This Month in Journals: Team Dynamics in Individual Sports, How to Prescribe Intervals

Chelsea LittleAugust 1, 2013
Team spirit has been widely touted as one of the keys to the U.S. women's recent success. Photo: Matt Whitcomb.
Team spirit has been widely touted as one of the keys to the U.S. women’s recent success. (Photo: Matt Whitcomb)

Welcome back to This Month in Journals, where we review the latest exercise and sports science and pull out some research that might be of interest to skiers.

Αssumptions and research are changing the way that psychologists and coaches think about team dynamics in individual sports.

It has long been known that team cohesion, leadership and cooperation are important for success in team sports, like soccer or basketball, but far less research has been done on whether these same concepts are important in solo sports, like running and skiing. In fact, one classical theory holds that team cohesion can even be detrimental because it destroys competitive rivalries between teammates that might spur them to better performance.

But recently, these ideas have been challenged. Beginning in the 1990s, researchers showed that even when teammates in an individual sport don’t have to cooperate on a task during competition to reach their goals, cohesion is positively associated with performance to the same extent that it is in those other team sports, like basketball.

Blair Evans and Mark Eys of Wilfrid Laurier University and Svenja Wolf of the German Sport University Cologne furthered this work this month, publishing a paper in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology based on interviews with six distance runners, six cross-country skiers, a mountain biker and a wrestler. All the athletes were Canadian and had several years of experience at the Olympic or World Junior Championships level.

In terms of performance, there was little doubt that a good team atmosphere made these individual athletes more competitive. A middle-distance runner told the researchers that when she was training on her own, her race times were typically slower than during periods where she had training partners.

Being able to use teammates as a measuring stick was also frequently cited as a benefit. Athletes talked about times when a teammate was having a good race, and they tried hard to follow because they knew they could keep up during practice every day. Even if they couldn’t achieve the same result that day, teammates’ success often boosted their confidence because they knew they had been doing the same training so a similar result might be possible.

Finally, the social aspect of a team and the support it provides are extremely important to individual athletes. Despite all of the athletes’ strong drive for competitive success, they almost unanimously cited the group or team as a main reason to compete and to stay in sport. Many discussed how teammates became their closest friends, and that these friendships are maintained even after one or several of the members quit the sport.

This was particularly important in adolescence, in terms of determining what path an athlete might take, but also at the senior level, where several participants described moving teams or locations or even traveling internationally to be part of a more friendly training group. Group was also important for maintaining motivation when injured and ensuring a comeback to competition.

And what about that old theory that being friends with your teammates killed any competitive instinct that you might have against them? Athletes were divided on this one – or, more accurately, had experienced groups moving in both directions. In some teams, cohesion bred a healthy sort of competition that facilitated success.

In other situations, teammates actively sought to avoid competition against one another because they thought it would be detrimental to their relationships. The researchers found that jealousy, for example, was definitely relevant to group dynamics and performance. This isn’t unique to individual sports: once again, it underscores that team dynamics, good or bad, have just as big an effect on running and skiing as they do on soccer or football, and the effects are “context-dependent.”

Moving from psychology to physiology, a team from the University of Cape Town, South Africa, thought about how to prescribe interval training.

The most common approaches used by coaches are to give instructions on the effort level based on a percent of VO2Max, or a percent of maximal heart rate.

But different athletes respond differently to effort; for instance the same percentage of maximal heart rate may produce a different amount of lactate in one athlete than another, leading more quickly to exhaustion. Is there an easy way around this, or do instructions have to be specific to each individual athlete?

Writing in the journal Sports Medicine, Theresa Mann, Robert Patrick Lamberts and Michael Ian Lambert describe that a more uniform way to prescribe workouts would be as a percentage of aerobic threshold or anaerobic threshold. These thresholds can be determined in physiological tests, and should provide a good “anchor” at which all athletes respond in the same way.

This has many benefits: “less variation in time to exhaustion during constant-intensity exercise, a more homogenous exercise stimulus at the molecular level, and less individual variation in the adaptive responses following a training program,” the authors write.

But for many low- and mid-level athletes, this approach might not be possible as repeated testing is needed to accurately pinpoint thresholds, and not every team has a physiology lab available to them. The authors suggest that using regular lactate testing during a non-laboratory workout can be used as verification, since below the anaerobic threshold, for instance, lactate production should be no different than baseline. If a coach prescribes a workout below the threshold assumed from, say, one laboratory test, but the athlete is still producing high lactate, then the threshold is probably wrong.

And speaking of how to prescribe intervals, what terrain is best?

Many times, athletes are instructed to do their interval training going uphill, to make sure that the work is very hard. A South Dakota team of Derek Ferley, Roy Osborn, and Matthew Vukovitch wondered if that was really ideal. They recruited 32 distance runners and compared the effects of uphill interval training to that of level-ground workouts.

Strangely, though, they prescribed the two groups completely different workouts. Twice a week, the hill-running group would complete 10 or more 30-second sprints at a steep grade; they also did several normal long runs. The flat group did the same long runs, but their intervals were longer and fewer in number, with runners completing just four to six intervals.

The authors concluded in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research that hill-running had great merit as a training plan, because it changed some metabolic processes for the better. However, they also pointed out that the flat-training group had greater improvements in time-to-exhaustion, so maybe coaches are overprescribing hill workouts. As a result, they advocate that level-ground workouts that are fit to an individual’s own physiological parameters will create the biggest gains.

It’s difficult to see how they directly tested the effects of hills themselves, considering that athletes did different workouts. But the last conclusion, whether on hills or on the flats, seems like common sense that can be followed no matter what.

Chelsea Little

Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.

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