The sport science and strength and conditioning field is still in its infancy, and as such there is so much innovation going on. A lot of it is technological, which has made data collection a legitimate concern in the pursuit of elite athletic achievement. There are so many devices that are available on the market today, and so many cool ways to collect and interpret data that every coach should be testing regularly.
In fact, the more data we collect, the cooler it looks. The problem is, testing is a very misunderstood concept and often leads to confusion or just wasting of athletes’ and coaches’ time. Especially because there are so many different reasons to test an individual or group. So today I just want to clarify a few concepts, specifically the difference between monitoring and different types of testing.
This is probably the hippest new term in strength and conditioning and sport science. The reason is because it’s vague, and thus justifies the use of many toys! The truth is monitoring can be extremely simple. It’s about understanding the athlete’s ability to adapt to training loads. That’s really it. You could be using questionnaires, heart rate data, or certain speed/power tests that may be appropriately sensitive. Tracking volume load is also monitoring because you are quantifying the daily impact of training in the weight room (or sprint training), something many coaches have yet to do. If you are gathering any type of information to understand the physical state of your athletes, you have a monitoring program. Here is an example! And here too. Remember, having the most expensive monitoring equipment doesn’t make you right! Using it for the success of the team and/or athlete makes you right.
This is our second level of testing and looks at longer term adaptations. Monitoring isn’t really about performance per se, it’s just about how the athlete handles the workload. Tracking though, is something you can use to judge the effectiveness of a specific training intervention. This could be monthly testing of speed, strength, power etc. Seeing how vertical jump or 10m acceleration might change after a mesocycle would go into the tracking category. Tracking is about understanding the result of a stimulus AFTER the fact, whereas monitoring was more about the effects DURING. Are we seeing the difference? Tracking is very much about the progress of the athlete through the training plan. (Like HERE, and if results are good, you do a happy dance…I was content at 32″ then…pffft) Some coaches will use loads lifted during training as key tracking items. If you got stronger, that is a long term adaptation. Moving the same weight faster, also would go in this category. So don’t feel like you have to dedicate a whole day to ‘Tracking’ but understand it’s about judging progress.
This is where we pick a handful of tests that we think may identify successful characteristics in a sport. For example, testing a whole group of athletes on standing long jump, beep test, and 40 yard dash would be a testing battery. It could be very simple, or slightly more complex. The information you get is just a snapshot of the athlete at this point of their life. No information about how they were yesterday or the month before. This type of testing is good for general classification of athletes on a team or within a sport. Hopefully, you have an idea of benchmarks that you think are needed to achieve success in the sport, and you are judging against those benchmarks. Can you check progress year to year with a battery like we talked about in tracking? Certainly. Just be careful, if there is a lot of time between testing sessions, it makes it too complicated to infer HOW or WHY the changes took place. The NFL combine is a great example of a testing battery. We have no idea how the players would have tested in the pre-season of their college football season…they may have gotten worse throughout the season, although we certainly hope they got better, especially with combine prep programs everywhere! Instead, we make inferences about their likelihood of success based on where they place in the testing battery. I’m not saying its the best way of evaluating talent, just showing you exactly what it is.
There are so many opportunities out there to use expensive testing equipment, and if you have the budget, you can certainly use it all! The most important thing though, is understanding the context around your data collection, and ensuring you are doing tests for the right reason. Then use the data to make decisions. Which is a huge can of worms in its own right!