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A Coach's Guide to Workload: Intro to Stress & Measuring Workload

An understanding of workload can be the difference between having a team that’s in game shape and healthy and having a team that struggles to get fit due to frequent injuries. Ultimately, providing better outcomes for each player individually and for the success of the team. We'll be diving deep into this topic below, but first, why this topic is barely ever mentioned:


There’s this idea that the things that things only accessible to the wealthy eventually become the future for everyone. The most current example is what we see happening with Tesla; the first line of “good” electric vehicles was priced over $100k, then recent models were as low as $35k, and there are rumours of a $20k vehicle planned for the future. That's an 80+% drop in barrier to entry, but those expensive early stages were a necessary part of providing the eventual affordable options.


The same thing happens in sports. The teams at the highest level of pro sports will get all the newest innovations, and the good innovations eventually become so accessible that they make their way to the college, high school, and youth levels. Consider how strength and conditioning, being a relatively new field, wasn’t always standard in professional sports. Now the number of full-time strength coaches at the high school level is rising rapidly, and many youth are working privately with coaches if that resource isn’t provided by their team. The growth being a result of more education (physical development is important) and more accessible coaches (more coaches around).


I believe (or at least I hope) the measurement and management of workload is the next frontier to work its way beyond college and pro sports. It wasn’t long ago "load management” felt like a new and foreign term in the NBA, receiving tons of criticism, so there’s a lot of education required for us to adopt these practices. The upside, as I hope to prove below, is it doesn’t need to be an expensive addition. You don’t need fancy equipment, additional staff members, or hours of your own time invested into implementing a basic load management system.



Intro to Stress:


When it comes to workload in sports, there are a ton of misconceptions. I'm going to start with the definitions (to ensure we're all talking about the same thing) before getting into the higher level stuff.


For one, when “workload management” became more popular in the NBA it was quickly discredited as players being soft or lazy. As we will explore below, the point of measuring workload is to track injury risk in your athletes. Of course there is always some risk of playing sports that can never be erased (why injury prevention is a misleading term), but the faster workloads increase week-to-week the higher that risk becomes. It’s important to manage that risk where possible so you have a healthy and available team throughout the year. And of course there will come moments where you would accept more risk than others (example: if your star player had an unusually high workload in the first few rounds of playoffs you probably wouldn’t limit his minutes in the championship game, but instead you might manage practice loads accordingly).


Unless you’re playing multiple games across the week, load management probably doesn’t look like limiting player’s minutes like it does in the NBA, but rather intelligently planning practice loads to keep the team fit and fresh so you don't need to worry about game minutes.



The two most important things to understand is volume and intensity.


Volume, if you’ve come across the term before, doesn’t seem to get misunderstood too often. It’s simply the amount of work you’ve done. At the highest level, it’s typically measured by looking at total distance travelled via GPS measurements, but “time on feet” or duration is a perfectly acceptable measure that is available to everyone.


Intensity, on the other hand, requires more background. If volume is how many repetitions you did or how long something lasted, intensity can be thought of as how much output was exerted for each repetition. It's important not to confuse fatigue with intensity, as the most intense efforts should typically be done with the most rest. To illustrate:


Example 1: Player A maximally sprints 50m, rests 90 seconds, and repeats this 8 times (400m total distance). Player B runs 400m as fast as they can around a track. Volume is the same for both, but intensity is much higher for player A even though player B was performing their maximal effort. This is because our physiology limits us from performing large outputs for long durations, and even at their max effort, player B would be exerting much less force per step than player A.


Example 2: Player A shoots 20 spot up jump shots. Player B dunks a ball 20 times. Same volume (total # of jumps), but the output, and therefore the intensity, of player B would be drastically higher.


The reason for this is explained by our energy systems. The ATP-CP system is our fastest-acting system and gives us the fuel for our most intense actions, but drastically declines after only 10 seconds. After that our other longer-lasting systems (glycolytic/lactic acid & aerobic systems) ramp up their involvement to sustain longer actions, but at a cost to overall performance as shown below.

This is why it is so important to clearly identify the primary goal of a drill or a day of practice. Let's use 3 simple examples of high intensity-low volume, low intensity-high volume, and moderate intensity-moderate volume to illustrate why you would choose each.


High intensity-low volume: Here your goal is for players to achieve maximal outputs that mimic speeds/intensities reached in competition. Looking again at the graph above, it is impossible to achieve this if a "repetition" of the drill lasts 60 seconds without rest. And no amount of motivation or discipline is going to change that fact. In my opinion, this is the most important (and most under-utilized) type of practice for athletes. Everyone wants fast, explosive athletes that can execute skills at high speeds - this is what develops that.


Low intensity-high volume: Here your goal is for players to get a ton of repetition of important sk