The World Championships surprises

While recovering from the accumulated lack of sleep caused by watching the World Championships Athletics the last 10 days I observed a few interesting things.

I guess everybody  noticed the many surprises, positive and negative: Mo Farah and Usain Bolt lost where they looked undefeatable so many times before. The loss of Elaine Thompson in the 100 meter women, etc. For Jamaica the WC results were bad, mainly due to the fact that three athletes dominating sprint before, Bolt, Thompson or Fraser-Price, were not in good shape or weren’t there at all. Interesting though: Jamaica does no longer seem to limit itself to producing only good sprinters: a gold medal in men’s hurdling, also finals in shotput women, and even the 5000 meter men.

Focusing on the positive surprises: USA 3000m steeple women: gold and silver. The boost of South Africa and smaller countries: Venezuela, Norway. Syria taking a medal in high jump. The “recovery”  of the dominance of USA in sprint events and Kenia in the longer distances. France and Germany taking their places again and yes, the 800 meter men, which is always a roulette, saw two non-Africans winning gold and silver. Turkey winning the gold medal in the 200 meter.

And what about the Netherlands, many people ask me. Yes, we have 5 very good athletes, all female: Dafne Schippers (100m and 200m), Nadine Visser (hurdles and heptathlon), Sifan Hassan (1500m and 5 km),  Anouk Vetter (heptathlon), Susan Krumins (5 km and 10 km).  They were all good and they peaked at the right moment.

The men were terrible this time: Churandy Martina injured himself before the Championships and the years start counting against him.  Eric Cadee, our discus thrower threw 64.93 in 2017, but did not make into the finals with a disastrous 58.60, more than 6 meter less! Menno Vloon, our pole-vaulter jumped 5.85 this year but had a strange accident during the qualifications and was out.

Thymen Kupers, who won his 800 meter heat very convincingly with the fastest time overall, did not start in the semi-finals due to an injury.

Richard Douma, the 1500 meter runner stumbled in the heats, still made it to the semi-final and became dead last in a terrible time, of course.

Eelco Nicolaas, our best decathlete of the last decade,  scored a hopeful 8539 points this year only to give up the second day due to an injury. His colleague Pieter Braun, scored 8334 points this year but ended with 7890 points, 500 points less.

The 4×100 relay showed where they are without Martina: nowhere. They  stumbled in the heats with a sixth place in 38.66.

Isn’t it peculiar, the men doing so terrible, injured or not being able to peak and the women doing so great with  4 medals?

The rest of the women, like the men, were quiet unconvincing too to put it mildly.  In throwing and sprinting they, like the men, stayed far behind their best performances of 2017. 4×400 meter relay got DQed, 4x100m was dead last in the final, Broersen, heptathlon, gave up injured and in shotput Boekelman more than 1 meter from her best performance in 2017(!?).

Here is the secret:  Schippers trains with a foreign coach, and so does Hassan, Krumins is training in the US as well.  Vetter is coached by her father and Visser might leave her coach as well, if history is an indication for the future.

These hard numbers prove that Dutch track coaches suck and although our Olympic Committee tries to tell the world that we have the best educated coaches in the world, nothing is further from the truth. Their education is practically non-existent or totally inadequate to cope with the demand of performing at the highest level.  If they are as good as they think, why are the best performances  produced by athletes who train with foreign coaches?

Enough about the Dutch.

It also becomes more and more clear that the concept of nationalism or competing for your country is old-fashioned and arbitrary, athletes change countries as easy as they change clubs or coaches.  Just as in other sports. International immigration is normal.  They rightly choose for the money, the passport or the training facilities. Is the medal in the 5 km for Sifan Hassan a medal for the Netherlands, for Europe (like a reporter said) or a medal for Africa? I don’t know and I don’t really care, as it is a medal for Sifan Hassan. Where she comes from, where she lives and for which country she competes is hardly interesting. Until we find a better solution we will have to deal with athletes who compete for a country.

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Peaking for beginners.

Isn ‘t this what it is all about? You trained hard for that particular competition and now you want to be the best you can be. Or are you just training to train, or training to compete no matter what the result will be? I guess not.
I write this while watching the World Championships Athletics in London, and calculate the results of the Dutch team so far. A few days ago I gave a TV interview about what peaking is and how to do it.

Here it is in a nutshell: Peaking is delivering your best performance (ever or of the year) when it counts, most of the time during a major championship such as Olympic Games or World Championship, but also at the Superbowl, the NCAA, a Grand Slam, Grand Prix or Diamond League. It’s our major task as coaches.
Quite a few athletes do very well in local championships or the national championships, but when it comes to the Big One, they don’t perform as well.
Peaking isn’t rocket science nor a mysterious process. Like many things it’s quiet simple if you know what to do and how to do it. But looking at the results you find out that many coaches don’t have clue.

It consists of three main components:
1. Fitness
2. Readiness
3. Stress resilience

1. The important factor in fitness is conditioning: the athlete needs to have a high level of fitness, strong, fast and/or good endurance, depending on the sport, but furthermore an adequate technical level and tactical skills. This is the easy part, because this is what we train for on a daily basis and what we can measure and control by testing.

2. Readiness is more difficult as it is harder to know whether the athlete is ready or not. With ready we mean that the body’s physiological systems are fully charged and well-coordinated. By training and conditioning we temporarily decrease readiness. The athlete gets tired but recovers on a daily basis , but there is also an accumulated, residual or deeper fatigue. Readiness means freshness, not being fatigued. Nowadays we use sophisticated equipment such as Omegawave to measure the readiness level of the athlete. But for my own athletes I designed a simple algorithm for tapering, to make sure there is little chance they enter the stadium fatigued.

3. Stress resilience or the ability to handle stress and deal with the pressure that comes with competing at the highest level. The ability to handle your doubts or fears whether you are good enough to win or good enough to produce a good result. And the added expectations and pressure of parents, peers, coach, club, federation, media and sponsors.

So in order to peak the athletes have to be fit, recovered and stress resilient. Most of the time I find that two of three of these factors are OK, but the third one is inadequate.
Only in hindsight can we judge if the athlete peaked. It’s hard to predict if an athlete is going to peak if you don’t know them well. Many athletes THINK they will peak or assume they are ready based on the wrong assumptions: “I never trained so hard before”, “I feel in good shape”, “my competitions so far were good”, “I see this as a challenge”. All great, but it’s not enough nor by any means a guarantee for peaking.

In measurable sports like athletics, swimming, weightlifting, it is easy to evaluate if the athlete peaked or not. For myself, I use the 2% rule: if the athlete is within 2% of his/her best performance that year, they peaked. If the athlete performed worse 2% from their best performance that year, they did not peak. In some track events, you don’t need to apply this rule e.g. in the middle or long distance races where a tactical race with a fast last lap only and a slow time can still deliver a gold medal. The 2% margin is quite large, but also includes possible unfavorable weather conditions, like head wind, low temperature, rain or slow tracks.
But if you want to apply a sharper 1% margin that is fine too. If I apply the 2% rule to the Dutch team at the 2013 World championship, only 9 out of 17 athletes peaked, after applying the 1% rule only 5 out of 17 events the athlete(-s) peaked. In any case a strong display of inability of the coaches to make their athlete peak at the right time. Let’s face it, this championship is the final goal of the training process.

The most neglected factor is the stress resilience factor. Here improvement takes a much longer time than most coaches assume and for sure is not the result of hard physical training. Some part of the ability to cope with stress is genetically determined and hard to compensate, but possible in my opinion.

One can see this because some athletes train hard and are well-rested and ready but they repeatedly crack under the pressure of the Big One, sometimes year after year. Others don’t train as well as they should, but always seem to go beyond themselves and surprise you with a great performance at the championship and even a gold medal or a personal best.
Peaking is not difficult but it is complex to understand and complex to control the three major factors involved at the same time.

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Nature teaches, we learn.

Holiday is always a good time for slowing down a busy brain, reset the mind and let some new ideas come up. Science, mainly biology, physics and chemistry, is always my primary interest, much more than sport to be honest. I remember as a boy being an enthousiastic member of The Young Researchers Foundation, organized by university students, who practiced teaching chemistry, physics and technology to kids. This foundation still exists.

Although I was, like many boys of that age, fascinated by rockets, explosions and smells (once I made the whole neighborhood smell like pineapple: I synthesized ethyl-butyrate), I also learned e.g. paper and column chromatography.
Hiking in the mountains not only makes you feel small and irrelevant, but it also makes me wonder still about the true marvels of nature and human’s futile attempts to improve  nature.

Let me give you a simple example. In an attempt to improve human health or to combat disease the immense pharmaceutical industry is trying to find solutions for common or rare, for acute or chronic diseases. The cost of these, in terms of financial costs, but also of human suffering by side effects, or experimental medication that doesn’t work like it was anticipated, is beyond belief.
Herbal medicine has been consciously neglected too long. Conveniently forgetting that herbal medicine is the mother of pharmacology, medical science and pharmacology went the easy way by becoming more and more specialized in looking for isolating and changing natural products. (Only recently again, science “discovered” the importance and the power of synergy of plant compounds)

For some part, isolation and modifying a natural molecule is done to improve the qualities of the compound, (better absorption, stronger effect, less side effects) but the main reason is: being able to patent a „new“ compound, thereby having “improved” on nature and most importantly, generating absurd levels of profit for the shareholders. Yes, human health has become commodity to be exploited and look around, it works out really well.

In my opinion it is hard, if of not impossible to improve on nature, not in an esoteric sense, but from a scientific point of view. Think about the many thousandof different plant metabolites that exist and of which only a small portion has been discovered and tested. One of the big problems of modern medicine is the resistance of bacteria against modern synthetic antibiotics, think MRSA (modern antibiotics basically started in the 1940’s with the discovery of penicillin).

Now think of plants being involved in a chemical warfare with bacteria, fungi, viruses, insects, and other pests and threats. Have you ever thought why these plants, or better said most plants, are not extinct yet despite these continuous attacks? Simply because plants, through evolution, developed their own well stocked cabinet of antibiotics as a defense system to protect themselves. And better yet: throughout the hundreds of thousands of years, bacterial resistance against these compounds does not seem to play a role. For bacteria it is easy to develop resistance against one singular, isolated, synthetic compound, but not against many diffrent plant compounds since the resistance process is specific and costs a lot of energy.
To be fair, a plant has the advantage of having had hundreds of thousands of years of hard and serious experimentation under lethal pressure: synthesize the right compounds against an attacker, or become extinct!

The vegetable part of Mother Nature supplies us with lots of goodies, apart form our daily nutrition. We often take most of them for granted because they are so integrated in our daily life. A short list: tea, coffee, beer, wine, tobacco, cannabis, opium, cocaine, etc. All of these are derived from plants and used to enrich the daily lives of billions of people on this planet. Or are used because we disagree with the current status of our organism and so we use chemical, although natural, substances like the above to change that. It has always been there from the beginning of mankind and a known phenomenon in all human cultures.

These plant compounds also cause the confusion that makes it hard to define the difference between a poison, a social drug, a street drug, a medication or a doping agent. The same compound can belong to different groups, dependent of time and cultural factors. Just think about the different ways one can look at coffee. This whole issue is surrounded with a high level of irrationality.

Going back to hiking in the mountains. In the first hour of a hike I found some interesting plants. First of all, the Aconitum napellus of Monkshood, amongst the three strongest plant toxins in Europe. It was already mentioned by the Roman writer Ovid, who called it “stepmother’s poison”.(1) Also Shakespeare wrote that Romeo committed suicide by using this poison. And let’s not forget professor Severius Snape, who informed Harry Potter about the powerful Wolfsbane Potion, containing Monkshood.(2)

Aconitum napellus (Monkshood)

During the same hike many potential compounds against cancer were found along the trails. A few:
–  Chelidonium majus, used against cancer in the anticancer product product „Ukrain“,  main component chelerythrine (3,4)

Chelidonium majus

– Berberis vulgaris, the main component berberine, (5) good as an alternative to lower cholesterol instead of statins too (6)

Berberis vulgaris

– Chamomille main component apigenin (7,8)
– Dandelion (Yes the simple and abundant dandelion!) (9,10)

Taraxacum officinale (Dandelion)

We already know that compounds in these plants do work on cancer cells in the lab. But since there is no money to be made from these compounds, as they can be found everywhere. The research and testing on human subjects and patients would cost way  more money than would ever return from making a therapeutic product out of it. So many valuable compounds are produced along the side of the road or are growing in your own garden, without people bothering to use them. This what we call progress.

But billions of dollars have been spent (since Richard Nixon declared the “War on Cancer” in 1971) and thousands of intelligent experts and researchers have been thinking about and looking in vain for a final solution for cancer. Some simple conclusions can be drawn: 1.until now their thinking was inadequate, 2. they have been looking at the wrong issues 3. they have been looking at the right issues but from he wrong perspective. Three easy solutions: think in a different way, look at other issues and/or look from another perspective.

Maybe part of a solution has been around for a long time, waiting to be finally discovered, hidden deep in the metabolism of some plants? The example is here, in 2015 Youyou Tu won the Nobelprize for Medicine (the first Nobelprize for a Chinese scientist) for the research she did on Artemisia, a plant used to combat malaria, knowing that Artemisia already has been used in China for many hunderds of years against fever.

Limited bibliography.
1 Tai, C.J; El-Shazly, M: Clinical Aspects of Aconitum Preparations; Planta Med. Vol.81, 2015, pg.1017–1028.

2 Rowling J.K. Harry Potter and the philosopherʼs stone; Pottermore, London, 2012.

3 Malíková J, Zdarilová A, Hlobilková A, Ulrichová J: The effect of chelerythrine on cell growth, apoptosis, and cell cycle in human normal and cancer cells in comparison with sanguinarine.  Cell Biol Toxicol. Vol.22, No.6, 2006 pg.439-53.

4 Ernst, E; Schmidt, K: Ukrain – a new cancer cure? A systematic review of randomised clinical trials; BMC Cancer, 5, 2005, 69

5 Tillhon,M; Guama´n Ortiz, L.M; Lombardi, P, Ivana Scovassi, A: Berberine: New perspectives for old remedies; Biochemical Pharmacology,Vol. 84, 2012, pg. 1260–1267.

6 Weijia Kong, Jing Wei, Parveen Abidi, Meihong Lin: Berberine is a novel cholesterol-lowering drug working through a unique mechanism distinct from statins; Nature Medicine, Vol 10, No.12, 2004, pg.1344-1351.

7 Srivastava, J.K; Gupta, S: Antiproliferative and Apoptotic Effects of Chamomile Extract in Various Human Cancer Cells; J. Agric. Food Chem. Vol.55, No.23, 2007, pg.9470–9478

8 Zhu, Y; Mao,Y :A pigenin promotes apoptosis, inhibits invasion and induces cell cycle arrest of T24 human bladder cancer cells; Cancer Cell International 2013, 13:54,pg.1-7.

9 Ovadje, P; Ammar, S; Guerrero, J-A; Arnason,J.T; Pandey, S: Dandelion root extract affects colorectal cancer proliferation and survival through the activation of multiple death signalling pathways; Oncotarget, Vol. 7, No. 45, 2016, pg.73080-73100.

10 Sigstedt S.C; Hooten, C.J; Callewaert M.C: Evaluation of aqueous extracts of Taraxacum officinale on growth and invasion of breast and prostate cancer cells; Int.J.Oncology, Vol.32, 2008, pg.1085-1090,

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Why almost all our ideas about training are wrong (or at least: based on the wrong assumptions)

In the last post I already indicated the importance of the individual. I have been going through a lot of books lately to look at the same information I have looked at before, but this time from a different view.
I adapted the concept of the strictly individual approach from the beginning of my work as coach somewhere in 1975. And throughout the years I got more convinced about its value for performance.
“ Look at your athlete, not at your program” sums it up nicely, but “improve your athlete, not your program” will do as well.

The case is that what I learned during my coaching courses was all based on the average athlete, by great pioneers in the methodology of training (Matwejew, Werchoshansky).

However, when I run into my first international level athlete, (something I did not know at that time) I found an outlier. And everything I learned at my course failed to work for this particular athlete. A few years later I trained another world-class athlete and the same thing happened: everything that worked for the first one, did not work for this athlete and the other way around. Looking at these athletes it wasn’t difficult to figure out why that was: they were complete opposites in almost all variables, but both were outliers from the average still.

Look at the age when athletes start in their sport: some of them start early, some of them start late. Or find out what they did before: some of them did other sports before, while others never did anything different and specialized from the very start of getting into sports. Some of them have a 5 year career, others a 30 year career (e.g. Merlene Ottey)

Some of them respond very well to certain training methods, others hardly respond or are getting injured. One athlete’s overload is another athlete’s overkill.

One sprinter could jump and do plyometrics like a kangaroo, with great improvement in explosive strength and without injuries, the other sprinter of the same level got pain and would be injured after a minimal set of jumps or bounding. So what to do: do plyometrics or not at all ….. well, it depends on the individual athlete.

This is also one of the reasons why I don’t put much time into technique training as it is supposed to be done. For me technique is an individual tactic used to solve a given motor task. Yes, the strategy might be the same, but the tactic might be different, dependent on many anatomical and physiological factors In sprinting we could already see an extreme example in the former elite GDR female sprinters some were successful with focus on stride frequency (Goehr, Stecher), others with focus on stride length (Koch, Gladisch). So, yes as they say there are many ways leading to Rome (but keep in mind that many people do not even arrive in Rome, or arrive too late).

A few examples: we see pictures of anatomical structures, in books about biomechanics of running, but who’s muscles are we really seeing there? As we know, anatomical structure dictates function and the other way around. So a different anatomical structure will lead to a difference in function.
Look at the variations in the structure of the patella, one variation is much more predisposed to be involved in knee injuries than others.

Possible anatomical variations of the patella

Another example: the individual variations in structure of the calf muscles and Achilles tendon (1)

Individual variations in calf muscles and Achilles tendon structure

Videos or photos of exemplary athletes surely give you the wrong impression! You can only run like Gebreselassie or Bolt if you ARE Gebreselassie or Bolt! Everyone else is doomed to fail!

One fine example from some time ago where in a former GDR textbook a photoseries of the start of Merlene Ottey was shown with the note that this was a textbook example of a good start. Whereas my own notes of the same start, being her coach at that moment, say it was a very bad start.

Blockstart 200 m Merlene Ottey in GDR textbook

 

Another one: during a scientific research project we looked at the force production at the starting blocks with elite athletes. Looking at the picture you see large individual difference despite the facts that they were all elite sprinters of comparable level.

Force-time curves blockstart elite sprinters

During this project, just for kind of fun, the sprinters also tried to copy Ben Johnson’s start, but they all failed to even come close (and they were strong and explosive guys).
So, how valuable is scientific research in this issue? In medicine or in sports we are looking to improve the health or the performance of individual patients or athletes. And often average data, like norm values or reference values are used as guideline for progress.

An example: look at the average data as the result of fMRI test as a response to a standard stimulus. (2)

MRI group average

But now look at the individual response: none of them looked nearly like the average! (2)

 

MRI of the individuals in the group

 

Here is the key: when someone tells speaks to you about “the average athlete” remember that you might not want to coach the average athlete but rather the non-average of elite athlete, the outlier. The average sprinter runs 12 seconds in the 100 meter. Looking at psychological factors the situation is even more pronounced. Its seems that psychological traits are hardly stable factors. And most of our behavior is purely contextual. One thing should be clear: there isn’t even such a thing like the average person: the average person has one breast and one testicle.

Bibliography:

  1. Edama, M; Kubo, M;  Onishi, H et al: The twisted structure of the human Achilles tendon; Scand J.Med.Sci Sport. Vol.25, pg.e497–e503, 20

2. Miller, M.B; van Horn, J.D et al.: Extensive Individual Differences in Brain    Activations  Associated with Episodic Retrieval are Reliable Over Time; Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience Vol.14, No.8, pg. 1200–1214, 2002.

Rose, L.T; Rouhani, P; Fischer, K.W: The Science of the Individual; Mind, Brain and Education; Vol.7, No.3, pg.152-158, 2013.

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New developments

Yes, it looks like I am slacking on my blog posts a bit. The main reason is I am working on two new books at the same time, which takes a lot of my time. In the meanwhile I have been working on some interesting issues.

We did a project with real-time testing of HRV of police officers during shooting. They were stressed before they started by a hand-to-hand combat and by putting their feet in ice water for three minutes.

Ice-bath 3 mins

Now we look for the relationship between measured stress levels and shooting performance. I have an idea but I won’t tell you here, just read the post before and you’ll get the direction of my thoughts.

Shooting test

In the coming months I will also be doing testing on the effects of whole-body cryotherapy in which a large part of the body is exposed to liquid nitrogen with an approximate temperature of – 110 degrees Celcius for 2-3 minutes.

 

Whole-body cryotherapy about to start

It’s not new, as a matter of fact the idea of this producing a positive effect tot he human body is old. Don’t try to compare this to the effect of normal icebath or cold water immersion for a longer period of time.

Something else that I have been following for since 2003 is blood flow restriction or KAATSU training in which a limb, arms and/or legs. Also this I will be testing for more positive effects. Blood flow restriction is a temporary limitation of the blood flow by strapping a band around the limb and exerting a pressure, compare this to measuring blood pressure. It’s not that any method will do, the pressure and the time have to be monitored carefully and optimized according to the individual.

Also I will start my own education seminars for coaches in fall, since the coaches education in Holland, especially for elite coaches is at an all-time low since I started lecturing for coaches in 1981. Too many people who don’t have the foggiest idea about what a coach needs to know, have been employed to fill the curriculum in many sportsfederations. People who have never been coaches themselves, nor have been educating coaches themselves, have the power to decide what is important. With the result that in Holland many coaches are still living in the last century. Organisational complacency and a sports political agenda tells the coaches they are amongst the best educated coaches in the world, but how do they know?

Lecturing in USA, Canada, Australia, China, Norway, Switzerland, or Germany at least gives me an idea what the levels are and how the Dutch compare. I have never seen one of those persons in charge of coaches education around anywhere and I know they never leave their office into the real world to find out.

A shame, my younger colleagues deserve better and I am in the process of organising seminars, like I used to do at the turn of the century. Small seminars on, new subjects and good speakers, like in the past Per Tesch, Marco Cardinale, Bill Laich, Atko Viru, Paul Balsom, Carmelo Bosco, John Hellemans, Joel Gold, etc. It will be in invitation only, so I will be sure this information will be understood and used.

Lecturing: I will be lecturing this week at the Nelli Cooman Games in Holland (20st edition!) and giving a clinic together with Nelli herself.

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The elephant in the room for improvement.

I admit, this is one of my hobby horses and I like to ride it hard and often.
In many fields of life, industry, medicine and sports, the scientific management principles of Taylor, mind you more than 150 years old, still dominate. (1)

Words such as manager, standardization, productivity, efficiency, protocol, KPI, assessment, norm or average, are still used to express the powerful impact of Taylorism. Yes, Taylor absolutely made a big step forward as far as efficiency is concerned. He sharpened the thinking about running companies in those days, but that step was 150 years ago! One of Taylor’s important approaches was that he timed the workers in completing a certain task. From this he derived an average time for an average worker, which then became the reference or norm.

Taylor wasn’t the only one in the age of the Industrial Revolution, who loved measurements and averaging. Quetelet, who averaged the size of the Scottish soldier (2). Francis Galton who measured human beings on many mental, physical and moral variables and based on these, ranked them from “Imbecile” to “Eminent” (3). Or Thorndike, who developed the IQ test and averaged these results for groups too. In fact they were the fathers of applied statistics, or the science of static numbers.
Those days were the days that the use of averages and generalizations was born.

Nowadays we realize that science has evolved in many fields, but somehow one of the biggest factors between success and failure in many fields, is based on something that looks so obvious that most of us don’t even recognize it: we are unique organisms in many aspects.

This possibly has been the most important basic pillar in my work as a coach and educator.
In an early stage of my work (it wouldn’t call it “career”), I realized that group programs or writing one training program for all of the athletes in my group did not bring satisfactory results. One-size fits all doesn’t go anywhere, because your favorite exercise might be the cause of my injury, my body is different from yours. Your superfood might be my poison, because the way your body handles food might be different from mine: think about peanuts being of high nutritional value but in some individuals causes a life threatening allergy.
The perfect dose of medication that takes your pain away without a problem, might be my overdose. Your reward might be my punishment. Your passion might be my biggest fear e.g. bungee-jumping. And in sports: your “easy” workout might be my exhaustive workout. If we do the same workout, you might recover in a few hours, but it might cost me more than a day to recover to the same level. We can also find it in the saying: “somewhere there is a little girl, just warming up with you 1 RM”.
Still, in medicine one only recently “discovered” that women respond differently to the same medication than man. And it was only 10 years ago that the idea of gender-specific medicine became an issue.

Overall, “averagarianism” still prevails in many fields, assuming that we are all pretty much the same and that we will respond in the same way to the same stimuli, e.g. training. In other words: that all of us are average.

One of the most interesting findings about the unique individual was done by Daniels, who was responsible for developing cockpits for fighter pilots.(4) He measured the proportions of many pilots and averaged the results. He however discovered, that there isn’t such a thing as “the average pilot”. The body dimensions of pilots differed in such a way that the cockpit design based on the average pilot did not fit any pilot! He took ten dimensions of pilots and measured 4063 pilots. And as it turned out: not a single pilot fitted the average of all ten dimensions! And less than 3.5% of the pilots fitted the average on only three dimensions. The message is clear: we all differ!

Also in other branches of science slowly the idea arose that averaging might be of statistic value, but not of any practical value. One of the proponents of the value of the individual in scientific sense was professor Peter Molenaar, who studied this issue thoroughly and stated: “Using a group average to evaluate individuals would only be valid if human beings were frozen clones, identical and unchanging”. (5) A pretty strong statement considering the fact that we as coaches often use group averages when deriving information for scientific journals and articles….

We can say that in Taylor’s days, the average men represented the ideal and the individual represented the error. But with the rise of “personalized medicine”, “personalized nutrition”, the time has come that we spend more timing focusing on serious personalized training. Especially when it concerns elite athletes whose main goal is to escape the average in the first place, and becoming “outliers”. Until now we adapted our athletes to our training programs and we adapted our training programs, our training methods, our exercises, our periodization models from averages. I bet you have heard it: “it takes 48 hours to recover from a heavy anaerobic workout”, or “one needs to squat 2 .5 times his/her bodyweight in order to be able to handle drop jumps properly”, “this is the best exercise …”(for whom?). Yes, averages, averages, averages.

Fortunately more and more research is done to show the inter-individual responses and differences to training (6, 7, 8, 9,10) Especially when working with elite athletes, keep in mind that the elite athlete is trying to get away from the average level, he/she is trying to become an outlier. And so should elite coaches do too, average coaches create average athletes, who perform average.

Bottom line: Kick the average elephant out of your room for improvement.

Literature:
1. Taylor, F.W: The Principles of Scientific Management; Harper & Brothers, New York, 1911.

2. Mosselmans, B: Adolphe Quetelet, the average man and the development of economic methodology; The European Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Vol.12, No.4, 2005, pg. 565-582.

3. Galton, F: Inquiries into Human Faculties and its Development; J.M. Dent & Co. London, 1883.

4. Daniels, G.S: “The Average Man”;Aero Medical Center, Wright Air Development Center, Wright-Patterson AFB, OH 45433, 1952.

5. Molenaar, P.C.M: A Manifesto on Psychology as Idiographic Science: Bringing the Person Back Into Scientific Psychology, This Time Forever; Measurement vol.2, No.4, 2004, pg.201-218.

6. Tschiene, P: Die Individualisierung des Trainings: eine vernachlässigte Leistungsreserve; Leistungssport, No.4, 2012 pg. 11-12.(German)

7. Mori, M; Higuchi, K, et al.: Genetic basis of inter-individual variability in the effects of exercise on the alleviation of lifestyle-related diseases; J. Physiol. Vol.587, No.23 (2009) pg. 5577–5584.

8.Mann, T.N; Lamberts, R.P; Lambert, M.I: High Responders and Low Responders: Factors Associated with Individual Variation in Response to Standardized Training; Sport Medicine, DOI 10.1007/s40279-014-0197-3

9. Erskine, R.M; Jones, D.A; et al.: Inter-individual variability in the adaptation of human muscle specific tension to progressive resistance training; Eur.J.Appl. Physiol. Vol.10, 2010, pg.1117-1125.

10. Hautala, A.J; Kiviniemi, A.M et al.: Individual differences in the responses to endurance and resistance training; Eur.J.Appl.Physiol.Vol.96, 2006, pg.535-542.

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Sport scientists: can we do without them?

The first question that you should ask is: who are … “we” in the title of this post?
To make it easy for you; in this context, “we” are coaches, the people working with athletes on a daily basis.
A modern trend is to involve sport scientists for almost any aspect of the training process: exercise physiologists, biomechanics specialists, biochemists, nutritional experts, sport psychologists. Often in a kind of kneejerk reflex, at least when one has the money to spend, sport scientists are hired for a task within a federation, a team or for individual athletes.

And I’ll tell you, I just love science, and sport science. My colleagues know it is hard to come up with a book, an article, or even the name of a sports scientist whose work I haven’t read. (It’s not always easy to be obsessive-compulsive) I try to do my job and I try to do my homework. Yes, I absolutely love sport science.

Related to the question in the title: are sport scientists making a significant difference in sports? My bet is: NO, if it was only in team sports like soccer, maybe if sports scientists were employed by one team only, but nowadays most teams, in this case both teams, have sport scientists in their staff, so the advantage is equaled out.
In individual sports there are multiple factors contributing to success, I doubt if the addition of sport scientists would make a significant difference.

Of course it makes no sense to ask a sports scientist himself, they will naturally say their work significantly contributes to increased performances, even if there is, using a term often used by sport scientist themselves, not even the slightest trace evidence-based research to confirm this.

Now you ask the manager, who hires the sports scientist as part of their staff, of course also they will state the sport scientists do contribute, but realize that if they would say otherwise, they would have been wasting money and look stupid. Why would you pay somebody who does not contribute?

For the longest time, coaches athletes and teams have been performing well without the support of sport scientists.
So here is the rhetoric question: what would happen to the level of sports if all sports scientists would be fired?
A general complaint of sports scientists is the lack of academic education of coaches. (in other words: coaches are just too dumb to understand what I mean). And here is the catch: maybe there is no need for any academic level thinking in coaching. Coaching elite athletes or teams is not rocket science (otherwise we would all be working at NASA).

Yes, coaches often read too little, not because they would not like too, but coaching athletes is an often full time engagement, not a nine-to-five office job.
One of the important factors in this issue is that coaching and science are fundamentally different fields.
Sport science is mainly concerned about specialisms, about rational analytical thinking, about generalization and averages, about groups and about a job.

Coaching is mainly concerned about generalizing and holism, about creative problem-solving and managing emotions, about unique individuals and about personalized coaching and training, and it’s a craft.
Even if you copy another coach’s training program, the results will not be the same, because your specific personality, and your approach will always interfere with the results ( I call this the placebo-effect of the coach)

Sports science is not a fundamental condition for performance improvement and there is no guarantee that consulting a sports scientist will help you to become a better coach or athlete. It might even be that sports scientists may actually decrease your performance e.g. by focusing on their own specialism and neglecting other important fields. Sometimes they are plain wrong or their findings are redundant after time. Not to speak of the lack of consensus about many issues. Science is never a panacea of magic wand.

Some well-known examples: a famous sport scientist stated that we had to drink a lot during exercise to prevent dehydration and performance decreases. The message: drink more. Now he says we are waterlogged by drinking during exercise. The message: drink less. Another scientist once promoted special footwear or orthotics to counteract pronation of the foot, now he thinks the opposite and says it works counterproductive.

The more we see coaching as an craft or even an art, the less the need for sport sciences.
Michael Jackson did not need an movement scientist to learn his dances. Van Gogh did not need a chemist to know the composition of his pigments to paint. Some of the best musicians even don’t read notes.

Coaching might not be an art, since the objective of most artist is to express themselves through their art, independent of the results, the success or the acknowledgement of the client.

Coaches are not independent of their results and successes, they need it. An d they certainly do have the responsibility for performance and the health of their athletes, towards the athlete themselves, their parents, or the club or their employers.

Innovation isn’t one of the strong points of sport scientists, at least, I haven’t seen it. Most of the time sport scientists use old or already well-established tool, e.g. from the medical field (often expensive too), and introduce these into sports as being an innovation. Scientists (and coaches) are not as innovative as they want you to believe.

Sometimes sport scientists promote commercial products overtly or by nudging.
Think about Gatorade Sports Institute, Red Bull research, or Nike research e.g. for the sub-2.00 marathon. Quite a few chemical companies even have a sports research department. Sport science just becomes an more acceptable marketing tool. A great way to promote the sales shoes and or sports drinks. No problem here, but so far for independent scientific research. Sports scientists are not immune to financial reward nor to bias, even if it is unconscious.

My main concern is however that in my job I noticed that the young generating of sports scientist are young and eager, which is great, but at the same time sometimes suffer from a very limited theoretical background, an inadequate understanding of the complexity of sport and too often, a misplaced sense of intellectual superiority, because they have an academic degree, whereas most coaches have not. Their theoretical background is often limited to PubMed, if it is not older than 5 years ago, reading or writing reviews. In a practical sense they mostly limit themselves to data collection with expensive toys, just filling spreadsheets creating data diarrhea.

Now don’t get me wrong: I still think that sports scientist are able to contribute to improve performances, but only if guided by the mentoring of a good coach. If you are a sports scientist don’t take the above personally. Just think about it critically and if you find any truth in there, no matter how hard it is to admit, do something about it.

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A simple plan….. like always…..

It obvious to see that the international track and field community is divided in its opinion about the proposal of the president of the European Track and Field federation Mr.Svein Arne Hanse to erase all the pre-2005 world records from the books and to “start a new page, since in his opinion, many of those records are produced with the help of now forbidden illegal ergogenic aids.
An interesting idea,to say the least, for several reasons.

First of all the response of some athletes. The first group of athletes who support this proposal are the ones who have serious reasons to believe that they have lost medals or have not broken records because they also have doubts about some of the pre-2005 competitors. Unfortunately, their pre-2005 records will also not become acknowledged nor will the get the medals they think they deserve. The second group of athletes are the young athletes who e.g. will become the new world record holders, because their performances have been delivered after 2005. You can’t blame them for that.

But don’t forget that the supposed main reason for all of this, was the fight against the use of doping. And this proposal does nothing for that cause apart from promoting the use of it. I will explain this below.
Erasing all the existing records means that you assume that all of these athletes have used doping to set those records. Apart from the obvious mistake here, this collective punishment also punishes the great athletes who did not use doping before 2005. This is considered collateral damage for the greater good, since it’s the pain you don’t feel yourself. But don’t forget, in itself this is just a useless and desperate gesture in the fight against doping that will prove to do more harm than good.

One part of the argument is that the records have to get scratched since the athletes cannot prove that they were clean at that time. Wrong argument! One can’t blame the athlete. Imagine at that time: you are a clean athlete, you are tested out-of-competition, you break a world record, you get tested again, clean. What else could you have done, and even better, what else can you do more now than to get tested? Apart from getting into a time-machine, travel to 2017 and invite WADA to come back with you and test with the current methods? Let’s get real again.

The second error in thinking is even worse. On the timeline, 2005 is a completely arbitrary date. Why not 2017 or 2000? But the worst factor here is the assumption that the world records established after 2005 or in the future were produced without the help of banned ergogenic aids. How stupid can it get? There is not a single valid indication or a single number that indicates that this is true! If that would be true, than we could decrease or stop doping testing. The fact that doping testing has become more frequently and more strictly regulated, indicate that also at least some, if not most, of the post-2005 world records must have been produced with the help of doping substances.

The general public is pretty much aware that some people like to raise doubts around some of the world records in the men’s sprint or the men’s and women’s long distance events, long after 2005!
By erasing the pre-2005 world records, the level of records in some events will come down a lot. This, in fact, might even encourage some athletes to use banned substances, considering the smaller margins of difference between their current personal records and the post-2005 world records., because now a world record might be within reach. Any idea what the rewards are for breaking a world record in track and field? One might even speculate that an athlete only would need a low dose, and/or a short time of using to become world record holder now, making the chance of detection very small.

So who is Mr.Hansen trying to fool with his proposal? As the saying is, you can fool everyone one time and there might be a person that you can fool all the time, but you cannot fool everybody all the time.
And here is the funny part or sad part, dependent on how you look at it.
Mr. Hansen, a self-declared anti-doping crusader, like so many the past few years, is now under serious scrutiny since Patrick Sjoberg, the Swedish ex-world record holder in high jump, recently accused Mr. Hansen of tampering with doping tests himself. He did this in his position of director of the Bislett Games in Oslo, in order to avoid the world best athletes getting caught at his meet.
Yes, in his proposal he doubted the credibility of the pre-2005 records I the eye of the general public, but the general public has more reasons to doubt the credibility and integrity of Mr.Hansen himself and many other track and field officials as recent events have shown.

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The slow disappearance of the critical mind and common sense.

Where do we, as coaches, get our technical and (self-)educational information from? Some colleagues may think that hardcopy books are out, so they rely on the Internet as their main source of information. Some colleagues like to visit any course, seminar or workshop they can. Great, at least they invested time, money and effort to educate themselves, which shows their motivation to learn.

The Internet is the biggest garbage dump (of information) one can find. The earlier promise of the Internet becoming the perfect way of access to all information in the world, (all libraries written, or spoken technical information) might be fulfilled, but the needles are hidden in the haystack, where to find them?

The reason is that there is no filter on the Internet, you can find anything to support your idea, no matter if it’s irrelevant, stupid or crazy. For every idea you can imagine, you will find support as well as a contrary argument on the Internet.

Also I hear people say there could be nonsense in books as well. Absolutely, but did you ever try to write a book? Then you know before you do that, you have to have an idea, take time to write the book and consider what you will write building a comprehensible structure in chapters. After that have it proofread by, preferably, an expert in the field, to make sure he/she understands what you are trying to convey. And then, in my case, after a few months, it’s ready.
A blogpost, like this one, is written in a few minutes, without any control or limitation.

It gets worse in tweets where every brain fart, moronic assumption, or cheap soundbite is produced within seconds and shared with the rest of this planet, even insults and threats are shared without much thinking. (but often with regrets, excuses or penalties later on)
The best way from copying somebody else’s faulty thinking or passing on his/her errors, is to develop a critical mind.

But …. a critical mind is hard to find. Most people assume that everything to be found at the Internet is true. So yes, the internet is a great marketing and sales tool. But also perfect for propaganda, misinformation, or plagiarism (or alternative facts).
Many young coaches are very sensitive for Internet information and tend to believe everything they read or see without filtering.

Common sense might be a good filter, but common sense is not that common (as a matter of fact: Common Sense died some time ago- see the note below)
For homework here are a few articles that may help you help you to understand the value of information, of critical thinking, and to develop a decent bullshit-filter and sharpen your mind to cut through to nonsense like a scalpel.

Author Robert Heinlein once wrote:

“Most people can’t think, most of the remainder won’t think, the small fraction who do think mostly can’t do it very well. The extremely tiny fraction who think regularly, accurately, creatively, and without self-delusion. In the long run, these are the only people who count.”

Bibliography.

On Bullshit: Harry Frankfurt, Princeton University Press, 2005.

A practical guide to critical thinking: deciding what to do and believe; David A.Hunter; Wiley and Sons Publishers, 2009.

An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments: Ali Almossawi; JasperCollins Publishers, 2013.

Stapleton, P: Assessing the quality and bias of web-based sources: implications for academic writing; Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 2 , 2003, pg. 229–245

Attacking Faulty Reasoning: A Practical Guide to Fallacy-Free Arguments: T. Edward Damer; Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2009.

The Fine Art of Baloney Detection; from: The Demon-haunted World: Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan, Random House, 2000.

The Folly of Fools: the logic of deceit of self-deception in human life: Robert Trivers , Basic Books, 2011.

The Psychology of Counterfactual Thinking: D. Mandel, D. Hilton, P. Catellani; Routledge, 2005.

The Web vs. Library Databases – A comparison -University of Maryland

Why people believe weird things: pseudoscience, superstition, and other confusions of our time; Michael Schermer, W.H.Freeman/Owl, 2002.

Note:
Probably more appropriate than ever before.
Many different versions of this text exist, but I chose this one randomly:

“An Obituary printed in the London Times

Today we mourn the passing of a beloved old friend, Common Sense, who
has been with us for many years. No one knows for sure how old he was,
since his birth records were long ago lost in bureaucratic red tape. He
will be remembered as having cultivated such valuable lessons as:
– Knowing when to come in out of the rain;
– Why the early bird gets the worm;
– Life isn’t always fair;
– and maybe it was my fault.
Common Sense lived by simple, sound financial policies (don’t spend
more than you can earn) and reliable strategies (adults, not children,
are in charge).

His health began to deteriorate rapidly when well-intentioned but
overbearing regulations were set in place. Reports of a 6-year-old boy
charged with sexual harassment for kissing a classmate; teens suspended
from school for using mouthwash after lunch; and a teacher fired for
reprimanding an unruly student, only worsened his condition.

Common Sense lost ground when parents attacked teachers for doing the
job that they themselves had failed to do in disciplining their unruly
children.

It declined even further when schools were required to get parental
consent to administer sun lotion or an aspirin to a student; but could
not inform parents when a student became pregnant and wanted to have an
abortion.

Common Sense lost the will to live as the churches became businesses;
and criminals received better treatment than their victims.

Common Sense took a beating when you couldn’t defend yourself from a
burglar in your own home and the burglar could sue you for assault.

Common Sense finally gave up the will to live, after a woman failed to
realize that a steaming cup of coffee was hot. She spilled a little in
her lap, and was promptly awarded a huge settlement.

Common Sense was preceded in death, by his parents, Truth and Trust, by
his wife, Discretion, by his daughter, Responsibility, and by his son,
Reason.

He is survived by his 4 stepbrothers;
I Know My Rights
I Want It Now
Someone Else Is To Blame
I’m A Victim

Not many attended his funeral because so few realized he was gone. If
you still remember him, pass this on. If not, join the majority and do
nothing.”

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Back to the past….Keukenhof, after more than 50 years.

One of the advantages of getting older is having the pleasure to go back your past.( If you are twenty years old, you don’t have a past, you only think you have a future).
As a young kid my parents took me to the Keukenhof, now one of the biggest spring flower exhibitions in the world, located very near to Schiphol Airport and Amsterdam The picture below is from spring 1959, when I was 4 years old.

Smelling the flowers in 1959

I remember my parents getting impatient because I had to smell all the different flowers and their different colors, shapes and fragrances. Last weekend I went back with some good friends and the Keukenhof still has this dazzling array of flowers, it just was a little more “Disneylanded” or “McDonaldized”, with smooth and slick service and steep prices. An yes, I still smell the flowers.

 

Smelling the flowers in 2017

But all and all a pleasant experience, worth every Euro; the overwhelming smell of hyacinths, the visual bombardment with all the colors and shapes of tulips, an almost hallucinogenic experience.

No, I don’t get rewarded for saying this, but if you ever have a chance, visit it.

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