Donna O'Connor is the Associate Dean (Learning & Teaching) at the University of Sydney, and has been with the Australian Women's Basketball team (Opals) since October 2003.
My role with the team is to assist the head coach by developing training programs to enhance player performance and advise on sport science issues related to player preparation. This involves keeping up-to-date with current research and continually communicating with the coaching and medical staff in planning and implementing training programs.
The "Opals", the nickname of the Australian women's national team, are currently ranked third in the world. Of the 25- 30 players in the National squad, approximately 70% of players will be located in Australia, while 30% of players will compete overseas at some stage during the year. This situation makes long term periodised programming difficult for individual players but in recognising that this situation will only increase, we have attempted to put systems in place to support player preparation regardless of where they are located.
In the first instance, the respective player, head coach and myself collaboratively decide general goals and specific fitness targets for the year. Ideally, pre-habilitation and rehabilitation programs are devised in consultation with the player's club personnel as well as Opals staff. I now have contact with all WNBL strength and conditioners and emphasise the role they play in supporting the opals player within the club environment.
We now disseminate information on strength and conditioning, testing and relevant sport science issues. During the pre-season and WNBL season I will consult with the strength and conditioners to collectively design programs for opals players. We have started to have periodic telephone conference calls to discuss progress of squad members. I will also regularly communicate with players either by phone or email during the season.
Due to the limited time the squad is able to train together, clear and consistent communication is imperative. This is particularly paramount outside the WNBL season where large physical improvements can be made. For players not competing overseas, I receive weekly emails that include loads lifted in the gym, times or distances for conditioning drills, and RPE [rate of perceived exertion] etc.
From this information I am able to monitor and adjust individual training programs. Players based overseas have been more difficult to support. We are slowly forming relationships with various clubs and their trainers so we can communicate and have an integrated approach to the overall development of the player.
SPORT SCIENCE ISSUES
Sport science issues that have been researched and influenced Opals training prescription include energy demands of basketball, concurrent training, cross training, warm up (static stretching), hydration, jet lag, and recovery strategies. I will briefly comment on two of the issues as examples of our approach.
The intermittent nature of basketball and the restricted court size is reflected in the energy demands of this game. Although there are a few studies (McInnes et al., 1995; Rodriquez-Alonso et al., 2003) that have quantified these physiological requirements we have decided to conduct our own research that will then directly inform our training practice. We have monitored heart rates, lactates and movement patterns during international games, scrimmages and training sessions.
Interpretation of this data gives an indication of player response to the demands imposed on them. This information provides insight into where each player's level of fitness is at for any given time and assists in individualising player preparation and recovery strategies.
However, when interpreting these results it must be considered that the intensity of the game will be influenced by the quality of opposition, the style of play used by the coach and the physiological capacity of the players. By also monitoring these parameters during practice sessions we are able to categorise various training drills and activities as 'light, medium or heavy', which is helpful when determining training demands during different phases of training. This will be particularly pertinent in relation to court work in the lead-up to major championships.
With the previous Olympics in Athens and the next world championships in Brazil issues such as acclimatisation, jet lag and hydration are very important.
Due to the amount of air travel we must do, educating players of the importance of hydration is paramount. To assist with this we will monitor urine specific gravity (USG) levels as an indication of hydration status. Because you cannot rely on the colour of urine as an indicator of hydration levels (due to influence of multivitamins etc) we have found using a refractometer for USG to be a very simple and quick measure. For example, when we are in training camps we can take a sample after training and then monitor the amount of fluid that is consumed prior to the next training when a further sample is taken. Over time each player then has a guide on the amount of fluid that is required to return a reading of < 0.01. We have also been able to make recommendations on how much water should be consumed on various flights.
Prior to these initiatives some players were coming to training or games in an already dehydrated state.
STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING
Due to the different needs and playing commitments of squad members a variety of different programs are devised.
For example, the majority of the 28 players in the current Opals squad would be following one of seven different programs.
Consequently, both the frequency and type of training session scheduled for each squad member is determined depending on the background of the player, their role within the Australian team, and their strengths and weaknesses.
During the WNBL (the Australian Division I Women's league), from October to February, players participate in weight training that is tailored to incorporate their club commitments. In consultation with club strength and conditioners, two weight sessions a week are devised. At a player's request I may also add an extra conditioning or cross-training session to their weekly schedule. Players generally will have a short transition phase after the season (active recovery and rehabilitation). For players not competing in the WNBA (the US professional women's league) training during April to June emphasises either strength or hypertrophy while continuing to build an aerobic foundation. During July the focus will move to power and repeated sprint-ability. Agility, core stability and flexibility are components in all phases of training. August-September has a greater number of court sessions with combined acceleration, agility and ball activities (individual and team). Research indicates that loss of strength and power can occur within two-three weeks if resistance training ceases. We maintain strength and power levels with short, regular training sessions throughout the lead-up to the major championships. To monitor and assist with preparation training camps and international tours are scheduled where possible.
In reality, there are always a number of obstacles and difficulties encountered in planning and implementing these training programs. Depending on international commitments in any given year, a number of different training camps and travel will mean that there will be deviations from the above planning. Difficulties in periodised planning and group cohesion occur with the unavailability of different squad members at each of these camps while taking into consideration the travel and playing commitments of other players when integrating training sessions or testing into the annual plan.
Training sessions are prescribed to focus on the following outcomes: aerobic fitness, repeated sprint ability, speed and agility. Examples of training sessions are outlined in the Table below.
Table 1: Examples of conditioning sessions
Session A: Hill runs
- 8-12 reps x 150m
- 2 min recovery between reps
- progressed from 4 to 7 reps x 800m
- HR> 85%maxHR
- 4 minute recovery
Session C: beep shuttles
- 2 min shuttles (L11 & 12) skills/shooting
- 1 min shuttle (L 13) skills/shooting
- 2 min shuttles (L11 & 12) skills/shooting
- repeat above
- 5 sets 10 x 35m on the 30 seconds (jog back recovery)
- 5 mins recovery between sets
- 3 x 4 agility runs (aim at 40-44s) with 1:3 work: recovery ratio
- work HR > 85% max HR with recovery HR 100-120 bpm
Cross training is incorporated for a number of reasons: to increase aerobic and anaerobic fitness without the additional impact on the body of continual running and jumping, and to assist with additional energy expenditure for players aiming at reducing skinfold readings. Training sessions include the utilisation of rowing on a concept 11 rowing ergometer (20 min aim at >4500m or 3 x 10 x 60s (aim > 275m) with 60 sec recovery between reps and 5 min between sets), cycling (3 sets of pyramid: 15 sec - 30 sec - 45 sec - 60 sec - 75 sec - 90 sec - 75 sec - 60 sec - 45 sec - 30 sec - 15 sec; 15 sec between reps and 5 min between sets) and elliptical ergometers (10 x 3 min at level 8 with 30-60s recovery at level 4). Pool sessions involved deep-water running, kicking, underwater swimming and sixpacks (6 x 15m maximal sprints with 5 sec recovery).
Players participate in 2-4 resistancetraining sessions a week depending on the time of year and macrocycle. To enhance training adaptations I manipulate the choice of exercise, volume, intensity, rest and training system every 2-3 weeks. Training systems that are incorporated in different cycles include supersets (assisted chins (seated row), giant sets (DB lat raises (Front DB raises (reverse flyes: 3 x 8/8/8), matrix (curls: 3 x 21), cluster sets (Bench Press: 3 x 4/max/max), eccentric (Bench Press: 2 x 6, 2 x 4, 2 x 4(eccentric), pyramids (Squat: 2 x 6, 2 x 4, 2 x 2) and complex training (squats to jumps). At times I will video sessions so I can give players visual feedback on their technique. This has assisted their learning of the more complex lifts and stability exercises.
When the players have learnt correct technique I include lifts such as power clean, hang clean, high pull, push press, press jerk and squat to push press. In the power phase I will also include 3-5 medicine ball exercises.
In consultation with the team physiotherapist, core stability is assessed at each training camp. If there is inadequate core stability, rotation & tilting of the pelvis will occur which results in poor technique & inefficient force application. Consequently, a slower athlete will be the result.
Prone, supine and lateral holds (straight arms and forearms) are examples of increasing pelvic stability using the athlete's own body weight. Emphasis is placed on contracted abdominals & gluts throughout the exercise as well as having the body in correct alignment (stiff as a board). These exercises were initially 'held' for 3 x 20 s and eventually progressed to 60 s holds for each of the eight exercises (8 mins in total). Other exercises that I have prescribed incorporate the Swiss ball and include the bridge (double and single leg), "jacknifes", hamstring rolls, divers pike, hip extension, Russian twist, alternate superman and kneeling (see Collins, 1998).
SPEED AND AGILITY
Due to court dimensions there is a substantial focus on acceleration (0-10m) as players generally do not reach maximal speed during competition. Speed drills (marching, butt kicks, alternate high knees, bounds etc) aimed at training the nervous system are incorporated in the warm up at least three timesa- week. For variety 10 mins of ladder work can also be included (e.g. carioca, zig-zag 2 foot jumps, slalom). Research indicates that speed off the mark is closely correlated to leg power.
Consequently, I combine plyometric starts with acceleration runs during this phase of training. Examples include 10 pitter-patters and sprint; 6 straight leg bounds and sprint; 90(jump to left, return to start and sprint 10m (repeat jumping right). An intensity of 95-100% is the target for each repetition. Agility involves the need to decelerate, adjust stride pattern and body position and then accelerate again.
Young et al. (1996) demonstrated that speed and agility training are specific and only produce a 25% transfer to the other exercise mode. From this, two agility/footwork sessions are incorporated in the pre-season with at least one session in-season. These were short maximal efforts that involved a number of changes of direction in the one repetition. The duration of each repetition ranged from 3-15 seconds, within a 3-5 minute set followed by basketball specific skill work.