Invisible Monitoring: How Top Athlete's Track Health and Performance

Fitness

19 February 2021 • Matt Hauck

Invisible Monitoring: How Top Athlete's Track Health and Performance

Fitness

19 February 2021 • Matt Hauck

For High Performance staff, gathering good data on a consistent basis is a central factor for helping maximize health and performance monitoring. Many staff members can attest to the notion that in the event of an injury or issue, a response of “we don’t know” to coaches, directors or management on a repeated basis is a cause for concern. It’s their job to know, and missing opportunities for gathering good information is a recipe for disaster.

Part of the issue with gathering good data during athlete monitoring initiatives is that quality data collection takes considerable time and effort on an on-going basis. The majority of this process is the responsibility of the High Performance staff, where athletic trainers, physical therapists, performance coaches and sport scientists implement tools of the trade to capture aspects of health, wellness, recovery, and performance. This practice is central to their role; wandering blindly through a training or treatment protocol without consistent monitoring of progress is borderline negligence.

The need for these data streams is ever present for High Performance staff as this information informs training plans, rehab programs, and a wide range of other protocols. What can sometimes get lost in the fixation on data gathering is the impact on the athletes themselves. Regardless of the level of athlete or their compensation for the work they perform in a sport setting there is a limit to how often a person wishes to be poked, prodded, interviewed, tested, or spend time being assessed and monitored. In many cases the data collection process itself can become a stressor to athletes, which can impact the quality of the data collected.

For both the sake of saving time and energy for High Performance staff members, as well as protecting the time and well-being of the athlete, the concept of Invisible Monitoring must be deployed in team settings where data collection must be balanced with reality.

Invisible Monitoring: Built-In Insight

The concept of Invisible Monitoring is not new, and has been highlighted by researchers and applied performance experts in recent years. The basic concept surrounding Invisible Monitoring is to build in data collection to existing activities, or simultaneously take existing protocols and combine them alongside other data streams. The end result allows High Performance staff to gather as much information on the athletes as possible, with as little extra input required from the athlete as necessary.

Collecting data is not an optional practice for High Performance staff, and this is made evident through the example of a baseline medical examination prior to athlete participation or signing a contract. The idea of a player signing a contract without an examination of current or historical information is virtually non-existent in professional sports, and many practitioners go further and choose to use a wide range of additional testing as part of their baseline.

The main purpose of collecting this information is to highlight risks and identify the needs of the athlete. Maximizing performance is of top priority and identifying relative injury risks guides conversations around interventions to implement in order to keep the athlete as healthy as possible.

Depending on the type of information gathered, the frequency of data collection will obviously differ. High Performance staff typically collect recovery data on a near daily basis while also collecting daily workload outputs. In contrast, some performance testing may only occur periodically such as fitness tests, speed tests, force or power assessments, or movement screens. Each staff has their own approach for frequency of administering tests, but there is still a priority set for identifying the best tests based on their philosophy and workflow.

How often is a test or assessment necessary? To answer this, it is worth considering the impact on the athlete themselves, in addition to the relevance, accuracy, reliability, and validity of the information. An extreme example of this is fitness testing; it would be considered negligent to perform a fitness test like Yo-Yo Intermittent testing every day during the season, and likewise doing a full blood panel each day would be extreme as well. The opposite scenario would be equally as poor if no fitness assessments or blood testing were ever performed. So, are High Performance staff doomed to pick their poison with testing frequency or is this missing the point altogether?

The Truth About Athlete Monitoring…

Here is the issue with gathering athlete data: while it is a mandatory task, it is also time-consuming and must be prioritized based on value-return of the information. There are certain monitoring protocols that are done daily, and some of these tasks require additional time and input from athletes and staff alike. The High Performance staff must take this into account when evaluating new tools and approaches to athlete monitoring. Additionally, there is data that does not need to be gathered daily or weekly but is still valuable to collect periodically.

Any test or technology that cannot supply relevant, accurate or reliable data in a mostly timely manner will detract time and attention from both staff and athletes alike. While there are indeed tests or technologies that require great time and attention to implement, their added value is understood. High Performance staff and athletes must devote the vast majority of their time and attention to the essentials, rather that babysitting or pulling teeth with experimental tools of the trade.

Even with the most straightforward or common types of athlete monitoring, there is a need to understand situational or environmental context when administering the tests. A recovery survey after a poor performance during a game, Heart Rate Variability captured the morning after contract negotiations or midterms, or force plate testing prior to a heavy training session; all are examples of the importance of context and timing. In each of these scenarios, the test itself may present as an additional stressor to an already overloaded athlete.

What is the risk of ignoring the testing environment or context of the assessment? With added stressors, or a string of poor assessments, the monitoring process itself becomes the stressor and data quality suffers. This is realized within the actual assessment outcomes, or via impacting the compliance to the process itself.

How often have you chased down an athlete who “forgot” to put their GPS device on, or neglected to fill out a wellness survey push notification on their phone, or who failed to show up to a regular movement assessment? Or how about getting athletes to participate in fitness and performance testing, but seeing less than stellar efforts in the process? Compliance to athlete monitoring does not always boil down to the team “culture” in your environment, but rather sometimes it’s the environment you are attempting to monitor athletes in that impacts the process.

Invisible Monitoring: Vision Over Visibility

Data quality matters, and there are no shortcuts to success with athlete monitoring. There are however a few secrets to help optimize the efforts of both the athlete and staff alike. Tools and tests must be of the highest quality and acknowledging the demands on athletes and staff must be considered when determining the frequency and timing of data collection. Lacking data is a bad precedent to set and collecting garbage data may be even worse.

With Invisible Monitoring, staff must improve their ability to both ask better questions of existing data streams as well as build in data collection to everyday activities. The end results help both elucidate deeper insights into existing activities while at the same time reducing testing strain on the athlete.

Wellness surveys might only require an extra 60 seconds each morning of athlete input, but when that is combined with multiple other assessments in the greater context of environmental stressors and social factors, that extra effort by the athlete may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Let’s now take force plates or other muscle testing and think of their theoretical constructs and testing implementation. Can we still gather accurate, reliable data if these tests are built into physical training or gym sessions? And if so, can we design a portion of a gym workout around these assessments?

Think of speed or power profiling during sprinting- do we need to interrupt or add excessive time to a practice session to capture these metrics? Or can we design the practice warm up protocols to finish this period with bouts of sprinting to capture the necessary data?

For fitness testing or fatigue monitoring, researchers and applied performance specialists have already started to investigate athlete monitoring approaches that use workload data from a normal practice session to assess changes in an athlete’s response to training loads. No extra tests or added fatigue was necessary to gather this valuable insight.

Taking Ordinary to Extraordinary

With so much to accomplish each day, maximizing Invisible Monitoring should be a priority of each staff. Hydration tracking is no exception to this concept, and it is time that the field evolves from the time-consuming and messy practice of urinalysis for gold-standard hydration data.

Traditional hydration tracking is impactful, but at the same time has limitations to broader use because of the logistics of the actual assessment. Using the Intake Health solution to track hydration builds this process into the normal daily routine of the athlete, removing the added hassle of setting up and searching for Dixie cups, handling urine, cleaning up, manually inputting data, and fighting to take timely action on the data.

It’s time hydration tracking caught up to the frontier of athlete monitoring. Intake Health’s seamless transition to Invisible Monitoring allows for a higher quality of data to be collected in a timely manner more frequently throughout the week. Not only are High Performance staff saving themselves time and effort in this approach, they are adding in greater value to the information they are collecting to support athletes.

About the Author

Matt Hauck, MS, CSCS, is an applied sport and performance science specialist who has worked with developmental, collegiate, professional, and Olympic teams and athletes since 2004.

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