The challenge comes when blending the right amount of predictability and unpredictability that will appropriately tax the athlete. We place a ton of value on quality power and resistance training; majority of the time spent in the weight room will be focused on power development and the big rock strength movements (ie. squat, bench press, deadlift, split squat, row, chin-up etc.). These traditional tasks can be beneficial for all skill levels by improving tissue resiliency, force production abilities, and helping to creating a robust athlete. While these are just a few of the tools in the coaches’ tool box, we look to fill in the gaps and incorporate unconventional movements that will contribute to the athlete’s developmental process. Once an athlete has the appropriate training experience, exhibits movement competency and capacities, it is essential to introduce tasks with a chaotic component and cognition.
Athletes are complex adaptive systems, and in order to push the envelope of athletic development, training programs need combine the physical and psychological sub-systems. The objective of training should be to exploit the information provided to the athlete, creating an environment of variability and requiring the athlete to utilize cognitive processes vital to success in competitive sports. A simple way to do this is to include an unpredictable element in the training plan, either as part of the pre-training, within the program, or at the end of the session. This unpredictability is an essential part to the learning process, benefitting athletes by improving coordination, increasing focused variability and creative expression, helping them to develop self-organization, and gaining an appreciation for being comfortable in uncomfortable situations.
One way to introduce an unpredictable element is to incorporate perturbations in pretension/ absorption drills, force acceptance drills, 3D plyometrics, acceleration starts and agility activities. The application involves a partner using a stability ball, contact pad or upper extremities to make contact with the athlete performing the movement. This is a simple, safe and effective way to introduce the individual to the chaotic elements and disturbances (contacts) that take place in sport. This concept can be applied to a wide range of skill levels, and is easy to scale or adjust to ensure an athlete is appropriately challenged.
One of our tactics to improve force acceptance abilities, elasticity and ankle-foot stiffness is to have the athlete perform rudimentary in-place ankle jumps or hops. We will have the athlete react to some form of stimulus (opponent or coach’s cue) and explosively drop into a jump (2-leg), single leg or split stance and stick/ accept the landing. We utilize these pretension and absorption drills to introduce the unpredictable perturbations. The athlete starts with his or her eyes closed, not knowing the direction of contact. Using auditory cues such as a clap or whistle, the individual will open his or her eyes and perform an explosive drop while receiving a slight nudge. The partner is instructed to make contact at any point during the movement and slightly interfere with the athlete’s posture, position and stability, requiring the athlete to self-organize and recalibrate into a more stable position. The athlete has to make a decision on which stance they feel is most effective to complete their task (ie.stick the landing).
We have also found success with incorporating an unpredictable element in our 3D depth drops. The objective here is to challenge the athlete’s ability to accept force in all 3 planes of motion by disrupting the coordination and stabilization of the landing phase. The athlete begins each rep on top of a plyo box or elevated surface with his or her eyes closed, again unaware of timing or direction of contact. They open their eyes from a cue giving by the coach (whistle or touch) and perform a depth drop. Immediately after the athlete steps off the elevated surface, his or her partner makes contact using a stability ball. Rep to rep the direction, angle and the amount of pressure generated by the contact is manipulated. We place constraints on the initial direction of movement (linear, lateral & 3D), and give the athlete autonomy in choosing the stance (ie. jump, single leg or split stance) they feel is most appropriate or what the perturbation affords for the given situation. We have also experimented with an alternate variation in the 3D depth drops where the partner dictates the direction of the movement. Using the previous set up where the athlete starts on top of an elevated surface with eyes closed, his or her cue in this case to begin movement is dictated by a partner’s touch. Once the athlete feels the slight nudge, eyes open and depending on the direction of contact will determine where the athlete lands. Once again, we encourage the athlete to explore the different landing stances. The only stipulation is that they can’t perform the same stance twice in a row. It’s important to note, when first applying these concepts, start with a low box (6-18 inches).
Furthermore, we have employed chaos with what is refer to as creative 3D plyometrics. Once the athlete has been exposed to various linear, lateral and 3D plyometrics (ankle & hip dominant) and has demonstrated optimal ground contact times, we’ll design a training environment with task constraints that allows the athlete perform various combinations of tri-planar jumps, bounds and hops. The objective is to improve RFD abilities in unfavorable positions. The coach dictates the first movement and the athlete performs 2, 3 or 4 additional plyometrics of their choice. Rep to rep the coach manipulates the work space size, obstacles and if the athlete can use 2 legs, 1 leg or combination of both. These constraints will afford different responses and encourage exploration and creativity. To challenge the athlete further, we’ll throw in a chaotic component where he or she is perturbed while performing the 3D plyometrics. Set up is similar to the previous cases where the athlete begins with eyes closed and immediately after being cued will open their eyes and perform 2, 3 or 4 plyometrics of their choice. The perturbations will be thrown into the mix and will create different affordances depending on the timing of contact. We instruct the partners to manipulate the disturbances by applying the contact during the landing phase, take-off phase or a combination of both. We encourage the partner to be creative with the contact application and explain that no two reps should be alike. When first introduced, we only include a single contact, but will progress to a double contact version.
Another strategy we’ve found to be very effective is to include a slight amount of turmoil to our acceleration starts. When organizing and planning the athlete’s short speed work, we like to design two separate training blocks (2-3 weeks) where the emphasis is on disadvantageous or advantageous starts. The idea behind performing an acceleration from a disadvantage is to teach the concept of being comfortable in uncomfortable situations and develop the ability to produce force in awkward positions. This is when we include perturbations to the start of each rep. The instructions are simple: the athlete begins with his or her eyes closed and from a drop-in (walking) start. Once contact is sensed, the athlete opens his or her eyes and attempts to self-organize into an effective position to complete the task. Once again, these disturbances are not going to be harmful, but provide just enough influence to force the athlete out of posture and positioning. We’ve constructed several different scenarios, where the athlete has to locate and sprint through a pair of cones (goal) or read and react to one or multiple opponents.
One other way we infuse unpredictability into our training program is with what we call a plyometric course. Keith Davids proposes that motor learning and developmental process requires safe uncertainty conditions. As coaches, it is our responsibility to create diverse training environments and unpredictable situations that encourage exploratory behaviors, creative expression, and fosters the athlete’s ability to embrace and learn from mistakes. After witnessing the success we had adding chaos to our athletes’ agility training , we knew we needed another way to utilize these types of environments. This is where the idea for the creative 3D plyometric course was born. We look at this activity as an affordance landscape that has different surfaces, heights, spacing between training implements (plyo boxes) and includes varying task constraints that allows the athlete to accept or reject different invitations for actions that are dependent on the individual’s constraints. The task constraints include the use of 2 legs, 1 leg, or combination of both; and the athlete has to land on each surface/ height, but can’t repeat the same surface/ height consecutively. Also we’ve experimented with increasing the cognitive demand by including two different plyo box colors and instructed the athlete that they had to alternate between landing on each. Rep to rep the athlete has to change their starting location and initial motor response. We force the athlete to be creative and not repeat the same sequence of movements. The purpose here is to experiment with different movement patterns, explore the edges of the motor landscape (Keith Davids) and push the limits of the athlete’s capacities. It is our firm belief that these unique scenarios and environments encourage my athletes to develop general skills and processes that can only help improve sporting performance.