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Team sport performance: the power of change!

Recent research suggests ‘change of direction’ ability is a key determinant of performance in team sports. But what factors affect this ability and how can it be improved?

The fitness requirements for fast-moving team sports such as soccer, basketball, rugby etc are wide-ranging, involving good stamina, strength, agility and speed/power/sprinting ability. In the small-sided (eg 5-a-side in soccer and ‘sevens’ in rugby) versions of these games, play tends to be even more furious and more demanding of the players’ fitness levels. The same is true for indoor versions. A good example is indoor soccer (futsal), which is characterized by intermittent but high intensity action, where around 14% of the total distance is covered at speeds over 15kmh and 9% over 25kmh (sprinting speeds)(1).

Stop, start and change of direction

In sports such as basketball, soccer (and its indoor version) and other fast-moving team sports, athletes are required to continually accelerate, decelerate and perform quick changes in speed and direction in very short periods of time, in particular during decisive moments, such as scoring opportunities(2). Research on indoor soccer players has found that they are typically required to perform around 31 maximum speed accelerations and 40 decelerations per match(3), and that this ability for excellent acceleration/deceleration is closely linked to the ability of the player to quickly change of direction(4). In turn, research has established that performance level and change of direction ability are closely related; as performance increases, change of direction (COD) times fall (ie players are able to change direction more rapidly)(5). Therefore, identifying physical capacities that determine COD ability may be relevant when optimizing training program interventions in high-intensity team sports.

Change of direction, force and sprint speed

COD ability – ie an athletes’ ability to decelerate during a running motion and immediately accelerate in another direction – is considered a key determinant of performance in futsal(6). Similarly, a good COD ability is thought to be an important performance factor in other team sports such as basketball, where faster players in COD tests showed greater eccentric and isometric strength, and higher propulsive force values, which enable them to better absorb and apply force during cutting or pivoting maneuvers(7).

If COD ability is a key factor for high-intensity team sport performance, what influences it and how might it be developed? Previous studies investigating the physical qualities that influence COD performance in team sport players, have indicated that athletes with higher sprint velocities or greater maximum acceleration rates from standing to 5 metres performed better in COD tests(8). Moreover, research has suggested that the requirement of the entire neuromuscular system to generate force at and accelerate at maximum speed in particular movement directions – eg during a flat out sprint – is similar to that required for COD tasks(9). In other words, an athlete’s COD ability seems to be closely determined by his/her maximum force generation and sprint acceleration ability. But is this actually true?

New research

A new study published in the Journal of Human Kinetics has investigated the relationship between sprint speed and power, and change of direction ability(10). Twelve female futsal players playing for the same team in the Spanish second division were recruited and were assessed in the following ways:

  • Horizontal Force-Velocity Profile: After the specific warm-up participants performed two maximal sprints of 30 metres separated by four minutes of recovery to determine the individual force-velocity profile in sprinting.
  • 505 Test: Athletes began the test 10 metres from the pair of photocells placed 5 metres from a designated turning point. Athletes were instructed to accelerate as quickly as possible through the photocells, pivot at the 15-metre line and sprint through the photocells.
  • Modified 505 Test (M505test): Athletes began the test 0.3 metres behind the pair of photocells placed at the starting line. The set of cones were set at 5 metres from the start position. Athletes were instructed to accelerate as fast as possible along the 5 metres distance, placing either their right or left foot on the line, pivot and sprint through the finish (photocells placed at starting position).
  • V-cut Test: Athletes began the test 0.3 metres behind a pair of photocells placed at the starting line. Athletes performed a 25-metre sprint with four changes of direction, each of 45o every five metres (ie in a zig-zag fashion).

The central aim of these tests was to analyze and describe whether and how the players’ power and sprinting capabilities was related to COD ability.


The 505 acceleration, deceleration, speed and change of direction test

This test requires the athlete to accelerate from start line to maximum speed. To do this, the athlete warms up for ten minutes first then the coach gives the command ‘go’, the athlete begins running, and the clock is started. Upon reaching a line 15 metres away from the start, the athlete stops (ensuring both feet have crossed the 15-metre line), reverses direction, and runs five metres back towards the start line as fast as possible. As soon as the athlete has covered five metres in the reverse direction, the clock is stopped. To see this test in action, click on the image below for an excellent video (courtesy of T4 Soccer).


What they found

When the data from all the assessment was analyzed, the key finding was that there was a very large and significant association between the players’ maximum sprint speeds/power outputs and their change of direction ability. In short, the higher the players’ acceleration/sprint speeds, the better the change of direction ability, both in the 505 and the V-cut tests (ie changes of direction were faster). Likewise, the more power (measured in watts per kilo) a player was able to generate, the better the change of direction ability (see figure 1). The researchers concluded that their results showed maximal power and velocity output during sprinting are key determinant factors to successful COD in 180o and 45o change of direction performance.


Figure 1: Correlations between velocity and power, and change of direction ability

Each dot represents a single player. As velocity or power increased, the times taken to complete the 505 and the V-cut test dropped significantly. This was especially the case with velocity and COD performance.


Practical implications

This research is significant; knowing that change of direction ability plays a major role in team sports such as indoor soccer, basketball, tennis etc, the ability to understand what underlies this ability can inform athletes, coaches and trainers on how to train to improve this aspect. So while agility training and drills may have their place in terms of developing the necessary neuromotor skills, this approach alone is likely to prove futile unless speed and power can also be developed.

In the study above on indoor soccer players, the researchers suggested that it would make sense for players wishing to improve COD ability to implement exercises designed to build maximum acceleration and power – for example heavy resisted sprints – and for which there is good evidence in the literature. Readers are directed to this excellent article by England Youth Coach John Shepherd for advice on how to implement an acceleration/power training program to improve sprint ability. An additional training mode could involve the use of heavy weights using low reps, which is also a tried and tested approach to developing increased power (see this article). In short, the take-home message is that to improve change of direction ability, ‘get fast and get powerful’!

References

  1. J Exerc Sci Fit. 2017 Dec; 15(2):76-80
  2. J Sports Sci. 2017 Dec; 35(24):2439-2445
  3. Biol Sport. 2017 Sep; 34(3):227-231
  4. Biol Sport. 2016 Sep; 33(3):297-304
  5. Kinesiology. 2015;47(1):67–74
  6. Eur J Sport Sci. 2013; 13(6):646-52
  7. J Strength Cond Res. 2015 Aug; 29(8):2205-14
  8. PLoS One. 2019; 14(5):e0216806
  9. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2016 Jun; 26(6):648-58
  10. J Hum Kinet. 2021 Jul; 79: 221–228.
  11. Sports (Basel). 2020 May 25; 8(5):

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