Michael Regan is the head of sports science at Catapult, an Australian athletic tech company.
Athletes can have all the desire, all the technical ability, all the intangibles, all the game metrics, but if they are physically incapable of performing to their potential, how good can they actually be?
This is where basketball, among other mainstream sports, can learn from others. This is where the war between old-school and new-school is being waged.
Australian Rules to live by
Australian Rules football is a free-flowing game with no offside and incredible demands on the players. Athletes regularly cover 10 miles in a two-hour game and are required to participate in full-contact tackling and bumping, jump repeatedly, sprint very often and do it all once a week.
The current leaders for distance per game in the NBA (Chandler Parsons, Jimmy Butler and Nicolas Batum) move at an average of 127 yards per minute of game time. When you factor in all the stoppages -- timeouts, free throws, etc. -- it’s closer to 80 yards per minute. An elite NFL safety playing both defense and special teams works at about 50 yards/min, including stoppages.
An elite Australian Rules athlete is required to work at 140-plus yards/min, including stoppages.
Yet, despite the high toll a game takes on the body, Australian Rules football was for a long while stuck in an “old school” way of training. Coaches knew that players needed to run long distances, so preparatory sessions sometimes involved running half-marathons. Benches were used only in emergencies.
For the better part of 40 years, these beliefs went unchallenged and teams progressively pushed their athletes harder. But the advent of athlete-tracking technology changed all that.
Data clearly showed that instead of a sport in which athletes run for a prolonged periods at submaximal intensity, it was actually a series of moderate, high- and very-high-intensity runs. The days of half-marathon training were over, and the days of high-intensity training, recovery strategies, new interchange/rotation strategies and “shock-horror” resting players had begun.
Introducing new substitution strategies and the increasing acceptance of player resting have paid major dividends in the sport over the past five to 10 years, so it was a welcomed sight for Australians to see those practices implemented by the San Antonio Spurs.
The more revolutionary idea still to be embraced in the NBA, though, is shifting the way elite players are substituted. Instead of the best athletes playing a 25-minute continuous period, then getting the last five minutes before the end of the quarter to rest, Aussie Rules teams started to look at what would give an athlete the best chance to repeatedly sprint. Which means resting the player often, for short periods of time. By playing in shorter blocks, their physical capability could be increased at the end of the game by as much as 20 percent when compared to longer rotation strategies.
While this method is hard for some athletes to embrace, teams had proof that their performance was better this way, pointing to their increased distances, higher percentage of work covered at high speed and their increased output on the traditional stat sheets.
As more teams caught on, a wave spread through the league, to the point where the governing body had to slow the game down to prevent collision injuries and level the playing field.
Too much practice makes imperfect
What Australian Rules football doesn’t have is the same schedule demand.
European soccer, though, is setup pretty similarly to the NBA, with its athletes required to play multiple games per week with little to no recovery in between.
In an average week you can expect a European soccer player and an NBA player to cover similar distances. Training time is also limited in both, as full practices are eventually phased out and replaced by shootarounds (NBA) and pregame warm-ups (soccer) for technical/tactical preparation.
But teams have begun to quantify the demands of these sessions, which have historically been viewed as very low-intensity work. In both sports, some have been shocked by the pregame workload on some of their athletes, with some teams and players participating in workouts that amount to playing a quarter of a game.
Tracking data has shown that time on legs has a tremendous load effect on the athlete. Taking lazy jumpers for an hour and walking through plays might not sound all that arduous, but it actually creates a larger load than anticipated. The athlete is better off doing shorter, more intense sessions, and then being given more time to work through their recovery, nutrition and rest protocols in preparation for a game.
But the leagues approach this problem differently. English Premier League (EPL) teams have an extensive series of monitoring programs and protocols in place to understand the physical, emotional and psychological profile of the athlete and use the full picture on athlete well-being to inform decisions on practice and game minutes. If a practice lasts for 60 minutes, elite players with heavy game loads might be required for only the core team drills and be on modified training for the other parts of practice.
The future of basketball
So where does that leave basketball? The answer to that is that it is evolving -- and quickly.
Should teams be shortening rotation length? Teaching players to use recovery time in game better? Limit practice minutes? Rest players? Accurately monitor true physical performance in games?
Whatever the answer is, teams need to realize there isn’t some magic solution. Every human is different -- from their personality to their injury history to genetics to tactical/technical ability.
The truth lies in the balance of objective numbers, subjective coaching and the knowledge of the person.