Concepts for Coaches #1: Psychological Load
How monitoring and tracking more than the physical can improve your athletes' learning and performance
Over the past few years, sports scientists have paid increasing attention to the physical load monitoring of athletes. The next frontier is monitoring athletes' psychological load - the combination of stress, learning, and performance demands athletes are under.
Psychological load impacts just about every part of the athlete experience, from practice engagement, to learning, to in-game performance. Learning to manage the psychological load of your athletes will help you maximize practice and performance.
Psychological load mediates the psychological processes that allow for expert execution.
But people seem to think that psychological states are just things people can put more effort into, and a change will happen. That's why you hear things like:
"Give better effort!"
These statements, while well-intended, ignore the fact that focus is not about a lack of effort or desire all of the time - it might be a product of your athlete managing too much, psychologically!
Coaches have a real opportunity here to make a difference in their own experience and frustration, and to help their athletes learn better, faster. Sometimes you have to go slow to go fast.
Here's how, step by step:
Step 1: Anticipate psychological load.
Start by thinking about where you are in season, and what cognitive demands you plan to place on your athletes during that time. Are they needing to learn the playbook, or just a few new plays? Are we in the pre-season, where stress outside of sport might be lower, or in the thick of it?
Understanding what the demands and stresses are on your athletes is a great starting point for understanding the load they're experiencing.
Step 2: Track psychological load.
NASA has developed a system for tracking the psychological load, as have other sport psychology researchers. They administer a brief survey after performance events to understand what the demands are, and track them over time.
This allows the people facilitating their training to scale up or back, depending on what their performers are reporting.
Step 3: Scale up, Scale Back
Monitoring psychological load can be used to your advantage. You just have to be prepared to adjust your training plans to fit your athletes. Instead of checking boxes and focusing on quantity, the emphasis when monitoring psychological load is on quality.
Quality learning and practice in smaller time frames compounds faster than forced, quantity learning. In a sense, it's like overtraining muscles. A little bit of stress, dosed appropriately, goes a long way for growth. Push that too far, and you risk an injury (in this case, inadequate learning, preparation, or performance).
When do you believe it would help to adjust your training load psychologically to better fit your athletes?
How can you monitor your athletes' psychological load?
Do you feel any resistance to the idea of psychological load? If so, what do you think that is about?