In this article, I will consider the application of periodization to a wide range of sports and focus specifically on how it relates to competition and skill acquisition. Learn more...

By: John Shepherd

In this article, I will consider the application of periodization to a wide range of sports and focus specifically on how it relates to competition and skill acquisition.

The Soviet sports scientist Matveyev was the pioneer of modern periodization theory in the sixties. His work has subsequently been reinterpreted and modified to produce different periodization models for different sports, all aiming to achieve the optimum conditions for peak performance.

Under the 'classic' Matveyev model, the training year is divided into distinct training phases which, depending on their duration, are known as macro-, meso- and microcyles. As a rough guide, macrocycles last months, mesocycles weeks and microcycles days. Within each cycle, the key training variables of volume, intensity and specificity are manipulated to create the desired training effect.


Track & Field Vs. Team Sports

Sports like track and field and swimming tend to lend themselves better to Matveyev's original thoughts on periodization than judo, football, cricket, rugby and tennis, for two key reasons:

  1. Their performance outcomes in training and competition are easily measurable. For example, the enhancement of CV ability can be intrinsically linked to heart rate and VO2max, and the development of strength and power to percentages of 1 rep maximum (1RM).

  2. They have a relatively low skill component.

This means that track and field athletes and swimmers can establish and work towards a readily quantifiable periodization program, which is not the case for the more qualitative type sports, with their much greater and diverse skill requirements.

Judo:

    Let's take a closer look at one such sport - judo. Although judo players need to condition themselves by means of weight training and anaerobic/aerobic activity, they also need to spend a great deal of time progressing to a more tactical, intuitive and (literally) combative competitive peak. This has led coaches in judo and similar sports to devise their own periodization approaches.

    Judo:
    sport of Japanese origin that makes use of the principles of jujitsu, a weaponless system of self-defense. Buddhist monks in China, Japan, and Tibet developed jujitsu over a period of 2,000 years as a system of defense that could be used against armed marauders and yet would not be in conflict with their religion. Jigoro Kano, a Japanese jujitsu expert, created judo (1882) by modifying or dropping many holds that were too dangerous to be used in competition. It depends for success upon the skill of using an opponent's own weight and strength against him, thus enabling a weak or light individual to overcome a physically superior opponent.

    For example, judo coaches regard time on the mat (i.e. time spent doing judo) as the key element of the training variable volume1. As the competition macrocycle approaches, more time is spent practicing the sport and less on general conditioning in order to develop peak performance.

    Although this may seem obvious, it is surprising how many coaches and athletes (whatever their sport) overlook this prime need and become preoccupied with developing strength, endurance and power at the expense of skill. Such an approach can result in impaired performance, regardless of improved condition.

    Flex Wheeler Fighting Richard Everage
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    It should be noted at this point that coaches in the more qualitative sports can, and often do, also devise specific quantitative measures to help with periodization. To take judo as an example again, the Polish sports scientist Sikorski devised 11 general and 23 judo-specific drills for the national team based on lactate production and heart-rate response. These are used to shape the training cycles.

    Judo II:
    Judo has been an Olympic sport for men since 1964 and for women since 1984. Both fight in eight weight classes. Proficiency in judo is indicated by the color of a player's belt; white indicates a beginner, black a master. There is a wide range of color in between. In 1953 the Amateur Athletic Union recognized judo as a sport and sanctioned annual championships. Numerous schools throughout the world now teach judo. Jujitsu, the unmodified form of judo, has been taught to military and police forces.

Periodization & Team Sports:

    Periodization can be difficult to apply to team sports, which have a high skill component and extremely long - and often highly competitive - playing seasons. Let's consider a real-world sporting example - the 2001 British Lions rugby tour to Australia.

    The British Lions:
    The team has historically used the name 'British Isles'. On their 1950 tour of New Zealand and Australia they also adopted the name 'British Lions' after the lion emblem on their jerseys. Since the 2001 tour of Australia they have become known as the 'British and Irish Lions'. The new name was adopted to take account of the sensitivities of some people in both the Republic of Ireland and within the nationalist community in Northern Ireland who object to any implication that they are in some way "British". Some have criticised this change as exhibiting unnecessary political correctness, as they felt that the geographic term British Isles carried no political overtones. Most rugby unions fans simply refer to the team as the 'Lions'.

    The players arrived 'down under' after a tough domestic and international season, facing a very tough tour itinerary; yet, for reasons best known to the coaching and management staff, they were subjected to a highly demanding training program. It was as if a mini-periodization program were being implemented within a very short period of time, with particular emphasis on contact training.

    This resulted in injuries to key players, including Dan Luger and Mike Catt. Many players commented on the tough regime and the fact that it left them tired before games2.

    So what should the Lions' management have done instead? Maintaining condition from the previous long season rather than attempting to lift it might have been the best solution.

    rugby player

    It appears that for team and individual sports with long seasons, such as tennis, pre-season or in-season breaks are the best occasions for improving physical condition. Trying to develop more endurance or strength in-season (or very close to the end of a long season), when players are fatigued, can lead to injury and staleness.

    Baker studied 14 professional and 15 college aged rugby league players over 29 weeks in-season in an attempt to determine whether maximum strength and power could be increased concurrently while attempting to balance the demands of playing and recovery3.

    All players performed training aimed at increasing strength, power, speed, and energy-system fitness, as well as attending skill and team practice sessions.

    All the players' performances remained unchanged for the majority of the tests across the season (although the college-aged players did manage to increase their bench press bests).

    The authors believed that the prioritization, sequencing and timing of training sessions, both pre- and in-season, kept the players in prime rugby league playing condition. Improved condition was built pre-season, and then maintained throughout the playing season by the use of undulating periodization.

Jump Performance In Volleyball:

    The specific physiological requirements of a sport are, therefore, equally important considerations for successful team sport periodization. Newton and associates looked at volleyball and were actually able to improve the jump performance of elite players during pre- and in-season training4. How did they manage this?

    The answer is that in volleyball there is a very strong 'match' between what the players do in training and what they do on court. Volleyball relies more on anaerobic energy - and in particular the alactic (less than 10 seconds) energy pathway - than rugby and football, for example.


    Click Image To Enlarge.
    There Is A Strong Match Between
    Training & Court Time In Volleyball.

    This means that plyometric jump training (as used by these researchers) is much more likely to 'fit' and complement the actual physiology of the match situation, so reducing the interference effect and allowing for the enhancement of physical performance.

    (Although sport-specific training is not the main focus of this article, coaches and athletes should always be on the lookout for training drills that fit the playing requirements of their sports as closely as possible. These drills should then be utilized throughout the periodization program.)

Squad Rotation:

    Squad rotation offers another means of maximizing team performance. Elite football and rugby sides often perm their starting line-ups from their squads in such a way as to rest players and maintain and develop their condition. However, coach and manager must be in harmony if this approach is used and, of course, chairmen, fans, player injuries and the overall success of the team can always throw a spanner into the works.

    Developing different training plans for different players is also key to successful team periodization. Rugby forwards, for example, have different physiological requirements from backs, so they need to train differently (PP 185, Aug 03).

    I am also aware of how US national soccer squads have used specific training programs based on highly detailed physiological data reflecting the requirements of each playing position.

    Mid-fielders, for example, will have to do more running on the pitch than defenders or strikers, and their periodization plans are designed to reflect this difference and maintain predetermined VO2max and lactate threshold levels throughout the season.


The Undulating Periodization Model

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The technique known as 'undulating periodization' is probably the best option for the team sports coach in-season. This model combines much shorter training phases (days/weeks) with different modes of exercise and exercise intensities.

Basically, the various ingredients in the training mix are cooked up at the same time; one day the emphasis could be on speed and power, the next on endurance and the next on skill and agility.

This type of training should also help to reduce the interference effect, especially if it is closely allied to the requirements of the playing season and the recovery needs of players. Significantly improved condition is best achieved pre-season.

Double Periodization:

    A model known as 'double periodization' can elevate all markers of performance, but only for certain sports, particularly the power and speed track and field events. This idea arises from the original work of Matveyev.

    Within the double periodization model, two competitive peaks are targeted in one training year. For example, a sprinter might compete over 60m during the indoor season and 100 and 200m during the outdoor season.

    Matveyev estimated that, in so doing, the sprinter could expect a 1.55% improvement over the year, compared to just 0.96% had he used a single periodization program. For high jumpers, the estimated difference was even more startling - 2.4% for single periodization compared with 5.05% for double.


    Click Image To Enlarge.
    Ethel Catherwood Of Canada,
    Gold Medal Winner In The Women's High Jump
    At The 1928 Summer Olympics, Amsterdam, Netherlands.

    The theory is that preparing for two competitive periods in one year allows for the continuation of higher and more specific training intensities, with little disruption to technical proficiency (skill acquisition).

    Note, however, that because of the different physiological processes involved in developing a substantial and lasting endurance base, double periodization is not recommended for those involved in endurance sports. Nor is it suited to multi-competition sports, unless in-season breaks are scheduled (as with the Scandinavian and Russian football seasons) to allow for a return to more general conditioning.

    Also, for those sports that allow it, double periodization should not be practiced year in, year out; every third or fourth year, athletes should return to a single periodization plan to enable them to 'top up' or improve base condition. This can be achieved by the use of longer, more general training-oriented macrocycles, which will not be truncated by the need to achieve competition readiness twice in the training year.

    Many technical-event track and field athletes spend a great deal of time getting stronger and faster only to find that their actual performances are no better than they were in the previous year. This is often because they have not spent enough time applying their new-found physical abilities to the skill requirements of their event.

    A long-jump athlete, for example, may find that increased sprinting speed does not produce longer jumps because he or she is unable to convert it into increased distance at take-off. Often the immediate reaction from coach and athlete is that more strength is required, but actually the need may be for greater skill.


    Click Image To Enlarge.
    Long Jumper Chris Slatt.

    Optimum timing and technical performance can only be achieved by marrying the application of strength, power and speed to the skill required for the sport. Periodization plans must take account of this and must not allow the development of physical condition to outpace technical requirements.

    This principle has led to the development of 'skill strength' periodization models (SSP). Utilized first by the Soviets, this method emphasizes the development of sport skill at the beginning of the training year before more 'power' is added in subsequent training cycles.


Mental Periodization Strategies

The application of sport psychology to periodization has received scant attention and Balague is one of the few researchers to have addressed this aspect5. She has developed a model in which performers' mental preparation is progressed in tandem with their physical preparation throughout the various training cycles.

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It makes sense for different mental strategies to be employed during different training phases to maximize performance and bolster competitive readiness.

The culmination of months of periodization may be over in a matter of seconds, so coaches must leave no stone unturned when it comes to performance readiness. The greatest, most detailed and systematic training plan possible will be no use if, finally, the athlete is unable to 'perform'.

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According to former British national athletics coach Frank Dick, for track and field athletes (and participants in some individual sports) the nature of the competition macrocycle is determined by:

  • The number of competitions an athlete will require to stabilize best performance.
  • Competition dates.
  • How much recovery the athlete requires between competitions.
  • Any specific adaptations that may be needed for optimizing major competition performance, such as time zone and temperature acclimatization6.

As Dick points out:

"Competition is the only means of adapting to the stressor of competition, and to avoid its particular stress simply increases the stress potential of the next one."

(This, incidentally, offers another reason for the progressive linkage of psychological and physiological preparation strategies.)

Coaches need to be fully aware of when and where they intend to put the conditioning of their charges on the line. Again, this is easier to ascertain for some sports than others.

For example, individual sport athletes, with designated competitive seasons, can use low-key competitions as build-ups to major ones; and their competition meso- and microcycles can also be designed around their ability to hang onto peak condition. Team sports pose greater difficulties but, on the other hand, players may benefit from the fact that more peaks are possible.

Very careful consideration needs to be given to recovery, especially during the competition phase, when the physical and mental drain is so much greater.


Conclusion

Designing the ultimate training plan is no easy task as there are so many variables to consider. I hope, though, that that you will now feel better armed with the knowledge and tools to proceed with the task.

References:

  1. www.judoamerica.com
  2. Jason Robinson, Finding My Feet (autobiography), Coronet books 2003, p 137
  3. J Strength Cond Res 2001 May 15 (2) 198-209
  4. Med Sci Sports Exerc 199 Feb: 31 (2) 323-30
  5. J Sci Med Sport 2000 Sep:3(3) 230-7
  6. Dick FW Sports Training Principles P303 A&C Black 2002

John Shepherd

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