Rushall Thoughts, (1992).

Effects of Competitive Performances

The competitive experience in many sports, and in particular team sports, is not a stimulus for performance improvement. Playing games neither increases skill performance nor physical conditioning. This assertion surprises many because most serious athletes are tired after playing a full game. The reasons for this assertion are several.

  1. The type of fatigue that is developed in a game is of a general nature. It is the result of performing many different activities, intensities, and durations in a varied sequence. This produces overall fatigue that cannot be attributed to any one particular activity.

    General fatigue does not improve performance. All that it allows is the possibility of the performer developing some coping capacity for performing while fatigued. It still requires adequate time for recovery. Such recovery is accelerated by specific recovery activities and diet.

    For a training effect to occur, trials have to be repeated in blocks to produce specific forms of fatigue as part of the overload phenomenon. It is known that single trials do not produce sufficient stimuli to produce training effects, particularly in trained athletes. Unless, physically demanding activities occur in blocks of repetitions to produce accumulated specific fatigue, specific training effects will not happen. The types of efforts that are produced in team games are intermixed and varied. The lack of blocked specificity does not allow specific training effects. Thus, one should not expect specific conditioning effects from participating in a competition.

  2. The sequencing of trials of particular skills that occur in games is quite irregular. For skill learning to occur, the learning has to take place in blocks so that feedback from one trial can be used to modify the next trial. That feedback gradually causes good elements to be retained and poor elements to be altered. The essential feature of learning is that the proximity of trials allows the learning benefits from one trial to transfer to the next. However, when other activities intervene between repetitions of a skill, the benefits of feedback are disrupted. This interference means that what is experienced in one trial eventually becomes masked by the intervening irrelevant activities. Consequently, sporadic trials with irrelevant trials in between does not foster learning. This is a major reason for skill development not being an artifact of the competitive experience.

The number of trials of particular skills in a game is usually not that many. When an Australian football player handballs in the vicinity of 15 times in a game of approximately two and half hours duration, insufficient repetitions occur to make any difference to the volume of trial practices that are necessary to produce a noticeable performance improvement. When this low number of trials is compounded by the poor sequencing, one should not expect skill improvements to result from competitive experiences.

Skill learning is hindered even further when the "type" of skill varies considerably. In a game, 15 handballs requiring different postures, targets, distances, and degrees of preparation is tantamount to 15 different skills being executed although they can all be categorized under the label of "handballs".

Yet another factor hinders learning in competitive performances. The general fatigue that accrues in the competition inhibits any new learnings or modifications of skills. Since this is a very common occurrence in serious team game competitions, one should not expect competitive experiences to provide a learning environment.

The learning or improvement of skills cannot be a worthy outcome from competitive experiences.

Requirements for Performance Improvements

Sporting performances can improve through skill, conditioning, or psychological developments. In the context of this discussion, only skill and conditioning will be considered.

  1. For skills to improve, a certain volume of blocked trials of specific practice need to be performed. The higher the level of performer, the greater the number of trials that are needed.

  2. For conditioning to improve, a certain volume of blocked repetitions of specific training stimuli have to be experienced to produce an overload.

When a serious demanding competitive performance is experienced weekly, the accrued general fatigue that results requires some time for recovery (as much as 48 hours). Typically, in a sport that has a weekly competition one day is consumed by the competition and a minimum of two to two and half days are consumed by resting prior to and in recovery from the competition. This means that at most, only four days are possible for serious training sessions. When those sessions are limited to a generous two hours the amount of training that can be accomplished is restricted.

In four two-hour practice sessions, it is not possible to successfully attempt to produce conditioning and skill development training effects. The restricted volume of specific training stimuli does not allow either i) sufficient trials of skill practice in skill learning conditions, or ii) sufficient volume of specific conditioning trials to be experienced for physical capacities to be enhanced. Thus, a coach who attempts to improve both conditioning and skills at weekday practices will achieve little that can contribute to player improvement.

A Solution

There is a solution to this dilemma. It resides in the phenomena associated with change and maintenance training.

What a coach has to do is alternate macrocycles that emphasize i) conditioning while undergoing skill retention, and ii) skill development while following maintenance training of conditioning. This means that the training emphases over a competitive period alternate between skill training and conditioning. Since maintenance training and skill retention activities require vastly reduced volumes of training, the time that is released when either is programmed can be applied to increasing the volume of training in the other domain. That increase could be sufficient to provide adequate volumes for the production of beneficial training effects.

For example, consider skill development while undergoing maintenance training for conditioned states. It is known that endurance can be sustained by participating in as little as one third of normal endurance training. In a typical four day training program, that means that endurance will not be lost if it is only stimulated twice during the week. Strength training can be maintained by only one training session per week. Thus, by programming maintenance of conditioned states much time is released. That extra time can be applied to increasing the volume of skill practice trials. It should be expected that a definite emphasis on skill development over a four-day period while avoiding excessive fatigue will cause skills to change.

The reverse is possible for conditioning improvements while maintaining skills. Skills can be retained even if performance occurs in fatigued states. Thus, an emphasis on increasing the conditioning aspects of training while performing skills at an adequate level (e.g., when doing interval skill drills) should provide sufficient specific overloads to produce training effects.

As a rule-of-thumb, macrocycles that stress skill development and physical conditioning maintenance should last no more than one month. This recommended schedule means that players will be expected to improve in performance throughout a competitive season. In the skill macrocycle, skills should contribute to performance enhancement. In the conditioning macrocycle fine tuning of physical capacities should also produce a performance benefit. Given the individual variations in physical prowess that exist within a team, it is possible that in a few athletes some conditioning in one or more physical capacities may be lost during the skill macrocycle. The subsequent conditioning macrocycle will allow recovery of those capacities. If each athlete's capacity has undergone sufficient background training (as usually occurs in a 12-month training program) relatively long periods of "light" training can be sustained without noticeable loss in physical status. Thus, the threat of losing condition by not training excessively hard is minimal.

The cyclic presentation of skill and conditioning macrocycles should change the nature of performance expectation of players. Those expectations will produce definite goals for game performances since training effects will have been planned to be achieved. This feature should serve as a motivational impetus to both training and competitive performances throughout an extended period of weekly competitions.

When planning the sequencing of the two forms of macrocycle, it is best to plan backwards from scheduled playoffs. The macrocycle prior to the playoff period should be a skill macrocycle. The conditioning maintenance provision will serve as an unloading macrocycle which will foster recovery should any athlete be excessively fatigued or overtrained. The playoffs should be entered with players rested and honed in terms of skill efficiency.

Implication. Macrocycle alternation is a relatively new concept for team sport programming. It should contribute to enhanced performances in players and the production of more beneficial training experiences throughout very extended seasons of once per week competitions.

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