Coaching and science: Asset or liability  //  What's the big deal and who cares for the science?

26 Oct 2009 Posted by

As promised, today begins a series of posts on coaching and science, and how the science can be, should be, and sometimes is, and often is not, applied to athlete preparation. Obviously, it comes with an endurance focus, but there’s no reason why sprint coaches and team sport coaches can also not glean some information from this.

This is a series that was inspired by my visit to the US Olympic Center in Colorado Springs. I was lucky enough to be invited there by Prof Randy Wilber of the USOC, who had organized a symposium on altitude training. The symposium brought together scientists, coaches, athletes and mangers from 22 different countries, and included 32 Olympic athletes, and numerous sporting codes, Summer and Winter Olympics among them.

An uneasy marriage?

So it was a symposium that created the perfect platform for the marriage of science and coaching. Yet, two days later, and I don’t know that too much had been gleaned from the science part of the symposium. At the risk of dismissing its value, the coaches probably gained enormous value from other coaches’ presentations – Bob Bowman (Michael Phelps’ coach) would have heard some valuable tips from Terrence Mahon (Ryan Hall and Deena Kastor, among others), and vice versa, but I dare say that the science would not have changed the way any of the coaches are approaching altitude training for their athletes. They already had a strategy, and I doubt whether the science showed them anything to improve or change it.

And this is a typical problem – coaches have historically done things well in advance of the science proving (or disproving) that they work. The famous running coach, Arthur Lydiard, was once reported to have said that the coaches already know what works, and the scientist’s job is to tell them why it works! Now, that’s not always true, because often, coaches do the wrong things, or they fail to do things that would help, or they are unaware of methods to improve performance. So it’s not quite as simple as saying that science chases after the truth long after the coach has discovered it. Lydiard said this long before much of today’s technology was available, and perhaps his view would now be different

But the eternal questions remain:

  1. What value does science add?;
  2. How much science does a good coach need to know? and;
  3. Is the science sometimes more of a liability than an asset?

I believe that as sport gets increasingly competitive, there is no doubt that the effective use of science (and we’ll explain what this means in the series) is the difference between turning mediocre into good, good into great, and great into world-champion. The question is, what is effective science, and how should it be applied?

One person’s view: heart rate monitors + books = science

And co-incidence luck would have it, I woke up this morning to discover’s quote of the day was the following, from Steve Jones:

“What I do is make it simple,” Jones, now a teetotaller, says. “There‘s no science in it – no heart-rate monitors. It’s just running – running instinctively. Anyone who saw Steve Jones run in the Seventies, Eighties and early Nineties knew that he ran by the seat of his pants nearly all the time. You don’t see that any more and that’s what I’m trying to teach these guys. None of it comes out of a book. It all comes out of my own experience.”

Quite clearly, Jones thinks that science is the sum of heart rate monitors and books. And no doubt, some will agree. I don’t. My definition of science, particularly as applied to the coach, is far broader than this, and I dare say that Steve Jones applies a great deal of science to his coaching without even realizing it.

Our purpose and these questions

So what then does this application look like? To begin, the video below is an interview that I did with Training Peaks a week ago, in Boulder, Colorado. For those who don’t know, Training Peaks make software to allow athletes and coaches to manage and monitor training. The management of data is, as I mention in the interview, a fundamental aspect of the scientific process applied to training. I’ll describe this in a lot more detail in the next post.

If you’ve not seen Training Peaks software, I really do recommend that you check it out, because it offers so much value that if your big obstacle is managing your training (or that of your athletes), it might be the solution, particularly if you have a large group and you want to keep tabs on many at the same time.

However, in the interview, at around 5:40, Dirk Friel (Training Peaks Chief Marketing Officer, former pro cyclist) asks about coaching, and my answer is really the key to understanding what I believe to be the scientific value to coaching.

Also in the interview are some thoughts on how we began The Science of Sport, and some of the good stories of 2009, but that’s really just for interest’s sake – the real content is from 5:40 onwards!

Science is the process, not only the theory

To sum it up in a nutshell, there are really two aspects to science for the coach:

First, there is the theory. How the body adapts to stress, overtraining, environmental factors, diet, hydration, biomechanics, cardiovascular system and nervous system, and so forth. Steve Jones would call this the “book”, and many coaches would be put off from looking it up, since this is the domain of the white-coated academic in the lab. The better coaches, in my opinion, seek to take from this theory and apply it, and we’ll discuss that in more detail soon.

However, the second part of the science is, in my opinion, even more important. It involves the ability of the coach to engage in a scientific process. And what is a scientific process? It is the process by which you ask a question, design an ‘intervention’ (in this case, a training programme), create a hypothesis (for example, the athlete will run a 5km PB in three months), and then measure and collect data. If the data suggest all is on track, then the coach continues. If it suggests the athlete is not adapting, then the plan is changed, and a new intervention begun.

That’s science. Coaching is the application of the same process as a scientist would follow if they wanted to test whether a transcription factor was involved in regulating the activity of a gene. There are differences, sure, but the process of measuring the athlete’s response to the training, and then adapting the training to maximize the response requires the same system of thinking, and that is why the best coaches are also “scientific-minded”. The interview above hopefully clears that up a little more.

So join us next time when we look more specifically at what scientific theory is valuable for coaches, and how this process should actually work. I think you’ll find that good coaches do all of this already, and for them, the improvement in coaching ability comes from tiny adjustments, also made with some science behind them!


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