– Derek M. Hansen –
The term “Sport Science” is being thrown around professional sport these days more frequently than a tomato at a Spanish food fight festival. Sport performance staff are infusing their team’s preparations with sport science mojo that is guaranteed to launch them into the high performance stratosphere, where they will be laughing at all of the Luddites beneath them (Fun fact: For those of you that fell asleep during high school history, the Luddites were 19th-century English textile workers who protested against newly developed machinery designed to increase production as part of the Industrial Revolution in the early 1800’s).
It’s almost as though people have only recently discovered “sport science” and were previously designing athlete preparation programs based on constellations, tea leaves and tarot cards. I’m sure some people were relying on luck and random number generators before, but let’s be honest – decisions in sport based on scientific reasoning is nothing new. If anything, I am concerned that “sport science” is more often than not used as a smokescreen to justify poor practices in other areas of sport performance. Some coaches will employ surveys questionnaires and heart rate monitoring during training, but not modify training based on the results. In some cases, they do not even process the data. It is almost as though some coaches are simply paying lip service to sport science practices, without an intention of making productive changes and improving the circumstances for their athletes. On the other side of the spectrum, some sport science programs are doing wonderful jobs of employing the scientific method on a daily basis, and advising their coaching and medical staff members of how they can improve performance and recovery.
Provided below are some key recommendations for any sport organization hoping to establish a top-notch sport science program that yields significant benefits for athletes, coaches and the overall performance of the team they are servicing.
1. Don’t Allow the Collection of Data to Take You Away or Distract You from Quality Coaching and Instruction
These days, coaches are so intent on gathering data and numbers that they often miss the forest from the trees. One example is the use of technology to measure the velocity of barbell movement. Sport performance coaches are so intent on having athletes move the bar fast that they forget to watch the technique required to move the weight properly. When athletes are only intent on the outcome of a lift, as opposed to the process required to achieve a good lift, bad things happen. While watching athletes perform power cleans with one of these devices in tow, I witnessed a combination of poor posture, premature pulling with the arms and miss-timed extension of the hips. In fact, with all of these technical flaws present, the bar never had a chance to move fast. When the desire to measure takes precedence over the need to train properly, athletes will suffer. A good coach will measure with his or her eyes, trained by years of experience. As Albert Einstein said, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”
2. Establish ‘Purpose’ Before a Purchase
I’m sure many of you would agree with my experiences in training. As an athlete, I had some of my most amazing workouts with rusty weights in a dark weight room or on a grass field with an old leather medicine ball. Low-tech solutions often deliver fabulous results. However, these days we are inundated with new, innovative approaches and technologies that we are told we cannot live without. Often, the perception created by the “market” is that if we do not buy in to these new technologies, we will be left behind. “Other teams and organizations use our product. How come you haven’t taken the plunge?”
Rather than fall into the trap of tech envy or insecurity, sports organizations should establish a tangible need and implementation plan prior to purchasing new technology for a sport science program. Needs assessment protocols should be part of any sport science program. In other industries, individuals are required to demonstrate how technology acquisitions will either make the company money or save them money. In sport science settings, any technology that directly reduces the incidence of injuries or speeds up a star athlete’s return to competition could be classified as a money saving technology.
The investment in GPS technology by professional sport teams is an interesting one. While there may be plausible reasons for using GPS to monitor athlete workloads and avoid overtraining scenarios, not every organization is using the technology to its full potential. I have heard of some college sport teams acquiring GPS systems solely for “recruiting” purposes. Other teams have used the systems to purposely overload the athletes and hit workload targets that border on abusive. If a team chooses to purchase a GPS system, it should be for the right reasons including optimizing practice workloads, competition taper plans and effectively monitoring the velocities and loads of athletes returning to competition. All of the staff – including the head coach – should be in support of such an investment, and all should be involved in the appropriate implementation of the technology. Spending money for the sake of spending money and attempting to give the impression of innovation is the gateway to other inefficiencies and system failures.
3. Hire Good People
Guy Kawasaki, a notable Silicon Valley marketing executive who has worked for both Apple and Google, makes a good point about hiring good people for your organization in one of his Ted Talks. He talks about always hiring “A” players. But fear and insecurity in poor organizations leads to the hiring of “B” players and “C” players, so that the leader can feel strong and not have any possibility that they will be shown up. In sporting circles, people often hire “familiar” faces because they feel for comfortable and less threatened. But problems occur with the delivery of a quality service when “B” and “C” players become the norm. The organization as a whole begins to suffer and performance declines rapidly. Ultimately, everyone will lose their job, including the original leader who made the initial poor choices, ironically, for reasons of job security.
I would urge sport organization leaders to find smart, young people to staff your sport science program. Today’s generation of young sports-minded professionals can learn quickly and are very adaptable. They bring a youthful enthusiasm and perspective that can enhance your abilities as a sport science professional. I would also encourage you to hire staff members that have a background in coaching. These are people who have a good eye and can communicate effectively. They should have a good idea – intuitively – of what they are hoping to uncover with their data gathering efforts or video analysis techniques. The data will not make decisions for them. They must problem solve on their own and relate to both the coaches and, most importantly, the athletes.
And, no, you don’t have to hire an Australian to add legitimacy to your sport science program (No offense to the Aussie sport science community. They have done some wonderful things for the field!). There are lots of great people who make a difference in sport science all over the world. Some of these people may even live in your own backyard.
4. Understand Your Job and Your Role
Every individual that makes up the sport science program in your organization should know how to do their job well, as well as know their role in the organization. This may sound like an obvious recommendation, but you would be surprised how many people are placed in positions that they have no clue how to carry out effectively, or they are working outside the scope of their job. Data gatherers are providing recommendations on rehabilitation, athletic trainers are prescribing strength training exercises, head coaches are practicing sport psychology and strength coaches are recommending skill drills for players. This is not far from the truth in many organizations. If this is happening, typically it is a sign that the organization is dysfunctional and not operating as an efficient team of experts. Trust is likely at an all time low and the athletes are losing out. If everyone is doing their job well, things run smoothly and you see the results in the field of competition. If only one person is not doing his or her job, it can disrupt everyone else, particularly at the higher levels of performance. If more than one person is not doing their job properly, look out. Stress levels will be high and the tension created by these inefficiencies will tear apart the organization over the long run.
It really goes back to the previous point regarding the hiring of good people. If you hire people for the wrong reasons (i.e. he’s a good guy, my buddy recommended him) without going through the proper process of evaluating each individual on their own merits, you will end up with problems – whether it comes down to aptitude, ability and/or character – at the most critical times of the year or season. However, this type of thorough evaluation takes time and patience. You cannot evaluate all of these qualities over the course of one sit-down interview. Do your homework, build your team deliberately and make sure everyone understands their role within the larger context of providing exceptional service to the coaches and athletes.
Check in for Part 2 of this article very soon. To be continued!