A Discussion on Workload – Mondays with Matt

In today’s edition of Mondays with Matt, I would like to have a conversation with you all about workload. While we will be discussing the importance of understanding workload in athletic terms, this is another one of those concepts that translates into everyday life as well. What I want to impress upon you in this week’s discussion is the importance of understanding workload and the idea that workload intensity is not a constant – it is an evermoving variable that impacts how you play the game and perform. For coaches, it is also important for you to understand this concept. As was mentioned in a prior column, as a coach, you are a teacher and a manager. You are not managing just players. You are managing people – adults, kids – who happen to be under your supervision in the role as an athlete. Coaching is about managing expectations and understanding the concept of workload is critical to this.

So why is understanding workload important? Understanding your workload is important because it allows you to understand what you can do and are capable of. As a coach, it allows you to understand what to expect from your players in a given moment given your current situation. In an ideal world, you would be able to benchmark your workload and your capacity based upon how much work you have done or how long you have played. However, that assumes that all in-game situations are alike and constant. The assumption is that all plays and motions that happen within a game during a set time-period are of equal stress. That is where this thinking is flawed. We live in an imperfect world where we are subject to variables and our capacity changes based upon in game context. An athlete’s capacity and workload stress incurred is affected by the situations that they have been exposed to in the game and how they reacted to those situations.

As I was watching this year’s Major League Baseball National League Championship Series, broadcaster (and former player) John Smoltz made a great point relating to this. Smoltz said something noting the impact of high stress plays and situations on a player’s strategy and capacity.

Let’s look at a few examples. Whether you are a player or a coach, you should be able to relate to these examples. Let’s look at fast motion sports such as basketball or soccer. You are trained to run up and down the court and be able to make essential fundamental plays – i.e. pass a ball, shoot a ball and dribble. You also are aware that it is easier to perform these tasks when you are relaxed, confident and in the zone. It is also easier to perform these tasks when you are rested. This is why substitutions exist in these sports.

Now, let’s break that down further. Why is it harder to perform these tasks under certain circumstances? Why are you effective in some games when you have played 30 minutes but are tired after 20 minutes? Shouldn’t the well-rested theory work the opposite way? This happens because of situational play and high stress plays. Let’s say your team is winning and your team is in control of the game. You are confident and can take your time and perform your tasks the right way. You can play 30 minutes and, despite a higher workload, have the capacity to perform. 

Now, let’s flip that scenario. Your team is behind. You are aware of the clock ticking. You need to match the other team and then surpass them to win. You are pressing. This is a high stress situation. You are performing the same tasks and running the same amount as the scenario when you are ahead, yet you are tired and ineffective after 15 minutes of play. Why? Your workload may be lower but the intensity of that workload is higher, resulting in more stress and lowered capacity.

An excellent example that I like to give is pitch counts in baseball. Ignore the arguments on whether pitch counts are too much of a data driven approach – traditional and new school views can co-exist. Let’s look at pitch counts and Innings Pitched. Look past the numbers and the statistical thresholds that people tend to use. There is more to the story. Look at the qualitative context instead. We have two pitchers, each pitching 8 innings and 110 pitches. Which one is more tired? Well, the starting pitcher was ahead in the game and did not let many runners on. Their pitch count was a result of mixing pitches and working the count. They are not as tired and could go another inning, despite the thresholds. The other pitcher? They have been in and out of jams with runners on base. Walks and hits have been an issue. Same Innings Pitched, same pitch count but they are tired. It’s time for a relief pitcher. See the difference? Workload and capacity influenced by high stress situations. Going back to John Smoltz, that was his point.

As you can hopefully see, workload and capacity understanding are critical components to understand as a player and as a coach. The same can apply to an everyday workplace as well. We are impacted by the situations that we are exposed to. Understanding that can help us manage ourselves and others better. This can help you become a better worker, manager and athlete/student-athlete.

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