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  • Writer's pictureHugh Lawrence

Public Understanding of Science and Sport

For your New Year holiday reading, today’s post is longer than usual and bit technical. If you’re someone who doesn’t trust science or picks and chooses what science to accept, maybe this could be worth a read (if you haven't run for the hills already!). If you do trust science – then there may be something useful for you here.

Feedback from last week’s post on coaching young athletes suggests that, more than ever, coaches are interested in the science of coaching. However, it’s also clear that mixed views exist on what constitutes ‘science’. Two examples. When the physiotherapist confidently identifies specific ligament damage – the acromioclavicular and probably the coraco humeral. As patients, we trust in the physiotherapist’s training, knowledge of human anatomy and experience. We have no real idea what they are talking about – and neither of us can actually see into the joint. Physiotherapist professional training is well established, evidence-based and those qualified at recognised institutions have consistent and replicable standards and knowledge.

The second example, is the claim of some professional (i.e. paid) strength coaches about training concepts such as reps, 1RM, ‘conjugate/block periodisation’, ‘deloading’ and so on. The science behind these concepts is less certain. Rather like the worst excesses of medical professionals, fitness ’experts’ take shelter behind a jargon, a ‘secret language’. Because the language sounds convincing and ‘scientific’ coaches will defer to the ‘expert’ with little understanding of what the jargon means.

So both situations require leaps of faith by the service user. You get on a plane or use a cell phone. Both require leaps of faith that they will work. But the leap is not so great. Hundreds of thousands of tests confirm that the science works and will work each time as expected. We instinctively know that the physics underpinning flight and cell phone use is absolutely confirmed.

To the science of sports training. We know how much training it takes to achieve optimal cardiovascular response. We know quite a lot about the neuromuscular response to strength training. But transfer between scientists and coaches is not so great. So much so, in my view, that if aircraft designers applied science to their work the way we often apply it to sport, many planes would fail to leave the ground (or fall from the sky)!

By way of example. How many repetitions are required to become a great sports performer? A pretty basic and important question at all levels of sport. In his 2008 book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell wrote “10,000 hours is the magic number of greatness”. Uncritically, many sports ‘experts’ latched onto the number saying that 10,000 hours of practice are needed for the player to become good. No science underpins that conclusion. So much so that in 2014, Gladwell himself said:

There is a lot of confusion about the 10,000 rule that I talk about in Outliers. It doesn’t apply to sports. And practice isn’t a SUFFICIENT condition for success. I could play chess for 100 years and I’ll never be a grandmaster. The point is simply that natural ability requires a huge investment of time in order to be made manifest. Unfortunately, sometimes complex ideas get oversimplified in translation.

There’s an important lesson in Gladwell’s last sentence. At the very risk of my oversimplifying Gladwell’s point, the great players are great because they are outstandingly good at practicing. They practice the way they want to play (a point I’ve made in earlier blog posts). And there is science to back that up. Specifically, we learn by doing so every repetition must be purposeful and meaningful. This is how the brain adapts to respond to greater task complexity.

Many studies tell us that low-frequency electrical activity of the brain, called the movement-related cortical potential (MRCP), are different in skilled performers compared to novices. These differences have consistently been interpreted as an indication that skilled performers require ‘less effort’ than novices during movement preparation. Long-term training or practice by the skilled performers is typically attributed as the reason for this difference. All very logical. But further research hasn’t yet confirmed that. We can confirm, however, that simulation-based learning is a critical part of the process for training people in disciplines where error can be fatal – surgical skills training. The research for this has been done and medical trainers incorporate research findings into their training systems. The price of failure is high! There’s a lesson here for sports coaches. Not so much the death side of things (my 21 November blog post goes to that question), but more to the challenge of maximising success from training.

By the way, that ‘deloading’ thing I mentioned earlier. No real solid science behind that. It’s a contested idea. Tudor Bompa’s work on periodisation comes close with his ideas of a reduction in work every fourth week or so. But even that is not clear. Researcher John Cissick, makes the following observation about periodisation; “Surprisingly little is supported by research despite the fact that it is widely used and widely written about, despite the numerous presentations on this topic, and despite the fact that it apparently works based on practical observation” (2008, 45)

So the science isn’t yet in. I use periodisation as far as I think I understand it, but I’d prefer a more scientific basis to my programme design.

Selected references

Cissik, J. H., Hedrick, A. & Barnes, M. (2008). Challenges Applying the Research on Periodization. Strength and Conditioning Journal. Vol.30 (1), (Feb): 45-51.

Rukavina, P. B. & Jeansonne, J. A. (2009). Integrating Motor-Learning Concepts into Physical Education. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance. Vol.80 (9),(Nov/Dec): 23-30,65.

Wright, D. J., Holmes, P. Francesco, D. R., Loporto, M. & Smith, D. (2012). Reduced Motor Cortex Activity during Movement Preparation following a Period of Motor Skill Practice. PLoS One. Vol.7 (12), (Dec).

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