Load management, a phrase first coined to describe the balancing of an electrical supply on a network, has since gone mainstream. In sports, and in its simplest form, the concept can best be characterized as the ongoing mitigation of wear and tear on an athlete. But as anyone involved in sports management knows, the full scope of load management extends far beyond minutes or games played.
Additionally, there are public relations and other practical concerns to be considered. Every fan can understand the importance of proper rest. But when that fan spends the equivalent of a mortgage payment on a family outing to the stadium and learns that a team’s healthy superstar will sit out the match, they’re far less sympathetic to the idea of rationing recovery time for the greater good.
Even managers and coaches struggle with this dilemma. Players are taught from an early age to push themselves beyond traditional comfort levels and the physical boundaries that restrict others. And the in-the-moment pressures of professional sports create an understandable tension between short- and long-term
“When you feel it’s really busy, then you have to make changes,” Liverpool FC’s manager Jürgen Klopp told the Wall Street Journal last year when describing his demands on dynamic forward Mohamed Salah. “But in other situations, we try to make sure the pieces we put on the pitch fit together.”
So where is the line? What is the best approach to player load management optimization for an organization? Start here:
Leave no stone unturned
Distance covered is certainly a factor in load management, but it’s hardly the only one. Teams must take into account every strain on a player’s body – from weightlifting sessions to travel – and cross-reference them with other considerations, such as diet. “I think in a couple years,” Philadelphia 76ers forward Tobias Harris told ESPN in 2019, “[sleep deprivation] will be an issue that’s talked about, like the NFL with concussions.” Any variable that stands between a player and their optimal performance and long-term preservation should be tracked, analyzed and appropriately addressed.
Merely resting an overworked veteran player for a game and considering their load managed won’t cut it. How valuable is their presence on the pitch or field of play in the regular season? What is their salary allocation and contract status? Age matters, of course, but not every 30-year-old is alike. Research suggests that measures such as usage rate in the NBA and pitches thrown with runners on base in Major League Baseball may increase the physical toll on an athlete and their risk of injury. It stands to reason, then, that a player’s role on a team – specifically, the types of movement and strains on the body demanded by that role – can affect long-term health and performance. In the NFL, there’s a reason many kickers play into their mid-40s and most running backs peak by age 25.
Create a shared language
All of the observation, monitoring and data collection in the world means nothing if the implications behind them can’t be communicated to, and among, an organization’s executives, coaches and players. What does it all mean? Data can be invaluable in sports, but only if all those involved understand the insights, stakes and subsequent action steps. Without a shared language, club-wide adoption will be difficult to achieve. And without total buy-in, your load management operation may turn into a very expensive organizational hood ornament.
Ensure data accuracy
Recognizing the need for advanced data and player tracking is a prudent first step. But after a club has committed to integrating this information into its daily training, staff members must assess how that data is being collected.
Using technology with proven accuracy is as much a critical need as the data itself. As clubs look to understand player performance on a more granular level, the slightest inaccuracies in data would misinform a performance staff’s assessment of a player. So it’s important to vet technologies and understand which among them offers the accuracy necessary to evaluate players in a more specific manner.