Since we didn't have an off-season in China, we had to apply a new paradigm - there is no correction, only different entry points for effective programming. In automobile Grand Prix’s, during the season, support staff scramble to fix and get vehicles back into competitive mode like mad men and women. When they aren't racing, ie in between races or in an off-season, they spend timing working on weak links before developing performance.
In China, the off-season is a western world concept. Most athletes and teams are in-season all the time, and that means we’re virtually working only to protect them from their own high volume power outputs, shear forces and greater than bodyweight forces.
Usually, in the west, when in-season, protect. When out-of-season, correct. So, how do we correct if there's no off-season? Since we didn't have an off-season, we had to apply a new paradigm - there can be much less correction, or only different entry points for an attempt at effective programming.
Yet, despite this unusual concept of no off-season, we were being scrutinized for the advances we could make to mature, seasoned athletes who went into world-class competitive seasons with pain, movement limitations and asymmetries.
In the national womens volleyball team, we also threw into the mix an ever-changing landscape of nations, hotels, training venues and gyms.
It was tough, but not impossible, to get enough quality intervention in to demonstrate reliably meaningful changes that could lower the risk of our athletes getting injured, and then enhance meaningful performance.
Here’s a sneak look into our approach based on the three top modifiable risk factors (since the number 1 risk factor for future injury is previous injury, which isn’t modifiable):
The Chinese haven’t adopted simple analgesia as a first pass approach to managing pain. They do, however, make use of Ibuprofen for pain, occasionally. Or they use tape, or heated tapes, or they just put up with it.
So, we modified strength training to still achieve multi-segmental movement pattern-based pushes, pulls, presses and lifts, preferring to load unilaterally where possible, and cross body where applicable to maximize neurological learning without pain interfering with CNS processing. It’s simple, and it’s low-hanging fruit.
2. Movement Pattern and Strength Limitations and 3. Asymmetries.
Limitations and asymmetries in movement patterns and strength can be due to pain, mobility limitations or stability faults or motor control problems. The mobility problems can be tissue extensibility disorders (historically called “flexibility” problems) or joint mobility disorders.
So, we introduced self-reset’s for tissue extensibility disorders, with a focus on facilitated controlled breathing – actions that the athletes could do themselves to apply external forces to tissue for the purposes of modulating unhelpful tension in the tissue – only where it was indicated. We offered them foam rollers, sticks, tennis balls and the like, thoracic peanuts and introduced these in movement prep and cool downs. We did partner-assisted contract-relax and PNF stretching when we could, and where applicable.
Getting length without controlling it is not desirable – it creates potentially more problems. The neuromuscular control that is required for segments, or joints, in new-found positions is different to that required at previous positions. So, we used cued, task-oriented and environmentally manipulated movements through many positions. This could be on the floor, on hands and knees, in tall- or split-kneeling and in varying combinations of upright stance. Of course, we threw in TGU’s to get them through all positions. And all-sorts of crawling transitions common in ground-force method, animal flow, primal movement methodologies.
The limitations we found in strength were not always addressed from the point of view of adding more volume, load, frequency or speed. Similar to racing a car, when an athlete is already on their limits, finding a way to release braking forces often gets you more power than pushing harder on the accelerator. So, we looked for handbrakes. In other words, deficiencies in energy-absorbing capacity (think landing) or energy-producing capacity (think jumping) aren’t deficiencies until you can prove there’s no toxic energy (pain, inflammation, ill-health etc), blocked energy through the various movement (kinetic) chains (ie mobility limitations/asymmetries), or leaked energy through the various movement chains (ie stability or motor control limitations/asymmetries).
These handbrakes, which we aimed to address, support the long-held anecdotal and evidence-based practice that adding recovery to programs with high training loads tends to be more beneficial than adding more training load.
So, when we were asked to develop more power and speed with a group, we understood that strength (underpinning power and speed) is granted by the nervous system, not earned through harder work alone. A nervous system that is fatigued or interrupted through toxic energy, blocked energy or leaked energy will be a nervous system that does not grant good quality energy absorption and production, viewed by us as clinicians and coaches as poor quality patterns. In other words, we don’t add work to increase power and speed, we add recovery and replace work that negatively affects the nervous system with work that benefits the nervous system.
The real-world methodologies that address the above considerations indeed include strength training that has some short term stimulation of the nervous system that negatively affects movement, but the recovery from that takes priority over quick-succession training load. That’s a very difficult thing to do in the Chinese training environment where training occurs twice daily for 3 hours at a time, for 6 days/week.
To be a foreign performance consultant expected to create change is, in the eyes of the Chinese, to be a coach who trains Chinese athletes harder than the local coaches do, using the same training methods as they do. I think Einstein had something to say about that. Recent history in Chinese sport has shifted that expectation a little. So many coaches have come to China in the past 5 years, delivering a consistent flow of systems and methods, that it’s more expected now that we bring differences that are interesting, a little unsurprising, if not attractive. Still, the transition from interesting attractions to accepted systems has not occurred, yet. Thus, training loads remain high (not necessarily a bad thing, of course) and shifting a balance of training/recovery towards recovery has not occurred, yet.
This left us, and leaves us in a situation of making best use of movement prep to eat into training time, cutting load. In circumstances where we were asked to program strength training, it was not uncommon for our programming to be topped up with their own strength training, without consideration for the cumulative effects, or contrary effects. That’s a battle we expected. The attrition was high, on athletes and foreign staff. The scrutiny is high too - for these are the angels of China.