A hierarchy describes a system that ranks or organises things, typically according to their relative importance.
An example could be the ranking system in the military, where at each level the rank becomes more senior and possesses greater responsibility and authority. This can also be applied to every day decision making where we refer to ‘priorities’.
Wherever a priority exists, there is a hierarchy too. We have taken the conscious decision to put certain things above others in their relative importance to us. This could be deciding that sleep is more important to us than watching tv in the evening, so we go to sleep early and avoid staying up late.
We might also decide that spending money on high quality food is more important to us than saving money by spending less on cheaper, low quality alternatives. We have decided upon our priorities, and therefore created a decision making hierarchy.
Even in those simple examples it becomes clear that we are making decisions every day about our priorities, how we spend our money, time and our resources. Hierarchies exist all around us, and without them we would struggle to decide what is more or less important to us.
To visually represent hierarchies, we typically see them as pyramids or trees, with each level up demonstrating increased importance. The 'top of the tree’ is a common phrase people use to describe when people have ascended to the best job role, where they’ve taken on greater responsibility and status. They can also be represented as Venn bubble diagrams, where core ideas or concepts in the middle have a greater immediate need to us than ideas at the periphery.
Hierarchies can be organised by people, systems, dimensions and levels amongst many other ways. They can also be organised by need, which is where this article looks to apply the concept to field hockey. A ‘need’ is a broad term encompassing things that are essential rather than just desirable. We need oxygen to survive, whereas we may desire a nicer car or holiday. One is a ‘need to have’, one is a ‘nice to have’.
Maslow’s classical hierarchy of needs describes how humans have basic physiological needs which need to be met, before anything else. These include food, water and shelter. It becomes very clear to us when looking at this that without these basic needs life would be very difficult indeed, and it would be a major priority in life if one of these needs was not being met. Needs on the lower tiers of the hierarchy must be satisfied before individuals can focus on needs in the higher tiers. The tiers above these basic needs are psychological (intimate relationships and feelings of accomplishment amongst others), and then finally self actualisation (achieving our potential).
So it doesn’t matter if we feel fulfilled in our work, have autonomy and close relationships with others if our basic survival needs are not being met. We are instinctual, survival focussed creatures who operate in hierarchical decision making structures whether we know it or not.
How does this relate to sport?
In sport, it may not be immediately clear where the concept of hierarchies can be applied, so this article aims to elucidate the concepts and apply them to the world of field hockey. Firstly, we must ask ourselves the question ‘are some things more important than others in sport?’ The answer to that question is fairly clear - yes, there are many instances where we make decisions based on relative importance. Some examples could include:
- It’s more important that players are available for all matches than only for the first few in a tournament
- It’s more important that athletes get as much exposure to their sport as possible than spending excessive time in the weight room
- It’s more important that players are at their physical best when it comes to tournament periods, rather than early in the season
This concept can be applied to the approach of physical preparation in field hockey, by deciding what it most important to us. We start with the basic view that we want our best players available for as much time as possible. ‘The best ability is availability’ as the saying goes. It is without doubt that our best players provide us with the highest probability of success, and so we want them on the pitch for as long as possible.
The three tiers of the hierarchy I typically operate around (from top to bottom ) are:
- Repeatability - enhance the ability of players to repeat high intensity actions
- Intensity - increase maximal physical outputs of players, in order to increase performance potential
- Robustness - maximise game time by minimising injury risk and maximising availability
A thought experiment: it doesn’t matter how fast you are if you’re injured.
You could be the fastest athlete in the world, but you’re no use if you’re on the side lines. This is where we begin to see the hierarchy of needs emerge in team sports.
This model suggests therefore that increasing availability of players by maximising their robustness to the demands of the game is a basic need. It takes precedence over others needs, as without it, players risk injury which negates all of the hard work the team may have put in to prepare effectively for competition. However, once certain physical boxes have been ‘ticked’, we can begin prioritising other areas. As a strength and conditioning coach, availability is certainly one area that you can have a huge influence on.
When designing a programme for a squad, we may consider using a classical periodisation structure to allocate periods of the season where priorities shift. This is one approach, but when working in a remote context or when contact time is limited, a systems based approach may well be closer to optimal. I would argue that in international contexts where players are at different clubs, with different schedules, different training volumes, different injury profiles and different stresses on them, believing that you can get everyone into the same ‘peak’ at the same time is a little naïve. My suggestion here is that a systems based approach allows you to implement a hierarchy of need methodology to the physical preparation of hockey players.
Now that this model has been outlined, we’ll look at how I’ve implemented this model in the past during my time working in international women’s hockey.
Real world application
During my time with Hockey Wales, one of the key physical outcomes we needed was to increase playing availability by increasing the robustness of players to tolerate tournament game loads. This was due to a relatively small playing pool and high fixture density during international competitions (typically 5 games in 8 days, or more). The evidence for this was soft tissue injury incidence and reduced availability of players during tournaments. A secondary aim was to increase the sprint repeatability of players, who appeared to drop off in their intensity towards the end of competitions. We were operating in a decentralised programme, and therefore worked remotely most of the time. This provided challenges around programme implementation.
So how would you approach this?
On face value it seems fairly challenging to target two different outcomes which require different approaches, assessments and programming. It started with developing a system, not a text book periodized plan. A system that solved the problem in front of us, which would meet the immediate needs of the programme and provide clarity of outcome to the squad. If players understand the objectives and why, you are already onto a positive path as they are more likely to buy in and believe in the collective vision.
The programme was built on three tiers as described above: robustness, intensity and repeatability.
Players were in different tiers based on their physical needs, which were informed by assessment. The basic needs of the players (robustness) had to be met first, before their priorities shifted to the higher tiers of the programme. If they didn’t possess the aerobic and local muscular endurance qualities necessary, they remained at that level until this was achieved. The key physical qualities at this tier included:
- Calf capacity
- Aerobic fitness
- Hamstring capacity
- Trunk capacity
- Work capacity
Once these basic needs were met, they could move up the hierarchy into the intensity and repeatability tiers. The intensity tier included maximal acceleration, maximal velocity (top speed) and maximal force capabilities (lower body strength and power). This lays the foundation for repeated high intensity actions, which characterise the sport. Also, it doesn’t matter how repeatable you are if you are slow and ineffective (repeat slow ability as it has been referred to!).
The final tier (repeatability) was centred around a repeat sprint ability test. 8 x 20m shuttle sprints on a rolling 30 second clock, completed maximally. We were most interested in how fast the players could sprint in a shuttle sprint maximally (initial time), their average time over the 8 sprints, and their fatigue index (how much of a relative percentage drop off there was from fastest to slowest sprint).
Based on this, players could be put into one of four groups:
- Fast initial time, fast average time (ideal profile)
- Fast initial time, poor fatigue index
- Slow initial time, good fatigue index
- Slow initial time, poor fatigue index (worst profile)
This then gave us the information needed to prescribe accurate conditioning sessions that met their needs and improved their repeatability profile, which we hoped would translate into enhanced repeatability during tournaments.
This system was successfully implemented and led to an improvement of over 10% in training availability, with no soft tissue injuries recorded during the European Championships or Open Series finals. All players were available for every game, and repeatability was enhanced as evidenced by GPS tracking data.
Specific example in action
An example of a player moving through this hierarchy could be as follows.
- Player’s initial physical profiling shows good aerobic fitness, but poor local muscular endurance scores
- Player completes tissue conditioning focus from the programme, until benchmark scores are met whilst maintaining other qualities
- Once benchmark scores have been met, they move up into the next tier and begin a maximal strength focus in the gym and a speed focus on the pitch (2 sessions of each per week)
- Strength scores began at an acceptable level, but have now reached the relative strength scores needed. Player moves onto repeatability tier of the system.
- Following the repeat sprint ability profiling, the player is fast in their initial scores but drops off very quickly (their fatigue index is high). Player is given lactate buffering sessions to complete to improve this, as we know that aerobic conditioning is not a limiting factor (they’ve already achieved the aerobic benchmarks in the robustness tier of the system).
This system can evolve organically over time, but it’s basic structure can remain the same indefinitely. Players may stay on the robustness tier for a long period of time, or may jump straight to the top tier, it’s all contextual and depends on many factors. The strengths of this approach are that players know exactly where they are relative to defined benchmarks, have clarity of outcome, and the head coach knows where their squad are physically too. It helps with communicating clear messages to staff and players, and is a highly adaptive system when working with limited resources. Ultimately, using a hierarchical approach keeps things simple, clear and logical.
I hope that this article has demonstrated the value of using a hierarchical approach to strength and conditioning for field hockey, as well as other team sports. It is a logical flow from general to specific preparation, but without being constrained by typical periodization models which can be limiting. One final point is that they can be motivating, as players know what work they need to do to get to the next tier, rather than everyone being in the same boat regardless of their physical conditioning. This creates accountability and buy in for players who otherwise may be able to hide in the middle of the pack.
Hierarchies can be created however you like, and this one that I have used in the past may not be suitable for other contexts. It is the principles behind it, not the specific methodology which you should take away from this.
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