Subjective self-reported measures in youth team sports monitoring: how to create buy-in
Though it is one of the most important aspects of the coach-athlete relationship, I feel that the term “buy-in” has been overused in recent years, so for the purposes of this article, I will rather use the term “trust”, as essentially this is what we are trying to create as coaches in terms of relationships we engage in with our athletes.
Monitoring training load is seen as one of the fundamental jobs of the strength and conditioning coach and/or sports scientist, as it allows us to guide training and informs decisions taken in programme design. Research has shown that subjective measures seem to be more reliable in quantifying training load than objective measures (Saw et al., 2016) and particularly in team sports, monitoring self-reported measures such as session rate of perceived exertion (sRPE) is more practical and cost-efficient, given the limited budget in many training environments, particularly at the youth level.
Whilst subjective wellness data may be invaluable to the strength and conditioning coach in modifying training and individualising load in the team setting, obtaining honest and reliable data from youth athletes can be challenging for a number of reasons. First of all, while subjective feedback from players can be a great tool for coaches when we want to manage fatigue and have our best players ready to perform on game day, my experience is that young players are very anxious when they get pulled out of a training session because their wellness score indicates that they are overexerted. In their eyes, the strength and conditioning coach has pulled them out of a session early because they are “weak” or seem to struggle with the pace of training. An obvious response is that the player will say that he is fine and that he wants to complete the session. If this happens multiple times, players may lose their trust in the strength and conditioning coach and start to report false responses in their wellness questionnaires and RPE scores. Secondly, players may fill in their wellness questionnaires and RPE scores based on their team mates’ responses, as they don’t want to come across as struggling in their training, particularly when leading up to an important game. I have seen it countless times: a player gets injured in a game, they will get treatment in the first couple of days after the game, and then as the next (important) game approaches, their subjective wellness scores will suddenly shoot up, indicating they are fit for the next game, yet in the absence of intervention from the coach, they will break down in the next game. Add to this the character traits of millennials – the generation that is currently in their teens and rising through the ranks in youth team sport, and we can build a picture of why earning youth players’ trust is fundamental if we are to use subjective self-reported measures as valid markers in monitoring the athlete training load. That is, millennials are considered one of the most anxious generations in human history, which can be attributed to the pressure of having to deal with more and more exams, future uncertainty and perhaps most tellingly, the stress that comes with trying to fit into a society driven by the need for social media recognition.
How to create trust within an anxiety-ridden generation of youth athletes
The issue of creating trust in the youth team sport environment is far from simple and the solution is multi-layered. Most importantly, it requires empathy from the coaches. Trying to understand what our players are going through may be the single most important thing in earning their trust. For me, entering the football academy environment was a question of trying to identify with my younger self, adding in the non-trivial aspect of social media connectedness which, luckily, I didn’t have to go through in my teens. I have tried to use my experience as a high level youth football player to create a channel of communication with the players that I may otherwise have struggled with, although past experience in the sport is far from the only element of empathy that will help you out as a coach in youth sports. The second layer of creating trust with players is the process of continuing education and accountability. As strength and conditioning coaches and sports scientists, we need to work as teachers in presenting the relevant information on health and performance, which are inextricably linked, although in sport, this is often not portrayed to be the case. After educating the youth player on the factors that influence health and performance, however, we need to transfer the ultimate responsibility for their health and performance on to the players. Far from passing the buck, this transfers responsibility on to the players when they self-report on their levels of readiness, fatigue and injury, which ultimately leads to greater maturity and better decision-making on behalf of the player.
Finally, and this is where most coaches seem to falter due to the relentless nature of most current coaching jobs, particularly at the elite level, the ability and readiness of the coach to take the time to know the individual athlete, their background and personality, will ensure that the coach-athlete relationship is an honest one, and one that both the player and the coach can benefit from in terms of performance and longevity.
Working from the bottom up
From a practical viewpoint, coaches need to make the self-reporting of subjective readiness and wellness data as simple as possible. In a world of ever-decreasing attention spans, the format for reporting RPE and wellness scores needs to be clear and concise, and facilitated by allowing youth athletes to access questionnaires and score tables online on the club’s or their electronic devices, where reporting should take no longer than a couple of minutes.
Furthermore, we need to be able to identify the leaders within the team to set an example for the rest of the players in providing us with honest and valid information on their well-being and their response to the load imposed in training.
In his book, Team of Teams, former US Army general McChrystal explains, “the connectivity of trust and purpose imbues teams with an ability to solve problems that could never be foreseen by a single manager – their solutions often emerge as the bottom-up result of interactions, rather than from top down orders” (McChrystal et al., 2015, p. 114). This adaptability, and fostering of ownership, accountability, and inclusion means individuals are more willing to share. They communicate better, and therefore build relationships. Individuals feel their voice is valued; they are informed. It is no different when dealing with a team of athletes: break them into a team of teams, e.g. forwards, midfielders, defenders, and encourage them to build relationships, as it is only through the construction of multi-directional and robust relationships that we can shape athletes, the coaching staff, and teams to perform at their best.
McChrystal, S., Collins, T., Silverman, D. & Fussell, C. (2015). Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World. New York, NY: Penguin.
Saw, A. E., Main, L. C., & Gastin, P. B. (2016). Monitoring the athlete training response: Subjective self-reported measures trump commonly used objective measures: A systematic review. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 50(5), 281-291. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2015-094758