Holistic Health and Fitness in the Military Part 2: The Total Athlete Concept

PART 2: THE TOTAL ATHLETE CONCEPT

In Part 1 of this series, we looked at the genesis behind the US Army’s new force-wide Holistic Health and Performance (H2F) program. In doing so we touched on a few key issues that might surface for a program of such size; namely, the tendency to skew towards a more industrialized version of human performance as opposed to an individualized, nimble model. The identification of key performance metrics as well as indicators of athlete readiness is key to monitoring–and engaging with–athletes on an individual level. Now in Part 2 of this series, we’ll look at a “total athlete concept” within human performance and how it might serve as a guidepost for H2F and other programs looking to effect large-scale change with data-driven solutions.  

Historically speaking, the training and management of elite athletes came about with a very mechanistic viewpoint towards human performance. As nations battled for gold medals on an international stage, models of training emerged in which adaptation to stimuli was assumed to be strictly biologically based. In these types of models, objective inputs lead to predictable outputs and any deviation from the expected result is oftentimes considered the fault of the athlete as opposed to the system within which the athlete operates. One need look no further than early Soviet periodization literature to see how a top-down view of athlete performance permeated the conversation. Entire Olympic cycles could be mapped out well in advance with the assumption being that strict adherence to the plan would inevitably result in success at the highest levels. Strangely, while fields of study around human performance such as psychology, cellular biology, and stress physiology have advanced since the 60s and 70s, the field of human performance itself is very much stuck in a program-centric Soviet mindset.  

With the emergence of more advanced athlete monitoring solutions as well as a growing understanding of systems theory, we are starting to see a subtle paradigm shift towards a more athlete-centric approach to human performance. In an athlete-centric model, both coach and athlete work in tandem to produce results with an understanding that variables outside of training have just as much impact, if not more, on the final outcome. Clear examples can be seen in the injection of subjective measures of wellness (i.e. sleep questionnaires) into the athlete’s plan. Instead of being forced to adapt to a preset mold, athletes and coaches can now use real-time analytics to allow the mold to adapt to the athlete.

Perhaps the most appealing aspect of a data-driven athlete-centric human performance model is that it is easily scalable. This brings us back to the initial conversation around H2F and the Army’s intent to embed human performance experts within battalions to reduce injury rates and increase physical testing scores. With a customizable athlete management system collecting inputs from thousands of athletes engaging in things like daily wellness questionnaires, a small team of practitioners can easily establish parameters within which they need to be alerted to action. Instead of trying to solve the problem of readiness by spending more money on additional personnel, large programs can streamline the data to effectively serve as a force-multiplier of the personnel already in place. One strength coach might feasibly reach one thousand athletes. Similarly, one athletic trainer or physical therapist might easily be able to identify common areas of soreness across an entire brigade and create educational content accordingly.  

These are just a few examples of how data can be used within an athlete-centric model of human performance to increase the effectiveness of small teams within large organizations. In the third and final part of this series, we’ll tie together the first two articles in a discussion around how H2F might implement and institutionalize an athlete-centric model of tactical training as the program grows.  

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