Adaptation and how it informs Sport Coaching. by Edward Conway

Adaptation is the “process whereby a population becomes better suited to its habitat”. I like this definition because it is concise, to the point and has a wide range of implications for coaching beyond purely the physiological response to training. The athletes we coach will be molded, adapted, by the habitat and environment that we create around them. When dealing with young athletes, this is quite the responsibility and the importance of the coach in their development is clear. I believe that consideration of adaptation is also important when dealing with change to the environment or routine. In this blog, I’ll consider the role of challenge in helping athletes develop and adapt to higher competition, how I have utilized adaptation in my coaching and, finally, how I personally have adapted as a coach.

“Periodised Challenge”

Nearly two years ago, I drove to the midlands to visit Denstone College and their then Director of Rugby, Jamie Taylor. It was an interesting learning experience for me, with three words that really stuck out – “challenge and support”. Jamie explained how it was critical to their vision for developing the young student sportsmen and sportswomen at the school. Within a year, the following tweet caught my eye:

Stu Armstrong Tweet

There was the word challenge again. Stuart’s tweet linked to this article, explaining how Manchester United set in place a plan whereby Rashford would occasionally train with the Under 21s to give him exposure to competition that was tougher than what he was used to at Under 18. However, rather than simply remove him from the U18s, it was his fluctuation between the two groups that they believed was crucial to his development. In this case, Rashford was adapting to the challenge of his U21 counterparts over time, thus making his U18 performances even more noticeable and “easier”. This shows that the process of adaptation isn’t just physiological – it can also be technical, tactical, psychological and sociological. Even Tom Brady, arguably the greatest Quarter Back of all time, references the importance of challenge in his own, ongoing, development.

The Importance of Individualisation

What worked for Marcus Rashford may not have worked for all young players. The adaptation process is more than just applying a programme and expecting it to work – individual athletes will respond differently when undertaking an identical session (Kiely, 2012). Maro Itoje is one of the most impressive young players in world rugby. His development continued at such a pace that Saracens had to ignore the plan that they had in place for him, unable to “hold him back any more”. This highlights the importance of knowing, and truly understanding, the athletes that you work with. Whilst Itoje was highly impressive on and off the pitch, that may not be the case for all individuals and the external pressures (education, work, family) can have a significant impact. I am soon to finish my third season as coach for a University rugby team, however I learnt quickly that my situation was slightly different to the norm – I coach the medics. Existing within a university, but as an entirely separate club, the medics posed interesting problems to me as a coach because of their intense work schedule. Our first season was troubled with constant injuries for which there may have been many reasons – training methods, conditioning, lifestyle, bad luck etc. But I soon realised it was important that the players were able to be honest about their work load, and therefore be allowed to miss training or matches accordingly. Research has found that the chance of injuries doubles during periods of high academic stress for college athletes (Mann, Bryant, Johnstone, Ivey and Sayers, 2016). I needed to be aware of these periods, either individually or across the squad, and manage training as a result.

My Coaching

One area that I have embraced the notion of adaptation within my coaching is when it comes to fatigue. Research has found that there is a significant detriment in performance under fatigue (Lyons, Al-Nakeeb and Nevill, 2006) caused by a deterioration of both cognitive and psychomotor skills (Kahal et al, 2008) and ability to perceive visual information (Hancock and McNaughton, 1986). When practicing a learned skill (i.e. not new information), we therefore try to combine it with our conditioning work. Not only does this make the conditioning more fun and rugby-specific, but it also tests their skills under fatigue. This should, hopefully, transfer to executing skills when tired during competition. Recently many journalists picked up on Eddie Jones’ use of ‘tactical periodisation’ as taken from football. I’d argue that this isn’t necessarily as new to rugby as the article asserts, however it is further proof of coaches finding ways to help their athletes adapt to, and beyond, the level demanded of them in competition.

Personal Adaptation

During my coaching career, I have undergone a number of changes to my style, outlook, personality. Some are very small and subtle, others more obvious. However, I have made a purposeful effort to work in varying environments and meet lots of different people. At first, and to a degree still, this was majorly outside my comfort zone. Importantly, I noticed the improvements as a result and keep forcing myself to do it. Whether this is working with players who are much younger than I am used to, or working with adults, or coaching with both genders – all have provided learning experiences that allow me to adapt and evolve.

When we make those adaptations, we discover new facets of ourselves. This is an excellent blog post, highlighting the potential benefits of seeking new environments. On a personal level, I am undoubtedly an improved coach for working in various coaching domains. Furthermore, it has allowed me to be adaptable when there is a significant, but unexpected, change. Whether on a small scale with players missing from training limiting what I had planned, or to big events like new coaching roles. In considering the latter point, earlier in my career I was often focused on MY role within the new role and how it made ME feel and act. Nowadays I realise that, in taking a new role, the athletes themselves are undergoing a change too – new vocabulary, new methods, new priorities. I feel that the following video, on change management, is just as useful for coaches as it is for executives:


Adaptation, therefore, is more than just bicep size or VO2 max. It can effect both the coaches and the athletes in a number of ways. What works for one athlete may not work for all. It is crucial for coaches to be aware of this and to understand how to manage change personally and how to assist their athletes to do the same.


Hancock, S. & McNaughton, L. (1986). “Effects of fatigue on ability to process visual information by experienced orienteers”. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 62(2): 491-498.

Kahal, K., Leyba, M.J., Deka, M., Deka, V., Mayes, S., Smith, M., Ferrara, J.J. & Panchanathan, S. (2008). “Effect of fatigue on psychomotor and cognitive skills”. American Journal of Surgery, 195(2): 195-204.

Kiely, J. (2012). “Periodization paradigms in the 21st century: Evidence-led or tradition-driven?”. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 7: 242-250.

Lyons, M., Al-Nakeeb, Y. & Nevill, A.M. (2006). “The impact of moderate and high intensity total body fatigue on passing accuracy in expert and novice basketball players”. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, 5(2): 215-227.

Mann, J.B., Bryant, K.R., Johnstone, B., Ivey, P.A. & Sayers, S.P. (2016). “Effect of physical and academic stress on illness and injury in Division 1 college football players”. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 30(1): 20-25.

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