Rob Walsh chats Metrifit and Dutch Olympics Ski and Snowboarding role

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Guest Author: Rob Walsh

We are delighted that Rob Walsh, Physical Performance Coach for the Dutch Olympic snowboarding and ski team took the time to chat about his background, his current role and the technologies that he uses with his athletes. He also has some great advice on implementing wellness and monitoring load systems. You can listen to Rob’s vlog below and/or read the transcript. If anyone is interested in a follow up Questions and Answers session with Rob, please let us know by emailing us at:-. We would like to thank Rob for his time and valuable insights and hope you enjoy.

Background

Ann and Peter reached out to me a couple of weeks ago to talk about my use of Metrifit and the use of Metrifit within the Covid-19 outbreak. I spent 20 years in the UK where I studied my undergraduate at St. Mary’s. I did Sports Rehab and then after graduation I worked predominately clinically for a couple of years and following that got more into sports performance, did a masters in performance enhancement and injury prevention and ended up lecturing for about 11 years, 9 of which were at Middlesex University where I taught on the undergraduate programs in sports rehabilitation and masters programs in strength and conditioning, sports rehabilitation and sports physio. Then I spent a good few years consulting to different sports teams, and the last 8 years before I left the UK I was working as the Head of Physical Development for Harrow School looking at the athletic development of about 800 boys at the private boarding school.

Dutch Olympic Snowboarding and Ski Team

My current role is the physical performance coach for the Dutch Olympic snowboarding and ski team, and I work with both the adaptive athletes and the able-bodied athletes. Currently, hence my scruffy look, we are about 7 weeks into the lock down with Covid-19. For us it has been a little bit unfortunate that the season ended incredibly early. We finished up early mid March which meant the athletes lost a lot of time on snow and we missed out on a lot of competitions. Again, every other country is kind of in the same predicament so that is kind of where we are now.

Technologies we use

So, with our program on a day to day basis we use a variety of different technologies. One of the main ones we use is velocity based training, so we measure the speed at which a bar moves and that allows us to forecast what training outcome that athlete is getting be it strength, power or a sub section of those and the way we use that depends on the different athlete and the different program.

Secondly, we use a lot of eccentric training and we use a fly-wheel device for that, and we use the kBox by Exxentric. Generally, we use that to stimulate maybe the landing forces that snowboarders get going off a freestyle jump and the eccentric and occlusion type effects that a skier might get in a downhill race or a slalom race. Secondary things that may not run on a day to day basis, we use force plate analysis looking at asymmetries with our athletes and we also look at jump testing to look at fatigue and predicting outcome.

Monitoring wellness and training load

We have been using Metrifit to gather our training and wellness data for approximately 4 years now. There was actually a wellness system in place when I came into the role. It just wasn’t being utilized. The feedback from the athletes and coaches were; the athletes didn’t like filing it which is a kind of standard response and it was hard to fill in and the coaches more that they didn’t see why it was useful and they didn’t like how the data was visualized.

What we did was we trialed a variety of wellness and training load monitors with compliant athletes, non-compliant athletes and with the coaches and at the end of 6 months – 1 year they fed back on which ones they thought were better and we came to the conclusion that we were going to use Metrifit. Primarily because the coaches liked the way the data was visualized, and they found it easy to access and found it quite usable. The athletes found the web-based app pretty uninstrusive, fast to fill in and it worked regularly pretty well for them.

Encouraging compliance

The biggest challenge with any wellness and training load app is getting athlete compliance, getting people to fill it in. I think you need to over a 6 – 8 week period be really on the athletes in terms of filling it in to improve compliance and get it to a point where it becomes a habit and like any habit if you drift away from it will become not a habit anymore. So the time constraint is reminding the athletes to fill it in, chasing them up if they don’t fill it in, doing education with them on what the benefit is and explaining to them and trying to find out what they would want to get out of using a wellness system; so it’s to try and find out why they have a problem with it, and what benefit they could see from it and try to help them realize that benefit. We initially probably should have done more education on why they were doing it and what the outcome would be. That is a little bit hard to tell them – you know in a year this is how it could affect your program- and we did do that but maybe it would be more impactful to recap on that more often, though we did quite a bit of work on the education and I would advise anybody to do more advice on being honest. So if somebody fills in the same number every day just because they are filling it in and are not thinking about it, it doesn’t let you let you get a great overall picture of them in the long run.

Getting a better picture of how training stress affects them, life style stress affects them lets you (1) have better conversations and (2) make better training adaptations that are more individual to that person so I would definitely say education on being honest and ensuring that there isn’t a consequence to them filling in that they had 10 late nights in a row. What that does do if they are honest is allow you education them on how to be a better athlete and they can choose to do that or not or it lets you see that someone doesn’t know that that’s a problem in their performance.

Gather the data you really need

When you first start out with a wellness monitoring system – the wellness questions are pretty standard – most you can take off the shelf with some limitations and some customization around the sport that you are in and the athletes/people that are there. In terms of your training load data, I think you need to work quite heavily with your coaches and with the athletes to quantify what those are. We maybe give too many options for training types which leads to some confusion, so we have trimmed those down a bit. So, I think the big thing is to gather the data that you really need and maybe a few other points that are nice to have and look at that over time. If you gather a million data points you are not going to look at all of them. A smaller more concise amount that you consistently gather is better than 1 million that you don’t look at and those points can be discussed and formulated with your performance team.

Benefits of Monitoring

As to the benefits that we have had to monitoring load and well-being and health in general – we have started to work with athletes in terms of education where some of them have not had good performance outcomes and we can mine the data back and look at maybe limitations to that performance. So, say with some athletes initially we had high illness rate within one program and when we look back through the data, we had poor sleep hygiene across a number of athletes. We did work on sleep hygiene, its relationship to getting sick. But the big thing with getting sick, an athlete doesn’t like being sick, but it was the number of training days that they missed on snow. We were able to show the athlete – hey look you have this many sick days – and this is how many days you are not getting on snow. That allowed us to give a more contextualized feedback to them of why they were missing days and maybe why they were not performing and that created better buy-in with them in terms of OK that’s why I am not skiing so well – I missed this many days and I am missing those days because I was ill, and I got ill because I wasn’t sleeping well – so sleeping more and having better quality sleep gets me more on snow and helps me train better.
Equally we can show we did a period of really good physical training that the guys might have found quite tough. When they went on snow the number of runs or how difficult they found skiing maybe at altitude was way easier and that equated to maybe more runs per day which means more ability to learn new skills.

For us one of the initial problems we had was that the athletes didn’t see that we are using Metrifit, but actually we were. On a daily basis we were looking at it. We would have quite organic conversations with the athletes and maybe something that we had seen on Metrifit sparked one of those organic conversations but because we didn’t mention that we had seen it on Metrifit they didn’t have a value in filling it in on Metrifit. So, I think by saying that you had seen it informs them that you are looking at it and puts a value on it. And equally you know the data isn’t always the number one thing – it’s the conversations it sparks or the more meaningful conversations that it sparks. Particularly now with some athletes tell you more digitally than they will face to face; other athletes will tell you a lot face to face but fill in the bear minimum digitally. Different people utilize how they communicate with you in different ways.

Lifestyle issues for athletes

So, I got asked what are the main lifestyle issues that you see with young athletes today. I don’t think we see lifestyle issues predominantly with young athletes. I think they are across the board and they vary. The nice thing about Metrifit, if the athletes fill it in openly and honestly without fear of retribution, is that you get an insight into the stressors that they are experiencing not just in training but across their everyday lives. One of the things I would say that you see with younger athletes is exam stress and school stress can be pretty high. We found that when we know that athletes are going to have exams that we are now catering for that in our periodization. We take that into account as a physical / emotional stress and the reality is they have to do that they are not going to miss those exams so why try to push a big training load on someone who is already stressed. So maybe with our younger athletes we have seen that.

Sleep hygiene has a massive impact on performance and not a lot of athletes really notice that to the highest level. But what we have be able to do is show athletes their illness, their fatigue rate how quickly they are getting tired from training or their rating of their training session versus maybe other people through Metrifit and then show ‘hey here are some of the lifestyle factors that have been affecting you’ and really get a bigger picture of the entire lifestyle issues that they have or life stressors that they have – not just training – the amalgamation of everything gives us a better insight into the person. In terms of how we change the programs based on the data that what we see, we have seen some athletes that have perceived training sessions at a much higher intensity than someone else and when we mine back the data that athlete may be training at a higher percentage relative to body weight for those 3 weeks, so you then can prescribe or look at adapting the program to get more out of them, or give them more recovery or do more or less training with them based on the data that you see.

Coping with lock down restrictions

Currently we are 7.5 weeks into Covid-19 restrictions and actually the National Training center is gradually going to re-open with heavy restrictions in the next couple of weeks. For our athletes like I have said it has been pretty tough in that they missed a lot of time on snow and they also missed major competitions but in terms of physical training, the key thing for us was that when we knew that they were going to close everything down, as the athletes were travelling back from being on snow, we wrote 6 weeks of training for them to do at home and tried to get them as much equipment so that the training that they were doing at home was consistent with the outcomes we would want from this phase; that we were still applying the principles of training so that we were getting overload and the adaptations that we wanted for this phase and that the system of training was really similar to what they would be doing if they were at the national training center. We tried to keep a very similar rhythm to their training programs.

I think one of the benefits for our athletes is that we have a beautiful facility in Papendal with the NRC (National Sports Center) which has all the gym equipment that you could want but our athletes spend about half the year on the road training in hotel gyms not having equipment. So, they are pretty adaptable and they are pretty comfortable with that chaotic not having everything that they are used to. For us though it was good to try to build consistency in the training program and that it matched were we were.

Essentially now we are just doing an extended pre-season and at the moment we are just in a re-conditioning block and about to move into maybe a bit more anatomical adaptations and the goal would be to facilitate the athletes who don’t have enough equipment to get them more equipment during this upcoming block.

Obviously, everybody would normally be in touch with their athletes on a day-to-day basis or within the training times that they had when we weren’t in lock down. For us we have 2 kind of formal meeting moments, one day that we have a lot of 1:1 meeting times and one where there is more of a team meet up where people can drop in and out with coaches and it is a bit more social so kind of 2 formal catch-ups per week. We are in contact through social media and text messages and everything else. There is a good degree of contact there more with the athletes that want it and less with the ones that are more independent and don’t want it. At the moment it’s pretty normal for the ‘new normal’. Our meetings are predominately digital, so we are not meeting in person – so we are either having Zoom meetings or we are on skype or we are face-timing, depending on what works for the different programs.

I think for most of our athletes, they are feeling pretty good in the current situation. Most are at home. Our athletes spend a huge amount of time on the road so for most of them it’s nice for them to have some time with family back home in the Netherlands – obviously we don’t have mountains so they spend a considerable time away. Most are not too stressed out about it. Some are struggling a little bit with not having a team to play with but again the social interaction through digital means is still pretty high. So, I think most are coping with it really well. Also, we are used to not having much equipment, being on the road and having the stress of chopping and changing regularly. Our guys are pretty adapted to that – the main thing they are missing is time on snow.

One of the things at the moment that we are using Metrifit for heavily is to make sure that our training is happening. We built our program that mapped what we would have been doing in Papendal during this period anyway as best we could. Metrifit lets us see the wellness and how they athletes are coping with the multitude of things that are happening at the moment. If we look at the physical side of things we can see the volume of training and the intensity of training that they are doing and the breakdown of what those components are and actually if we compare this year versus last year and previous years around the same time our intensities of training, the type of training that we are doing be it we are not on snow are pretty similar and the goal for that is that when we do go back to a normal training facility that we don’t see a spike in our training all of a sudden; we are trying to gradually come back in and that there isn’t this huge upsurge. I’d say at the moment because the weather has been really good we are probably seeing more athletes doing more stuff outside and more cardio type training that they are doing but our physical strength training and our other types of training are still going on as they would have been scheduled if we weren’t in lock down.

I think the key goal from this phase is that we maintain normality, that we maintain the training for the adaptation that we are looking for so that the outcome from this block is there, that we work our athletes in that they are following the process and not being influenced by the 1 million home workouts that you are seeing online and that the programs that they are doing are specifically geared to getting the outcome that they should be getting in this block and that when we are back into a training facility that there isn’t a massive change from what they are doing at home to what they are doing in a training facility. We have tried to get most of our athletes equipment so that they are able to apply some load so that we are not going to see a spike in the level of load that they are training with when they come back.

Advice from my experience

I think for me, this is obviously not me selling Metrifit – I think whatever product you want to use, but out of all the things I’ve used for monitoring our athletes and the outcomes they have generated I think having a good robust wellness monitoring and training load monitor that’s subjective to the athlete is probably the most important thing you can do as it gives you the totality of the experience of that athlete. We are data informed and not data driven. We don’t go with the computer says this so we must do that – I think that is a bad way to go with data – again you are dealing with humans and people’s lives and everybody is different. The data capture allows you to get a better picture of the totality of that person’s life and have better and more meaningful conversations and through those work out better and more personalized solutions for those athletes. Its not about what we think – its about helping them achieve what they want.

For me, I have gone down the route with my coaching of using that data and that one system to look at the totality my athletes experience and help me and help our coaches make better more informed decisions with the athlete.
I think my advice for athletes in the current situation is to continue to trust the process with your coaches and your team and to try to keep normality as much as possible; look at what you would be doing in your training at the moment or in previous years and try to maintain that; speak to your coaches about your concerns in terms of what you are doing and don’t be overly influenced by social media – I mean there’s a million and one distractions at the moment in terms of body weight programs and challenges which are great but ultimately if you are trying to achieve an outcome as an athlete work with your team in terms of how you are going to achieve that in the current situation.

I would like to thank Ann and Peter for the opportunity to talk about my experiences as an S&C and my use of athlete monitoring through Metrifit. Like I said I have used a myriad of different systems and I’ve found Metrifit to fit our program really well.

About Metrifit

Metrifit is an excellent tool to monitor, evaluate and make the right decisions for your athlete’s well-being and performance on a day to day basis and to address an issue or potential issue in real time. The role that an athlete’s lifestyle can have on their performance should never be underestimated and giving the athlete an active role in this monitoring process is key to Metrifit’s approach
To find out more visit our Introducing Metrifit page or contact us at for a free demo.

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