Its something that every coach and every athlete of every sport is searching for... the EDGE. That one training tip, equipment improvement, mental preparation or tactical insight that will tip the game towards them. The body of knowledge that exists today in each sport is assumed, with each competitor expected to at least be aware of the history, beliefs and traditions of their individual sport. But, if each team is starting with the same set of information then the team that takes the next step by applying new research and ideas will capture the edge.
To me, that is what sport science is all about. The goal is to improve sports performance by imagining, analyzing, experimenting, testing, documenting and training new methods to coaches and athletes.
You might have seen a great article in the 6/23 edition of USA Today; "In hunt for Olympic gold, techies are major players" by Jodi Upton. We meet Peter Vint, a "sport technologist" in the Performance Technology Division of the US Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, CO, whose job it is to find ways to win more gold medals. From the article; "The next revolution, Vint says, is breaking down the last secrets of elite athletes: response time, how they read the field and other players — everything that goes into the vision, perception and split-second decision-making of an athlete. 'We've always looked at that as mysterious, something that's unmeasurable and innate,' Vint says. 'But we think it can be taught.'"
Interestingly, Vint cites another pioneer in evidence-based sports coaching, Oakland A's general manager, Billy Beane. "We're becoming progressively more data-driven," Vint says of the center's training efforts. "We are trying to pursue what Sabermetrics and Billy Beane did for baseball, identifying factors that can truly influence performance." The radical concept that Beane created, as documented in the bestseller, "Moneyball" by Michael Lewis, is to stop searching for "the edge" in all the same places that everyone else is looking. Instead, he started from scratch with new logic about the objectives of the game of baseball itself and built metrics that gave new insight into the types of players and skill sets that he should acquire for his team.
If sport science is going to thrive and be accepted, it faces the challenge of inertia. The ideas and techniques that are the product of sport science can also be captured in the phrase, "evidence based coaching". Just as evidence based medicine has slowly found its place in the physician's exam room, the coaching profession is just beginning to trust the research. Traditionally, "belief based coaching" has been the philosophy favored in the clubhouse. Training drills, tactical plans, player selection and player development has been guided by ideas and concepts that have been handed down from one generation of coaches to the next. Most of these beliefs are valid and have been proven on the field through many years of trial and error. Subjecting these beliefs to scientific research may not produce conclusions any different than what coaching lore tells us. But, today's coaches and athletes see the competition creeping closer to them in all aspects, so they are now willing to at least listen to the scientists. Beane likens it to financial analysis and the stock market. The assumption is that all information is known by all. But, if someone can find a ratio or a statistic or make an industry insight that no one has considered, then they own the competitive advantage; at least until this new information is made public.
It takes time, though, to amass enough data to convince a head coach to change years of habits for the unknown. Reputations and championships are on the line, so the changes sometimes need to be implemented slowly. Vint describes the gradual process of converting U.S. hurdler Terrence Trammell and his coach to some of his ideas. "The relationship between the athletes and sports scientist is critical," Vint says. "But (for some), biomechanics has not yet provided useful enough suggestions."
There still is debate on evidence based coaching vs. belief based coaching. Here are two opposing opinions; evidence-based: "The Second Law of Thermodynamics" by Brent S. Rushall of San Diego State University
and belief-based: "Evidence Based vs. Belief Based Coaching" by Richard Todd of Webball.com. If you have a few minutes, please read each opinion and offer your take on this. After considering these opinions, Robert Robson, sport psychologist and management consultant, stated, "Sports coaching should absolutely be evidence-based, but any argument that places the sole source of evidence in the realm of the scientific method is, I would argue, naive and lacking in an understanding of the philosophical underpinnings of science."
Looking forward, I will dig a little deeper into this topic in the next week, so please check back or subscribe to Sports Are 80 Percent Mental.