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  • Writer's pictureHugh Lawrence

Coaching and science collide

It’s axiomatic that coaching is an art and a science. Many presentations have been given and papers written under the title “the art and science of coaching”. Little attention has been paid, however, to what that might mean when describing ‘good practice.

Put simply, the phrase means the systematic use of scientific knowledge to bridge the gap between coach and athlete to improve performance and understanding. This allows for the use of the ‘human touch’, the glue between coach and athlete(s). This qualitative element of coaching gains much study. Most media discussion of national team coaches centres around hard-to-define matters of ‘character’ ‘man-management’ (you don’t often hear about woman-management) and the ability to inspire.

All these make sense in street level conversations and, at their best, inarguably contribute to the profile of great coaches. What we don’t see, however, is analysis of whether coaches are applying good science to their coaching practise.

Sport performance is a complex business. We deal with human behaviour, the need for creativity and innovation, relationships and the ability to understand how to get the best out of individuals. I’m concerned, however, that many coaches work from a limited scientific basis. As a result, that success will be more a product of luck than good management.

By way of example, coaches might want to ask themselves as series of questions:

· Does the best evidence on what we know about teaching effectiveness influence how I coach? If so, what tools do I use to ensure I’m using the best teaching approach to suit the circumstances and/or athlete?

  1. Do I use an understanding of basic biomechanics into my skill correction or emphasis when teaching new skill?

  2. Do my prescribed (or guessed) rest periods align with the science of recovery and contribute to the development of the energy systems needed for the game?

  3. How much of an 18-year old’s success over two years is down to me, or is it because the 18-year old is simply two years older and therefore two years stronger and has two years of competition under their belt?

These examples relate to what we can call the bench sciences. The physics, chemistry and biology of human performance. Mostly well-researched and where uncertainty exists, plenty of scientists are working on it.

But perhaps the more troubling use of science starts when we start talking about national programmes. We hear about ‘pathways to success’ as though there is known ‘best way’ to develop athletes through their junior years to Olympic success. Two big problems. First not all young people are physically or biologically the same (surprise, surprise). Second, not all young people have the same motivations for success. And they certainly won’t have the same motivation as their adult coaches.

More troubling is that despite the effort put into coach education since the early 1970s and the rise of the sport scientist, we remain concerned about bad coaching of young people. Coaching methods we aimed to eliminate thirty years ago. To quote Sport NZ chief executive, Peter Miskimmin "We're taking a stand to bring the fun and development focus back to sport for all young people." Tragic he had to say that in 2019.

Here’s a classic example of how myths can be perpetuated. How often have we heard that weight training is harmful to the skeletal health of teenagers? Researcher compromises skeletal health. In 2001, researcher Avery Faigenbaum found that the ‘weight training stunts your growth’ myth had its origins in report from Japan in the 1960s that children performing heavy manual labour were rather short. Children in this study, lived in the mountains, had poor nutrition and were required to work hard for several hours a day. Unsurprisingly, their growth was seriously compromised. And from there a story grew and grew until it became the received wisdom. The origin of that wisdom was, of course, forgotten.

Source: Faigenbaum, A. D. (2001). Strength training and children's health. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, Vol. 72(3): 24-30.

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