Underperformance syndrome – how youth rugby coaches are using psychology to raise their players’ game

In professional sport, coaches are under intense pressure to perform.

Coaches have a tendency to tackle poor performance by increasing training load(1), which may actually exacerbate the problem rather than solving it. Underperformance can be caused by a number of factors, including injury, fatigue, loss of confidence or motivation, relationship problems (within or outside the team), and other external stressors, such as exams, career or financial problems.

Two different athletes given the same workload and intensity may respond quite differently to the stimulus. What may be optimal for one may be too much for the other. The same could be said for an individual who responds differently to the same workload in two different training cycles. The key factor here may not be the workload, but something else going on in that athlete’s life.

Rugby Union is a sport where the physical demands are high through exertion and from contact. The English domestic season lasts from late August to early May. Keeping players in a physical state that allows for peak performance week after week is difficult(2); ensuring their physical and mental recoveryis even more challenging.

In my role as conditioning coach at London Welsh Rugby Football Club, I have had the opportunity to measure and assess the amount of fatigue associated with training and lifestyles and to try to reduce its impact on the players’ performance.

Recovery may be most important for youth players as 30% of team sport players aged 16-20 suffer from staleness(3). Such athletes face often-conflicting pressures from teachers, parents, coaches, peers, relationships, work and training, which can lead to staleness, burnout and injury(4).

What do we mean by these terms? Short-term overtraining, known as ‘overreaching’, can be seen as a normal part of athletic training and must be distinguished from long-term overtraining that can lead to burnout, staleness, or ‘overtraining syndrome’(5). Staleness can be distinguished from burnout by the athlete’s motivation to train; while the symptoms may be similar, a stale athlete is still motivated to train and a burned-out athlete is not (6).

Because of the many potential causes of poor performance, overtraining syndrome (OTS) has recently been redefined as the ‘unexplained underperformance syndrome’ (UPS). It can be distinguished from overreaching by the fact that symptoms do not diminish after two weeks of rest(7). However, these terms will be used interchangeably in this article because of their usage in research.

Preventing UPS calls for a careful balance of training stimulus and recovery – the latter defined as ‘a well-planned activity that matches the situational needs of an athlete in rest and results in regaining an optimal performance state’(8). However, training is much easier to manipulate and measure than recovery because of the difficulty of accurately recording and quantifying the latter state.

Nevertheless, having an accurate measure of recovery may be useful to a coach because he or she can then identify any problems that may be preventing the athlete from achieving peak performance.

Any such measure must also be affordable and easy to use in order to work in the coaching environment. This may be especially true when working with youth athletes, where budgets tend to be more restricted.

What measures have been used to date – and how effective have they been? Heart rates which are elevated in the morning and reduced during submaximal exercise have been cited as indications of OTS(9-13). But this has not been found in all studies, including those on: judoka(14), cyclists and triathletes(15), swimmers(16,17), and runners(17,18,19). In one study, individual differences in resting heart rate were found in overtrained runners, calling into question the reliability of one marker as an accurate measurement of OTS(20).

This particular marker is also dubious because resting morning heart rates are known to be reduced by a good night’s sleep(21), and none of the studies that noted elevated resting heart rate in overtrained athletes took sleep into account as a factor.

Markers of excessive training

Usitalo et al could not find a universal pattern of physiological responses to excessive training, which appears to be the main problem at present: no one physiological marker is reliable for all athletes, while relying on a combination of markers may not accurately distinguish between overreaching and OTS. The only consistent factor is a decline in the athlete’s performance(22).

Psychological measures have been proven to be as effective as physical measures in diagnosing ‘training stresses’(23). Could these also be useful for predicting and diagnosing OTS? One commonly-cited tool is the Profile of Mood States questionnaire (POMS), which, as its name suggests, measures moods. However, moods are highly contagious among athletes, with highly motivated athletes and women seeming to be at higher risk. Thus, this may be a less useful tool in a team environment and is also considered unreliable as an indicator of staleness(24).

A more recent psychological tool is the Rest-Q – the Recovery-Stress questionnaire for athletes, devised by Kellmann and Kallus(25), which asks questions about the athlete’s current state of recovery and stress. This tool attempts to integrate the useful parts of the POMS into a more functional assessment of an athlete’s current training status. It uses 19 scales relevant in the recovery process, such as general stress, self-efficacy and emotional exhaustion, and has been demonstrably effective in monitoring training dosages in elite training camps(26,27).

As part of my work with London Welsh RFC, I have been using the Rest-Q for the last two seasons to monitor levels of recovery and stress in the academy players, in conjunction with their physical fitness. My aim was to see if the Rest-Q, administered throughout the season at intervals of 6-8 weeks, would be useful in preventing underperformance in a semi- professional, part-time training environment, similar to many within the UK.

On the recommendation of the tool’s author, we measured physical fitness at the same time as measuring psychological wellbeing with the Rest-Q; if a player was in a bad physical state, we wanted to know whether this was due to a drop in fitness or other pressures affecting his performance.

When we looked back on the first season’s scores, we saw remarkable differences between those players who had consistent performances and went on to representative honours at age-group level and those whose form slumped, or who suffered from burnout or UPS.

At the end of the season I performed a statistical analysis of the Rest-Q scores on the Academy as a whole, looking at stress and recovery scores, injury prevalence, physical fitness and playing performance. This did not produce any significant results.

I then divided the players into four main categories: players who performed well; those who suffered from burnout; those who suffered from performance slumps; and those whose fitness levels and performances were consistent throughout the season, and who didn’t get injured. By homing in on individual players in more detail, we hoped to see trends that were common to the groups. Two of the individuals are presented as case histories here: Player A, who performed better than expected, and Player D who suffered from burnout.

Player A’s graph (figure 1, below) shows high levels of recovery and low levels of stress at test 1 and at test 6 (pre-season and end of season). He also shows higher levels of success, social recovery, physical recovery, personal accomplishment, self-efficacy and self-regulation at test 6 than at test 1. He was selected for the Wales under-19 squad for the Six Nations tournament.

Figure 1

This player lived at home, and his dad attended all the training sessions and matches throughout the season. Social support has been shown to contribute to health and wellbeing by reducing exposure to stress and enhancing coping efforts(28). He was studying at school, but did not work to earn money. This may have been a significant reason for his continued success, enabling him to concentrate on his rugby and recover at home.

Figure 2

Player D’s graph (figure 2, above) shows minor differences during the two pre-season tests, with test 2 carried out four weeks after test 1 and four weeks before he dropped out of the academy. Social and physical recovery and general wellbeing score lower in the second test, but self-efficacy and self-regulation score higher. In a follow-up conversation this player expressed dissatisfaction with his own performance and said he had been consistently under pressure at work as an apprentice. He cited his early morning starts as a main reason for not being able to recover from training the previous evening. He lived with his parents and had few household chores and little homework to contend with, but his parents did not show any overt signs of support for him within the rugby environment. This may have been a significant factor in his decision to drop out from the sport, as people who have weak social ties, including those with their immediate family, have been shown to have weaker health than those with strong social ties(29).

Compared with previous research using case studies(25,26), this study showed the importance of external influences on each player. For example, Kellmann used the Rest-Q to highlight the relationship between an increase in training dose and increased stress and decreased recovery in rowers. But as these athletes were attending a full-time training camp, external influences would have been minimised.

The two major adverse external influences my research uncovered, were living away from home and playing for additional teams. The effects of living away from home could have been due to missing the structure and support associated with both the school and home environments(29,30,31).

The influence of non-athletes in the university environment, combined with a new-found freedom and lack of accountability for the first few months, could have created a new ‘perceived social norm’, in which training and good dietary and sleep habits were of secondary importance to fitting in with everyone else.

Dishman et al(29) discovered five main indicators of adherence to training programmes: training partners, social support, time and opportunities, self-efficacy, and perceived vulnerability. While players at university had plenty of time and opportunities to train and play, as well as access to training partners, their recovery habits were poor, with too little quality rest, inadequate diet and a poor support structure. This led to inconsistent or deteriorating performances that could result in burnout.

Advantages of living at home

Players living at home, either studying for A- levels or in full-time employment, had less time and opportunity to train, but generally had better social support and recovery habits, which led to more consistent playing patterns throughout the season. Despite their work pressures, players living at home tended to have better strategies for coping with stress than those at university, who had poorer social support and inadequate recovery strategies. These latter players appeared to be under-recovered rather than overtrained.

Playing for additional teams put the athletes under physical and mental pressure. The inability to recover properly between one match and the next led to a decline in fitness and an inability to shake off niggling injuries, while the inability to say ‘no’ to coaches at university, school or club led to an increase in stress, which has been shown to affect overall performance(32).

While the Rest-Q did not highlight the causes of inadequate performance, it did pick out players who had poor recovery routines and those who were suffering from stress. These two factors were not always concurrent, reinforcing the view that they are different parts of a process leading to underperformance(33). This enabled the coach to have more in-depth conversations with the players and to a greater understanding of the motivation and habits of each player.

However, the use of the Rest-Q at intervals of six to eight weeks did sometimes lead to players being overlooked when symptoms of overreaching appeared between tests, while the logistics of testing a total of 81 players, inputting and analysing the data, meant that a quick response was not always available to individual players. Also, the exercise only picked out those players whose profiles changed significantly between tests, which meant that some players on the road to UPS were overlooked. The Rest-Q is not a substitute for good communication between the coach and his individual players. But we have found it to be very useful for analysing each player and feeding back information which might be affecting performances as quickly as possible.

With one season of players’ histories available to us and a greater understanding of the areas to be monitored, comparisons have been more accurate in the current season. After identifying the main areas of concern, several changes have been made. I as conditioning coach have taken responsibility for educating players, parents and coaching staff on the need for a balance between training and recovery. An eight-week training macrocycle has been put in place, comprising two four-week training blocks, with the last week of each block being a recovery week.

Testing, including the use of the Rest-Q, takes place on completion of the second recovery week. Players who have shown significant changes in their Rest-Q scores will be recommended to see their doctors to eliminate the possibility of clinical illness. Many of the symptoms of UPS are similar to those of depression(34), so it is important for those doctors to have some knowledge of the syndrome. One case of UPS was diagnosed, and the player in question was rested for four weeks, then eased back into training. He is currently playing well.

A consensus has been reached among the coaching staff that new university students need more support than they received last season, particularly for improving their self-regulation, which may have been largely dependent on parental support previously.

Meetings are regularly held with all players to deal with injuries, selection issues and other problems, an approach which has been shown to be useful in alleviating stress(34). In the previous season, players who got injured did not always continue their rehabilitation, or stopped attending training sessions for five to six weeks.

The coaching staff have realised that they are as important as physiotherapists to injured players and now play a more active role in communicating with them.

With the coaches now considerably more aware of the importance of recovery and the risks of the stress some of the players face, it is our hope that the incidence of underperformance and burnout will be greatly reduced.

James Marshall

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