There is an ongoing debate about the new Euroleague system, that came into place this season, replacing a previous format that was followed for many years. For those not familiar, starting this year, all sixteen Euroleague teams, which include most major clubs in Europe, play against each other in a “round robin” system for a total of 30 games.
The first eight teams will advance to the playoffs and the winners of the series will advance to the Final Four, where the champion will be decided. The new system results into teams playing, not only more games (>70 for the playoff teams adding their national leagues’ games) per season, but also, more frequent high intensity games, since each week they will face a difficult opponent. In addition, for the first time in European basketball, teams will be called to play three games per week (two Euroleague games and one for their respective national leagues), thus further increasing the load on the players. More games also mean frequent travel (mostly with commercial flights) which dramatically reduce rest time and increase stress.
Opinions may vary as to whether this system is overall better regarding fan interest, sponsor engagement, promotion of the sport etc. In this article, we will focus on aspects that have a profound effect on players’ health and performance, as it’s clear that the new competition format places excessive physical, mental and emotional stress on the athletes.
Excessive load would theoretically lead to more injuries, that always bear a heavy cost, first on the athlete and then on a team’s overall performance and success chances. It seems that so far, there have been more injuries this year and teams are losing important players at an alarming rate. But do more injuries really happen because of the new system? If yes, what is to blame? Intensity, work volume or just increased exposure time (more time on the court in game conditions)? What can be done in order to help players better adjust to the new conditions?
As a first step, it would be useful, if Euroleague tracked certain statistics related to injuries, in order to have a clear, objective picture of the situation. Metrics like total games lost per year, financial cost of injuries, team overall ranking in injury rates compared to other teams, annual improvement or lack of etc. could give an idea of the impact of injuries on a team’s function. Other organizations have been doing so for some years. For example, in the Premier League, data collection revealed that for the 2014-15 season, injuries had a staggering cost of 210 Million pounds, with teams losing on average 13.5 million pounds in that season. Numbers were calculated by using a UEFA – recognized formula which takes into account wages earned by injured players, the costs of treating injuries, insurance premium costs and the financial implications from fielding weakened teams in domestic and European competitions*.
In the NBA, a comprehensive analysis by InStreetClothes** revealed that each season there are hundreds of games lost due to injury (a total of 4.496 games, including illness etc), with a corresponding significant financial cost. The analysis included all teams and also revealed the organizations with the highest and lowest injury rates. For example, the best performing team, for the season 2015-16 was Oklahoma Thunder with a total of 23 games lost (vs 224 games last year) and a cost 2.1 million $ and the worst was the New Orleans Pelicans with 351 games lost and cost of 28.1 million $. Regarding European basketball, although, to my knowledge, there is no official data), the numbers are expected to be smaller, due to smaller budgets. Still though, it is expected to account for a significant percentage of the team’s budget.
Both the total number and rate of injuries can be reduced, if proper action is taken. This has been proven in several occasions, when teams across different sports managed to improve their performance, after re organizing their medical and performance staffs, changed their modus operandi and invested in new technologies. Specifically, some of the changes required by the new challenges could entail the following:
From a coaching standpoint, there should be more attention paid to player load monitoring, which will in turn will determine the general training program planning. More rest days should be planned and practice volume and intensity should be adjusted accordingly, as it is obvious that with so many games, players cannot handle the practice load of previous years. The performance and medical teams should provide coaches detailed information about the players’ physical status and help them make better decisions about practice design, as well loading and unloading certain players, based on their current physical status.
Invest in Facilities
The most valuable asset of a team is its players. The total value of player investment for all the Euroleague teams combined is hundreds of millions Euros. However, most European clubs have not invested enough on upgrading their facilities, so as to provide their players with all the means necessary to stay healthy and improve their performance. Old and/or small weight rooms, rudimentary physical therapy facilities, very limited means of recovery is the norm in European basketball. Of course there are exceptions, but as a rule, facilities in Europe are not always up to par with the level of the team’s players and staff.
Invest in people
Gone are the days when a physio and a doctor where enough to keep the entire squad healthy. Clubs should strive to create coherent sport medicine teams, that employ professionals of complementary skills (e.g doctor, physical therapist, manual therapist, strength coach, rehab coach etc), with a clear structure and hierarchy. The medical and performance teams should have the same philosophy and work closely together in order to create a seamless system that will focus on:
- Monitoring players’ health and performance
- Designing training programs on the court and in the weight room
- Enhancing recovery
- Accurate and prompt injury diagnosis
- Treatment and rehabilitation
- Return to play after an injury
The league itself can set higher standards for people working in such positions, hold annual expert meetings to discuss common problems and their respective solutions, explore different approaches to training as well as therapy and generally, encourage the exchange of ideas between professionals. These meetings can issue guidelines that will eventually be incorporated to the practice of all clubs, regardless of level.
Make use of technology
In recent years there has been a true revolution in technologies that allow coaches to collect data related to players’ health and performance. A score of different wearable devices, measure specific metrics (e.g. total distance traveled at a practice, intensity of movement, number of jumps etc) that help coaches and health professionals establish a player’s physical status and fatigue levels through course of time. What previously required an expensive lab to be measured, can now be done at a fraction of the cost and time, thus providing coaches with ready to use data. Sport scientists analyze this data and give insightful information regarding players’ health, training status and risk of injury. These new technologies have already been successfully adopted in football (soccer), rugby as well as many NBA and college teams, helping coaches make better decision regarding practice design and player loading. European basketball teams have lagged behind, but interest is growing and I believe that it’s a matter of time until most teams will start making use of these extremely useful tools.
Year - round play
Most European players competing at the highest level have very busy summers, being obliged to participate in various tournaments with their respective national teams. These athletes end up playing almost non-stop throughout the year, which eventually results in performance decrements and injuries, due to excessive load accumulation. A recent study in football showed that players that had summer obligations with their national teams had a 30% increase in frequency of severe injuries in the following season.
Again, more specific statistics related to basketball could give a clearer picture as to how continuous play affects athletes’ health and could lead to ideas as to what could be done about this challenging fact.
Undoubtedly, the new Euroleague system introduces new challenges to everyone involved in the game. As is true for every challenge though, it can also be a great opportunity to improve. We need to look at all aspects of the game and find the best ways to adapt to the novel conditions. It’s already happening and it will be interesting to see how European basketball will evolve. As coaches, we have the obligation to revise our practices, habits and philosophies and find the best ways to support our players, help them stay healthy and perform at their best.
Kostas Chatzichristos, MEd, CSCS, CCSC
Head Performance Specialist
Opinions stated in the article reflect the personal position of the author and under no circumstances express the official view of the employer.