We're extremely fortunate to get to work closely behind the scenes with some of the biggest teams in the world of professional sport, including NFL, NBA, MLB, Premier League, pro cycling, Formula 1 and beyond.
Through getting in behind the scenes of these organisations and working alongside their athletes and support staff, we’ve picked up quite a few interesting and useful performance-related insights and noticed some common themes on what's done at the highest levels of sport to maximise performance.
Quite a bit of what we’ve learned translates into actionable ideas that even us ‘weekend warriors’ can benefit from in our own (admittedly less well paid) sporting endeavours...
Nail the basics
Whilst many of the organisations we visit have multi-million dollar facilities, highly paid staff and a long list of expensive gadgets and gizmos, all of the best organisations place a huge emphasis on nailing the basics first as an absolute priority.
Wolves' Head of Nutrition Dr Mayur Ranchordas even used the phrase "nail the basics" in our recent interview discussing how simple nutrition strategies have helped the Premier League club overachieve in their first season back in the top flight.
The ‘fancy stuff’ is considered the icing on the cake of performance, not the cake itself by those who really mean business.
Across all the sports we work in, 2 specific 'basics' seem to take precedence over over all others...
- Promoting adequate sleep (aiming for 8+ hours per night) the majority of the time
- Prioritising high quality, healthy whole foods at nearly every meal
As examples, Premier League soccer team Wolverhampton Wanderers stay in a hotel the night before each and every game (even their home games) so that the players and staff can be guaranteed a consistent, quiet environment in order to get a restful night’s sleep when it matters most.
In the NBA, the Milwaukee Bucks supply healthy breakfasts, lunches and dinners to their players every single day of the week, from their own kitchen staffed by their own performance dieticians and chefs.
This even includes the options to take meals home for their whole family if they prefer to eat at home some of the time! This allows the staff to positively influence as much as 80% of the total caloric intake of their players and, as a result, to ensure this aspect of their life is optimal.
Basic tactics like sleeping and eating well will seem like no-brainers, but the degree to which the world's top sports teams focus on getting this right perhaps suggests that you should make an extra effort to nail these if you're not already, rather than looking for more elaborate (and often expensive) 'marginal gains'.
Shake things up in the off-season
During the season, training for pro athletes is very specific, often quite repetitive and can become monotonous as they need to become highly fit and skilled for the narrow demands of their sport and position.
As a counter-balance to the ‘groundhog day’ situation this can create, some teams opt to do more varied pursuits in the off season to help maintain a level of fitness whilst also providing a change in mental and physical stimulation to prevent staleness and burnout.
A great example of this - albeit one that gives the physiotherapists quite a few nightmares - is Premiership Rugby team Saracens going skiing as a group during the post-season period to learn new skills, get some team bonding in and keep active whilst doing something totally out of their usual comfort zones.
I actually cited taking on very different challenges as a great way to stay motivated in a list of 5 ways to mitigate and adapt to a drop in performance as you get older recently and I really believe that it can lead to performance gains.
If you're in a bit of a rut, shaking things up and doing something out of your comfort zone is well worth considering.
Manage the load
Keeping players healthy and available for selection by the coaching staff is a huge priority for all of the support staff at any professional team.
All teams will measure player availability (usually as the % of their squad that's available for selection at any point in the season) as a Key Performance Indicator for the medical and sports science departments’ overall success.
A big part of how they seek to manage this comes through constant measurement of each individuals’ overall training load, usually a combination of the cumulative intensity and duration of all training and competitive outings over a specific period of time.
They use that to try to ensure the players are getting enough training and competition stimulus to drive adaptation and improvement, or to maintain fitness depending on the time of year, all whilst staying inside the boundaries that indicate a sharp increase in injury or overtraining risk.
As an example of how much emphasis is placed on this in the Premier League, Tottenham Hotspur’s first team Sports Scientist James Redden’s main responsibility is monitoring the physiological load of training and matches to keep players on the right side of the fine line between positive stress and over-doing it. This is done via GPS data tracking distance covered and speed of movement, as well as other metrics.
Endurance athletes are no strangers to tracking data and using it to optimise performance - but I wonder how many of us are using the data to avoid overtraining.
Use technology and data selectively
These days there are literally millions of data points available to athletes and support staff that give feedback on aspects of their performance and physiological responses to it.
Whilst data-driven analysis of performance can be extremely helpful if used intelligently, it can also result in ‘paralysis by analysis’ if it’s used indiscriminately.
The best teams we’ve worked with are extremely good at working out what kind of data is useful for them when evaluating performance. They're also good at figuring out how to use the stories that the data tells to drive actionable changes in training, tactics and strategy.
They're ruthless in filtering how much data feedback is accessible to the athletes so as to focus them on factors that they can positively influence by their behaviour - and not just get drowned or overwhelmed with irrelevant or negative information.
Like at the Houston Astros baseball team, where they employ mathematical experts with NASA and Wall Street backgrounds to crunch the numbers on all sorts of aspects of team performance.
This information is carefully filtered and the most impactful bits are fed back to coaching and performance staff to help influence team selection and the kind of training or practice prescribed for individual athletes.
Are you using technology and data to positively influence your behaviour or are you just collecting (and being negatively influenced by) irrelevant or unhelpful numbers?
Personalise aspects of your performance wherever possible
Without a doubt, all of the best professional teams we work with recognise that whilst players need to come together and work as a cohesive unit for the best team performance on game day, they also have to treat each athlete as an unique individual in many aspects of training, nutrition and lifestyle management in order to get the best out of them in the long term.
We obviously work with organisations to individualise their athletes' hydration strategies and educate them on why a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach is not optimal in that specific dimension (you saw that one coming didn’t you!).
However the best teams follow this theme in a range of areas. A great example of this would be at the Cleveland Cavaliers NBA team, where many of the top players are assigned a member of the support staff full-time - usually a Strength and Conditioning coach, sports scientist or physiotherapist - who spends a lot of time getting to know their assigned athlete and then starts living and travelling with them around the clock to help them individually micromanage every detail of their life!
Ok, so I doubt many of us can afford to pay another human to follow us around all day to make sure we're being our optimal selves, but personalising your hydration strategy (this free online Sweat Test is a great way to get started if you haven't already!) is definitely achievable as is individualising your training plan (perhaps with the help of a coach), amongst other things.
You might not be getting paid millions to take part in the sport that brings you to this blog, but by applying some of the same basic principles as those who are working with athletes that are, you might just see an improvement in your performances...