Nullius in Verba: Sports Science, Sports Sense and High Performance sport

23 Jan 2019 Posted by

Last Friday I spent the day at Arsenal FC’s training facility in the north of London. I gave a presentation to their Sports Science/HP department (research, S&C, medical, youth coaches, nutrition, physiotherapy and data analysts)

In today’s Short Thought on Sport, I wanted to share that presentation with you. Because I know it’s difficult to follow a slide show without narration, I share some very brief thoughts and explainers, which I hope give you some idea of the talk and the themes I thought to share with them.


The process of gaining knowledge and the importance of challenging prevailing thinking

First, while this is outwardly a talk about sports science, it’s actually about knowledge, and our relationship with what we think/know to be “best”. That’s why it’s called Nullius in Verba, and that’s why I start by showing the “sports science job cloud” with the message that no matter what area of sport and science you’re involved in, your purpose is not to answer questions, but to question answers. In fact, I’d say that sports science has undersold itself, or rather failed to present its true value to coaches and HP managers, because it offers up answers, when it should be offering up questions, and specifically, the process of questioning through observation and systematic measurement. More on that later.

Next, the story of Francis Galton and his 1904 gathering in London, followed by the 1912 Conference on Eugenics, and the German “race hygiene” proposal and the confinement centers of the USA is intended to relate how the best intentioned minds of the very smartest people can lead to pretty disastrous places.

This story culminates in Emma and Carrie Buck, “Imbeciles”, “Idiots” and “Morons”, the Supreme Court of the USA and the Nuremburg trials. I know that it has no direct bearing on sports science (though Galton will make an appearance in a sporting context later again). However, I found this story (which I read in a book called The Gene: An Intimate History) fascinating and appealing, because it again highlights my key theme – question your assumptions, and listen to the voice who pulls up the conventional wisdom. All those guys were arguing for inheritance of these traits and the few who said “Hang on, it’s not that simple” were ignored, too small a group to change the tide.

That’s what we (sports scientists, now), need to be mindful of. So this little history lesson is intended to make people realise that it’s important to question the body of knowledge and to constantly challenge assumptions, rather than to accept them. I don’t think we do that nearly enough, especially in the high performance sports environments.


Sports Sense, not sports science

Next is a series of slides explaining what science is. In my Arsenal talk, I was preaching to the converted. They already knew this (I think). Previously, I’ve done this talk for coaches, and then it really matters to help those coaches understand how the scientific process works, what it is that we do, because that’s how we add value to the elite sport environment.

I conclude by saying what Sports Science is NOT – it’s not about measuring lactate and GPS data, and putting guys in ice baths and measuring the mass, or even about analyzing their Watts in training and on climbs. Yeah, I know that sports scientists will do this – it’s a means by which they achieve their purpose, but that’s not what it is. What it is, is the stuff I explained before. All those tools, however fancy, will not add any value if they are not used within a framework of intelligent, systematic thinking.

And so, I introduce a concept of sports sense, not sports science. This is perhaps the key message. I must confess this word is not mine – it was introduced to me by my friend Jimmy Clark, a sports scientist in SA who worked with SA Rowing (a very successful Olympic programme, given its resources). They had plenty of sense. He once remarked that he didn’t think the science was adding value, but “sense” would make a difference, and so I’ve used that.

The point is, all the fancy PhDs in the world won’t improve performance in the elite sports environment if they don’t understand their true value. And their true value is not what they know, it’s how they discover what they don’t know, and then how they learn more. I think a lot of teams don’t get this, and I KNOW that a lot of sports scientists don’t. That’s why I’ve met dozens of people who are marketers, financial experts, coaches, who make much better sports scientists than the sports scientists themselves.

It’s also why, incidentally, I would encourage every coach who is reading this to embrace sports science. Understand that YOU are part of the “scientific process”, and in that regard, you must hold yourself to the same standard of thinking and learning and discovery. Become a “scientist”, and forget about the stupid letters someone has behind their name and their title.


Sports science in the competitive world of elite sport – why academic approaches often fail

Then there is a section about why sports science that works in an academic setting doesn’t work in the elite sports world. It is competitive, it’s often a zero-sum game, and that creates evolutionary pressure to find solutions to problems that the normal academic process cannot always provide. Specifically, sports science for elite sport requires high speed, it cannot always be precise, and there is always an opportunity cost. These are very important (and fun) topics, which I don’t have time to go into right now, but hopefully you get the point.


The example of Talent ID and evaluating models within a framework

Next, I share two examples of how this plays out. The first is on talent pathways and how young athletes are developed. To begin with, I use Talent ID to introduce how my model for Talent ID informs my approach to it. So, in sequence:

  • I reject binary thinking – the notion that it’s either talent or training is stupid. It’s like saying that the previous picture is a rabbit or a duck. An old lady or a young lady. Don’t be stupid. They’re both. And the fact that it’s a duck does not make it any less a rabbit. It’s talent, and training. 100% of each. Again, don’t be dumb. Reject stupid binary thinking
  • I have a framework that simplifies talent – I define it, I understand what it means, and I build a framework that allows me to begin the process of discovering it
  • With that in mind, I can define Talent ID, and understand where it fits in the “elite sports universe”. In my case, it is a resource allocation tool. Talent ID is about budgeting. It is also about competitive advantage. And so you see how now, I am able to build an understanding that it’s more than just measuring the height and PHV and speed and size of a 12-year old? That’s the operational stuff. But Talent ID is so much more – it has a tactical purpose (budgets, effective resource use) and it has a strategic purpose (winning, competitive advantage).
  • Next, I can use this understanding to evaluate conflicting opinions. Is success about genes, or training? Again, the binary approach to this is stupid, so we can reject it, but we can also evaluate it against a framework, and realize that when people sell stuff like 10,000 hours, it doesn’t fit with the true purpose of Talent ID, and why we need a holistic view
  • To this argument, we must bring insight, intelligent questions (why is the relationship the way you say, what is missing from the graph etc?) Is Tiger Woods a good example, or are you suffering from “survivorship bias” when you use him or Serena Williams?
  • And finally, I leave people with the challenge of looking for what is not seen at first. I call this the “Dark side of the moon challenge”. You have to work much harder, but you have to get around to the back, and not just look up and assume that what you see is all there is.

Making decisions with imperfect information

Next, I move on to offer a framework for how I would make decisions in an elite context, given that we often do not have the precision and evidence to KNOW with certainty what we are dealing with.

Here, I think that there are many concepts worth exploring, but I don’t have time to do that just now. Basically, I think that sports sense involves asking a series of questions – logical ones – and then arriving at a point of acting decisively, sometimes in the absence of evidence. The first of those is “Will knowing X change my behaviour?”

Once you know this, you can either stop and not waste your time, or you continue by asking “Could I be wrong?” Because if the answer to that is yes, then you need to understand the consequences of being wrong. In other words, to get statistical, I’m talking here about things like positive predictive value, negative predictive value etc. And then I’m trying to understand whether this will have trivial consequences, or significant ones.

I use the example of genetic testing, which a lot of teams and athletes get enthusiastic about. In my opinion, the academic world had dissuaded people from using it, correctly, because there’s insufficient evidence. But in an elite sports world, that is often not enough. And the problem is that the academic world doesn’t necessarily convey the reasons for rejecting genetic prediction in a language that elite sport understands.

So we have a breakdown in communication, where good science doesn’t necessarily impact behaviour, and is often ignored, because the message is not understood or valued. I think a good sports scientist is able to drive a practical approach. This doesn’t happen often enough.


Committing to action and making decisions

Finally, I offer 7 scenarios for how a decision should be made using an upside vs downside process. This should be pretty self explanatory. It is here that a ‘pure science’ approach would paralyze an elite sports environment, because it would say “Don’t move until there is evidence”.

In HP sport, if you wait, you die. And so the opportunity cost and competitive nature drive people into acting despite a lack of evidence. But, the flipside to this is that people then act recklessly, and they do stupid, destructive things, and waste time and money. So at some point, there has to be a balance.

In conclusion, what I say in this presentation is the following:

Every day, a person in an elite HP environment, whether a coach, a doctor, an S&C coach, or even a manager, is going to ask 10 questions. Some have obvious answers, some are impossible to answer, but maybe 5 of those require a systematic approach to answer correctly. Sports Science is about being able to answer them. But forget sports science, and bring instead sports sense. The scientist has the tools, but may not have the ability to use them, and so what an elite team needs to prioritize is the process by which knowledge and thus wisdom is acquired. What this does is allows 4 of those 5 questions to be answered correctly, and over the course of a year, that adds up, and the more often the team/collective can make good decisions about complex things, the more closely that team/collective will attain its own capacity

And that is what sport science should bring to the elite sports environment. But sadly, it often does not. Instead, good coaches, doctors, and managers, do this, and that’s why I don’t think the qualifications matter nearly as much as the quality of the person who is tasked with the delivery of these technical aspects to the environment. So hire good people as the priority.

And that was my talk to Arsenal. Sort of.


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