How tough was your week?

It’s not all about the physical load

I am Kobe Houtmeyers. As you may have noticed, I’m responsible for writing blog posts for Topsportslab. Writing blogs is an enjoyable part of my PhD project, which I conduct in collaboration with Topsportslab and the University of Leuven. Writing blog posts is also useful for me. It encourages me to reason in the broad sense about my research topic, and helps me to generate new ideas, or just thoughts.

My research topic is load monitoring in football. This topic currently receives much attention from the football community. Probably because we all believe that a systematic analysis of training data is important to plan loading and recovery carefully. We consider this important because the load-recovery balance determines how ready our player is to perform in the upcoming matches. And that’s what it’s all about, we want our players to perform well (side note: in safe circumstances).

In my project, I fully focus on the physical side of this story. I look at the number of high-intensity efforts, the heart rate response, and the perceived exertion in the lower legs. In this regard, I see lots of applications but also many limitations. Perhaps this is typical for a sports scientist who likes to think critically. To break through these limitations, I expect a lot from the interdisciplinary collaboration between generic training theoreticians (read: people like me) and experts from related domains such as data science, physiology, or biomechanics. Such collaborations may result in more advanced measurements or analytics, so that we can model the relationship between load, recovery, and performance more precisely.

But sometimes you should broaden your view. It’s not all about the physical load. An area I’m particularly interested in is how we should consider the psychosocial load when we analyse the load-recovery balance. If someone asks me: “how tough was your week?”, I may respond in terms of the hours worked per day (i.e., physical load), but I would probably say that it was tough because I was nervous for a presentation or because I was affected by a dispute with my girlfriend (i.e., psychosocial load). Of course, I’m only a wannabe athlete, so it can be that the response of real athletes is more focused on the physical aspect. Nevertheless, I’m quite sure that when you ask this question every week, you would be surprised by the impact of psychosocial events on players’ load-recovery perceptions, and thus their readiness to perform.

I believe that training adjustments related to the physical load are primarily triggered by specific events that disturb the habitual load-recovery dynamics within a players’ training scheme. For example, it is likely that a player receives an additional recovery day after playing a 120-minute knock-out match. I am convinced that practitioners already take the psychosocial load in a similar way into account. An additional recovery day may also be provided to deal mentally with the result of that knock-out match or may be granted in response to specific events that happen in the life of players (e.g., the death of a close relative). Similar to the physical load, I think that we need to seek the benefit of monitoring in the detection of small but relevant fluctuations that are not easy to observe with our own eyes. Homesickness, mutual competition with teammates, travel fatigue, issues with raising children, or just a mental dip. These are all examples of daily life stressors that affect players’ readiness to perform. I’m not advocating that we should know every detail of players’ lives, but we need to create a safe environment for the players in which they could systematically indicate their perceptions of their current psychosocial status. This allows adjustment of training when needed to help restore the load-recovery balance.

The application of load monitoring in terms of the physical load is clearly advancing. However, I feel that there is a lack of methods or strategies to monitor the psychosocial load-recovery balance. Probably also because this side of the story still receives too little attention from researchers involved in generic training theory such as me. It is time to change that. In collaboration with experts in psychosocial coaching and support, we should develop evidence-based tools to monitor the psychosocial load-recovery balance and its effect on players’ readiness to perform.

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