Widening The Gap

In the past many attempts have been made to bridge the gap between coaching and science, between practice and theory. At one hand we have coaches who work on the sports field every day, improving the performance of their athletes or teams, and at the other side of the gap we find the sport scientists trying to research and to apply scientific insight into sports. Right from the start there has been a gap between those two worlds. Namely, coaches think scientists are too theoretical and not practical enough and sport scientists think coaches do not base their practice adequately on scientific principles and insights.

And you know what, both are still right. An excellent article Training or Synergizin from Pol et al. (1) summarizes the shortcomings of the average coach and of the classical methodology of training. I also have been thinking and writing about this topic already in 1992. Kraaijenhof (2), Kraaijenhof (3). The content of the article mentioned above is very good, but the intention also makes clear why the gap between coaches and scientists exists and will stay.

A note to start with; we can read about sports scientists criticizing coaches, but we seldomly read about coaches criticizing sports scientists. Why not? Coaches barely write, they are often too busy working with their athletes, and they are not able to publish in scientific journals, a privilege of scientists, and are also limited by the many rules of scientific publishing. Rules that the average coach does not know nor understands.

 I will take up part of the challenge here. First of all there is the language. I cite: “When imposing constraints (variability) on the system, the coupled components in the synergy change together, rather than independently. Thus, instead of the preprogrammed circuits and feedback loops that control and integrate machine functionality, in CAS synergies emerge spontaneously and have circular causal relations with components: thus, components form synergies and those synergies, in turn, govern the components’ behavior”, Pol et al. (1). Why would you use this kind of abstract language? Shouldn’t you use language that the average coach may understand if you try to reach or teach them? In terms of communication, the language is very “sender-oriented”. Only comprehensible for a handful of colleagues. In general, coaches use language that colleagues, scientists and their athletes may understand.

Secondly, in fact, when expert coaches’ perceptions and practices are studied, attention is most commonly placed on what they do, rather than why and how they do it. Very, very true as a matter of fact, it is the what coaches get paid for. And we pay scientist to figure out the why and how, not for the what. Basically very few people care why and how we do things: athletes, clubs, federations, media and the general public don’t really care about the why and how. They just want to see the winners, the victories, the medals and the records.

Thirdly, the article starts with: “In recent decades, sports training has rapidly evolved, in large part, as a consequence of science-led advances” Pol et al. (1). To me this sounds like a contradiction with the rest of the article since it indicates that there is hardly any evolution because coaches, being of crucial importance for sports training, do not apply those advancements in science. So how can sports training evolve?

Fourth, generalization is an Achilles heel in scientific thinking. For example, not all coaches or better yet, most of the elite coaches are not mechanical, linear thinkers but realize the complexity in the field they are working in. A coach works directly with human beings. Sport scientists work with subjects, with data and spreadsheets. A famous example is the Dutch soccer coach Louis van Gaal who in his autobiography speaks of his “Total Human” concept, taking all performance-related factors into account. Or take John Wooden, the famous US basketball coach, who developed his successful holistic approach a long time ago. In my opinion the issue is completely different. As matter of fact, coaches in general tend to be less single-minded and specialized than sport scientists who focus on one part of their field such as biomechanics, data-analysis, physiology, psychology and tend to ignore other performance factors. And rather it is sport science which comes up with new models all the time and sometimes forgets that the model is just a simplified representation of the reality the coach has to deal with. A constraint-led approach is just a model! Coaches think in terms of complex daily reality, not in simplified models.

Fifth, I cite: “Sport methodologies usually distinguish between injury resilience and performance training. This is a relevant topic because, even in sports with extensive resources (e.g. soccer), previous authors have found evidence of ineffective practices”. Wait a minute. Aren’t  those ineffective practices related to injuries suggested by the medical support team e.g. doctors and physios? So, ineffective practices, as stated above, are not to be blamed on coaches, but on science-based or evidence-based practice of the sports medical staff.  They are the ones making coaches believe in the reductionist approach and the “magic exercise” e.g. Nordic hamstring curl! Or VO2max, lactate threshold, shuttle run testing, data- or game-analysis or isokinetic testing to predict the athlete’s or team’s performances. Good coaches very well realize that all of these are just pieces of the puzzle. It is the sport scientist coming up with dogmatic protocols.

Sixth, Conservatism to embrace new developments. Yes, mostly coaches have to be conservative and careful to implement new insights. Simply because each change also carries the risk of failure. Since in many sports ‘a coach is only hired to be fired’ and the loss of only a few matches back to back can lead to ending his/her contract. This seldomly applies to sport scientists or doctors in the team. Yes, coaches are right to be conservative. Even stronger, many team members of professional sport teams or federations strongly associate with the success of a team, but seldomly take responsibility for the failure of a team, leave alone getting fired. So where coaches are forced to focus on the short-term result, sport scientists and doctors have the luxury to dissociate themselves from failure and hide behind ‘the long-term’. When a team fails the same person who was part of the success of a team is not responsible for failure. A truly convenient position. “Base training methodologies on updated scientific theoretical assumptions, not merely on experiential or pseudoscientific proposals” Pol et al. (1). So what is wrong with experiential proposals or proposals based on experience? Past experiences are often a valuable and superior teacher, if taking other information into account. No, experience alone just isn’t enough, I agree, just like science alone isn’t enough.

The word “pseudoscience” has a negative connotation. As if there is something like “real” science. Just for the ones interested in science, know that this so called real science, as opposed to pseudoscience isn’t as good and solid as scientists want us to believe. (4,5,6,7,8,9). Science nowadays has problems with credibility, due to issues with the pressure to publish and conflicts of interest. But also with falsifications, plagiarism, lack of consensus and lack of reproducibility to mention a few troublesome issues. For that reason the gap between science and pseudoscience might be smaller than you think. It is good to know that scientists always think their own research is superior to research done by their colleagues. One can see this by the references of their own university or their own work. And by the amount of research articles discarded by systematic reviews because of inadequate methodology. Even though the article is very good and touches upon some real limitations of coaches and of methodology of training, it is limited by not looking at the limitations of the role of sport science itself in the process of training and coaching and in this way widens the gap between coaching and science.

This is my proposal for sport scientists:

  1. Become more self-reflective and evaluate you own position and contribution to sport performances. I can guarantee you, it is smaller than you might think.
  2. Support the demands and questions of the coach. You are a tool for the coach, not the other way around.
  3. Spend more time on researching individual developments and celebrate human differences and variations, call it N = 1 research if you like. Sports science is an applied science, not basic science. In elite sport you are dealing with exceptions, genetic freaks for which another set rules and guidelines exist than for the general population you might normally work with Rose (10).
  4. Try to and speak and write in a language coaches and athletes understand as well. Limit the use of scientific and abstract language to when communicating with colleagues.


  1. Pol et al.: Training or Synergizing? Complex Systems Principles Change the Understanding of Sport Processes; Sports Medicine – Open (2020) 6: 28
  2. Kraaijenhof: Naar een herziening van de trainingstheorie;  Sportgericht Nr.1, 1992, pg. 43-46. (Towards a revision of the theory of training)
  3. Kraaijenhof, H; Heiduk, R; Kraus, K; Laich, B: Methodology of Training for the 22nd Century; UAC Publishing, USA, 2019.
  4. Ioannidis. J.P:  Why most published research findings are false. PLoS Med 2005;2:e124.
  5. Fanelli, D: (2009) How Many Scientists Fabricate and Falsify Research? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Survey Data. PLoS ONE 4(5): e5738.
  6. Baker, M: Is there a reproducibility crisis? Nature; Vol.533, May 26, 2016, pg. 452-454.
  7. Boulbes, D.R. et al.: A survey on data reproducibility and the effect of publication process on the ethical reporting of laboratory research; Clin Cancer Res. 2018 Jul 15;24 (14): 3447-3455.
  8. Gandevia S: Publication pressure and scientific misconduct: why we need more open governance; . Spinal Cord. 2018 Sep;56(9):821-822.
  9. Ioannidis. J.P: Why Most Clinical Research Is Not Useful; PLoS Med. 2016 Jun; 13 (6): e1002049.
  10.  Rose, T; The End of Average; Penguin Books, 2017.


    1. Onno, bedankt voor je respons. Ja je hebt zeker gelijk, de laatste jaren is zien we sterke toename van de rol van sportwetenschappers. Die worden vaak ingehuurd door een bestuur van een club of organisatie omdat het sexy is en een serieus cachet geeft aan je organisatie. In veel gevallen echter, zoals ik al aangaf, voelen deze zich wel verantwoordelijk voor succes, maar niet voor falen. De coach verkoopt zich vaak slechter aan een bestuur en wordt bekeken op zijn prestaties, een sportwetenschapper hoeft alleen maar gestudeerd te hebben, kwaliteit speelt geen rol, de titel zegt al genoeg. Daarnaast voelen veel coaches zich vaak inferieur aan sportwetenschappers, omdat hij geen academische opleiding heeft, geen dure woorden gebruikt, ontzag heeft voor de wetenschap of nog steeds meent dat wetenschap het antwoorden is op alle vragen. Daarnaast doet sportwetenschap in Nederland een uitstekende job in het pushen van sportwetenschappers bijv. bij NOC*NSF en de sportbonden. Geen onderwerp zo oubollig of simpel of er moet wel aan een sportwetenschapper bij komen kijken, zelfs als die geen bal weet van het onderwerp, laat staan er praktische ervaring mee heeft. Even voor de duidelijkheid, ik heb veel internationale sportwetenschappers in mijn kennissenkring en heb een uitstekende relatie met hen, voornamelijk omdat we elkaars mogelijkheden en beperkingen kennen en respecteren.

  1. I think sports science delivered many practical relevant contributions came at the peak of the cold war.

    Zatsiorsky, Verkhoshansky, Bompa, Starzynski and Sozanski, Issurin, and Bokmanchuk….. IMHO all generated insights that were/are applied to the coaching practice and had an arguably significant impact on athletic performance.

    There might be many reasons for that. Maybe there were a lot of low hanging fruits? Many fields make great progress in the beginning. And than stale.

    And, of course, back than many coaches were not aware of basic scientific results.

    Or a mix of both?

    But I also believe there was a different approach back then. Sport events were a proxy fight for the war between political/ideological systems. Hence great funding was and a systematic and cooperative approach was taken. The lines became blurred between coaches and applied scientists.

    From an engineering perspective: optimal control of a system in a noisy, highly complex and instationary environment may be best achieved via an ensemble of agents (applied scientist, coaches and…..god forbid…the athlete).

    I am an innocent bystander. My interest in exercise science and coaching is that of an former self trained amateur athlete.

    In my profession I use and experiment with “red-hot” recent academic publications on a daily basis.

    I am an machine learning engineer, scientific programmer and software engineer by trade and work on wide variety of problems and in different domains (logistics, energy/energy trading, e-commerce and aerospace engineering).

    In some of these applications failure is very costly and directly attributable (given the mistakes I made I am happy that I never worked on stuff that could kill people:) ).

    This evolutionary pressure leads to a skill to develop a good feeling for what is “good” and real-world applicable research.

    A regular short browse through recent sport scientific publications leaves me extremely sceptic (don’t feel bad sports scientists…psychology, medicine and macro economics have similar problems. All fields are related to the subject of human being https://bit.ly/3oLU5ia).

    Tons of papers with 2 sets of 20 students or a hundred youth football players. That is no sample size given the complexity of the research subject. Add a lot of P-Hacking and ill advised use of frequentist statistics where a more bayesian view on things would render the result at least doubtful if not useless.

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