With sports, testing has two primary purposes. The first is to assess the effectiveness of the strength and conditioning program. The second is to help select who is going to play at what level.
It is very important to assess the effectiveness of the strength and conditioning program. If the athletes are not becoming stronger, faster, better conditioned, and peaking at the correct time then it indicates that something has to change in the program. This is really important feedback for the strength and conditioning coach.
In terms of the selection of athletes, testing is also important. It provides an objective standard against which all the athletes can be measured. Think about it, which is a better standard to help select an athlete based on their speed; running the 40 yard dash or the observation that this athlete “looks fast?”
Notice that I did not say anything about preventing injuries. Marketing and hype aside, I’m not convinced that testing is going to discern if someone is more prone to an injury in a manner that allows for training to fix it. I understand that a lot of people disagree with me on that, which is fine, but I’m not going to devote a lot of space and time to that.
If we are focused on testing the effectiveness of the program and on establishing performance standards for competitiveness, the following are the qualities that we want to assess:
- The athlete’s health: This includes physical, and medical evaluations, vital signs, body comp, flexibility/mobility, if you are going to do a movement screen then I’d place it here, etc.
- Strength: If we agree that strength is very important for most athletic skills, then we need to be assessing it. This is best done in a program-specific way. For example, if the back squat is our primary lower body exercise then we want to use that as one of our testing exercises. On the other hand, if our primary lower body exercise is the front squat then that is the exercise we want to test. We should only focus on 2-3 exercises per training cycle to focus on, in other words you do not need to assess 1-RMs on every exercise that we do in training. I’d focus mine on whichever squat we’re doing and whichever variation of the bench press that we’re doing. Everything else can be trained at an RM.
- Power: There are a lot of ways to evaluate power, but some are specific to events or positions. For example, the vertical jump is going to be more important for a basketball player than for a 100 meter sprinter. The countermovement jump, squat jump, long jump, power clean, and the medicine ball throws to the front/rear all give you a great deal of information about an athlete’s ability to produce power. I like the jumps and throws better than the lifting because these are more real-lift activities than the Olympic lifts. Again, some people take a different approach and that’s fine!
- Speed: For most athletes we’re going to be concerned about acceleration and maximum velocity. Speed endurance is something that’s only going to be important for sprinters. With speed, there’s not a need to run a battery of tests. If we run the 40 yard dash, we can look at the split times at 5-, 10-, 20-, and 40 yards. This can give us information about first step explosiveness, acceleration, and maximum velocity. This is a better use of the athlete’s time than running a 5 yard test, a 10 yard test, etc.
- Agility: Agility tests don’t tell you much about how the athlete is going to move in a sports situation. Think about it, you cannot duplicate a sports situation with a cone pattern and a stop watch. There are no opponents, no plan, no ball, no crowd, etc. So, with this in mind we use agility tests to give us an idea of how well the athlete can move his or her feet and their dynamic balance.
- Conditioning: To me conditioning is all about fitness for the sport, in other words making sure we have the fitness to be able to perform at a high level at the end of the game. Most sports are going to involve running, so we usually come back to this for conditioning tests.
There are all kinds of devices and approaches to test athletes out there. You can get as expensive and as high tech as you want. I’m showing my age here, but I prefer to keep things simple, straight forward, and inexpensive.
There are also all kids of physical abilities in the textbooks. If you think about it, this is important from the textbook’s perspective because it helps to get you to purchase the textbook. But, it also means that you are potentially testing for 80 physical abilities that aren’t really going to aid your ability to train the athlete more effectively or select them for a spot.
How often do we need to test the athlete? This one is difficult because testing interrupts training. Think about it, if we’re spending today’s session determining our 1-RM on the back squat, how much extra quality work are we going to get done in the weight room that day? The answer is very little. With that in mind, we need to test frequently enough to ensure the athlete is responding to training appropriately but it needs to be spaced out enough so that it does not interrupt the athlete’s training.
What about norms? Where can you find the norms for your tests? The answer is, there aren’t any! Let me say this again, there aren’t any norms for your tests and your specific population. There are norms for young children, for nonathletic college students, for division I football players, etc. But there probably aren’t any norms for your specific situation. And this is okay! The bad news is that you won’t be able to say that this test result is in the 98th percentile of 16-year old high school volleyball players (for example), but the good news is that over time you can develop your own norms.
With all the above in mind, here are some principles for the testing of athletes:
- Only test if you are going to do use the information: This is important, it’s about credibility with the other coaches and the athletes. If you are collecting lots of data that you never use, you will find that the athletes won’t buy into the testing – which makes participation and validity an issue. Pick a handful of tests that you can use and make sure the athletes and coaches understand how these help them.
- Keep it simple: If you can’t explain the test and the meaning of the results in a sentence, then things are too complex.
- Prioritize, we need to find time for testing: Testing takes time away from training, even if it is incorporated into the training. This goes back to finding a handful of tests and spacing the tests out appropriately.
- Testing is something that athletes recover from too: If athletes perform the tests with the amount of effort that they are supposed to, it will tax their bodies, energy stores, and central nervous system. In other words, they have to recover from testing just like training. This has to be factored into the bigger picture of the athlete’s training.