a pre-competition phase whereby the focus shifts progressively onto performance. Now undoubtedly in many instances this is a suitable approach to take and has proven effective in multiple situations, yet whether it is universally optimal is far less clear-cut.
It could be argued that all training should ultimately involve “preparing to perform” as unless we are developing capacities that ultimately transfer into enhanced performance then essentially, we are wasting our time. Yet how to elicit enhanced performance will vary with context, and where an appropriate approach for an elite athlete is not necessarily an appropriate or even an effective, approach to a development athlete. What is important to consider is the overall timescale of the performances we are ultimately preparing for, and here our preparation needs to consider, not only the short term but also the medium and longer-term. So, whilst the model outlined above, can undoubtedly be effective in some instances, we could argue that it is totally inappropriate in others and can actually hinder optimal longer-term development.
Much of this revolves around the illusion that we have to go through all of these phases in any given macrocycle and the often-arbitrary allocation of time devoted to these phases. Indeed, even the phrases general and specific can in themselves be misleading – but that is for another conversation. The danger is that once these phases and their arbitrary timescales are entered into our Excel spreadsheets, they become carved in stone and we get drawn into coaching to these timescales rather than coaching what is in front of us. In reality, it is extremely difficult to ascertain in advance how long an element of performance takes to develop. This is especially the case where skills are being introduced and progressively developed. Just because our spreadsheets say we have four weeks allocated to develop sprint technique or to develop a back squat of 1x bodyweight, we can never determine whether we will achieve this. Many skills and capacities take time to develop, and it could be that for many developing players, their whole training could be thought of as a general preparation phase, and focus should be placed on developing the skills and capacities that will facilitate performance in the longer term. Feeling that we have to move through these phases and change the emphasis of train9ng as we do can often result in undercutting skill development process – we shift skills and capacities on before they have been firmly established and subsequently leave important capacities permanently underdeveloped.
This conundrum doesn’t just occur at the youth level and the challenges of optimal development also occur at the senior level. In any senior squad, there will be players at very different stages of development. Players just entering the senior ranks, may need additional time to develop key physical capacities, and an extended focus on focusing on general preparation. Indeed, in many US college football programmes, the redshirt year, where players are taken out of competition for a whole year, emphasizes how important development can be. Yet the annual shift, from general to specific to a taper into the season may preclude them ever reaching their full potential as it necessarily shortcuts the preparation process. This is especially the case where in-season programmes are built around optimising short-term performance through monitoring and controlling workloads and fatigue, and an overall emphasis on the maintenance, rather than the improvement, of physical capacities. Indeed, given the length of many competitive seasons, how many teams sports players are inadvertently failing to reach their full potential due to the systems we currently have in place.
This constant extension of playing seasons, and the associated reduction in preparation time also forces us to consider optimal preparation, even where the focus is on short-term performance. A long taper for example, may bring us to the early part of the season in exceptional condition based on a lack of fatigue, yet to achieve this we will have given up preparation time – preparation time which may have allowed us to build a greater capacity, which may help over the longer term, but be masked by increased fatigue in the shorter term. Again, there is no right or wrong answer, and a wide range of factors need to be considered, including the team goals, the aspirations of the individual, the playing schedule, the squad size, the ability to rotate players, the stages of development of the players, etc. It is likely that even within a single squad, a number of approaches will need to be executed, and critically it will have to be discussed and agreed upon with the head coach.
What is clear though is that blindly following a preset formula, with arbitrary allocation of time may be doing it by the book but will rarely be optimal.