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.

About Henk Kraaijenhof

My name is Henk Kraaijenhof and I started this blog as a random collection of concepts, ideas, stories and events that are important or interesting to me in my work as an international performance consultant in a wide range of fields, and sometimes outside of my work. I will try to post a new entry every 3-4 days. Feel free to comment if you like.
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