Good coaches and athletes will be familiar with the general response of the body to training load; it follows the shape of an inverted U. For all types of training some is good, more is better, even more is better up to an optimal point, and then any additional stress beyond this point starts to become counterproductive.
This is because the signal for adaptation is maxed out, but the body incurs higher and higher physical cost in performing the training. Eventually the training becomes so stressful that there is no actual benefit, and the line doesn’t stop there. It is possible to actually make an athlete worse or even injured/ill if the stress is sufficiently high (think Ironman or the Crossfit Games).
This should raise a couple of important points. Firstly, when attempting to maximise the a physical quality, the goal should always be to hit the peak of the inverted U: maximum adaptation relative to the physical cost of the activity. Anything less and you’re potentially missing out on adaptation, anything more and you’re paying an unnecessarily high physical cost.
Secondly, if you have the choice between slightly under training or slightly over training, it makes sense to err on the side of under training. In real terms you will derive the same performance benefit, but in the under training scenario you have not incurred nearly as much physical cost, you didn’t have to expend as much time or effort in training, and you have not desensitised the body to higher stress loads before it even becomes necessary.
Now here is the problem: physical training does not exist in isolation. In all sports we also have to prepare athletes technically, tactically and psychologically to optimally meet the demands of the sport. Technical and tactical preparation I will leave for now, as they are actually quite easy to integrate with the role of the physical preparation/strength & conditioning coach if the staff is well educated and well integrated with one another. Instead lets focus on psychological preparation…
We know that for rugby athletes to be optimally psychologically prepared for competition they must be robust to the highest levels of psychological stress, and able direct and control their physical, tactical and technical resources in the worst case scenarios. Anecdotally I can tell you that elite level players draw a lot of confidence from going to the well in training, bleeding on the training field so they can laugh on the battlefield, and doing “just one more rep” etc.
Professional sport abounds with stories of elite level players practising to extreme volumes or levels of fatigue (Kobe taking hundreds of free shots even after a game, or MMA athletes “shark tanking” against ten or more fresh opponents one after another in sparring for example). If the psychological response curve to training isn’t a straight line (“more is always better”), I believe the inverted U is so broad as to render it a straight line for our purposes.
To me this raises a fundamental problem for the globally minded sport preparation coach; what is optimal for physical preparation may not be optimal for psychological preparation. How do we approach this problem:
Accept a hit in physical freshness, to ensure the greatest possible psychological preparation? I’ve been in teams with deficiencies in both at different times, and honestly, I would pick maximising psychological preparation over physical if I was forced to choose.
Maximise physical preparation and try to educate our athletes that psychological preparation is not necessarily about reps, suffering and familiarity with pain? Can we educate our athletes to learn that psychological preparation is about mindset and belief, and that just because we don’t force them to exhibit it every day in training, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. They just need to trust the process.
Try to hit the sweet spot between the two, and accept that neither will be optimised, but that the greatest sum level of both will be achieved by making small concessions in training? They might not get in every rep they want, or suffer as often as they would like to be fully confident, nor will the athletes always be 100% fresh and training optimally, but overall the programme is well synchronised and moving in the right direction.
Prioritise one over the other at different times throughout the competition calendar. My instinct tells me that physical preparation could be emphasised at the potential expense of psychological preparation during the preparatory period and unimportant parts of the competitive period (easy games, bye weeks etc.). Likewise at the business end of the season the case could be made to prioritise psychological over physical. Certainly when one looks at elite level teams who perform well at major competitions, they are rarely at their physical best (some FAR from it), but they are psychologically as good as they will ever be.
What is the correct answer to this question? Honestly, I am not sure yet. But I think whoever is able to answer it correctly will be making major progress in one of the most difficult challenges facing the global load management of athlete training.