Professor Carlton Cook introducing the Sports Science Summit 2019

​Following on from a hugely successful event in 2018, coaches, athletes, sport scientists, academics and students gathered on campus at Leeds Trinity University for the second Sports Science Summit held in collaboration with Australian Catholic University (ACU). The conference took place on Thursday 20 and Friday 21 May 2019 and focused on key themes around high performance sport; including, performance-enhancing strategies, training load, fatigue monitoring (including injury and recovery), and high-performance systems and technology. After their talks, speakers were invited to take part in 'on the bench' sessions whereby questions from the audience were fielded and many insightful discussions took place.

Day 1

After an insightful breakfast meeting (including a presentation) hosted by conference sponsor iMeasureU, and opening remarks from Professors Carlton Cooke and Mark Russell welcoming delegates, speakers and sponsors to the University, the first talk got underway.

Speaker 1: Grant Downie OBE

Kicking off the conference, was Grant Downie (pictured right), presenting a talk titled: 'Setting up high performance teams, to thrive and not just survive in the world of elite sport'. Within an elite sporting environment that is often volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA), clubs should have a level of 'healthy dissatisfaction' and strive towards continual improvement. Grant discussed the importance of having a clear vision/dream; one that incorporates all stakeholders within the organisation, and one that is built on a philosophy of support and performance. Philosophies amongst the teams within the team (i.e., coaching, medical, sport science) should be very similar and to achieve this, communicating and connecting with people in the organisation is an all-important quality. Grant then went on to discuss different matters which were related to the limits of performance data, celebrations of small successes, having a 'critical friend', the importance of having links with other (academic) organisations and the art of coaching children, who are not just 'mini-adults.' Final discussions were in relation to mental health. Athletes are only human and whilst they may not feel good every day, this should not be an excuse for them not to perform. The mental and emotional side of sports is often under-emphasised and although it could take time, emotional intelligence should be developed; starting off by listening carefully to other people. As a leader, it may be helpful to share some of your own bad or less comfortable experiences, and in this way show vulnerability. Others are then likely to follow this example and will feel safer to share their own thoughts and experiences. Altogether, this creates a 'psychologically safe' environment.

Speaker 2: Dr Scott Gardner

Next up was Dr Scott Gardner (pictured below left), delivering an interactive talk around 'creating more effective learning environments in high performance sport with lessons from the business world'. Scott discussed practices that he believes are often done better and more effectively in business than they are in the sporting world. In business, there is a larger awareness of 'thinking for yourself' as opposed to group thinking (i.e., assume that the actions of others reflect the correct behaviour for a given situation). Conventional wisdom is not always correct and should be questioned when false. Scott highlighted that coaches often hold the bigger picture of an organisation, where they largely live in a 'faster' complex and chaotic world in which quick decision-making is required. In contrast, scientists live in a 'slow' more stable world where information and data are needed to rationalise decisions. Because of this, clashes may occur when scientists only have small components of the bigger picture that the coach holds. To optimise training, coaches should aim for an environment that is high in technical knowledge and limited in directive behaviour (i.e., open questions). In this self-guided learning environment, athletes own their training and understand the purpose behind it. Scott went on to discuss the importance of team planning. Although the plan is important, the process of planning and the trust that it creates within the team is essential. There should be a constant conversation that creates confidence by aligning a team behind the same target so that all people know the why, how and what they need to focus on to best contribute to the development of the performance and the culture of the organisation.

Speaker 3: Dr Paul Comfort

Following a lunch-break, Dr Paul Comfort (pictured right), was the first of outstanding speakers in the afternoon session, discussing 'training the force-velocity continuum with weightlifting derivatives'. As completing full weightlifting movements (i.e., clean, snatch) may be challenging for some athletes, derivatives could form an alternative to train specific elements of the full movements. All derivatives sit somewhere on the force-velocity continuum, and to optimise training, it is important to select those that are based on the qualities (i.e., more strength-focused or more velocity-focused) an athlete needs to prioritise. When considering exercise selection, Paul discussed the higher production of force, velocity and power in mid-thigh variations compared to those movements starting from the floor or at the knee. The addition of a countermovement in derivatives should also be a large consideration as it has shown to result in higher production of force, velocity and power. Alongside exercise selection, considerations should be made around the effects of load; the load used will determine which part of the force-velocity continuum the athlete is focusing on. Whilst loads between 50 and 80% of one repetition maximum on any derivative generally target the area in the middle of the continuum, specific variations and loads need to be prescribed when strictly training for maximal velocity or strength. Paul highlighted the importance of still including elements of strength-based training in a velocity session to maintain force production capabilities.

Speaker 4: Professor Ben Jones

The next speaker was Professor Ben Jones (below left) from Leeds Beckett University, delivering a talk on 'monitoring and evaluating load in team sports'. Training loads need to be planned, monitored and evaluated in order to understand whether the desired outcomes have been achieved. Training load forms an interesting example of where we are trying to bridge the gap between science and practice. The science is largely focused on the efficacy of measures (i.e., find the best and most scientifically robust way) whereas practitioners are mostly interested in the effectiveness of measures (i.e., what does this look like in practice). When focusing on the theoretical part of training load, Ben discussed the use of microtechnology (i.e., GPS); whilst this is extremely useful, it should be contextualised and variables that provide unique information (i.e., high-speed distance, peak locomotor demands and collisions) should be prioritised. Training load is made up of a large number of data and the responses are wide-reaching, making it difficult to draw out correlations (e.g., to injury risk) without using more advanced analysis technique. When focusing on the effectiveness of measuring training loads, Ben highlighted the use of robust session-RPE scores, which could be a simple yet practical way to measure training load when you do not have face-to-face access to an athlete every day. In addition, this provides a measure of load from the athlete's perspective. Whilst it is challenging to put perfect science into practice, being aware of the considerations and critiques around the information that is available before using it in practice, may be a good place to start.

Speaker 5: Dr Inigo Mujika

The last talk of the first day of the conference came from Dr Inigo Mujika (below right), speaking on 'monitoring and assessment of athletes' preparation'. There is a variety of methods to quantify training loads (i.e., questionnaires, diaries, physiological monitoring, direct observation), which could then be used for sport scientists, to inform training prescription or to motivate the athlete. Inigo discussed which monitoring measures he used (i.e., skinfolds, hydration status and blood lactate) while working with the Spanish swimming team. During altitude training, there should be a large focus on monitoring individual responses in a variety of variables. This may be daily (e.g., body mass, heart rate, sleep, fatigue), every four or five days (i.e., creatine kinase, urea) or at set time-points (i.e., skinfolds). Although, numbers may show up as a 'red flag', this isn't necessarily cause for concern- as long as you are there to see athletes are doing the right thing and are happy when training and when enjoying time off. Information and data gathered regularly, together with trend analysis of collated data and opinion of coaches will then ultimately direct training and decision-making. Because no single physiological marker exists that can quantify the fitness and fatigue responses to exercise, collating as many markers as possible in attempt to make sense of what is going on is preferable when making informed decisions. When collecting data, all but the biochemistry markers, can be measured or estimated by either a stopwatch or a piece of paper and a pencil. Whilst we should take advantage of technological advancements, they need to be cost- and time-effective whilst also be deemed reliable and valid. As coaches often favour feasible systems which collect large amounts of directly measurable and perceived data that could be fed back to them in a short period of time, subjective measures of well-being should not be ignored. However, in order to keep your athletes engaged, it is important to provide them with effective feedback; face-to-face communication and making yourself available for your athletes is what ultimately matters most. 

Athlete Q&A Session 1: Rob Burrow

Day 1 of the conference finished with Bradford Bulls Rugby League fan Dr Rich Johnston (ACU) holding a fascinating Q&A session with Rob Burrow, former Leeds Rhinos RLFC player, eight-time Grand Final winner and now coach within the youth department of the club (both pictured left). In a light-hearted, yet intriguing session, the topics of discussion included Rob's recollections of sports science support when he played (or lack thereof at the start of his career), the challenges and opportunities faced by his recent transition to coaching, and opinions on all things Rugby League.

Day 2

Speaker 6: Dr Rich Johnston

Kicking off the second day of the conference was Dr Rich Johnston (pictured right), who presented on 'training for peak game intensities: is it important and how do we do it?'. Training at peak-game intensity is very important to prepare for the peak demands that players are faced with during match-play; especially, since most errors are made following periods of high intensity. However, common training approaches dictate that the different aspects of the game (i.e., physical, technical and tactical) are often performed in isolation, which isn't the best representation of match-play. Drills should mirror match-specific activities in which certain elements of the game are overloaded. This should not just include metres per minute, but also number of involvements, collisions and total acceleration load. Specific drills should then be prescribed in collaboration with the coaches, who will dictate the technical (i.e., offense, defence) and tactical (i.e., game model, game phases) elements of the drill. Sport scientists/conditioning coaches will dictate the physical elements (i.e., intensity, overload of variables) and where this sits within the meso- and micro-cycle in order to perform technical/tactical training at appropriate intensities.

Speaker 7: Dr Martin Barwood

Playing a home fixture was Dr Martin Barwood from Leeds Trinity University (pictured left), who discussed 'exercise performance in the heat- the effect of menthol on perception, temperature regulation and performance'. Menthol has been utilised to enhance performance in the heat, as it induces sensations of coolness and freshness. These effects are mediated by cold-sensitive neurons following activation of specific thermoreceptor channels after application or ingestion of substances containing menthol. Skin-temperature is closely related to thermal sensation, and because of the effect menthol has on skin-temperature, it may play a role in how hot or cold we feel. Through a variety of studies, application of menthol has proven to have a robust effect on thermal perception and perceived effort levels (i.e., lower), whilst it may also delay a rise of skin temperature. When applied, performance effects of menthol are only observed when performed on two occasions. However, increases in performance are much more prominent upon ingestion (i.e., mouth rinse). Whilst the enhancing effects of menthol are clear, health risks in the form of skin irritation, vasoconstriction, delayed onset of sweat response and generation of more heat as a result of performing more work should be considered. As menthol is still a relatively new intervention, research is on-going in the application in endurance sports, but also its use in resistance training.

Speaker 8: Dr Shona Halson

'Periodisation of recovery' was the final morning-session, presented by Dr Shona Halson (pictured right). Following on from periodisation in training and nutrition, periodisation in recovery is now a hot topic. During periods of high-level competition or when high levels of training are required, recovery strategies may be utilised to enhance freshness and readiness to train or play, whereas inflammation and soreness may be preferable at times to elicit adaptation. Ice baths are a hugely popular strategy, and although research remains equivocal, they are likely to be beneficial. However, when implementing this strategy, the individual needs of the athletes and the sport (i.e., demands of the game, injuries, fatigue levels, beliefs, preferences), the phase of training (i.e., pre-season, in-season) and environmental issues (i.e., travel, temperature) should also be considered. Although it is clear that sleep is important (i.e., for brain function, mood, immune system, metabolism, muscle function), athletes could experience disturbed sleep, often as a result of a lack of attention/priority on sleep, social media, or stress/anxiety. Whilst there are many commercially available sleep-measuring devices, these are often non-validated against the gold standard, which is polysomnography. Besides sleep duration and sleep efficiency, other aspects such as activity outside of training, housing of athletes and variability of sleep and wake times should be assessed. Because behaviour change in relation to sleep may be difficult, prescribed interventions should be based upon evidence and theories. Doing so using three steps (i.e., specify target behaviour, behavioural analysis, identify intervention options) may result in interventions being more efficient.

Speaker 9: Prof Mark Russell

Our very own Professor Mark Russell (pictured far right during Q+A session featuring Dr Sophie Killer and Matt Taberner) Leeds Trinity University kicked off the afternoon-session, discussing 'soccer extra-time strategies: current understanding and future directions'. Despite the large occurrence of extra-time periods in recent international cup competitions (i.e., soccer world cup), research is limited in this topic. As it has been shown that indices of technical and physical performances reduce, and physiological perturbations occur during extra-time, opportunities exist to improve preparation for, performance during and recovery from this period. Carbohydrate gels have been used at 90 min, and although this strategy was not sufficient to attenuate reductions in physical performance, improvements in dribbling precision did occur. Following on from games involving an extra-time period, a possibly harmful effect may occur on high-intensity distance, pass- and dribbling-accuracy during a subsequent match. It may therefore be useful to implement more aggressive recovery-protocols following those matches that have gone to extra-time. An additional focus of future research may be around specific playing populations, such as substitutes or goalkeepers; ergogenic strategies may be implemented to enhance their impact and preparation.

Speaker 10: Matt Taberner

Next up was Matt Taberner from Everton Football Club (pictured right), presenting on 'progressing rehabilitation after injury: consider the 'control-chaos continuum'. Following injury of an athlete, it is important for practitioners in a multi-disciplinary team (e.g., coaches, sport scientists, physiotherapists, strength & conditioning coaches) to work together and plan their return to sport (RTS). Throughout this process they must combine evidence and clinical experience as well as considering potential healing times, team training structure and the chronic load that the athlete needs to return to safely. Matt went on to discuss the changes made to the old model in relation to task (i.e., speed, touch conditions, space, duration) and environment (i.e., decision-making, cues) constraints, which are now all included in the new 'control-chaos continuum'. Matt discussed this continuum using real-life examples of the five different stages through which an athlete gradually progresses from a high-control to a high-chaos environment and from more intensive environments (i.e., acceleration, deceleration and change of direction components in restricted areas) to more extensive environments (i.e., larger areas to produce higher speed and distance). However, planning RTS and structuring the weeks following injury is largely individual and dependant on the severity of the injury and the environment and circumstances within the club.

Speaker 11: Dr Sophie Killer

The final talk of the second conference-day came from Dr Sophie Killer (below), who discussed 'nutritional considerations when pushing the limits of athletic performance'. It is clear that high carbohydrate intake results in high muscle glycogen concentrations and consequently an increase in performance and endurance. Sophie highlighted this by presenting her study in which high-level cyclists were exposed to either a high or low carbohydrate diet during a period of intensified training; results showed that performance was maintained better in those that were exposed to a high-carbohydrate diet. Whilst sleep efficiency, mood state and stress hormone responses were largely affected in both groups, the high-carbohydrate group was slightly more protected to those responses. Although it appears that carbohydrate may be helpful in reducing these negative markers of overtraining, some athletes are still reluctant about consuming carbohydrates, which may be due to factors such as appetite suppression, gastro-intestinal distress issues, 'carb-phobia' or peer-pressure. Overtraining has very similar negative effects to relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-s) and should be monitored across a wide range of athletes. Although the negative impacts may be more common amongst endurance athletes, Paralympians and skill-based athletes, they could still occur elsewhere (e.g., team-sports). Monitoring should be done across multiple time-points across the season through a range of selected markers of endocrine, immune or appetite hormones. More accessible measures may include anthropometric measurements or questionnaires assessing sleep, mood and/or performance.

Athlete Q&A Session 2: Tom Bosworth

The second athlete Q&A session of the conference was with British race walker Tom Bosworth (pictured right), who is holder of three World Records. Dr Stu Cormack (pictured left) led on the talk that included discussions around the technical elements of race walking, physical preparation, nutritional strategies and future challenges.

​Closing remarks

The conference once again saw an incredible calibre of speakers, discussing a variety of key themes around high performance sport. The conference was interactive and inspiring and included relevant practical application. Whilst each talk included strong scientific evidence and rationales, many speakers also referred to the importance of social engagement and effective communication, not just with the athlete but with the multidisciplinary team that you are working with as a practitioner.

Many thanks must go to Professor Mark Russell from Leeds Trinity University as well as Dr Rich Johnston and Dr Stu Cormack from the Australian Catholic University for organising the event that was once again a huge success. Special mention also to the sponsors of the event iMeasureU, Vald Performance and Catapult who supported the Sports Science Summit 2019. We are already looking forward to the next event!

This blog was written by Hendrickus Aben, a Leeds Trinity University PhD Student studying fatigue and recovery in adolescent rugby league players; Danielle Davis, a Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Science at Leeds Trinity University; and Professor Mark Russell, a Professor in Sport, Health and Nutrition. Further information and pictures from the event can be found on Twitter #LTUSSS2019

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