As sport science progresses in research, the common belief is that athlete performance will follow in coaching practice later. So, when new research is published, the expectation is that the information will be both novel and useful immediately in training. Unfortunately, a lot of research is collecting dust digitally, having fallen victim to the next study popularized either on social media or in conference proceedings. I am a huge fan of sport scientists; many of them are my heroes. Still, I always think of the athlete and coach first, as much of the work I see is more about demonstrating intellectual ability than being effective.
In this article I will defend the need for sport scientists now more than ever, and I will be firmly critical of the investigations that come out of academia or even team research. This is not a revolt or rejection of science—it’s a call to get research to be more practical and nimbler with coaches.
Science Is the Backbone of Coaching Progress
What is disturbing today is the polarized world of either data hype (going full “new age”) or the mindset of logic and reason being replaced with cargo cult science. I strongly believe that coaches need to be competent in the core sciences, but not at the expense of the ability to instruct an athlete to follow directions and guide them forward. It’s not that good coaching and good science are mutually exclusive, but skills are skills, and we need to use our time wisely. I have a stern warning: Without respect for science, training becomes a helpless victim of self-bias and ego.
Most of the research today is explanatory and not innovative, and this is not the fault of sport scientists; it’s just a reflection of the hard work of the past. In no way am I saying we are hitting a ceiling in knowledge, but conversational experience with athletes still matters. Today, many great coaches work in concert with amazing sport scientists—how is it making athletes faster? Will we see more Usain Bolts and faster athletes in team sport? I think we will see continual improvement in science in general, but not so much in absolute performance.
Models, Models, Everywhere
I take some of the blame for hyping modeling in sports, as I actually presented on the topic during an NHL conference years ago. Luckily for me, the professionalism in hockey is usually outstanding, and many bright coaches were already doing fine work in this area. Fast forward to 2020, and every day we see the promotion of online calculators by coaches. Some of the work is stellar, and some of it is useful, but much of it is just self-promotion.Without question, every coach should use their own sprint model based on existing research and past coaching experience, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Without question, every coach should use their own sprint model based on existing research and past coaching experience. It’s not hard, and it’s likely you are already doing this in some form. You don’t need to code or use some statistical analysis package to model; you just need a plan that uses inputs you know work time after time. In short, coaches should have a plan that uses a combination of simple math and training concepts.
The tragic irony is the modeling and correction formulas we see for starting a sprint are likely the most important part of team sports generally. The first step, while the slowest, usually has the most impact in game situations, especially one-on-one scenarios. In addition to the conundrum of how to determine initiation of sprinting, the variability of human movement also makes it hard to determine if an athlete is getting faster if coaches only look for best performances in a few sprints. Using trending functions with foundational training sessions, you can see if an athlete is improving or if the coach needs a second pair of eyes.
Finally comes training over the years and placing all the pieces together to form a plan to help athletes improve over time. To me, research lags here, as sports scientists are typically hopelessly limited to 8- to 12-week training periods. It’s fine to create a simple model for acceleration and speed development to determine how an athlete runs a sprint, but it isn’t really a training model.
You can profile all you want, but when we have case studies of NFL athletes accelerating more slowly after two months of training “front-side mechanics” for peak velocity, I believe we blew it. What about years of training? Training models need huge amounts of time and large quantities of data points to be really robust; hence my affinity for coaches who have a steady system that constantly produces athletes with significant parametric changes.
Is the Juice Worth the Squeeze?
A lot of science is hard work, and many of the advancements in technology enable coaches to have the applied and useful science instantly and affordably available to them during practice. In all honesty, a lot of the applied sciences still need to improve in both workflow and actual impact to get athletes faster. Measuring is sometimes a burden, but as we increasingly streamline training, data collection becomes embedded or can be a competitive game if used properly. Athletes don’t need to feel like lab rats to leverage good sport science anymore.
When sport science is a chore, we all lose, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Science comes with the responsibility of time, discipline, and cost. When testing athletes, you must balance the expense of technology, the necessary prerequisite knowledge and training, and the ability to make the experience rewarding to those involved. When sport science is a chore, we all lose.
How do you know sport science is working? The athletes get better, and they thank you for the effort you put in. Athletes don’t often see the conferences you attend, books you read, or numbers you crush. My high school coach wrote in spiral-bound notebooks for years, and I had the luxury of reading them years later when I started coaching. He always added to and refined his program and was a national coach of the year, and his model was a few pens and good record-keeping.
- A good model is easy to explain to someone else, so they can refine it or understand it as an athlete or assistant coach.
- The number of inputs is minimal and flexible, so you can follow or use the model throughout the season and the career of an athlete.
- Models should be elegant and devoid of excessive calculations and demanding measurement burdens in general.
- The greater the number of staff using the model, the better the teamwork required, or the model will break down.
- You must update and revisit your model annually, as models are prone to breaking down and are still theoretical.
As I stated in the modeling section, no magic formula exists for determining the optimal balance or structure for using sport science in training. The above suggestions are just off the top of my head, and you should be dedicated to finding more and better recommendations. Each year I add to, subtract from, and modify what I do.No magic formula exists for determining the optimal balance or structure for using sport science in training. Each year I add to, subtract from, and modify what I do, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Read the Research with Caution
I recommend reading the sprint training and analysis research weekly or even daily. This sounds like a chore to some, but it’s disrespectful to the athlete not to be informed. You don’t need to use or even agree with everything that is printed. Be vigilant now more than ever, as conflicts of interest are usually not reported outside of funding.
Sport scientists are great people and extremely dedicated and generous, but they are also still human. Read the research and ask the tough questions first. Example questions are: What populations? What are their training ages? What comparisons are they making to the training interventions?
If the study is observational and not an actual training study, be even more skeptical. Sport scientists are not only helping with performance and reducing injuries, they are also helping society fight lifestyle diseases and saving lives. Let’s use science better so the whole world can get better, not just elite athletes.
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