By Neal Prokop, Sport Performance Specialist
This month marks the season start of many school and winter sports, and as athletes begin to transition into a competition schedule, coaches should ensure they incorporate athlete screens, assessments and fitness tests into their athletes’ yearly training plans to help optimize their performance.
These three important components: screening, assessments, and athletic fitness testing, sometimes include similar movements, drills and activities, are assumed to be the same, and are often used interchangeably. However, each component has different priorities, and a different main focus. We hope this article provides insight, and further guidelines, on planning screens, assessments and fitness testing sessions with your athletes this upcoming season!
An athlete screen is a systematic method that ultimately provides coaches with an educated decision regarding the readiness of an athlete to safely participate in a training program. It attempts to identify any red flags or possible concerns that might hinder the athlete’s ability to withstand the demands of the upcoming playing season.
When discussing athlete screens with coaches, I often use the analogy of embarking on a cross-country road trip with a used car you recently bought. Before you begin the trip, you need to make sure the car can operate properly. You confirm the tires aren’t worn out and that the oil is changed appropriately. You also take the car for a small ride just to make sure it isn’t making any abnormal sounds.
In this example, you’re screening the car for possible warning signs, which will help you decide if the car will be able to complete the road trip. You haven’t tested the performance of the car, but as the driver, if the car is making a strange and unusual sound, you don’t ignore the problem and turn the radio up to embark on the road trip as-is. You go get it looked at by a professional.
Athlete screens are the same. At the start of a season, coaches should screen their athletes for possible signals that could indicate they’d be unable to complete the season or perform optimally for the duration of the season.
Athlete screens might include:
- Pre-participation / medical screens (e.g., injury history)
- Movement screens
- Strength identification screens
- Completion screens
When athletes start a season and are trying to make a good first impression, athletes might not tell you that certain movements cause pain, or that a previous injury is impacting their technique. Perhaps athletes can’t complete a particular movement, reach a certain level, achieve a certain stance, or meet the range of motion requirements of their sport. Perhaps one side of the body is significantly stronger than the other side, leading to asymmetries, or performance-limiting movement patterns. Athlete screens help to identify these potential red flags.
As a coach, you don’t need to have the answers on why, or the answer on how to fix the problem, but as a coach, you have a responsibility to be aware of possible athlete limitations, and if your athletes are facing an increased risk of injury so you can program around these limitations. As with a car breaking down, in sport, you can’t always predict when an injury will occur, or when the athlete will break down. If you take a proactive approach with monitoring, maintaining and screening, you can certainly help reduce the likelihood of unnecessary injuries that take away from the training plan.
Developing coaches should ask what their provincial or national sport organizations do with their athletes and try to replicate to the best of their ability. Although some screening can be expensive, movement or completion tests and questionnaires can be relatively easy to administer and provide some of the information you’re looking for!
The second component is an athlete assessment. Athletic assessment is a systematic method that provides coaches, personal trainers, strength and conditioning coaches, or other fitness professionals with a basis for making educated decisions about training program development and prescription. The athlete assessment can include injury preventive measures and performance measures.
Sticking to the analogy of the cross-country road trip, if you uncover a red flag with your vehicle, you’re going to take it to the mechanic to have it assessed. For an athlete that is experiencing pain, that means they’ll be directed to a doctor or physiotherapist to assess the problem.
At Sport Manitoba Performance, when we first start working with an athlete, we’ll often screen for pain, movement limitations, or potential warning signs with an introductory training session. If we ever discover something that is a concern to us, we refer them one floor down to the Sport Manitoba Clinic for a High-Performance Athlete Assessment. The assessment provides our coaching team and the athlete with some potential boundaries and corrective exercises to help address the concerns. You can book an athlete assessment at Sport Manitoba anytime.
Completing assessments early in the season is important for two main reasons:
- As an athlete’s training load increases, if there is an underlying issue and the foundation is weak, they have a greater risk of injury.
- An underlying issue limits the athlete’s training potential, which will ultimately impact their performance.
As a whole, we try to create a strong foundation for the athlete and address any underlying issues. We build the athlete’s strength, speed, and power from the ground up. It might be avoiding overhead movements for a month, incorporating corrective exercises to activate stabilizing muscles, or focusing on single-limb exercises to address strength imbalances. Whichever it is, assessments help inform the decisions.
As mentioned, in-depth assessments can also address performance concerns that arise from team fitness testing. For example, if you notice that a particular athlete has low sprint times or poor speed relative to their peers, a more in-depth assessment might identify whether the low sprint time is a result of a poor start or poor top-end speed. Comparing a squat jump with a counter movement jump might reflect differences in starting strength and reflexive strength.
When it comes to assessments geared towards enhancing performance, the assessment doesn’t need to be designed to diagnose any condition. It’s to create a starting point for training by observing each athlete’s individual structural, functional, and physiological status.
Athletic Fitness Testing
We always encourage teams to do some form of fitness testing. It’s similar to an athlete assessment in that it’s intended to help coaches make educated decisions about training program development and prescription.
At higher levels, fitness testing could be done on a more individual basis. At a younger and more introductory level, general fitness testing can have many benefits.
Benefits of Testing
- Evaluate the athlete or team’s strengths and weaknesses
- Establish a baseline for future comparisons
- Identify the target training priorities
- Assist in prescribing training intensity
- Track and monitor the development of athletic abilities and the effectiveness of training programs
- Help quantify short-, medium-, and long-term goals
- Motivate athletes and give them additional incentive to train
- Help athletes understand what their training objectives are and why they’re doing certain training activities
- Help guide athletes to sports and to positions best suited for them
- Help gauge the success of the season by tracking ongoing physical development versus only competitive successes
- Contribute to the development of sport-specific norms
- Help detect issues such as incomplete recovery, excessive fatigue and overtraining through ongoing testing and monitoring
So, while athlete assessments and athlete fitness testing are very similar, we often consider an assessment as an in-depth analysis of an individual in a particular area (e.g., speed or vertical jump profile). Fitness testing is a more generic approach that covers multiple athletic abilities (e.g., endurance, strength).
What to Test
Below are a few athletic abilities that are typically worth testing your athletes in. Of course, depending on the sport, a higher emphasis might be placed on particular abilities.
- Aerobic power – The ability to perform sustained, high-intensity dynamic efforts, which are predominantly fueled by the aerobic energy system.
- Aerobic capacity – The ability to sustain a dynamic effort over an extended period of time.
- Anaerobic power – The ability to perform relatively short, explosive or high-intensity dynamic efforts predominantly fueled by the anaerobic energy system.
- Anaerobic capacity – The ability to sustain a high-intensity dynamic effort predominantly fueled by the anaerobic energy system.
- Flexibility – The ability to perform movements about a joint.
- Speed – The ability to rapidly move the body, part of the body, or to execute a series of movements in an all-out effort for a very short duration.
- Speed endurance – The ability to sustain efforts at near-maximum speed for as long as possible.
- Power – The ability to perform a muscle contraction or overcome resistance as fast as possible.
- Strength endurance – The ability to perform repeated muscle contractions at intensities below maximum strength.
- Maximum strength – The highest level of tension generated by a muscle or muscle group during a maximum contraction regardless of the duration of the contraction.
Sport Manitoba Performance offers both on-site and off-site testing and can help you identify a testing protocol for your team or event. With our sport testing platform, we can test over 75 athletes at one time. Contact us for more details!
Four Tips To Optimize Your Testing Sessions
- Pick tests that are valid. Your fitness tests should measure what they’re intended to measure and should be somewhat relevant or reflective of the sport’s demands.
- Pick tests that are reliable. For comparisons and baselines, the tests you choose should be easy to replicate. Testing speed with a stopwatch might not provide the level of accuracy needed for replication or comparison. Be aware of external factors such as weather conditions and time of day that could impact the scores of different tests. Develop a protocol, so you can ensure consistency every time you test.
- Pick tests that are relevant to the age and stage of development of the athletes. For example, athletes might not be at the stage where they can complete a proper push-up or chin-up.
- Don’t test for the sake of testing. Before you develop a battery of tests, decide what you would like to know and what you’ll do with the data. This helps create athlete buy-in and opportunities where athletes can understand the reason for particular training methodologies.
Athlete screening, athlete assessments, and athletic fitness testing all play a role in optimizing the preparation of our athletes for the upcoming season. If you need any assistance or a sport-specific testing session for your team, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.