Science IN sport: Search for meaning and higher performance
This post is long overdue. It might even turn into a series, there is so much to say. But for the last week, every time I have sat down to work on this topic, I have discovered a form of writer's block, where I'm unable to properly express the point I would like to. So this is my latest attempt, and it will probably develop into a series, personal (even autobiographical) in nature. But it is my take on where science fits and contributes to high performance sport.
A series with a purpose
Many of these thoughts are inspired by my recent experiences with the South African Sevens rugby team, now the world champions, with whom I've toured in the last few months in a sports science and strategy consulting role. Their success was the result of a strategic plan developed by coach Paul Treu almost four years ago. It borrowed from business, science, strategy, philosophy and half a dozen other sports and represents the most complete, professional and advanced strategy put together for national sport in South Africa. It should (though it won't) serve as a template for other sports in South Africa (my local interest), but hopefully lessons from it will also be of interest to you reading this, regardless of whether you follow the sport of Sevens rugby or not!
I don't wish to dwell exclusively on this experience though, and will also share some of the insights gained from my other experiences in South African sport. Sadly, the Sevens success is an isolated one, a rare occasion where the expertise of people, from the coach down to players, was valued and implemented. For the most part, South African sport remains the domain of the fragile egos who recognize not expertise but process, not vision but individual incentives, and who reward mediocrity rather than excellence. But more on that later.
And then finally, I hope (without being presumptuous) that this series of posts can inspire each reader to strive for "higher performance", regardless of their occupation. A scientist, a marketing manager, a triathlete, a cyclist, or a runner - wherever you fit, hopefully you'll find this series relevant as a guide to how you can find the next 1% towards your own high performance goals.
Not science, but expertise
The very first, and perhaps most important principle about seeking higher performance, is that the answer lies not in science per se, but in expertise. And expertise is brought by people. So Principle number 1 is get the best intellect involved, and don't limit your search to scientists. So this series is not a punt for sports scientists to take the reins of high performance sport, not for you individually or for sport. And if you're a cyclist or a runner seeking to improve your own performance, don't be led into believing that sports science holds the answer simply because it is sports science.
The far more important factor is the expertise and the insight that underscores the application of sports science. This crucial logic means that simply "doing sports science" is not good enough. It also means that people with no scientific qualification CAN make a bigger contribution than those who do, because the stringency of their thinking and their insight adds the value, not the content of their knowledge. I have had the pleasure of working with consultants from the world of business, who have developed skills and tools that make them far more valuable to elite sport than their scientific counterparts often are.
Therefore, for the duration of this post and series, I will refer to "intellect" rather than sports science, for the simple reason that sports scientists do not necessarily bring world class intellect to the system!
I will never forget that a certain high performance athlete here in South Africa once went for a laboratory test at a certain high performance institute, only two months before the Olympic Games. The test consisted of the usual VO2max test, and the report which was given to the athlete's coach said the following: "The athlete displays a VO2max that lies in the average range. It is recommended that the athlete work on endurance in order to improve the VO2max and running ability".
Turns out that athlete was Mbulaeni Mulaudzi, who would go on to win the silver medal in the Athens Olympic Games only 2 months later! And yet scientists sometimes wonder why their work is not respected by coaches...
The "no compromise principle": Your Ferrari is not the same as my Toyota
What has happened in South Africa in the last year or so, since our disaster in Beijing (one silver medal), is that people have "recognized" the need for expertise in sports. That's the good news. However, they fail to recognize that expertise does not simply equal sports science for the sake of sports science. And so, much political lobbying and grandstanding has created a situation where everyone is following "sports science principles" (whatever that means). "Yes, we're doing sports science now", is the call from the executive authority. "We have roped in our sports scientists". The atheltes are all seeing dieticians, psychologists, having regular tests and assessments, doctors and so on. Problem solved then? Well, no, unfortunately not.
I drive a car - it has four wheels, a steering wheel, an engine, a gearbox and brakes. So does your car. But you drive a Ferrari, I drive a Toyota. In the world of SA sport and the application of sports science, they're the same car. Your Ferrari is the same as my Toyota, because "sports science is sports science", after all. This kind of logic, exposed as ridiculous by the analogy, is where we stand in SA today.
The competition principle for intellectual support to athletes
In elite sport, an Olympic Games competition between athletes is the culmination of many months or years of preparation. Science is part of that preparation, and therefore the quality of the intellectual support (which includes coaching and science) is heavily responsible for the standard of the 'finished product'. When that intellect is sub-standard, then the athlete takes to the line with little chance of success, regardless of their talent. And the epicentre of the system, the "sun in the solar system", is the coach, who incorporates the science in such a way that it adds value.
You cannot allow a situation (as we have in SA, or rather, which we are currently allowing), where the athletes sit on the start line behind the wheel of a Toyota (0 to 100 in 12 seconds), while the elite from around the world drive Ferraris, thanks to the level of intellect. It may have wheels, engines and gearboxes, but intellect, like all athletes, is not created equal.
This is not the case across the board, mind you. Some of our sports have some remarkable people driving them - rowing, for example, has set out in the right direction with the right people, and needs only the support of the funders to give those people every opportunity to succeed. That is because it has the best people already - support the best and they will deliver. In the famous book Good to Great, author Jim Collins explains how getting the best people on the bus is crucial to success.
That is what rowing has. Sadly, they are there only through the initiative of a few people, not the system. Isolated success is possible when the best people are involved. Sustainable success comes from getting the best people involved as part of a longer-term strategy. Either way, the best people must be involved, and all it takes is a strategy that ensures their ongoing involvement.
Unfortunately, for reasons that range from stupidity and incompetence to hidden agendas, the chances of this happening are slim mostly because those in charge at the top don't recognize the value of people and so isolated success rarely becomes sustainable. It's happened for SA Sevens, thanks to Paul Treu. Hopefully it will happen for rowing. Triathlon and canoeing are trying to do it, but the higher up you go, the less common it becomes. The "soldiers" may be worthy, but the generals often are not.
So Principle Number 2 in seeking higher performance is that compromise destroys performance, and "elitism" is crucial to success. This is true for athletes and for management, but mostly for coaches and those providing the "intellectual capital" in the elite sports system. Wherever there is competition, if you compromise on quality, you lose. If you fail to dedicate every single resource towards excellence, you lose.
And the take-home message for you reading this (unless of course you're an SA Sports administrator, in which case the take-home message should be obvious), is that whether you're trying to shave 1 minute of your 10km time, or trying to qualify for the Hawaii Iron-man, then you cannot compromise on the quality of the expertise you seek and use.
The scientific process: It's not WHAT you know, but HOW you learn it
The point is, the CONTENT of the science is far less important than the MEANS by which it is developed. It's not WHAT you know, but HOW you know it. I could list for you the ten enzymes involved in the glycolytic pathway that converts glucose into ATP, and I could explain to you the energetics underlying the enzyme reactions and why the re-oxidation of NAD+ is required to allow the process to continue, even though lactate forms as a result. Blah blah...that's not relevant to the high performance athlete in that form. Their coach will be able to work out exactly what training is required to improve the glycolytic enzyme capacity of the 1500m runner so that more energy can be produced, without such a level of "expertise" ever being involved.
So my point is this: The value of science lies not in the content it brings to the coach and athlete, though this is of course still valuable if applied correctly. What is infinitely more important is that the person who is applying content appreciates HOW they know what they know, because this gives them the ability to develop hypotheses and critically evaluate their observations.
And that is what good science TENDS to deliver and create in people - the ability to ask questions, measure variables and then answer the question. This SHOULD be a quality that good science adds to the athlete. Sadly, as we show in South Africa, it doesn't happen often, and the sports science we have created rather tells elite athletes that they are average because their VO2 max is not as high as it should be.
The model for integration
Where is all this heading then? Well, the model below is my illustration of where sports science fits into the elite sporting system. The key point in this whole system is that of "intellectual immersion" - you cannot relegate intellect to the role of a "service provider", to whom you outsource a few of the peripheral support functions. The best coaches bring their own level of intellect, which drives the whole pyramid and performance, precisely because it is immersed. The same should be true of those in the support team, from management down to sports scientists.
But in creating a support team, you must surround yourself with people who are excellent at what they do, and then simply step aside and let them do those things. That is true of business as well - small teams, working with freedom to innovate and grow will change the world. Boring old services, and the idea that "sports science is sports science" never will. It brings only failure, as we'll discover in SA over the next few years.
The SA Sevens Team have, in my experience, most closely achieved this model, and that's something that testifies to the value of having a coach who understands how important good people are. Paul Treu surrounded himself with scientists, management experts, business strategists, psychologists, and other experts, and then set about developing a strategy that would ensure sustainable success.
One of Treu's key mottos or principles is that "Better people make people better", and that's perhaps the take-home message of this whole post. There is a great deal to be said about what actually underscores the on-field performances of the players, and the mind-set that the high performance environment requires, but that's a topic for future posts.
The margins are too small not to care about this: A game of inches
Perhaps to end off, a video from the movie Any Given Sunday. I've no doubt that most of you have seen or heard this speech, but probably never connected it with sports science and high performance. Of course, there is a lot more to it, but it helps explain just how vital that expertise is. Some of the language is coarse (for sensitive readers), but the speech makes the point that "inches" matter. It inspires the players to seek inches, because those inches, when added up, "make the difference between winning and losing".
Sports science is involved in the quest for those inches, not necessarily on the field during the match, but in the training, during the hours of preparation, and the times when the cameras are not rolling. Consider that Michael Phelps won the 100m butterfly title by 0.01 seconds. Consider that the margin between winning and losing in shotput is 1 degree in the push-off angle. Consider that 9.69 seconds of 100m sprinting is the culmination of thousands of hours of training. Or that winning a Sevens world series, which might take 7 minutes of play in the final, actually comes down to thousands of hours of work, discipline and effort. Then you realise that if you fail to seek those inches, and if you fail to pursue every last millisecond, then whether you're an elite athlete or a marketing assistant at a shoe company, you're failing to achieve higher performance. Cue SA sport...
Next time - a new approach to sports science: Away from the VO2max: Lessons from the SA Sevens Team
A final somber word for a great player and a great person, who experienced a tragic turn of events in the last few weeks. Vuyo Zangqa was one of our great stars of the 2008/2009 Sevens season. He emerged and grew progressively as the season developed, and electrified the world of Sevens during the last four tournaments.
He's also one of the team's characters, a leader and an inspiration, and one of the most genuine, committed and passionate people I've had the pleasure of working with. Last week, while up in Johannesburg, Vuyo was involved in a car accident and received serious facial injuries. Two days ago, he underwent surgery to his left eye. At one point, the eye was going to be removed, but they are now holding out that it can still be saved. The implications of this are obvious for his playing career, but that is less important now than his general health and quality of life.
So here is to Vuyo Zangqa, a special player and person, please keep him in your thoughts and prayers, and we'll see you on the field bringing the magic in no time...
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Sunday, June 14, 2009
Science IN sport: Search for meaning and higher performance