Yo-yo fitness

Nagraj Gollapudi on the yo-yo fitness test, ESPN Cricinfo:

A yo-yo test involves a player shuttling between two cones that are set 20 metres apart on flat ground. He starts on a beep and needs to get to the cone at the other end before the second beep goes. He then turns back and returns to the starting cone before the third beep. That is one “shuttle”.

A player starts at speed level 5, which consists of one shuttle. The next speed level, which is 9, also consists of one shuttle. Speed level 11, the next step up, has two shuttles, while level 12 has three and level 13 four. There are eight shuttles per level from 14 upwards. Level 23 is the highest speed level in a yo-yo test, but no one has come close to getting there yet. Each shuttle covers a distance of 40 metres, and the accumulated distance is an aggregate of distance covered at every speed level.

The player gets ten seconds to recover between shuttles. At any point if he fails to reach the cone before the beep goes, he gets a first warning. Usually a player gets a few “reminders” to keep to the pace, but three official warnings generally marks the end of the test.

While the yo-yo test does not predict the overall success of a player, it is used to describe a player’s ability to recover between bursts of activity within a game as well as between games. As a result, players who have passed the yo-yo test at the level prescribed by their managers are likelier to function at their best for longer than those who haven’t. Now, there is an interesting quote by Chris Donaldson, the New Zealand fitness coach, buried in the article about one of the reasons his finds the yo-yo test useful: “This way, they can play the game for longer and faster and they can do things like stop the ball, take a miracle catch or run between wickets faster.”

‘Miracle catch’ is a curious term. We all know what it stands for: improbable catches that nobody expected players to be able to complete. In the same vein, they are also an element of the game that can’t be planned for in advance – except by keeping players fit – because a lot of it depends on situational awareness in the moment. Of course, to expect players to be able to pull off feats like these if they’re at peak fitness is not insensible – but it’s also interesting that team management expects such feats to be fully capitalised when opportunities present themselves, especially in T20 matches. And T20 matches are also held more frequently. (In the IPL, teams had to be ready for games at three-day intervals.)

This is the aspect of it that I find particularly disconcerting. T20 matches are held more regularly because they’re entertaining and are big revenue-generators. The ICC devised them in the first place to make cricket more interesting to newer and younger audiences and expand the sport’s market. But when you move further downstream of the format’s effects, you come to expectations of player fitness and – as Donaldson said – what coaches expect them to be able to do on the field. It seems like it’s not enough if fitness training prepares players to run faster between the wickets, run across from deep midwicket or long off to cut off fours or, in fact, be lively in the 20th over of the game as in the first. Now, we expect them to be trained to perform miracles.

One could say that the standards of the game are improving. The more we understand about human physiology, develop new performance techniques and metrics, and advance technology to enable sportspeople to control their bodies better and translate more of their on-field actions to in-game consequences, the higher the standards of the game will be. We’ve seen this in cycling, football, swimming, weightlifting, etc., as well as in cricket: lighter but stronger helmets and pads, heavier bats with better design, near-realtime ball-tracking, etc. But I would imagine there’s a point where these developments take the game beyond its original design itself, e.g. by making unusual aerobic exploits on-field a part of the standard set of expectations.

How much longer before players are penalised for not being miracle-workers then?