Load Monitoring in the NBA: Managing the new Player Participation Policy
Load monitoring has garnered much attention in recent times, but perhaps nowhere as intensely as in the NBA. I wrote about this back in 2017, when resting athletes due to ‘load management’ was already causing a stir in the sport.
Back then, NBA Commissioner, Adam Silver, described resting starters as “an extremely significant issue” for the league, with a memo sent to team owners urging them to be more involved in the decisions behind ‘DNP-Rest’ (Did Not Play).
The NBA are now taking more direct steps. Last month (September 13th 2023), the NBA Board of Governors approved the Player Participation Policy. This will come into effect for the approaching 2023/24 season and replaces the Player Resting Policy from 2017. Let’s take a look at the policy details and consider what this might mean for sports performance support staff.
Player Participation Policy
The Player Participation Policy primarily focuses on ‘star players’. For purposes of the policy, a star player is any player who, in any of the prior three seasons was selected to an All-NBA Team or an NBA All-Star team. Entering this season, there are 49 players qualified as star players, spread across 25 of the 30 teams.
Under the policy, unless a team demonstrates an approved reason for a star player not to participate in a game, then, among other things, the team must:
Manage its roster to ensure that no more than one star player is unavailable for the same game.
Ensure that star players are available for all national television and NBA In-Season Tournament games.
Maintain a balance between the number of one-game absences for a star player in home and road games.
Refrain from any long-term “shutdowns” in which a star player stops playing games.
If resting a healthy player, ensure that the player is present at the games and visible to fans.
The policy includes exceptions for injuries, personal reasons and pre-approved back-to-back restrictions based on a player’s age, career workload or serious injury history.
Revisiting The Science of Rest and Recovery
So let’s first consider the need for rest and why load management has become such a widespread approach in the NBA. Much of what I wrote about this topic in 2017 remains true today.
Put simply, the training process is a balance between stimulus and recovery. Theoretically, when the body is given sufficient rest after a training stimulus, it repairs and recovers. Balance this cycle over time and the body will adapt to the stimulus and surpass initial performance levels; the phenomenon known as supercompensation. Conversely, insufficient rest and recovery is associated with decrements in performance, immune suppression, sleep disturbances, and reduced mood (Meeusen et al., 2012).
In reality this balancing act is more complex. The recovery time-course varies by sport, playing positions, sex, and often exhibits wide individual variation. One systematic review found sprint performance recovered between 48 and 72 hours after basketball gameplay, whereas jump performance may require between 48 and 96 hours (Doeven et al., 2018). Of course, we rarely have the luxury of taking three or four days off training while these markers recover and in actuality, may face another game or even two within this time period.
Sport, including the NBA, has additional stressors beyond physical load. In particular, there are the travel demands, which come with travel fatigue and, at times, jet lag, as well as the general disruption to everyday routines. Plus, the mental fatigue caused by the sport’s cognitive demands, which can also be compounded by intense media scrutiny, as well as commercial pressures and large scale social media attention.
Perhaps sometimes forgotten, is the fact that our athletes are humans too. They have life stressors to deal with; relationships, newborn babies and childcare demands, and life events just like everyone else. These can impact the body’s ability to recover and adapt.
But it is not all about rest! This is all based on balancing stimulus with recovery. Without stimuli, we do not need any recovery! In fact, building physical capacities and a high chronic training load is beneficial to athletes. For instance, higher preseason participation has been associated with better injury outcomes in-season in rugby (Windt et al., 2016) and football (Ekstrand et al., 2020). Ultimately, we want to build a high tolerance to training stimuli, with sufficient recovery to enable athletes to maintain that high training load.
The challenge has always been focussed on optimising the balance between training and recovery. I’ve previously spoken about how adjusting a player’s game participation is the absolute last action taken and I actually didn’t even include game adjustment on my Load Management Intervention Hierarchy (see figure below). That said, when you play three or four games a week, you have less load management ‘levers’ to pull. So, in a sport that plays as frequently as basketball (at least in the NBA), it is unsurprising that load management has extended into competitive games. Interestingly, in baseball, a sport with even more frequent competition, it is widely accepted that pitchers are load managed and do not play in all games.
Implications for Sports Science Staff
The NBA’s new Player Participation Policy may have created more constraints for load management but still leaves room for a strategic approach. So the challenge remains on how this balance can be optimised for these players, who presumably are also of greatest interest to the team!
I am adamant that designing and adjusting your team’s training and recovery calendar well can provide a competitive advantage (and conversely potentially a disadvantage if done badly). When I’ve discussed this previously, it has been through a team-level lens. Ideally, and especially for those practitioners now working with this policy in the NBA, we want to extend this to an individual level.
Below I’ve highlighted five key implications for sports science staff in response to this policy:
Ideally an interdisciplinary approach to game management is taken by the team. Given the ability to only rest one star player per game, there are coaching and game plan implications, as well as physical considerations. Build relationships with coaching staff and try to establish processes - through reporting, communication, and meetings - that enable regular planning conversations.
Use individual baselines to project future load. Be proactive in planning load, not just reactive to what has gone before. More advanced analytical approaches, such as Zone7’s AI-driven tools; the Periodisation Planner and Micro Cycle Simulator (more on these coming soon), may be valuable to this process.
Measure athlete response. Measuring training load is just one side of the equation in an athlete’s dose-response relationship. Their capacity may change over time based on factors such as the life stressors previously described. Just because an athlete has previously coped with a load does not guarantee they will again and so, measuring their individual response is crucial.
Sports science and strength and conditioning (S&C) should work closely (indeed these are often the same members of staff) to adjust off-court training loads as needed, in relation to on-court training loads (I’m talking equally about increasing load as much as decreasing it!). These programmes should also be individualised to develop resilience and reduce injury risk. For more on S&C programmes in relation to the NBA’s rest dilemma, check out this post from former NBA Strength Coach, Dr Bill Burgos.
Consider other load management levers that can be adjusted; training loads, recovery modalities, reducing mental and cognitive load through the team’s schedule, meeting lengths, and media demands.
Sport is a business. Commercially, the new Player Participation Policy makes sense; limiting star player absences due to rest/load management, particularly for televised games and reducing fan disappointment in not seeing their favourite players play.
Although greater constraints are being place on load management, in my view this offers a potential competitive advantage to teams who manage it well. As is so often the case, it will come down to high levels of communication and collaboration between staff and departments.