Win or lose, when a season comes to a close it is critical athletes experience an off-season. This is not to be mistaken for a break in training, where there is a couple of weeks downtime. A break in training can occur in-season to take stock of progress from a particular training block that may have culminated in a competition or event.
In a typical season, whatever the sport, an athlete should have several scheduled breaks in training to allow the body and mind time and space to breathe easy. To go one step further, if an athlete describes his or her off-season as merely a break in training, they are on a fast-track to becoming injured in the ensuing season. An off-season is one of the most essential parts of an athlete’s continual development and well-being.
However, in the age of believing that unless you’re pushing yourself to the limit every day and downtime is seen as a weakness, athletes often fail to appreciate the long-lasting effects of a structured off-season. Not to mention the far-reaching benefits to the significant others in an athlete’s otherwise self-centred existence.
Athletes are often heard giving thanks to their family, friends and partners for their support and understanding from one season to the next. The off-season is an ideal time to put actions on those words of appreciation. To truly remove oneself from the rigours of training and be present with a significant other does not happen overnight. It takes time to get the training rigamarole out of your system, to be relaxed enough to attend to something important to someone else.
A change of pace so radically different to what is normally experienced in-season is often a frightening concept for an elite athlete to consider. Especially when the majority of misleading messages heard from around the world present the athlete like a generator that never sleeps. For example, Michael Johnson, former World and Olympic 200m and 400m champion, recently tweeted at the beginning of the new NBA season that LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers took only two days off before commencing his pre-season. The expectation and assumption to be inferred is that such commitment would lead to a repeat result next summer. Apart from the fact it turned out to be an inaccurate post, with an extended family holiday enjoyed at seasons-end by the entire James family, LeBron included, the message was loud and clear — unless you’re training 363 days a year, do not expect to make it into the winner’s enclosure.
But of course, this is not the case.
The benefits of an off-season extend far beyond your relationship with others. It is not just an exercise in switching off cognitively from your sport in order to refresh your psychological processes.
It is about physically and physiologically allowing the body to recharge and reset. In fact, only when there is sufficient distance put between one season and the next can an effective strategy for pre-season be put in place. Is it any wonder mistakes about training are repeated year after year if athletes are not given sufficient time to reflect on what worked or what failed to produce the desired results?
Ironically, most athletes actually do experience these moments of clarity but fail to recognise them for what they are. Historically, many athletes who have been forced to take a step back from training as a result of a recurring or serious injury, report how good they feel when they return to their sport of choice.
They cite activities and events they engaged in that would have otherwise passed them by. They remark on how resurrected hobbies pumped new life into them, providing balance and perspective.
For example, former England and Toulon rugny player Jonny Wilkinson, a self-confessed obsessive trainer, admits how such a realisation played a significant part in extending his career into his 30s. Choosing to engage in more hobbies and activities helped him to switch off more effectively.
Of course, the athlete has a responsibility in this process. But they are not helped if the coaches and management do not have an appreciation of the benefits of a significant period of downtime. It is very easy for a coach to forget the rigours of training when they themselves do not go through it. Evidence suggests former players who become coaches often view the training they once experienced through rose-tinted glasses. Time has a powerful way of changing perspectives.
Worse still is if the sport is not governed in such a way to place the welfare of the athlete at the centre of its scheduling. So even if a player has good knowledge of how to recharge at the end of a season and a coach has an appreciation of what’s required, both are hamstrung if the powers-that-be completely ignore best practice.
Spare a thought for most of the players involved with their counties through to the latter stages of their competitions in hurling, Gaelic football, ladies football and camogie. They are now expected to switch back into “club player” mode for several weeks of training and matches in both league and championship before they resume training with their county. Unless there is a minimum of four weeks off between the conclusion of one season and the resumption of the next, the athlete is being abused by the sport they give so much to.
That is not to say the athlete is given carte blanche to do whatever they want for those four weeks. Common sense coupled with best practice would suggest a balanced approach where athletes are encouraged to report for pre-season training feeling relaxed, refreshed and recharged. That way meaningful, clear-headed conversations can be had between all parties about what is the best way to proceed.
Such time for reflection and perspective can prove to be the path to unearthing those ineffective practices that have always existed but nobody asked why.
So before you switch on for 2017, be sure to switch off from 2016.