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The Physio: How to improve a player’s robustness

By Francis Quinn

THE World Conference on Sports Physical Therapy was held at the magnificent Titanic Centre in Belfast recently.

The two-day conference was based around the topic of Optimal Loading. This basically translates as the optimum amount of training required to reach specific performance levels while minimising negative outcomes. Negative outcomes can manifest in the form of injury, physical fatigue, mental fatigue or under-performing.

Managing Optimal Load is approached from several angles, including managing the injured athlete, rehabilitation and sport specific conditioning for recovery, injury prevention and achieving performance.

Speakers at the event included Tony Strudwick (Head of Athletic Development at Manchester United FC), Dr Andrew Massey (Head of Medical Services at Liverpool FC) and Robin Sadler (Head Physiotherapist at Derby County FC).

All three speakers talked about their role in managing players at their respective clubs with a view to avoiding negative outcomes of training by what they referred to as ‘improving player robustness.’

They explained that in order for players to be able to play at the top level, they had to show that they could cope with the various demands of training at the top level to achieve the desired outcomes of that level of sport.

They talked about the need for resilience and resistance to injury as opposed to players who are both physically and mentally weak and prone to injury. I can think of several words some use to describe the ‘unrobust’ player – soft, milky, flaky, pampered being some examples I’ve heard over the years.

I recall a sports psychologist once noting that in his experience, one of the traits of top athletes was their ability to tolerate pain. This is not confined to the pain of straining a muscle but more so across the spectrum of demands of sport, the pain of hard training, the pain of pushing yourself to the limit, the pain of losing, the pain of suffering any setback.

Tony Strudwick from Manchester United even went as far as saying that robustness is now something they consider as part of their recruitment of young players.

Robustness (or lack of) is something for us to be wary of in the GAA. While some people will be of the opinion that robustness is ‘just in ye’ the experts from Man United, Liverpool and Derby all stated that they were aiming to improve player robustness. Almost like saying they were toughening players up to the demands of the sport.

One of the easiest ways of judging robustness is to look at the number of games a player plays either consecutively or over the course of a season. This is one of the main factors when professional clubs are considering signing a new player.

As inter-county managers head into the new season (never mind the training ban in place for a phenomenon once known as burn-out) they need to be aware of Optimal Loading and realise that they CAN develop player robustness.

Trials will be the normal procedure in various counties to see who will join the already established players of previous county squads. These established players will have built up a robustness to the demands of county training over many years and so new players striving to train at the optimum level required to play inter-county football need time to develop their robustness. They need time to reach the optimum level.

This requires managers not picking players so far off the mark in terms of their present fitness that they will require too much time and 1:1 attention to catch up with others.

It requires a sensibly designed, progressive training programme that allows players time for their body to adapt physically to the demands of a new level of exercise. It requires an experienced medical back room team who are able to spot the early signs of injury risk, underperformance, under-fit, overtrained situations.

A good medical team will know that muscles like to be strong to cope with these demands. Tendons don’t like a sudden change in demand. As for older players (30+), joints suffer from the accumulative trauma of long term high level, high impact exercise.

I’d like to know how many counties take into consideration player robustness in their underage development squads. How many managers are training young people with a view to improving robustness so they are more resilient and resistant to injury, underperformance, physical and mental demands of sport at higher levels further down the line?

So here are some simple tips for building player robustness”

– Design the level of training to suit the current level of fitness and conditioning of your players.
– Know the required level of conditioning for the level of competition you are playing at and aiming for i.e. There is no point pinching county training programmes and using them for a division three club team (and vice versa).
– Make progression gradual towards higher levels of training. Fitter players recover and adapt quicker. They can progress quicker to higher levels.
– Communicate with your players what you are trying to achieve at each stage of the training program so they know what to expect regarding effort and fatigue from specific training sessions.
– Be consistent in the intensity levels. Don’t let one or two nights drop off in intensity or don’t make sudden spikes in intensity.
– Use an experienced physiotherapist who can detect the early stages of overuse injuries.

A good physiotherapist will also be able to detect what is a natural response to training or what needs rest. This will be crucial in building robustness as in order to become fitter the player needs overload and the physiotherapist needs to know when the player is ready for overload.

An experienced physiotherapist with a knowledge of player and manager psychology will know when is the right time to ease off and when is the right time to push on, know when the player needs pushed on or when the manager needs pushed away.

A player who has confidence in the physiotherapist will trust the therapists judgement and avoid fear factors on return to play following injury. The old fashioned methods of a manager trying to toughen up an individual or sometimes a whole squad by attempting to ‘break’ them have failed time and time again.

Hence an experienced physiotherapist is crucial to building player robustness from both the physical and mental aspects of sport for the benefits of the player and manager. At higher levels of sport this robustness can be monitored and developed using a team of experts who monitor their respective interests including strength and conditioning experts, psychologists, physiologists and doctors.

So robustness is not ‘just in ye’ from previous life experiences. In can be harnessed when dealt with by the right people.
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