4-bullet Friday: More on the age-elite athlete thing, you all rock, plus “My most interesting” links for you

08 Feb 2019 Posted by

Real quick-fire today, with some links and things I found interesting this week:


1. The elite athlete and age: Follow up on my last post

On Wednesday, I wrote a short thought on whether the conventional wisdom around how elite athletes “expire” and fade with age may be outdated. Seems to me that we hear a lot more about older athletes succeeding, and even dominating, than before.

However, I was well aware of the potential for confirmation and survivor bias in how my perception was shaped, and so I asked you if you’d be interested in providing some data and helping either refute or confirm that hypothesis.

And boy did you respond. You folk are great, really. I now have a crack “team” of five people, with a mix of skills, research and data wise, who are going to help look into this. One of you, Roni (I’ll introduce you properly soon), provided this, among a few other charts.

It shows the average ages of medal winners in various Olympic events over time, women on the left, men on the right.

For now, this is purely descriptive. So I’m not going to attempt to offer any insights or thoughts, but feel free to spot some patterns! But what Roni has done is quickly provide a database and we’ll now put our collective heads together and explore it, do “proper stats”, search for context and patterns and significant changes, and in time, we’ll get some papers and a good few articles out of it.

The internet done good! Thanks for your amazing interaction on this one, and keep your eyes and ears open for more insight in the future!


2. My Most Interesting: Sports science article

I’m showing my bias here, and also revealing that I’ve had a busy enough week that all I’ve read research wise are papers on rugby and concussion, since that’s what I’m primarily working on these days.

But the paper of interest is this one, by the University College Dublin group, led by Brian Caulfield, first authored by William Johnston, and supported by the IRFU, published in The American Journal of Sports Medicine earlier this year.

It’s called “Association of Dynamic Balance with Sports-Related Concussion: A Prospective Cohort Study”, and what they did was to follow 109 elite rugby players over the course of a season and then associate concussions during that season to the player’s previously measured performance during a dynamic balance test.

The main finding, which has potential clinical relevance, was that if a player had sub-optimal balance performance, their risk of concussion was 2.8-fold higher than if balance was deemed optimal.

Theoretically, this is because compromised balance leads to compromised technique. In their own words:

When we studied risk factors for head injury, we found that a ball carrier who was either unsighted or off balance (usually because of a previous tackle) was much more likely to be injured than one who had sight and was prepared for contact. So I think the balance and control issue works both ways, and logically, improving it will help prevent concussion.

The novel aspect was that they didn’t just measure the normal outcome of the Balance test, which is reach distance. Instead, they measured balance control using inertial sensors, which allow them to track how ‘smoothly’ the test is performed, not just a crude outcome. And this control/subtle performance ends up being the variable that differed most between concussed and non-concussed players (whereas the normal reach distance did not). Generally any addition to a test or screen that makes the test ‘harder’ to pass, or that can more accurately quantify “mistakes” (like wobbling or imbalance during this test) will increase the positive predictive value of the test (which means the test is more likely to identify cases of concussion, in this case), provided its a reliable measure.

There are, as with any research study, questions and improvements for future studies to build upon. Sample size, confounders that you can’t always control for, that kind of thing. In this one, they tracked 109 players, a good start, and they have 21 concussions in that group. So of course more numbers will make stronger foundations and recommendations in future.

There’s also a theoretical confounder when a player has a previous history of concussion BEFORE the balance test. Does this affect their result, so that maybe you’re seeing the effect of prior concussion on balance performance and future concussion? The good thing in this study is that they controlled for this , and their stats model suggests it doesn’t – there was no significant interaction between previous concussion and balance performance. Again, more numbers would help grow confidence in this finding.

And then I’d have liked to see them report the Positive and Negative Predictive Value, rather than sensitivity and specificity, mainly because you’d be using this test not to diagnose concussion after it’s happened, but rather to predict its occurrence in the future.

But those issues aside, concussion prevention is the name of the game, and while World Rugby have changed the rules to help reduce their incidence, if players and coaches can be equipped with evidence-based reasons to improve certain physical performances, then that is good. And while one can say it’s a one-season study, needs expansion etc., there is no downside in exploring how dynamic balance can be improved in rugby players as a way to reduce concussions. Time may be the only cost, but that’s where this research leads.

So I think it’s really interesting, and complements a growing body of research showing that “sensorimotor control” is a big contributor to concussion risk. World Rugby recently employed Dr Mike Hislop to help rol out an injury prevention programmed called “Activate” (he did his PhD on it, with the RFU), and that is intended to target similar attributes to reduce concussion (and other injury risk).

So this is where we need to go in future, and the more people do research in this area, the better.


3. My most interesting: Sports story

This was an interesting piece, and it made some good arguments. It talks about the savage vitriol that is directed at coaches and players when their (football) teams “underperform”, and the culture that has contributed to a dramatic lowering of the tone among fans.

This is not unique to football in England. You see it in increasingly partisan politics of Trump, Brexit. In sport, it happened recently after the opening round of the Six Nations. I stupidly glanced at Twitter a few hours after Ireland lost to England and it was full of “told you sos” and self-righteous idiocy led by “I’m always right about people and things I don’t even know” Ewan McKenna, with a chorus of people whose mindset seems to be that if you lose one game, it negates 18 months of performances.

Ireland were soundly beaten, to be sure, and the matter should give them some concern because unless they find a way around the England method that denied them time and their wrap-around pass move (which will be used by other teams, though perhaps not as capably), they’ll be found out again. But that doesn’t delete previous success. As though when Djokovic loses a couple of matches in the next six months, it will wipe out that he dominated the Australian Open and the US Open before that. It’s bizarre.

And it’s tribalism that does this. But in a weird way, it manifests as self-loathing, like an anti-tribalism. The effect of “patriotism” or parochialism on people’s mental acuities is evident when you look at, among other things:

  • The reaction here in SA to Oscar Pistorius back when it was being debated whether he had an advantage from his blades
  • The reaction in SA in particular, but globally, to debate around Caster Semenya and advantage from testosterone (here’s looking at you, Robert Marawa)
  • How rugby fans (and even expert pundits, like Austin Healy last week) react to things like dangerous play and referee decisions. The number of times people have said “Oh, if that was a South African player you’d have no problem with it” is incredible to me. Fool. Do you really think everyone is so biased by their nationalism that they share your incapacity to think for yourself?
  • The response of British cycling (and track) fans to any discussion at all about the dozens of issues around Sky or Farah

It astonishes me how what is basically a co-incidence of latitude and longitude (or chromosomes) can totally change the way so many people interpret the same set of facts. It’s like a flag drops down and interferes with the handful of synapses in their brains. And don’t get me wrong, patriotism is great, supporting your team and country is great, but when it loads your opinion so much that you ignore your own eyes just because you happened to be born in X and identify as X, that bemuses me.

So this article makes some strong points in that regard. The only criticism I have is that I think it falls foul of a bit of confirmation bias to create a straw man argument. I don’t think most fans of any club think their coach is a fraud, and they don’t put nooses around player’s necks. I don’t even think “many” do. I think there’s a minority, maybe 5%, who scream so loudly that it makes anyone who is attuned to it over-estimate the true scale of the issue. But on the reasons and explanations, it’s bang on.

It’s like the Pareto Principle, or the 80/20 rule, except Social media loads it more like 95/5. 5% of the people carry 95% of the ‘inertia’ of a given debate. I guess it’s the same as in the service industry – those who are satisfied stay silent, those who are not tear it down.


4. My most interesting: Non sports science story

I’ve met and known a few architects in my life, and I find what they do really interesting. A blend of creativity and structure. So I enjoyed this interesting piece about skyscrapers in New York taking on new dimensions – needle-like towers. A zoning policy allows a developer to buy the unused “air rights” of adjacent buildings and add them to theirs, and then build higher. Form follows finance, it says in the article.

Very interesting.

That’s all for the week. Next week I’m off to London and then Switzerland, for work related meetings. I’ll try to share some of what that involves at some point in the future, though probably not in the next month or so. Something will up come though, and I look forward to our interactions on it!

Have a top weekend.



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