‘Load management’: is it only here to rest the players?

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‘Load management’: is it only here to rest the players?

More and more teams, from all levels, are using monitoring techniques in their daily practice. And even though more teams see the benefit of this approach, there is still a negative image of load management. In the NBA, we see that superstars are being rested on the bench. These decisions are usually made on ‘load management’. So fans cannot see their favorite players play because of ‘load management’ reasons? This example does definitely not help in creating a positive image of load management. But why is load management so important?

In team sports, peak performance is expected at least once (or twice) a week for a prolonged period of time(i.e. up to 8 months). Together with this high number of matches, the intensity of the matches has also increased over the past 10 years. Therefore, players need to be sufficiently prepared for these challenging demands. By pushing players to their max for a prolonged period of time, the fatigued players will show reductions in performance during a match. However, the opposite (i.e. not challenging the players), will also lead to reductions in performance. Therefore, with a busy match schedule, it is important to keep the balance between exercise and rest: knowing when to push the players to the max (e.g. during matches), and knowing when they need to recover (e.g. during training session or matches). So load management is not only there to rest. It is there to push the players at the right time, and rest them if needed. If we take the NBA match schedule into account, which consists of playing 82 matches within 6 months, it is unsurprising that players are sitting some of the matches: it is very hard to show a peak performance for such a prolonged period of time.

The recovery time after matches is important to take into account as well. The repetitive performance of explosive activities such as, sprinting, jumping, changes of direction, accelerations/decelerations and lateral shuffles all result in muscle damage. Results have shown that muscle damage persists until 24-48h after a basketball match. At the same time, the range of motion was also decreased until 24h (non-dominant leg) to 48h (dominant leg) after the match. Even though these negative responses are less than those reported in soccer, the match schedule in basketball (i.e. mostly only 72h between matches, but sometimes even only 24h) and busy traveling schedule, make the balance between exercise and recovery even more important in this sport.  If matches follow up each other within 48 hours, it means that players will experience accumulated fatigue after the second match, which will further lengthen the time to full recovery. Hence, if multiple matches are played with limited recovery time, it is understandable that players will be sitting one of these matches.  

With new monitoring techniques, it is now easier to objectify the balance between exercise and rest. For example, based on GPS-data it is possible to get an indication of whether a player is in an underload or overload. If a player is in an underload, this should indicate that he should make more match minutes or that he/she should be challenged during a training schedule. Furthermore, the way the players experience the load (e.g. RPE or heart rate) and their well-being (e.g. sleep quality, stress, mood, fatigue, muscle soreness) can be used as other input variables to check the balance between exercise and rest. Based on these different inputs, physical coaches and trainers are able to manage the load on to players. This all with the goal to keep the players fit till the end of the season (i.e. play-offs), so that they can show their peak performance at the most important part of the season.

Conclusion

When people think of load management, they often think that it is only there to slow the players down. However,  load management is there to keep the balance between exercise and rest: knowing when you need to push the players a little further and knowing when you need to slow them down. Therefore, with a busy match schedule, such as in the NBA, it is unsurprising that players are sitting some of the games. Furthermore, new insights from research (i.e. recovery times, calculations to determine whether you are under- or overloading the players) and new monitoring techniques (GPS-data and wellbeing questionnaires) make it now possible to objectify the balance between exercise and rest. Therefore, load management is there to make sure the player can show their peak performance at the most important part of the season, even if that means that you need to slow them down during other times of the season.