Let’s Get (Beyond the) Physical: Simultaneously Develop Athletes’ Technical, Tactical, and Psychological Traits

   

Professional sports leagues across the globe look at youth talent in many different ways. Sometimes development programs appear very sophisticated and detailed, while in other cases they seem a lot simpler. At rugby and soccer clubs around the world, kids start in under-7, under-9, or under-11 junior teams and either rise through the ranks in the academy system or get snapped up at increasingly young ages by larger clubs offering the promise of a professional career.

In these sports, physical qualities are important. But in successful countries they’re always secondary to the technical and tactical adeptness youth coaches and scouts look for. They’re typically assessing young talent in the most real-world scenario in sports: the game itself.

So, to a large degree, what they’re seeing is what they’re getting, with technical, tactical, physical, and psychological elements being simultaneously expressed through skills on the pitch as players on both teams try to stick to their coaches’ game plans while dealing with the inevitable randomness and chaos of the game as it arises in a dynamic, ever-evolving system.

Contrasting this with football, we see the assessment of a youth player’s ability and potential being gauged by their physical attributes. Organizations and teams speak proudly about how they have adopted LTAD models, which underlines the whole problem. The kids are players, not athletes or physical machines.

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We see the culmination of this philosophy in the annual NFL Combine, at which personnel from all 32 NFL teams scour the college ranks for possible additions to their 53-man rosters.

The focus on the physical is re-emphasized by the fascination media has with metrics, supported by ESPN and the other sports entertainment networks.

The Combine is broadcast live, with experts then discussing physical metrics for weeks afterwards, poring over  results and extrapolating the likely impact on each prospect’s draft stock.

  • How fast a player can run 40 yards represents their speed
  • How many reps they can do with 220 pounds in the bench press shows their strength
  • Broad and vertical jumps are tied to power production
  • Various cone drills represent agility

NFL personnel are not this foolish, however.

Some inexperienced scouts can be distracted by big numbers, but the guys who have been around for a while know better. Having worked for the San Francisco 49ers and consulted with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Cleveland Browns, and several other teams, I know from firsthand experience that the league has some of the most talented people in the coaching profession. The same is true at the college and high school levels.

Yet we do need to spend a moment re-thinking the max-out culture that’s prevalent in many weight rooms.

Bringing the “juice” or pushing kids to the limits of exhaustion is not just stupid but also irresponsible, and each year (sadly) the NCAA is visited by tragedy. Certainly, it can be beneficial to foster competition within a squad and also establish baselines for certain types of programming. It’s also beneficial to get players to push themselves and try to improve their mastery of movement.

But performance is not determined in the weight room.

Rather than putting too much emphasis on maxes, PRs, and team leaderboards, we should be looking at what the player needs to develop to play well. Sometimes it’s not physical at all. And this means where performance really counts – on the field, not in the weight room. Yes, you want your athletes to be bigger, stronger, and faster. I get it, and that has some merit. But it can’t become everything.

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I often ask coaches, “What happens in a moment in time in a game?” Consider this for a second:

Imagine the wide receiver in football or winger in rugby, sprinting down the field or pitch, catching the ball, holding off two tackles to score. It never is solely the expression of physical qualities. Such great plays require the simultaneous combination of technical, tactical, and psychological elements as well.

Catching, sprinting, and evading tackles are technical skills that happen within the tactical context of a game plan. They all depend on each other and are interrelated. The player must also have the psychological freshness to concentrate under fatigue, recall schemes, remain confident as tacklers rush, and make split-second (or micro-second) decisions that determine whether they’re brought to ground or go on to score.

This is why in Game Changer I emphasize the need to spend time focusing on the experiences we create for players. Experiences in which all four coactives of my TTPP model – technical, tactical, physical, and psychological – are developed simultaneously.

How To Develop TTPP

To achieve this, the entire coaching staff must sit down, look at the available practice time for the upcoming week, and schedule sessions in a way that addresses all of these elements. Yes, we need to devote enough time to working hard in the weight room and making sure each session, set, and rep is of the highest possible quality. But it cannot be to the detriment of the overall team goals.

These practice aims are set by the head coach, coordinators, and position coaches. They need sufficient opportunity to set up small-sided games and tactical drills that require the players to improve all four of the TTPP qualities at the same time.

The best way to do this is to involve players in games that challenge them with problem-solving scenarios. The less interruption, instruction, and interjection from the coaching staff the better. Such experiences must be holistic, not through isolating a technical, tactical, physical, or psychological element.

In this instance as in many areas of life, reductionism doesn’t work because these four coactives are inherently linked and indivisible.

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Players are only going to derive long-term growth combining the expression of these elements if we shift our thinking and practice paradigms. We cannot continue over-emphasizing the physical coactive at the expense of the others and giving little focus to – or worse still, straight up ignoring – the existence and vital importance of cultivating the other three.

This doesn’t just apply to football, but to all sports.

The challenge all coaches have is to take the principles outlined in Game Changer and implement them with the pointers I’ve provided as part of a rational, common-sense, collaborative plan. Explore and have fun. Develop your own system.

Each week I get philosophies sent to me from high school and collegiate head coaches all around the country. The first step to this is sitting down with the head coach and other members of the staff, round-tabling and finding out how you intend to win. By this I mean identifying style of play, tactics, and methods and determining how you’re going to track this progress.

Next, determine the dose needed to get the players and coaches there to reach and maintain these levels throughout the season. Take the overall team schedule, and, together with the head coach, plan strength and conditioning to support team training. Remember the game should always be prioritized as this is the only way to achieve ongoing progression on game day. The key is to plan each session effectively to maximize every single minute you’ll have with your players.

Constant, continuous, iterative improvement is the way to achieve sustainable success. 

About The Author

Dr. Fergus Connolly is the Director of Performance and Director of Operations at University of Michigan Football and the author of Game Changer. He has worked with teams in the NFL, NBA, Premier League soccer, the Welsh national rugby team and British and American Special Forces.

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