Outcome measures: An observation and a reflection

Sports science and strength & conditioning practice is built on a foundation of identifying a problem, testing the problem, applying an intervention and then re-testing to ensure progression. Athletes will buy into fitness testing, injury prevention and subsequent high performance behaviours if they are given the impression that their coach and medical team know what they are doing and things are done with a purpose (Kristiansen and Larsson, 2017). This begs the question whether coaches can justify and clinically reason their battery of performance tests.

When applying a performance measure, understanding of the underlying kinematics is essential to understand the validity of the test to the desired outcome. The OptoJumptm is a valid tool in assessing a reactive strength via  drop jump (Healy et al., 2016) however what components of the jump is the coach wishing to address? The validity of the tool is the not the same as the validity of the test. For example, reactive strength index (RSI) can be influenced by a reduced contact time (stretch shortening cycle via the musculotendinous unit) or via total jump height (power output throughout the lower limb and nervous system) or a combination of both (Healy et al., 2017). Understanding these mechanisms may influence the instructional bias of technique given by the coach in order to test what is desired.

With complexities over a test like an RSI to something seemingly obvious like a jump, testing for broader components of fitness and multiple movement patterns is much more difficult.

The Yo-Yo intermittent recovery test (IRT) is reported to be a valid measure of fitness and correlates to match performance in football (Krustrup et al., 2003). However, this is an example of a fitness capacity test and in fact correlates to fitness capacity in a match scenario. In field based team sports, there are a large number of variables and complex interactions that all contribute towards “performance” as an outcome (Currell and Jeukendrup, 2008). Krustrup’s conclusion was based on correlated Yo-Yo IRT results to high speed running in a game (>15km.h-1) with a strong correlation (r=0.58). Overlooking the methodological accuracy of this (pre-GPS, using VHS locomotive assessment retrospectively), the correlation is between two differing metrics. Where the high speed running was recorded over 90 minutes of varying intensities and periods of effort (12 players across 18 different games), the Yo-Yo IRT covered 1.7km in a mean time of 14.7mins with incremental increases in pace dictated externally. For a test to be considered a valid indicator of performance, it should meet the same metabolic demands as the sporting activity (Currell and Jeukendrup, 2008). The Krustrup paper does not make this comparison, instead analysing physiological markers from rest to exhaustion during the Yo-Yo IRT, not exhaustion markers in comparison to game data.

Perhaps semantics, but in fact there should be differential terminology to distinguish “fitness performance” from “athletic” or “sporting performance.” It should be considered that sporting performance is influenced by a large number of uncontrollable and non-modifiable factors that would make any comparison of validity and reliability to outcome measures unfair. Essentially, recreating a competitive environment is near impossible. This raises the question whether we are exercising just to improve test scores or, closing the loop and relating exercises to performance? Does raising the envelope of one, consequently improve the other? Something that we should not only be asking ourselves, but a question we could come to expect from coaches and athletes a like.

Oriam

Does the research answer this?

It has been suggested that stronger athletes produce faster sprint time, quicker change of direction speeds and higher vertical jump scores when compared to weaker athletes of the same sport (Thomas et al., 2016). Squat jump (r = -0.70 to -0.71) and counter movement jump (r = -0.60 to -0.71) demonstrate strong correlations to change of direction speed (Thomas et al., 2016). Peak force during isometric mid thigh pull was significantly correlated to 5m sprint time (p <0.05) however this correlation was only moderate (r = -0.49). But again, does this correlation transfer into performance if the testing protocol doesn’t accurately mirror sporting performance?

Sprint times over 40m have been shown to decrease following an acute bout of heavy loaded squats, hypothesised to be due to post activation potentiation (Mcbride et al., 2005). Higher squat strength scores also correlate with sprint times over 0-30m (r= 0.94, p=0.001) and jump height (r = 0.78, p=0.02) (Wisløff et al., 2004). Importantly, we know sprint performance tests have demonstrated construct validity to the physiological requirements of a competitive field based game (soccer) (Rampinini et al., 2007), which is ultimately what we are aiming to do; relating performance testing to physiological and metabolic markers from a given sport.

The addition of a jump squat exercise into a training program may help improve 1RM squat and 1RM power cleans (Hoffman et al., 2005). So perhaps yes, there is a perpetuating loop between exercise, tests and performance but the link between them all may not be tangible or direct.

But how do we translate all of these statistics and data sets this to a non-scientific population, as a lot of our athletes are? I’ve developed the following analogy to try and help with this.

 

Solar system analogy:

If we consider that “athletic performance” is the main focus of any intervention, much like the sun at the centre of the solar system. This is the bright light that everything revolves around; media, finance, fan base and support and so on. It could be argued that any intervention we have as coaches will never truly replicate “athletic performance” but should be influenced by it. This influence works both ways, positively and negatively. For example, if we maximally test an athlete before a competition, this will likely have a negative impact on “athletic performance”. Conversely, if we were able to collect data that informed a training program to improve athletic performance, despite not actually replicating “athletic performance” it would (hopefully) have a positive impact. For example, a football game is determined by so many uncontrollable variables that can not be replicated in a gym, but we might identify that a player needs to improve their 5m sprint time which in turn, will benefit performance.

Figure 1 solar system
Figure 1: An analogy depicting the relationship between “athletic performance” and controlled interventions / measures. The skill of the coach is identifying which outcome measure or intervention is going to have the greatest influence on athletic performance.

Let’s consider our potential interventions to be orbiting the sun (Figure 1). There is an interaction between the planets and the sun via gravity but they do not have a direct overlap, where the planets do not collide with the sun just as an outcome measure does not truly match sporting performance. We know that larger planets have a greater influence, so as coaches, we are trying to affect the level of positive interaction with “athletic performance”, the gravitational interaction. By influencing links between exercise intervention and outcome measures, we can affect the size of these planets. In turn, this will have a greater interaction with the centre of our solar system, “athletic performance” (Figure 2). Much like the universe, there will be many different solar systems just as there are different sporting codes and contexts, so the skill lies in identifying the most influential planets in your solar system.

figure 2 solar system
Figure 2: The impact of enhancing an intervention or measure on sporting performance, in this case there has been a greater focus and development of the blue “planet” which has changed the interaction with the “athletic performance”

 

A clinical reflection:

For long term injuries, I utilise a continuum to guide return to play (train / play / perform), often these stages are guided by outcome measures linked to goals and aims for stages of rehab. Typically these tests are scheduled in advanced and often follow a planned “de-loading” micro-cycle. This helps with continuity and, as much as you can in sport, standardisation of the test.

A recent case study found me questioning my judgement and to a degree, wondering if my intrigue and curiosity about my rehab plan drove me to test out of sync with the schedule, instead of doing the test for the athletes benefit.

Following a good period of return to train, the proposed testing date previously scheduled clashed with a squad training session. Observational assessment suggested the athlete was coping well with the demands of training and it seemed counter-intuitive to pull them out of training to undertake some tests. A few weeks later, a gap in the daily schedule presented an opportunity to re-test. The test scores were down compared to the previous month, most likely because the athlete had trained in the morning and trained the 4 out of the last 5 days in some capacity. In previous tests, the athlete had come off of a de-load week and tested the day after a day off.

The result:

The athlete began to question their ability and availability to train. They were visibly knocked in their confidence given a drop in scores, despite me being able to rationalise why this could be. Having had the opportunity to feed my own interest and try to prove to myself that a rehab program had worked, the outcome was much worse. I threatened the confidence of a long term injury returning to training, potentially adding doubt and hesitation to their game and I did not get the results I was expecting.

On reflection, given their time out through the season so far, I should have stuck to protocol and tested on the scheduled day (one training session was not going to increase their chances of availability).. or, not tested at all. Instead, i shoe-horned some testing into an already busy schedule. What did I expect given the current level of fatigue?!

Image result for reflection

Previous results had reached a satisfactory level to return to train and I was now chasing the final few percentages available. To give them confidence? Probably not, as they were training and enjoying the return to train. So perhaps it was just to give myself confidence. An interesting lesson learnt, mostly about myself.

 

Yours in sport,

Sam

Case Study: Myositis Ossificans – Deadlegs aren’t just for the playground

Whether you call them a “dead leg” or a “Charlie horse” or a “cork thigh” chances are we have all had one. Mostly from the playground days where the bigger kids want to take pleasure in seeing you limp for 5 minutes. However when they happen in sport, with fully grown athletes running at full pace, a collision to the thigh can result in an injury much more serious than the one we associate with from childhood.

The reason I wanted to write this blog was that I worry  that thigh contusions are underplayed in the treatment room, potentially because we associate them with those school sports injuries that can be “run off”. This is a case study that I became involved with after initial management of the “dead leg” failed, and to this day is one I reflect on about how important initial management can be in saving severe stress in the long run. This is a case of a “routine” dead leg that is commonly seen in contact sports that resulted in 9-months of rehab to manage a secondary case of myositis ossificans.

What are we dealing with?

There are two types of “dead legs”

  1. Intramuscular: blunt force trauma to the muscle that results in a haematoma, in this scenario the epimysium remains in tact and the bleeding is contained within the muscle compartment.
  2. Intermuscular: the epimysium surrounding the muscle is broken along with the damage to the muscle tissue, the resulting haematoma spreads outside of the damaged muscle.

The intermuscular hematoma by far looks the worst, it’s the one where the whole thigh goes black and blue and looks pretty nasty. However, clinically these ones tend to heal quicker and they look a lot worse than they feel. The problem with the intramuscular haematoma is that because it is contained, the pressure can build up and become more painful. It is generally more debilitating as a result, with larger loss of range and more pain. It also doesn’t provide that visible diagnosis as very often you just get a small sign of bruise on the skin from the impact – this is where it can get dangerous as we like to be able to see injuries (hmmm something about invisible injuries and under diagnosis.. concussion?). We have discussed acute management before (here) but with dead legs, it is always worth monitoring for a few days and hoping that the leg goes black and blue.

fig2

In the first few days, range is a good indicator. On day 1 after the injury, if they are unable to achieve >90 degrees knee flexion, the prognosis is generally longer. For a bad intramuscular contusion, you could be looking around 6 weeks. This is where the coaches tell you it’s just a dead leg and they’ve had worse. But, it is structural damage to the tissue resulting in bleeding and should be given the same respect you would give to a tear. (Muscle injury classification via the Munich Consensus here).

Myositis Ossificans (MO):

MO is the formation of heterotrophic bone within the muscle following trauma (here) essentially following failed healing the body begins to lay down bone in an attempt to add stability and structure.

Case study:

The following case study is an example of an academy player, where an initial intramuscular trauma to the muscle was accelerated back to activity resulting in a 17cm tear of vastus lateralis (VL), consequently being diagnosed with MO that was estimated to be 3cm thick and of equal length to the tear.

Timeline:

  • Day 0 – initial impact to right VL via collision in training, had to be removed.
  • Day 1 – “able to squat and lunge but pain on a stretch”. Player expressed determination to train and so was allowed to.
  • Day 2-3 – continued training
  • Day 5 – Removed from training with “cramp / DOMS” in right leg.
  • Day 8 – Sudden loss of power with running and kicking, removed from training.
  • Day 30 – returned to training
  • Day 31 – played in a competitive game but substituted by manager after 25 minutes due to inability to run. Assessed by doctor and head physio. Visible contained swelling in VL, palpable solid mass, loss of range and pain on contraction of quads. MRI scan demonstrates a 17cm longitudinal tear of VL. Suspicion of MO so sent for ultra sound scan which was confirmed, absent from full team training for 9 months.

Intramuscular haematoma
Contained haematoma within the vastus lateralis muscle after 30 days of continued training post-initial injury
Management:

Surgical excision of MO is only really reserved for persistent cases that don’t respond to conservative treatment (here). A collective decision was made that we should try to reduce any form of load that may stimulate further bone growth. As a result, the player was removed from all activity of the lower limbs, no soft tissue therapy to the quads and at this stage no stretching of the affected tissues.

It is neither healthy nor beneficial (or fun!) to completely rest when you are used to training 6 days a week. Credit should go to Will Abbott (@WillAbbott_) for his contribution to the maintenance of the athletic profile for this player. A periodised program was designed to maintain metabolic and cardiovascular systems, strengthen the upper body and completely unload the lower body.

Screen Shot 2016-06-19 at 9.02.28 AM
A periodised model to demonstrate maintenance of unaffected systems with complete lower body unload (designed by Will Abbott)
The program included swimming, with multiple floats between the legs to reduce the temptation to kick. All gym based activities were performed seated or with legs supported when lying to reduce axial load through the legs during upper body lifts. Upper body metabolic sessions were implemented via high intensity interval training, with small rest periods to help maintain specific anaerobic demands relating to the sport. This was done using medicine balls, ropes, boxing pads.. anything to reduce the monotony of daily upper body training.

Each month was broken down further (as shown below), with follow-up ultra sound scans every 4 weeks. After the first 4 weeks, we observed a 2.5cm reduction in length which consolidated our thought process to continue de-loading. With limited exercise potential and treatment for the leg, we ran half days and 5 day weeks to help maintain a positive psychological presence.

Screen Shot 2016-06-19 at 9.02.58 AM

This was an opportunity to increase muscle mass in the upper body, an opportunity that would not have been possible during season if the player continued to play and train. This allowed a clear progressive pathway for increased lean mass with the following phases:

Hypertrophy –> Max strength –> Strength / power conversion –> Power

While the conditioning phases were as followed:

Aerobic base –> Max aerobic –> Supra max aerobic

There was a decrease in calcicific mass every month, although the rate of this varied each time. By the end of month-4, the mass had completely reabsorbed which meant the reintroduction of load to the lower libs.  By this point, the end of the season was 6 weeks away and therefore no realistic opportunity to play again this season, so the decision was made to start physical preparation for the following season.

Screen Shot 2016-06-19 at 9.03.30 AM
An example of the lower body periodisation
The lower body gym program was tailored as followed:

Strength endurance* –> Strength –> Max strength –> Strength & power complex training

(* This was probably more “re-introduction to the gym” rather than true strength-endurance. But this phase would have served as a gentle hypertrophy phase given the 4 months of atrophy)

Before undergoing a linear outdoor session progressing from general preparation to sport specific drills with Tom Barnden (@barnden_tom). The player completed a full pre-season and no recurrent symptoms to date.

Conclusion:

Hopefully the lengthy timeline of this case study demonstrates the importance of giving each individual injury the respect it deserves. While I hope the management is interesting, the key discussion point is how do we approach “dead legs”? Should there be better education to athletes and coaches about the magnitude of injury? Essentially given the tissue damage, are they a tear? If an A4 piece of paper represented a muscle, and we tear down the middle (strain) or poke a hole through the centre of the page (blunt force trauma), that page is still affected and unable to serve as an A4 piece of paper. Why does the mechanism of damage change the management of injury? Given any loss of range or function following a blunt force trauma, always consider the magnitude of potential damage; monitor swelling, bruising and pain and have adequate timelines in the back of your mind – don’t rush to a diagnosis / prognosis on day 1. There will be times where there is impact and initial pain but full range and full strength – this is where our pitch-side assessment and reasoning comes in (here).

Yours in sport,

Sam

“Has the athlete trained enough to return to play safely?” Acute:Chronic workloads and rehabilitation – a guest blog by Jo Clubb

We are delighted to have the excellent Jo Clubb agree to write a blog for us. Admittedly, this blog is a little more high-brow than our usual ramblings, so thanks to Jo for adding some class to our library. Jo has recently broken into the American sports scene, working as a sports scientist with the Buffalo Sabres NHL, bringing with her expertise from her years in football (..soccer) in the UK (previously with Chelsea & more recently with Brighton & Hove Albion FC). What makes this blog extra special to us is that Jo already has an excellent blog page of her own that is read and commended worldwide (Sports Discovery – here). Jo demonstrates how & why sports science plays a massive part in return from injury in professional sport…

Introduction:

Training Stress Balance and the Acute:Chronic Workload Ratio are real buzz words in Sports Science at the moment. They also have important implications for the Physiotherapy and Conditioning communities in terms of rehabilitation and Return To Play.

This concept is derived from Banister’s modelling of human performance back in the 1970s (and then later added to by Busso in the 1990s) that put forward an impulse-response model to predict training load induced changes in performance. If we consider a single block of training, this stimulus will have a temporary negative influence represented as ‘fatigue’ but over a longer time frame will have a positive influence, represented as ‘fitness’. Performance will consequently be a product of the Fitness Fatigue relationship (see Figure 1). Within this theoretical model of Training Theory, it is suggested that with regular training stimuli we can manipulate these processes of fitness and fatigue via training load, recovery and overcompensation, to have a positive influence on performance (see Figure 2).

fig 1

Figure 1: Used with permission from Professor Aaron Coutts

 

fig 2

Figure 2: Used with permission from Professor Aaron Coutts

The Acute:Chronic Workload

Whilst this concept of training stress balance has been cited since these early, groundbreaking days, it has recently been developed into the acute:chronic workload ratio by Tim Gabbett and colleagues, which they suggest is the best practice predictor of training-related injuries (Gabbett, 2015).

It has previously been represented as a % for Training Stress Balance, but the focus now seems to be on utilising it in a ratio form, for example:

= Acute workload / Chronic workload

= 3000 (Au) / 4000 (Au) = 0.75

In this example acute workload is represented as the total load over the previous one week and chronic workload is the average weekly load for the previous four weeks, both utilising an arbitary unit (Au) such as session RPE.

So a ratio below 1, as per the above example, suggests the athlete is more likely to be in a state of “freshness”; their load over the past week has been less than their average weekly load over the past four weeks.

On the other hand a ratio above 1 represents that the workload over the past week has been greater than the average weekly load over the past four weeks, so they may be more likely to be in a state of “fatigue” and potentially less prepared for that workload. Recent research has suggested a ratio greater than 1.5 represents a “spike” in workload that is related to a significantly higher risk of injury (Blanch and Gabbett, 2015 here).

Training and Game Loads and Injury Risk

Tim Gabbett and his colleagues have collected consistent data within the training environment, statistically modelled the relationships between workload and injury risk, applied their model to help reduce injury risk in the training environment and published this data – for me this is the gold standard process of Sports Science and a method we should strive to replicate within each of our own environments. The relationship between workloads and injury risk has included just some of the following research:

  • Running loads and soft tissue injury in rugby league (Gabbett and Ullah, 2012)
  • Training and game loads and injury risk in Australian football (Rogalski et al, 2013; Colby et al, 2014)
  • Pitching workloads and injury risk in youth baseball (Fleisig et al, 2011)
  • Spikes in acute workload and injury risk in elite cricket fast bowlers (Hulin et al, 2014)
  • Acute:chronic workload ratio and injury risk in elite rugby league players (Hulin et al, 2015)

I can talk about this all day (and probably will in a number of other blogs); however the focus of this specific blog is on the application in the rehabilitation environment so I will leave it at that for now. If you do want to read more of this topic, I highly recommend reading the following OPEN ACCESS paper:

The training-injury prevention paradox: should athletes be training smarter and harder? (Gabbett, 2016) Br J Sports Med doi:10.1136/bjsports-2015-095788

 

Rehabilitation

There is plenty of application to this approach in the training environment however; it is just as important in the rehabilitation setting as highlighted in the following paper:

Has the athlete trained enough to return to play safely? The acute:chronic workload ratio permits clinicians to quantify a player’s risk of subsequent injury (Blanch and Gabbett, 2015).

Rehabilitation is without doubt a very complex continuum in which medical staff assist the athlete through early stage rehabilitation to the multifaceted return to train, play and performance decisions, which I have tried to tackle previously (here)  and specifically for hamstring injuries (here). Previous to the paper by Peter Blanch and Tim Gabbett much of the literature on Return to Play failed to acknowledge the consideration of the progression of load in the RTP decision.

Often the evaluation of health status that directly influences the Return To Play decision may incorporate instantaneous physical testing results such as isokinetics or force plate assessment, as well as functional on pitch activity profile targets such as peak speeds, distances, high intensity running and velocity changes. Whilst there is no doubt these have their place, there also needs to be consideration for the loading achieved throughout the rehabilitation continuum in preparation for the acute and chronic loading demands of training and matchplay.

Blanch and Gabbett present a real world example from rugby league (Figure 3) in which a player suffered a hamstring injury after an acute:chronic workload ratio of 1.6 in training week 15. After two low-minimal weeks of high speed running due to the injury, the acute:chronic workload three weeks later spiked to 1.9 (presumably as high speed running was reincorporated into the rehabilitation phase in week 18) and then suffered a reinjury. This example also reminds us to consider which measure(s) of load is most relevant to each sport, injury and individual. High speed running is no doubt important to a hamstring injury but may be of less importance with other sports and injuries. The acute:chronic workload ratio can be applied to any of the variables you collect and may represent a different picture across different metrics.

fig 3

Figure 3: From Blanch and Gabbett (2015), p2.

Rod Whiteley recently gave an excellent presentation at the Aspire Monitoring Training Loads conference entitled “The conditioning-medical paradox: should service teams be working together or as enemies on the training load battlefield?” He applied Tim Gabbett’s work to rehabilitation workloads and related it to the “chronic rehabber”; s/he who never gets to build a consistently high base of chronic workload to prepare themselves for returning to the training environment, so suffers a spike in acute:chronic workload and then a reinjury (Figure 4). He called upon us to “fundamentally rethink how we’re reintroducing the athletes” as well as breaking down the traditional silo structure between medical staff and conditioning staff.

fig 4

Figure 4: Presented by Rod Whiteley, Aspire Monitoring Training Load Conference February 2016

Now we obviously cannot keep athletes away from the training environment forever and nor would we want to. However, it seems avoiding spikes in acute:chronic workloads with returning athletes may help the transition into return to training and competition, and to reduce reinjury risk. This may be achieved via further progressing the load achieved prior to RTP and/or reducing the load from reintegration by using modified training (or a mixture of both). In reality it may not be as simple as that – a major challenge for the Science and Medicine team is to manage expectations of both the athlete and the coaches. I’m sure if the athlete is looking good and undergoing a substantial training load there will be pressure to incorporate them into training.

I believe this paper highlights the need firstly to consider and plan (where possible) the progression of load throughout rehabilitation, end stage and continued into training and games. Whilst the athlete may be physically prepared for the demands of a one off training session, we must also pay attention to the demands in terms of acute and chronic load. It also highlights the need to consider the consequences of each decision relating to loading of the athlete; whether that is the decision to offload the athlete for a day (which may of course be truly necessary based on the clinical presentation) or the decision of how much load to put the athlete through day to day. In another example from the Blanch and Gabbett paper the authors put forward a representation of an injured player’s Return to Play and demonstrate how the variations in load in that week directly influence the likelihood of injury – i.e. 90% acute load would return an 11% likelihood of injury, compared to 120% which would be related to 15% risk.

Whilst injuries are undoubtedly complex, multifaceted and influenced by many factors, and statistical modelling of the risk has its own limitations, it seems the evidence is strong enough to suggest that the interaction of acute and chronic load through rehabilitation and RTP is another piece of the puzzle that is worthwhile considering.

Jo Clubb (@JoClubbSportSci)

 

References

Banister EW & Calvert TW. (1975) A systems model of training for athletic performance. Aust J Sports Med; 7: 57-61.

Blanch P & Gabbett TJ. (2015) Has the athlete trained enough to return to play safely? The acute:chronic workload ratio permits clinicians to quantify a player’s risk of subsequent injury. Br J Sports Med;0:1–5. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2015-095445

Busso T, Hakkinen K, Pakarinen A, et al. (1990) A systems model of training responses and its relationship to hormonal responses in elite weight-lifters. Eur J Appl Physiol; 61: 48-54.

Colby MJ, Dawson B, Heasman J, et al. (2014) Accelerometer and GPS-dervied running loads and injury risk in elite Australian footballers. J Strength Cond Res; 28: 2244-52.

Fleisig GS, Andrews JR, Cutter GR, et al. (2011) Risk of serious injury for young baseball pitchers: a 10-year prospective study. Am J Sports Med; 39: 253-7.

Gabbett, TJ. (2016) The training-injury prevention paradox: should athletes be training smarter and harder? Br J Sports Med doi:10.1136/bjsports-2015-095788

Gabbett TJ & Ullah S. (2012) Relationship between running loads and soft-tissue injury in elite team sport athletes. J Strength Cond Res; 26:953-60.

Hulin BT, Gabbett TJ, Blanch P, et al. (2014) Spikes in acute workload are associated with increased injury risk in elite cricket fast bowlers. Br J Sports Med; 48: 708-12.

Hulin BT, Gabbett TJ, Lawson DW, et al. (2015) The acute:chronic workload ratio predicts injury: high chronic workload may decrease injury risk in elite rugby league players. Br J Sports Med; Published Online First: 28 Oct 2015. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2015-094817doi:10.1136/bjsports-2015-094817

Rogalski B, Dawson B, Heasman J, et al. (2013) Training and game loads and injury risk in elite Australian footballers. J Sci Med Sport; 16: 499-503.

 

“I’ve come here for an arguement”

I’ve recently made the move from the clinical environment into academia (despite the occasional clinical fix to satisfy my itchy feet). Part of this move was to set up some new MSc modules at the University of Brighton. The way I wanted this to run was based on me facilitating discussion rather than standing up and banging on about what I would do in different situations – no-one is going to enroll for that! But for this to work, it relies on people feeling comfortable talking about their own practice, something I’ve been surprised by the reluctance in doing so. People seem very uncomfortable disclosing what they do and how they do it.

A while back I read a blog re-tweeted by IFL Sciences (@IFLScience) about how a disagreement is different to an argument. Now rather than me eloquently blurring these definitions and confusing you more, why not allow the genius of  Monty Python to explain.. please watch this brief 3 min video (here).

The original clip goes on a bit longer and in true python fashion, gets stupider. But this clip can translate into our practice. It is perfectly reasonable and healthy to argue. We are not going to learn from each other by accepting that the other guy sat in the room, who has more experience than me, treated his ankle sprain using those exercises, so that’s what I should do.

No! Why? Why those exercises for that individual?

 

There are many roads to Derby:

imageCompletely random destination (just so happened to be one of the cities I can spell). But this image sums up what I think about clinical reasoning. It also demonstrates what I encourage our students, more so post-grad students with clinical experience, to accept when questioned about their practice.

Most of us have at some point ignored the sat-nav, right? Intentionally or not. But it simply re-routes and will eventually lead you to your destination. The same with rehab & treatment. We may all have the same goal & end point, but how we get there is different. The route we chose depends on many factors.

Letting the sat-nav make the decision:

For a relatively less experienced clinician, the situation may be this:

“I’ve only ever been to Derby once, but when I did go, that route worked pretty well for me, so I’m going for it again. Why risk otherwise?”

This is the equivalent of following a protocol or being led by a more experienced clinician. Perfectly legitimate but after a time the question will become, “have you tried other ways?” Yes that’s a pretty direct route, but sometimes it’s not about the speed you get there. An example I can think of was a player with a partial ACL injury that occurred just before christmas. We made the decision to prolong his rehab until the pre-season, despite realistically being able to get him fit for the last 2 games of the season. But there was no advantage to that, instead we were able to focus more on smaller details, enhance his “robustness” and ultimately, we had no re-injuries with him the following season. We decided to take the more scenic route and enjoy the drive. Sometimes, it shouldnt be other people asking why you have done something, but yourself. (Do this internally, arguing with yourself in a cubicle at work could have very different consequences to the intended career development).

Thanks Sat-Nav, but no thanks:

This option comes after you have driven to & from Derby a few times. Or if you insist on keeping it relevant to practice, an exposure to a certain injury with a set population. Experience may tell you that the route suggested by Sat-Nav has an average-speed check for 25 miles, so you may choose one of the alternate routes. This is the same as saying, “I wanted to use squats for his knee rehab, but it aggravates his hip so instead I used dead-lifts.” Someone has asked you why you went that route, the answer is reasoned and justified and neither party needs to be offended. But you have argued your point.

 

An argument is different to a disagreement:

An example of this not being constructive may be:

“I prefer this route because the services have Costa and not Starbucks. I hate Starbucks.” This opinion, without any justification may turn into a disagreement. “I don’t ever use a wobble cushion in my rehab, just don’t believe in them.” A genuine statement that I heard years back when I was studying myself. There was no rationale, every counter argument was met with “Nope. Dont buy it.”

opinions
This is a disagreement. Something I disagree with… Oh, balls.
Conclusion:

An argument doesn’t have to be raised voices or expletives (although people who swear more are shown to be more trustworthy and honest. If you belive that bullshit). It can be someone wanting to develop their own thinking and reasoning, therefore probing your experience – “But WHY did you chose that? (subtext = help me learn!)”

Equally it can be someone pushing you to develop. “You use that exercise for all of your patients.. why?”

I’ve started to do a little presentation at the start of our modules to explain this thinking, I will be asking “why?” A lot, but I don’t want people retreating or getting defensive. Asking Why is not a sign that I disagree with you. arguing is not a sign that I disagree with you. If you feel comfortable with those concepts, you have either done an MSc already, or you are ready to do one! For those not on twitter, firstly – how are you reading this blog? Secondly, get on there. Prime examples of arguments about clinical practice everyday and very quickly, normal jovial exchanges are resumed (I would highly commend Tom Goom (@tomgoom) for this attribute). But also, it is a good place to observe some people misunderstanding an argument and presuming it is a disagreement (I wont name people, don’t want to get in a disagreement).

 

Yours in sport,

Sam

Rehabbing teenagers can be awkward! – sensorimotor function during adolescence

There is a bit of a buzz phrase in rehab about “individualising programs” and while it is something we wholeheartedly agree with, it is a phrase that is very easy to say and yet very difficult to implement. Especially when you work with a population where said individual changes rapidly through time, like a teenager! It is a common sight on a training pitch to see a star player in their age group suddenly tripping over cones or developing a heavy touch where there was previously effortless control. Side effects of the adolescent growth spurt, where the brain is now controlling a much longer lever. It’s like giving a champion gardener a new set of garden sheers when for the past year they have used little hand-held scissors and asking to them maintain their award-winning standards. (My garden embarrassingly needs some attention and it’s affecting my analogies).

Master-Gardener-Pruner-Secateurs-Shears-Garden-Hand-plants-Shears-trim-cutter-easy-carry-Garden-Tool
The control and precision between these two instruments is influenced by the lever length of the handles…
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…Similar to a rapidly growing femur and tibia which is still being operated by muscles that have length and strength suitable for shorter levers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alongside the performance related issues, there is suggestion that this period of growth may coincide with increased risk of injury (Caine et al 2008). We believe that bone grows quicker than soft tissue, so we are asking a neuromuscular system to control a new, longer lever using prior proprioceptive wiring. Imagine our gardener again, for a long time he has been able to keep his pair of scissors close and controlled, now with his extra long shears the load is further away from his body, his back and shoulders are starting to ache. Not sure what I mean? With one hand hold a pencil to the tip of your nose. Now, with one hand hold a broom handle to your nose. The longer lever is harder to control. **I promise it gets a bit more sciencey than gardening and broom handles. **

Managing these growth spurts is something we have talked about before and recently contributed to a BJSM podcast on the topic (Part 1 & Part 2) and a complimentary BJSM blog about “biobanding” during periods of growth and development (here). This particular blog was inspired by a recent (2015) systematic review looking into exactly which sensorimotor mechanisms are mature or immature at the time of adolescence by Catherine Quatman-Yates and colleagues over in Cincinnati (here). The following is a combination of their summary and our examples of how these findings can influence our rehab programs.

Tailoring the program:

We have so many options for exercise programs, that’s what makes the task of designing them so fun. It challenges our creativity. When working with a teenager with sensorimotor function deficits, let’s call them “Motor Morons” for short, we don’t have to totally re-think our exercise list, just perhaps the way we deliver them. We previously spoke about motor control and motor learning (here) and how our instructions can progress just as our exercises do, but the following relates to children and adolescents in particular.

Consider the stimuli.

Children aged between 14-16 have well-developed visual perception of static objects however their perception of moving objects and visual cues for postural control continue to mature through adolescence. When very young children learn new skills such as standing and walking, they become heavily reliant on visual cues. Quatman-Yates et al suggest that puberty and growth spurts (think gardener with new shears) brings new postural challenges that causes adolescents to regress proprioceptive feedback and increase reliance on visual cues again. From a rehab perspective, we need to consider this as part of our balance and proprioception program. How many of us default to a single leg stand and throwing a tennis ball back & forth from therapist to athlete? For our Motor Moron, this may not be an optimal form of treatment in early stages, where it is commonly used, however it may incredibly beneficial to that athlete in the later stages or as part of ongoing rehab as we try to develop that dynamic perception.

Consider the amount of stimuli involved in an exercise versus what your goal of that exercise is

We should also consider the amount of stimuli we add to an exercise. Postural stability in children is believed to be affected by multiple sensory cues. If we consider that children are more dependent on visual cues than adults are, perhaps our delivery of external stimuli should be tailored also. With a multi directional running drill for example, there is sometimes an element where the athlete is given a decision making task (a red cone in one direction and a yellow cone in another) and they have to react quickly to instructions from the therapist or coach. Rather than shouting instructions like “red cone”, “yellow cone” etc, hold up the coloured cone for the corresponding drill. This way we are utilising this developed visual perception, minimising the number of stimuli and also encouraging the athlete to get their head up and look around rather than looking at their feet.

When to include unilateral exercises:

Within adult populations, it is often considered gold standard to make exercises unilateral as soon as tolerable. If they can deep squat pain free and fully weight bear through the affected side, progress them to pistol squats ASAP, or single leg knee drives. However, young children (pre-pubescent) may struggle with this for a couple of reasons.

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Difficult enough even for an adult to perform, but uncoupling the actions of the each leg & fine muscle movements to maintain balance are extra challenging for children

Firstly, we need to consider postural adjustments. Where as adults and young adults can adjust their balance with smooth control and multiple, small oscillations, children rely on larger ballistic adjustments. There is also reduced anterior-posterior control in younger athletes which suggests reduced intrinsic ankle control. Put this alongside immature structures and (if working a physio, most probably) an injury then single leg exercise become a progression that may be further down the line than an adult counterpart with the same injury. Instead, consider semi-stable exercises. Support the contralateral leg with a football or a bosu ball – something that is difficult to fixate through but provides enough stability to support the standing leg.

Secondly, we understand that coupled movements are mastered earlier in adolescence, around 12-15 years old but uncoupled movement patterns take longer to develop, 15-18 years old (Largo et al). A good example is watching a young child reach for a full cup of water at the dinner table. It is much easier and more natural for them to reach with both hands than it is with one, as coupled movements are unintended. Rarely do you see a child taking a drink with one hand filling their fork with the other – yet this is something commonly seen with adults as they are able to uncouple and segmentalise. Another example is watching a child dynamically turn, watch how the head, trunk and limbs all turn as a “block”, it is not until further down the line where dynamic movements become more fluid. The argument here is that surely running is an uncoupled movement? Or kicking a football, swinging a tennis racket, pirouetting in ballet – they are all uncoupled, segmental movement patterns that we expect kids to do, and in all they cope with. Correct, but it is usually in rehab programs for kids that we begin to introduce unfamiliar tasks and exercises that they may not have encountered before. Also, we should respect the impact of the injury on proprioception and control. So these are all considerations for starting points in exercise & if a regression is ever required.

For this reason, it is important that exercises are monitored and reviewed regularly. There is no need to hold an athlete back because of their age and making assumptions on motor function because of their age. If they can cope, then progress them. But be mindful of “over-control” where speed and variability of movement are sacrificed in place of accuracy and control (Quatman-Yates et al 2015).

Become a Motor Moron hunter

It is worth spending some time watching training, watching warm ups, watching gym sessions and talking with coaches and S&C’s trying to identify a Motor Moron as soon as possible. It’s important to minimise the chances of an immature sensorimotor mechanism ever meeting a growth spurt. It is when these two things combine that we see kids doing immaculate Mr Bean impressions and therefore increase their risk of injury.Safari-kids

Regularly re-assess your exercise programs. If things arent quite progressing as quickly as they should, it may not be failed healing of an injury, but it may be that we are providing the sensorimotor mechanism with too much information!

 

Yours in sport,

Sam

 

“The Young Athlete” conference 9-10th Oct, Brighton. Here

Trying to simplify “Critiquing literature “

In order to effectively clinically reason, we need to be able to critique the evidence. I want to be clear from the start – I’m not here to sledge any authors or specific papers, so I’ll just use hypothetical examples throughout. But what I want to try and do is simplify the ability to critique research for those people who maybe aren’t comfortable doing so.

A few recent discussions with colleagues and MSc students at University prompted me to write this blog. I’m not a researcher and I’m certainly not a statistician. My wife just throws more than 3 sums at me to convince me I owe her money. Numbers fry my brain. But, that shouldn’t put me off being able to critique a paper in a constructive way.

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Critical Comment #1: Can I understand why they’ve used this Methodology?

For an author to create a robust methodology, there has to be the existing literature available in the first place to support their design. We place a great deal of trust in authors that they have researched their methodology appropriately -the tests they use are validated, there’s evidence behind their outcomes, a clear rationale for their intervention. But have they made all of these clear? You can see already how we can create a peeled onion effect, whereby we could (if social lives weren’t an issue) trace back all of the references for outcomes measures and tests.

layeredonion
We can easily end up chasing references. Which like an onion, will probably make you cry.

I feel a great deal of sympathy for authors here, because in some cases they cant win. Authors are torn due to previously limited research, to which they need to reference their proposed methodology in order to be considered robust.

Lets use something that’s not contentious, I don’t know…? Massage. No one has established an appropriate and valid duration. Neither have they determined best technique, and so on – so a great deal of literature these days will standardise their methodology to an arbitrary figure, often 2 minutes per technique. Where has this come from? For those who do use massage as part of their practice – when do you time a duration for techniques? Surely its individual, dependent on the therapist, the treatment outcomes and goals etc – but any paper that justified their methodology on something that is extremely subjective like clinicians experience would get slated!

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Why did you bring up massage again?!

I’m sure this will get shot down monumentally, but personally I would commend a study brave enough to use an experienced clinician and trust their clinical knowledge & autonomy. Let them use an intervention they use routinely and daily and allow for creative freedom and individual needs. We constantly bang on about treatments being individual, so lets put our money where our mouth is. I’ve used massage here, but the same could be applied for a lot of interventions – types, techniques, durations. If they haven’t been validated historically, how can we be assured about results from this current paper we’re critiquing?

It’s another argument for another time – but do we need to go back to basics with some interventions and learn more about them before we critique and dismiss them? Rather than compare intervention vs no intervention, should we compare the same intervention but with different goal posts first?

I’ve used massage here but that’s not my point, its the methodology I’m trying to emphasise.

  • Is it a fair comparison between interventions?
  • Does it even need a control?

 

Critical comment #2: Is there an appropriate population used for the research question?

We have to remember that any outcome or clinical relevance from a study can only be applied to the population that they used within that study. Can we assume that a new training program implemented with recreational athletes will have the same benefits with elite athletes? It’s impossible for authors to give us huge details about population because of their limited word count – but we need to make some educated guesses regarding the outcomes. The benefits of an eccentric intervention for an elite group of footballers doesn’t mean we can start Sunday league players or even semi-pro players on the same intervention at the same intensity or volume.

Take the findings and apply them to your clinical practice & patient exposure. Would this intervention fit with your athletes current schedule or level of conditioning?

Flip that around and consider that a study using a lay population may find huge benefits from an intervention – but is it just an accelerated learning curve that wouldn’t impact an elite athlete in the same way? Exposure to something completely new will have bigger consequences and effects.

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Critical comment #3: The dreaded stats! Or am I just being Mean? Probably (<0.05)

I’ve already said, I’m no statistician. The critique that can be applied with some understanding of these stats processes is incredible and I am in awe of people that can do this. But there are some simple points to consider when looking through analysis and results of papers. The first thing to consider, does the presented data tell you what you need to know? Go back to secondary school maths with Mean, Median (and Mode):

We want to investigate how many hops a subject can manage after ankle mobilisations (assuming we had no other variables like fatigue etc). Their pre-test scores are around 50. During assessment they record the following scores (40, 51, 45, 52, 100), one time they have blinder, recording 100 hops. A mean score would suggest that the effect of mobilisations increased their pre-intervention scores from 50 to 57.6, this sounds quite impressive. A median score used in this example would tell us that aside from one outlier, their post-intervention scores didn’t change too much (51). In this case, we want to know for definite whether or not our mobilisations have allowed this subject to hop better – they have a world championships in hopping coming up. If the data is clearly presented, we may be able to work this out ourselves. But I’m lazy – I’ve got 30minutes over coffee to read an article, I want to read their results and discussions and hope that this leg work has been done for me.

Now an author wanting to get a publication is always going to present the data with greatest impact – in this case the mean. That’s fine, but its worth checking the number of scores recorded. The greater the amount of data, the more accurate a mean will be. But less subjects or less tests would always be worth double checking the data.

 

If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it” Albert Einstein

This brings us nicely onto probability. After writing this blog draft, I was shown this brilliant lecture by Rod Whiteley (Here) who understands this much more than me! (See above quote). It must be en vogue because the editorial in Physical Therapy in Sport this month disucsses P-Value also (Here). But what I do understand about P-Values is to always ask.. “So what?” So its statistically significant, but is it clinically relevant?

Again, another hypothetical study. We investigate the use of weighted squats to increase knee flexion. We find that by squat 1.5x body weight can significantly increase knee flexion (P<0.001). That significant difference is 3 degrees. Is that going to make your practice better?  In some cases it may do! Achieving a few degrees in smaller joints with less room to play with, or perhaps post-op TKR and we just need a few more degrees to allow this patient to safely negotiate stairs – if they cant do stairs I’m not sure I would get them doing 1.5x BW squats though, which takes us back to our population critique.

Hopefully you have watched the Rod Whiteley lecture by now, so you can see where non-significant data can be very clinically relevant. It does make me wonder how much we have thrown out or dismissed that could be very beneficial.

 

Critical Comment #4: The Conclusion

So we have 30 minutes to quickly search for a paper, read the abstract and decide to read the article. I’ll hold my hands up to skimming the vast majority of a paper just to get to the conclusion. Not good practice though. Its worth checking who the author is, have they published on this topic before? What is their motivation? Most people will publish something that they either strongly believe in, or don’t believe at all. We’ve already discussed how its easy to manipulate stats, so if I strongly want to prove something works, given enough data & appropriate stats I could probably could. This sounds incredibly synical, but it should be a question you ask. If the conclusion is strong despite some variable results, bear it in mind.

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Our Conclusion:

“Its actually quite exciting, what you know now will probably change”

So can we believe anything that’s published? Yes. We can & We need to. Otherwise we stand still. Being critical is not the same as disagreeing or dismissing something. It just shows us where there are gaps and where can start investigating next. It’s actually quite exciting, what you know now will probably change. Something you don’t understand now, we will probably find out in the future. But taking a single paper and changing our practice based on that is a bit drastic. We need to consider the body of literature, read articles that challenge accepted beliefs and make our own decision. The beauty of sports medicine is there are no recipes. Where possible the literature should challenge our thinking and keep us evolving, but it doesn’t always restrict us to guidelines and protocols. We are lucky enough to be autonomous in our treatment and our exercise prescription and we should celebrate that. Ask 3 respected conditioning coaches to create a program for one athlete with a specific goal and see how diverse they are. Thats what sets us apart from each other and makes us individual therapists and coaches.

Take home points:

  1. Check the methodology – are you happy with what they are investigating & how they do so? It is perfectly acceptable to disagree!
  2. Does the population used apply to what you’re looking to take from the paper? You are reading this paper for some reason – hopefully to re-inforce / change your practice. Do the female college basketball players used in this study apply to your clinical caseload?
  3. Don’t accept or dismiss a paper purely on its P-Value.
  4. Has the author based their opinion purely on the P-Value? Check! Don’t just accept their conclusion. This is their entitlement but its their interpretation of the stats.

#PrayForAuthors: They do face a fight between getting something published, and in doing so making their study conform to previously accepted literature but perhaps deviating away from what the masses actually practice in clinic. The lasting question I will leave you with; considering the points made in this blog and the discussion by Rod Whiteley – where does that leave systematic reviews? I have my own thoughts 😉 Let us know yours.

 

Yours in Sport

Sam

S&C – Can you ever be too young?

Strength and Conditioning in youth sport is more popular than ever.  Many independent gyms operate “academy” sessions to help the future rugby, football and olympic hopefuls to reach the top of their disciplines.  Initiatives such as the Premier League’s Elite Player Performance Pathway (EPPP) has lead to increased investment in the football academy’s throughout England while Rugby’s academy system has been established for a number of years, with increased specialist support being made available i.e. S&C/Sports Science/Physio support.

Not all exercises are appropriate for young athletes
Not all exercises are appropriate for young athletes

There are many stigma’s attached to Strength and Conditioning training in youth sports.  We have all heard remarks like… “Weights training stunts growth…damages the growth plates” or “Strength training will make you injury prone”.

Is this the truth?

The most commonly reported injuries sustained in youth Strength and Conditioning training are a result of incorrect technique, attempting to lift too much weight, incorrect use of equipment and the absence of a properly qualified supervision – ALL of which are easily avoided with properly programmed and coached sessions (Faigenhaum et al., 2009). The reality is that there are many peer reviewed papers available that prove the effectiveness of S&C programs and injury reduction across a wide variety of sports from Aussie rules football to rugby. While there have been numerous position statements from leading organisations such as the ASCM, NSCA and UKSCA regarding the benefits of a well designed S&C program in aiding the development of young athletes, yet the publics perception has yet to change.  The fact remains there are many benefits in youth athletes undertaking S&C training programs (when carried out properly!).

 

Benefits of  Strength and Conditioning for youth athletes

There are various benefits to Strength and Conditioning in youth athletes, so many in-fact it is beyond the scope of the current blog to cover them all.  Firstly consider that the World Health Organisation recognises physical inactivity as the fourth leading risk factor for global mortality for non-communicable diseases any additional physical activity that is undertaken will help combat the ill effects of modern living.  Appropriate strength training combined with aerobic and anaerobic training, along with a balanced diet, will lead to an increased amount of lean muscle mass which would be especially useful for young athletes in contact sports such as rugby and football.

“Significant gains can be seen as youth elites reach peak height velocity”

From a purely sporting and performance perspective pre-adolescent children show considerable potential for motor learning, therefore there is an opportunity to effectively develop skills such as squat and lunge patterns, running mechanics, deceleration and change of direction prior to the onset of puberty (Barber-Westin et al., 2006).  This should be achieved using exercises that are whole body in nature (no bicep curls…sorry) and aim to develop coordination and overall athleticism, which could also act as a protective mechanism against injury risks later in their sporting career.

kids bicepcurl

Puberty triggers the release of masses of hormones which are of massive benefit when trying to gain muscle mass and strength (if only I knew that 15 years ago).  This also results in changes to the muscular system and cardiovascular systems, mostly in the responses and changes noted to aerobic and anaerobic training stimuli.  While these qualities can be improved pre-puberty, significant gains can be seen as youth elites reach peak height velocity (period of quickest rate of growth, roughly 14 years old in boys/12 years old in girls, Naughton et al., 2000), while the mechanical loading undertaken during youth Strength and Conditioning will also positively influence the development of bones and connective tissues in the body.  Exercises such as sprinting, jumping, plyometrics as well as gym based work all have positive effects on the osteogenic processes.

What should young athletes do in S&C sessions?

Pre-puberty – At this stage of physical development the emphasis should be placed on neuromuscular training and consist of coaching the young athlete through various patterns and movements i.e. coaching a player not to perform a lunge pattern with a knee valgus.  Other movements to master at this stage of development are jumping, landing and change of direction skills.  Skill or game based activities are best for conditioning the aerobic system by manipulating the tasks, number of players or even the size of the area being used for the sessions.  Strength training should consist of exercises, both unilateral and bilateral, and loads appropriate for the age of the athlete.  Body weight exercises would be more than appropriate for this stage of development with a rep range of between 6-15 and 2-3 sets.

Puberty – Neuromuscular training at this stage should show a level of progression in comparison to the previously undertaken tasks e.g. progression from a bilateral to a unilateral exercise  or from basic balance exercise progressing to dynamic stabilisation exercises.  Conditioning exercises should be mostly interval based and consist of more games/skills orientated.  Strength training should show an increased complexity with more unilateral exercises and the introduction of Olympic lifts for appropriate individuals.

Adolescents – Neuromuscular training should consist of increased speed work, unilateral and dynamic stabilisation work.  Conditioning work should feature anaerobic based intervals and progressively more strenuous game/skill based work.  Strength training should progressively load the athlete unilaterally, bilaterally and in the olympic lifts (Gamble, P., 2009).

Summary

What’s not to like?  Starting a S&C program from a young age, provided it is supervised, structured correctly with appropriate progressions will enhance performance on the field and track while concurrently producing many lifestyle and health benefits.  A appropriate program will develop neuromuscular control and athleticism and gradually develop more specialised components of performance.  Ensuring this will help the young athlete reach their maximum potential and encourage physical activity throughout their lifetime.

Yours in Sport,

Conor