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Be it doping in sport, hot topics like Caster Semenya or Oscar Pistorius, or the dehydration myth, we try to translate the science behind sports and sports performance.

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Friday, January 30, 2009

Tennis statistics and fandom

The epic semi-final: 5 hours 14 minutes, and a tale of the tape

Our mission here at The Science of Sport is to provide some level of insight and analysis into sports performance - an extra-ordinary view of "ordinary" sports action, if you will. But despite our efforts to remain impartial, distanced and objective when we analyse those sports, the content we cover is still inspired by the fact that we're fans - that's why running and cycling have received the bulk of our attention. I'm sure that motorsport is full of science, for example, but that's neither of our passion, so we let it slide!

But every once in a while, I'll allow myself the indulgence of a "fan post", which is to say, a post inspired more by enjoyment and less by science (though I try, if might be so presumptious as to suggest it, to write more than an adoring tribute to the athletes).

Last year in July, I almost did such a post, the day after Rafael Nadal beat Roger Federer to win Wimbledon in what was without a doubt my highlight of the sporting year (beating even the Beijing Olympics and Bolt's 100m race), and one of the greatest sports moments I've ever seen. On that occasion, I resisted, mostly because I didn't have anything but an empty fan's opinion. Tonight, I decided to go ahead anyway...! Seriously though, there are some very interesting questions that arise when you dig a little deeper behind the stats and start asking questions about the result, which is partly what this post is about.

Rafael Nadal 6-7, 6-4, 7-6, 6-7, 6-4 in 314 minutes

The second men's semi-final in Australia was a classic - the longest match in Australian Open history at 5 hours 14 minutes, and the fourth longest Grand Slam match ever, it saw Rafael Nadal (eventually) defeat a swinging Fernando Verdasco to book a place in the final against Nadal. It was epic, full of excitement, some of the best rallies you'll ever see (two in particular stand out, both won by Nadal with outrageous shots). And it's certainly worth something of a deeper look, a look at the match statistics.

A statistical overview - what numbers tell us

A total of 385 points were played - Nadal won 193 of them, Verdasco won 192. The amazing stats don't stop there: Verdasco hit an incredible 95 clean winners compared to only 52 for Nadal. But, testament to the pattern of the game, Verdasco also made 76 unforced errors compared to only 25 for Nadal. The difference was therefore + 19 for Verdasco and + 27 for Nadal, which I guess could be argued was the difference between the two.

The number of winners and unforced errors is a pretty reliable indicator of who is making the play and how the points are developing. Given nothing more than those two numbers, it is usually possible to guess what transpired. To a certain extent, that was true of the Nadal-Verdasco clash.

For long periods, Nadal was ploughing a trench about 3 m behind the baseline, as he raced from side to side chasing down Verdasco's strokes. The high risk game of Verdasco inevitably resulted in frequent errors, and Nadal was able to survive for long periods thanks to brilliant defense and the occasional slip up from Verdasco.

Would Verdasco have been more successful had he adopted a slightly more cautious approach? That's the question. I suspect not, though the temptation exists to say that a player like Federer will not miss some of the crucial shots that Verdasco did, and will put Nadal away. But then again, Federer might never get into those situations to begin with - has Nadal ever conceded 95 clean winners in a match?

Where do players win their points? What the numbers miss

However, there has to be more to it than winners and unforced errors. If you do the math, you'll work out that for Nadal, 128 of his 193 points came thanks to those winners and unforced errors (52 and 76, respectively). That leaves 65 points unaccounted for. Four of them came from double faults (the aces are included as winners, by the way). That still leaves 61 points not measured in the official statistics.

It's similar for Verdasco. He won 192 points, with 95 of them coming from his winners, 25 from Nadal's errors, and 3 from Nadal double faults. That means that he's "missing" 69 points.

Those points, of course, come from "forced errors", and that's one thing the official match stats don't capture. They don't tell you that Nadal won 61 points by forcing errors from Verdasco through his heavily weighted topspin shots, or that Verdasco won 69 points that came off forced Nadal errors and were often strokes that other players would not have reached, such is the ability of Nadal to cover the court and defend.

The importance of timing - stats need to prioritize big points

But more than this, what stats don't say is how players respond in pressure situations. The most telling fact of all in the Nadal-Verdasco match, in my opinion, is the enormous difference between the two in terms of break points created. Nadal had 20 break points in the match, Verdasco had only 4.

Nadal managed to convert on only 4 out of 20 (20%), and that was the reason for the epic match. Had Verdasco not performed so well on the major points, the match would have been over far far sooner. Nadal was, for much of the match, in control, and particularly in the fourth and fifth set, he never looked in trouble on his own serve, but put all the pressure on Verdasco.

In the match stats, you can tell this because Verdasco made 212 serves, Nadal 173. That means that 39 more points were played on the Verdasco serve than Nadal's, and this is symptomatic of who was under pressure while serving. In the fifth set alone, Nadal created 8 break point chances, while Verdasco did not see a single one. Watching the game was exciting, but I did not ever really get the feeling that Nadal was behind - he couldn't close it out, but he "felt" in control, and this was the reason.

The important, and missing statistic then, is decision-making and execution on decisive points. It would be great to see a stat of rally lengths on break-point, because then you'd see that Verdasco survived thanks to a host of two stroke rallies - his serve and an error from Nadal in response.

Tennis misses a trick

Unfortunately, tennis doesn't seem to provide those stats. The other stats I'd really like to see are game analysis statistics. In sports like soccer and rugby, performance analysis is now commonplace, and teams analyse opponents' strength and weaknesses. I'm sure the same happens in tennis, but tennis seems such a great candidate for more in-depth analysis for TV coverage. For example, I'd love to see a graphic of where Nadal is on the court when he hits the ball. You'll find that 80% of the time, he's about 3m behind the baseline. Verdasco was probably 1 m INSIDE it.

And that was a telling strategic difference - Nadal was hanging on, defending for his life, and only his ability to defend pulled him through. He needs to be more aggressive, gain the ascendancy earlier in the rally and take the initiative if he is to beat Federer. Nadal looks vulnerable every time he plays a big hitter, because he camps behind the baseline, drops too many balls short, and all it takes is a consistent performance by the opponent and he struggles, as he did last year against Andy Murray and Gilles Simon.

I've actually just emailed Hawkeye (the company that provide a lot of these graphics and stats) and asked them how I might obtain some of this information, because it would make a fascinating analysis. Where do players stand when receiving? What is the average speed of their shots, and where do they tend to hit them? Tennis really does lend itself to this, I'm very surprised that no one is jumping on it to help explain the game for TV viewers...

Looking ahead to the final

So the final will be a rematch of the Wimbledon epic. I must confess that unless Nadal changes his strategy and steps forward into the court more, he's going to lose to Federer - you can't run around 3 m behind the baseline and win all your matches. Also, Nadal has one fewer day to recover from a 5 hour marathon than Federer, who played in a 3 hour semi-final. It's actually ridiculous that they don't play the semi-finals on the same day, like at Wimbledon...

In Nadal's favour is that his forehand tends to pick out Federer's backhand (it's easier to hit cross-court, both mechanically and because it's usually over the lower part of the net), and with the spin, that works in his favour. Federer also does not seem the type to play the kind of match Verdasco did today. So the final should be a different type of match. Nadal will need it to be - he can't keep sitting back and defending his way to victory...



P.S. For our American readers who don't follow tennis (well done for reading this far!), I hope you enjoy the SuperBowl!

Olympic performance analysis

Breaking down the Olympic Games

An interesting article was published this week by the BBC, looking at some of the performances from last year's Olympic Games.

We received a couple of emails about the article, and I think it will make an interesting post for us to look at next week. But I'm going to hold off on those until next week, when I have more time and have given some thought to the information in this article. And you can also ruminate on the information in the article until then!

There are a few interesting observations. For example:

In the 800m event, Canada's Gary Reed ran his fastest 100m segment between 700 and 800m. For those who've followed this site for the last year, you'll be well aware that this is NOT the best way to run an 800m race (or any race shorter than 800m for that matter), and that best performances come when the athlete gets slower and slower. More on that next week!

The observation is made that the decisive moves come not in the final 100m but around the back straight. This is not all that surprising, to be honest, but worth looking at. I hope the data are published in more detail, but until then, it should provide some interesting discussion, which we'll do next weekend.

Enjoy the tennis action, and join us next week!


Thursday, January 29, 2009

Australian Open heat

The Australian Open burns up, on and off the court

Well, just two days after we did our post on the Australian Open and Novak Djokovic's troubles in his quarter-final against Andy Roddick, and Melbourne enjoyed its hottest day in about 60 years, and third hottest ever! The mercury hit 44 degrees celsius (at least, that's what it was reported as on the TV coverage I saw of the games), and even at 8pm, it was in the mid-30s, which is incredibly hot for tennis.

Both Jonathan and I studied the heat during our PhD's - Jonathan looked at fluid needs and I looked at fatigue and performance, but they were both during running or cycling exercise. However, it's a topic that we enjoy, and it's interesting, so I thought I'd devote another discussion to it.

The roof issue - should we even bother about the heat?

In my post a couple of days ago, I wrote that they'd need to have stadia with retractable roofs, which it turns out they do have - two of them. I knew that the main arena (Rod Laver Arena) had a closable roof, but during Djokovic's match, the roof was open and that led me to overlook that the HiSense Arena also has a closable roof (which has since been closed for matches, I gather).

What is interesting to me, apart from what I mentioned last time, is that the only "cooling" method the players are using is a towel, presumably filled with ice, around the neck during changeovers. Verdasco, Nadal, Tsonga, and Simon have all used the same method, and I'm still not clear on why they don't have other forms of cooling when they can. The air-conditioner idea still seems reasonable.

The question, philosophically, is whether tournament organizers should worry about trying to manage the climate for the players by closing the roof and providing other cooling options? I have heard a number of commentators in the last few days debate the merits of closing the roof vs. keeping it open, and also whether the tournament should be moved later in the year.

On the latter issue, I think the decision to move the tournament, as Campbell noted in his comments to our last post, is one that should be made for a number of reasons, one of which is the weather. But I think the need for a longer off-season trumps even this, so it's not directly relevant to the debate.

As for closing the roof, the tournament has a policy, which you can read here (thanks to Campbell for the link). It's an interesting read, not least of all because it includes reference to the debate between organizers and sports scientists. It turns out that the scientists have strongly recommended that the roof be closed DURING matches, whereas the policy is that all matches in progress must be completed before this happens. Interestingly enough, during Serena Williams' quarterfinal win against Svetlana Kuzentsova, the roof was closed after the first set, so it seems the policy is bending...

The heat and health - how dangerous, how important

I guess the real issue in answer the question is to understand what happens to the players in the heat. I came across this really interesting article from the New York Times which describes the reaction of a number of players to the heat in New York in 2005.

The main protagonist was Djokovic (a man who has had a few run-ins with the "law" as pertaining to medical timeouts), who took numerous breaks during a 4-hour marathon against Gael Monfils.

Heat syncope

It speaks also of Michael Lodra, a Frenchman who fainted just after retiring from his match and had to be revived. Physiologically, what is happening here is that the body is trying to lose heat by sending blood to the skin. While exercise continues, the blood pressure is defended, because contracting muscles help to keep the circulation in balance. The problem is, as soon as exercise stops, the so called "muscle pump" stops working, and all of a sudden, all the blood "pools" in the skin circulation and with the active muscles. The result is that the blood pressure falls and the player or athlete will faint.

This is actually the same thing that happens to long distance runners who finish an event and promptly collapse. It's not that they have overheated - it's just that their bodies are trying really hard to correct the blood pressure, and given no other choice, it causes them to collapse so that they don't have gravity to work against. It's a protective mechanism.

The trouble for tennis is that it's a stop start activity, and so the chances of such a blood pressure disturbance would be increased. I suspect this is behind much of what affects tennis players in the heat - they get dizzy, "delusional" (in the words of Sharapova from the policy article).

Heat-induced fatigue

The other symptoms, like weak legs, shaking, exhaustion, are symptoms of what the brain is doing to try to regulate the physiology by controlling performance. The heat will cause a gradual rise in body temperature, which will cause the athlete or player to pace themselves differently to prevent themselves from becoming hotter. That's why a match in the heat will be slower, have shorter points, from the outset, because the entire dynamic of the game changes.

Now, for the philosophical question: Should we worry about controlling the climate for the players? Or is the heat part of the challenge and the strongest survive? Personally, I believe that if one can cool the court by closing the roof and having court-side air-conditioning, and if the quality of tennis improves as a result, then do it.

I appreciate the importance of fitness and conditioning and that a great player should spend time acclimatizing to the conditions, but this only goes so far. Acclimation to the heat, incidentally, takes place in about 10 days, but never cmopletely corrects the performance impairment. So we can talk about spending two weeks getting used to it, but the quality of tennis will still be impaired. And I for one would like to watch matches where the best player wins and you don't have controversy about players taking medical time-outs, retiring and generally introducing what might be an uncontrollable variable into the outcome (because we don't really understand why athletes respond to the heat as they do). So, like those other sports scientists, I am with the players on this one...

Speaking of performance...

Speaking of performance, the action has reached a climax with the women's final line-up confirmed (Serena W vs. Dinara Safina), and the men's final a matchup between Switzerland and Spain. Switzerland, predictably, will be represented by Roger Federer. For Spain, however, we must wait until tomorrow to know whether it will be Nadal or Verdasco.

I'm rooting for Nadal, if only so that we can see a matchup between these two again. The last one was classic, maybe the highlight of 2008 (in all sports, even better than Bolt in Beijing), and I'm being greedy.

Nadal was brilliant against Haas and in his other early matches. Federer has been brilliant in his last two. Nadal struggled a little against Simon. I still think he's vulnerable to heavy-weighted shots with depth (who isn't?), and his heavy top-spun forehand often tends to land short. Against Gilles Simon (who really is great to watch - he covers more court than anyone I've ever seen and he's so attacking), Nadal was very much on the backfoot. Yet he still won in straight sets. If he plays that way against Federer, he'll lose. If he produces a performance like that against Haas, he wins.

Should be a great game!


Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Australian Open

The Science of Tennis: Heat, revs and rankings

The Australian Open tennis tournament has now moved well into its second week, with the semi-finals looming on both the men's and women's sides. So far, it has been a fascinating tournament for many reasons, and I thought I'd do a short post looking at some of the more scientific and topical issues that have arisen.

The heat - Djokovic succumbs and matter wins over the mind

The first of those is the incredible heat of Melbourne and its effect on the players. The day-time temperatures have regularly approached 40 degrees (over 100F), and for those players with afternoon matches, the prospect of a 3-hour match must be the hardest thing they'll do all year.

There are a number of problems with playing a sport like tennis in such hot conditions. We've previously discussed the heat and how it affects a sport like marathon running, where the progressive increase in body temperature threatens to "short circuit" the system once the body temperature hits about 40 degrees celsius. The brain then fails to recruit muscle, and evidence exists that exercise is forced to terminate thanks to a failure of muscle recruitment.

The point we've often made in our posts on fatigue and more recently in our "Mind over matter" series is that the brain actually takes control long before this happens, and people start reducing muscle activation BEFORE they overheat. In a sport like running, this is seen as a slowing in the pace right from the outset.

In tennis, you can appreciate that it's not quite as simple as this. "Slowing in the pace" in tennis effectively means giving up on the ball, and in the first hour or two of a tennis match, no one will do that. You will not see a world class tennis player giving up on a rally that early. So the "pace" is effectively forced on the player by the opposition and the ball.

This means that the "pacing strategy" is a little more complex than in running (though of course, tactics during running may do the same thing). Having said this, there is some evidence that players "pace themselves" during tennis matches in the heat, by going for winning shots sooner and shortening the length of rallies. I am trying to find this study, which I know was done as part of a PhD thesis in Australia, and which found that players "decide" to play shorter points when it is hotter, which is quite fascinating.

However, returning to Djokovic, the problem is that when a match goes on into a third or fourth hour, and the player does a number of repeat efforts, the body temperature can climb quite quickly to reach these potentially limiting levels. We know that repeated sprints are just as effective at raising body temperature, and so the fact that they players have a short recovery during change of ends only serves to slow down the rise in temperature.

The result, as we've mentioned, is that the brain fails to activate muscle, and the player becomes lethargic, unable to sprint, dizzy, loses concentration, heavy-legged. If you watched the match between Djokovic and Roddick this morning, you'll have seen that in practice, as Djokovic got slower and slower until eventually, he was forced to retire at 1-2 in the fourth set, in a match he almost certainly was destined to lose given his physical state. He joins Victoria Azarenka who succumbed in her fourth round match against Serena Williams, while leading by a set.

What can be done about it?

Apart from rescheduling the tournament to take place later in the year, when it's cooler, there is only a limited amount that can be done. A stadium with a roof might help, provided air conditioning could be provided, but the expense and time involved (look at what has gone into turning Wimbledon's Centre Court into an enclosed arena) are likely to prevent that. One thing I have been surprised to notice is the absence of air-conditioning for the players at their chairs. Perhaps it's just not visible on television, and someone can correct me, but it seems that players do not really actively cool themselves between changes of ends. Even having half a dozen air-conditioners around the court at ground level, just to lower the temperature by 4 or 5 degrees would have an impact. That would be the only help given the current scheduling and conditions.

Speaking of scheduling, it's also amazing how many players get injured during the Australian Open. Perhaps two weeks of competitive tennis so soon after an end-of-season holiday is too big a demand on players, but the number of players nursing minor injuries, or forced to retire thanks to more serious injuries this early in the year is quite amazing. In a perfect world, the season would only start in mid-January (rather than on the 2nd), giving players 6 weeks off at the end of the year, and the Australian Open would take place in mid-February. Sport overload - threatens to run the game into the ground...

Rotations - an interesting study on Nadal

On another matter, I read in Time Magazine recently that Rafael Nadal's forehand has been measured with a high-speed camera, and he generates an average of 3,200 rpm on the ball, thanks to his extra-ordinary forehand stroke. By way of comparison, Roger Federer generated an average of 2,500 rpm on his forehand, while Agassi clocked in at 1,800 rpm. That means that Nadal's rotation is 25% greater than that of his closest rival, Federer, which is quite extra-ordinary (incidentally, Nadal's peak rotation was 5,000 rpm, even more amazing)

The implications of this are interesting, and are both positive and negative. For one thing, the enormous spin on the ball brings it down much more rapidly, which means that Nadal can clear the net by a much larger distance and still land the ball in play. In his Australian Open match against Tommy Haas, it was reprorted that his average clearance was 1.8m, while Haas cleared the net by only 1.1m. That difference represents a margin for error that reduces the errors made by Nadal substantially. The other advantage is the enormous bounce and kick Nadal gets off the court - in the Time Magazine article, Brad Gilbert is quoted as saying that a rally against Nadal is a "lesson in pain", because of the heavy shots he hits.

On the downside, the heavy spin means fewer winners will be hit, because a flatter shot takes time away from the opponent, whereas the higher top-spin shot that clears the net by 2m gives the opponent time to cover the court. This is often evident when Nadal plays, particularly towards the end of last year, when he was perhaps a litte fatigued and hit shots with a little less power and depth. The other problem, which has made the news recently, is the enormous strain on Nadal's body as a result of the effort that goes into generating that spin. The general consensues is that he is far more injury-prone than Federer, who seems to float around the court.

My opinion is that Nadal should limit his "exposure" and play only the Master's Series events, and the Four Grand Slams, and not bother with smaller tournaments. He may lose ranking points, but he has a real shot at winning more Grand Slams than any other player in history. I realise that sounds crazy, given that Federer on 13 is currently approaching that record of 14 (Pete Sampras), but Nadal is only 22 and already has 5 (Federer had only one title at the same age). Also, Nadal should win the French Open for the next 5 years if he stays healthy, and then only requires another 5 slams and he'd suddenly find himself on top of that list.


Speaking of Grand Slam titles, rankings and form players, the Australian Open has been interesting because it has featured four players all vying for the title with relatively equal claims on it. Two are now gone (Murray and Djokovic, mercifully, because their perpetual glances at their support boxes are one of my pet hates with the sport - the Oedipus complex of tennis, and they're the worst at it), and only Nadal and Federer remain.

The strangest thing about the first week was that the main protagonists were actually arguing about who the favourite was! Murray was the bookies favourite, thanks to his victories in Abu Dhabi and Doha, but seeded fourth. Djokovic felt he was the man to beat as the defending champion, while Federer was telling anyone who would listen that he and Nadal were still the two to beat. It was a peculiar approach to the mental preparation to sport, because usually the favourites are reluctant to acknowledge their status. Only Nadal has been relatively silent this week.

As it stands, it may well be 1 and 2 in the final, and a restoration of sorts to the "old order", because up until about 1 year ago, Nadal and Federer were destined to dominate the sport. Federer's star has waned somewhat, most spectacularly between June and July last year, where Nadal first destroyed him in Paris on the red clay, then ended his Wimbledon reign, and went on to win the Olympic gold. Federer recovered to win the US Open, but by then Nadal must have been close to exhaustion. So a repeat of their classic matches awaits Melbourne. It should be good entertainment.

On the science side, I'd love to see more in-depth reporting of match statistics. At present, we get only the winners, first serve percentage, and errors. I'd love to see more analysis of things like net clearance, shot depth, shot speed, angles etc. That would give me far more to write about than heat and revolutions per minute!

But let's hope it's not 40 degrees and there are no more withdrawals!


Saturday, January 24, 2009

Random ramblings on cycling

Doping control 2009 and beyond

Well, it's been a week since the last posting, and a week since a promise to tackle the mind over matter issue in more detail. Unfortunately, my own mind was out of it this past week, and I'm citing writer's block and lack of inspiration as reasons for the week-long silence!

And since that furnace has not yet ignited, I thought I'd do a very brief post inspired by some unrelated events over the last few days. They all concern cycling, in some form.

The primary stimulus for my thinking on doping is NOT Lance Armstrong's return to riding in Australia (though that certainly doesn't distract me from it), but rather the privilege I had last week of spending some time with the journalist David Walsh.

Walsh, for those who don't know, is the Chief Sports Writer with the Sunday Times, and one of the foremost journalists covering the Tour de France. He has written two books: LA Confidential: The Secrets of Lance Armstrong (in French only, with Pierre Ballester, and From Lance to Landis: Inside the American Doping Controversy at the Tour de France.

Both books have, predictably, been highly controversial, with various lawsuits and threats to prevent publication (the reason the first one was published in French only). I don't read French, but we did a review on the second book way back in 2007, and meeting with Walsh inspired a second reading of that book, which led to these musings on doping (and much more thinking and work, but that will be covered in the future).

A view on doping

First off, an interesting article on the state of doping control was published about a month ago in the International Sports Medicine Journal. It was authored by three Danish researchers, all of whom are quite influential on the world anti-doping stage. For example, the third of the three, Rasmus Damsgard, is currently the anti-doping Project Manager for Astana, for which one Lance Armstrong has recently made a comeback during the Tour of Australia.

You can read the article here - it's the Editor's selection, which I gather means that anyone can view the full article. If you battle, just drop us your email address in the comments section and I'll gladly send it to you.

To summarize, the article makes for a quite a nice introduction to doping control, because the author's cover the basics of doping control, including why out-of-competition testing is so important, how athletes are monitored throughout the year, how samples should be handled and tested, and the value of integrating the testing programmes of all the various bodies now doing the anti-doping bit (and there are plenty).

A couple of things jump out at me:

Anti-doping within teams

First, it's interesting that on the second page of the article (pg 156 of the journal), the authors discuss the "biological passport system", where riders' blood and urine values are tracked over the course of many months to develop an individual profile for each rider. The paper states that "Specific results showing the variation in the numbers of tests per rider and the timing of these tests have not yet been published, but it is anticipated to do this in the very near future".

I can't help feeling that this is the most crucial piece of this puzzle and the one that should have been in place from the very beginning. Towards the end of last year, I actually wrote a piece where I said that doping control should be made "open-source" (like Linux or Wikipedia) so that it is fully transparent. If this does not happen, then these team-led anti-doping programmes could become a farce, because the team still controls the flow of information.

In fact, I'd go so far as to say that unless the process is laid bare and made 100% transparent, the team anti-doping programmes are actually in danger of being destructive, because what teams are doing is "employing" experts like Prof Damsgard to manage their anti-doping programmes, but then controlling the flow of information generated as a result. This aspect of anti-doping control, then, becomes ornamental, a facade behind which teams can shelter and find some favour with authorities.

So the question is this: What happens if Prof Damsgard or any other scientist employed within a team structure discovers that athletes are doping? Does he report this to management, to WADA, to a national anti-doping programme, or does he remain silent? Because if the answer is the latter, then the teams have effectively neutralised doping control from within by removing power from experts, having such experts is actually a step back for the sport, not forward.

I'd be curious to know the answer to that question...

Example of the biological passport

Secondly, there's an interesting table in the paper showing the blood and urine values of a rider over a 7-month period in 2008. I've copied that table below (click to enlarge), and highlighted the interesting values.

The rider is implicated as having "suspicious values" in July 2008, because the reticulocyte (immature red blood cells) count is abnormally low, and also much lower than values measured only one month before. A reduced reticulocyte level suggests that the athlete has previously used EPO

Also, the BAP % (far right column), which is a measure taken from a urine test, is also suggestive of EPO use - anything above 80% is an adverse analytical finding.Note also the relatively large increases in hemoglobin and hematocrit that occurred in June. These are not by themselves a problem, but they do contribute more to the evidence that this athlete has used EPO during May or June.

So now, the same question is asked: This is a great example of how the passports should work, and what they look like. But, if this was a result collected by team's internal doping control programmes, what is the next step of action taken? Was this athlete investigated further? Do the anti-doping 'personnel' have the mandate to pursue, or do they simply observe?

To me, there is still too much secrecy. Having written that, I then think that perhaps I'm ignorant of the internal process because I'm an outsider. Perhaps the people involved in the teams know all the answers. Then I realised that this is precisely the point - who needs to be convinced that cycling is cleaning up its act? The outsiders, who include not only spectators, but sponsors, other cyclists, and the media.

And while doping control may be growing, and cyclists are now faced with the most intensive testing regimes of any sport. But all that comes to nought if the general trust in the sport cannot be won back, and for that, such secrecy cannot be sustained.

On the whole, anti-doping almost has a similar feel to the "medical programmes" that were instituted by the teams in the mid-1990's. At the time, doping was widespread (as it still is, sadly), but often not through team-run programmes. However, it became very clear that riders would dope, whether or not the team provided the "programme". As a result, many teams began to formalize doping programmes (which were called medical programmes) not to dope better, but to do so more safely. It was a case of acknowledging that it was going to happen, and at least a responsible team could control it better, winning more races and doing so more effectively (that is, without getting caught or killing the cyclist).

The internalization of doping control threatens the same, though it would have a different outcome - it could, in theory, facilitate even greater control of the flow of information. It has the potential to create so many conflicts of interest and potential clashes between different bodies that unless managed, the web of secrecy will get even heavier, and the code of silence (omerta) will simply be translated into a higher, more sophisticated language.


Sunday, January 18, 2009

Haile Gebrselassie Dubai splits

Haile Gebrselassie's splits from Dubai

Following on from yesterday, here are the splits from Haile Gebrselassie's 2:05:29 in Dubai. Thanks to Ray for pointing out the LetsRun thread with some splits, but especially to Sean Hartnett, who kindly provided these detailed times from the race (Sean was responsible for the "RaceTracker", which was featured before the race in an IAAF article. Thanks Sean, hope your food poisoning has been conquered!)

The graph shows the splits from Dubai, compared directly to those from Berlin last year, when the 2:03:59 record was set. I've indicated the pace required for the world record with the dashed purple line, but bear in mind that the numbers you see are a direct comparison between the races.

The boxes at the bottom are the comparison. Dubai is shown in blue, Berlin in Orange, and then the green and red boxes show the time difference in the 5km intervals between the two (green when Geb is ahead of the record from Berlin, red when he is behind). At the top of the graph I've shown the overall gap between Berlin and Dubai. (you might need to click on the graph to enlarge - had to squeeze information in)

Brief analysis

It's very apparent what transpired in Dubai - the record was on up to about 30 km, and then the final 10km cost him enormous time. The weather reportedly worsened at about 35km, which would seemingly track the gradual slowing down. Bear in mind that in Berlin, Gebrselassie finished astonishingly fast - his final 10km were covered in 29:09! So given that he was 8 seconds faster than Berlin at the 30km mark, he still required an exceptional finish in Dubai.

In fact, he needed to speed up - his time at 32km was 1:34:17, which meant that he needed to run the final 10.2 km in 29:43, which is a pace of 2:54.8/km. That is the SAME SPEED as he finished with in Berlin (a 29:08 10km), and is FASTER than he'd been going up to that point (2:56/km), even without the weather complication.

Therefore, the weather ultimately put paid to any hopes that may have existed. However, as I wrote yesterday, I don't think it would be correct to say "the weather denied him the record". That assumes that the record was a guarantee, and given that he need to at least match the spectacular finish in Berlin, the outcome in Dubai was anything but certain. Very importantly, he needed it without any company (the pacemakers were gone by then. Berlin was a little different), and that would have been tough, even on a good day. So what the weather did is deny him the CHANCE - he had put himself in an excellent position, equal to Berlin, but he still needed a mighty good last 10km. I guess we'll never know.

One other observation - the early pace in Dubai was quite conservative - 14:50 for the first 5km, and then it really started to pick up. That slower than in Berlin (which was too quick), and different from previous years. I can't say that's down to anything. The other amazing thing is the consistency of pacing between about 10km and 26km. Apart from one 'aberration' at 22km, he reeled off 16 consecutive kilometers within two seconds of 2:55. Quite amazing.

So that's the splits, as promised. The rest of the week holds the promise of some more (hopefully) interesting discussion of physiology of performance. Also, the Australian Open, the year's first Grand Slam, starts tomorrow, and might warrant a post, if I can get my hands on some interesting data I once saw regarding it!

Join us then!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Gebrselassie 2:05:29

Gebrselassie narrowly misses out in Dubai

Haile Gebrselassie missed out on his third marathon world record and the $1 million bonus in wet conditions in Dubai on Friday, running 2:05:29.

How it unfolded

It was Geb's second narrow miss in Dubai, after his 2007 performance of 2:04:54 at the same venue. We're still trying hard to get the 5km splits from the race, so that we can compare this performance to the '08 Berlin record of 2:03:59, but the reports are that Gebrselassie was bang on the pace up to the 32km mark.

Halfway was hit in 61:45, which is also exactly what Geb had suggested he'd do in the pre-race buildup. I'm not entirely sure how that 61:45 was put together, though. In 2007, he tore the first 10km at about 2:02 pace and then slowed, which is not at all how the race should be paced.

Nevertheless, he hit the 32km mark 1 second under his world record schedule, and then the weather, and the lack of pacemakers combined to see him lose one and a half minutes over the final 10km.

A cluster of factors required for a world record

Race reports are that the wind that shifted direction during the race so that the athletes were running into a headwind pretty much the whole way. A rain shower in the final 10km wouldn't have helped either. This only serves to highlight just how difficult it is to "guarantee" a marathon world record, and makes people's predictions of a 2:02 within a few years a bit of a mockery.

The reality is that for the world record to fall, even by 1 second, you have to bring together the perfect cluster of factors: A great athlete in phenomenal shape. You need perfect conditions, wind, weather and temperatures, and you have to have the optimal course. Then you need pacemakers to control the pace early on, and to survive for long enough to pull the challenger into the final few kilomters where he can push on.

Dubai seems to have had only two of these ingredients: an athlete in great shape, and a pancake flat course. However, the weather didn't play along, and I also believe the disappearance of the pacemakers at 32 km didn't help. You may recall that in Berlin, Gebrselassie had the somewhat surprising company of James Kwambai until about the last 5km. We'll never know whether his final 10km in Dubai would have matched those in Berlin (they would have had to for the record to fall), but running alone would certainly have been difficult.

For that reason, I'm not convinced that I fully buy the excuse that the weather cost him the record. It's incredibly presumptious and symptomatic of the aura of Gebrselassie that people assume the record was a given had the weather not intervened. I certainly think the weather put an abrupt end to the hopes of a record, but that's different from saying the weather denied him the record.

What next for Gebrselassie?

2:05:29 was still a magnificent performance, and ranks 8th on the all-time list, and also makes Geb the holder of times number 1,2, 3 and 8. Quite astonishing, and proof again that Gebrselassie has no peer when it comes to racing the clock over just about any distance.

Yet again, however, in reading the post-race reports, I'm left with a sense of disappointment, however. Not because the record didn't fall, but because Geb has once again expressed that he will NOT run in the IAAF World Championships this year (as he had earlier said), but will instead race his "organized time-trial" in Berlin on September 20.

Gebrselassie is therefore going to run his 6th consecutive "time-trial", and will again avoid a race against any of the other potential sub-2:05 men.

There are, in my opinion, six men in the world capable of running under 2:05 - Lel, Wanjiru, Zersenay Tadese, Goumri, Cheruiyot and Gebrselassie. Five of them will run London in April, Geb won't. Nor will he take on these same athletes in Berlin, opting instead to puruse times and dollars in races with no competition (second place in Dubai, incidentally, was a 2:07-something. But who cares, right? That's exactly the point).

So is it too much to ask that Geb actually compete in a race, instead of a time-trial? I guess it might be. Not that there's anything inherently wrong with making money off your sport - can't begrudge that to anyone. But it would be great to see the "greatest" taking on Wanjiru, Lel and Tadese. But we won't. In fact, I would go so far as to predict that the world's greatest ever runner is going to retire one day having never won a major competitive marathon (and before I receive abuse from Geb-fans, I don't consider Berlin in the last 3 years to be a competitive marathon, and nor is Dubai.) Gebrselassie, for all his brilliance, has never won a marathon in a race in which top 5 athletes compete, and he won't given their pursuit of races, and his pursuit of competitorless time-trials.

The week ahead

Looking ahead, we're still trying to get the splits for the race, just for comparison with Berlin '07 and '08. Regardless, we'll also resume the discussion of mind vs. matter, so join us in the week!


Thursday, January 15, 2009

The 10th Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon Preview

Got money? Throw it at something!

Tomorrow sees the 10th running of the Dubai Marathon, and before last year who knew this race had been going on for so long? Of course most of us did not know because until last year the race was firmly in the second-tier of city marathons, which are typically dominated by Kenyans (eight of the top 10 in 2007, six in 2006)) running around 2:10. Other races that currently are in this category are ones like Honolulu and Los Angeles.

But all that changed for Dubai in 2008, when it received a cash injection and was able to lure the Great One, Gebrselassie, with an army of dedicated pace-setters, $250k for first place (all but guaranteed in that year's race), plus the chance of a $1 million payout for breaking the world record. Clearly the middle east has more dollars than sense, or at least more money than they know what to do with, and just like that the Dubai Marathon gets put on the running map. One can argue that this is good for running in general, but as exciting as it is to see Geb challenge his record, somehow we feel cheated not seeing perhaps the greatest runner of all time compete against his top peers in a race like London. In Dubai last year, Geb walked (ok, ran!) away with the $250k, almost too easily and as expected, and was only 27 s away from scooping the bonus money in 2008. Of course he went on to break his own record last year in Berlin, where he shaved an additional 27 s off his 2007 Berlin time.

The basics: what to expect

Clearly it is a flat and fast course, and so the big factor that can affect performances will be the weather. It is winter in Dubai now, but a quick glance at the past four years tells us that the starting temperature might be anywhere between 11-23 C (52-73 F)! Current conditions (at 9:00 PM in Dubai) are about 18 C (64 F), and forecast for Friday is for blue skies and 21-22 C (69-72 F). This is welcome news as apparently they have had four days (and four inches!) of very unseasonal rain and flooding!

In addition to a good weather forecast, apparently the course measurer altered it slightly so that it is flatter and there is more room at the turnaround. These changes were specifically because Geb will be attempting to break the record, and so it appears that things are lining up for Geb in Dubai this year.

The competition. . .or not!

Toeing the line next to Geb will be rather lackluster field who is highly unlikely to challenge his record pace. The fastest and most proven man in the field is the "other Sammy," Kenyan Sammy Korir, who most of you might recall nearly stole the record from Paul Tergat in Berlin in 2003. He paced Tergat in that race and challenged him for the win, finishing only one second behind Tergat and therefore holding the fourth fastest marathon time ever. However in the interim since then Korir has not really reproduced that kind of performance, and so we are not going to be holding our breaths for a major showdown of any kind.

So it will be Geb vs. the clock, which somehow is the way he seems to prefer it. If you think back to his marathon debut in London in 2001, he pushed for record pace all the way and never looked back, until he caved in the last 1-2 km and left Tergat and Khannouchi to dice for the win. Since then he has made no bones about saying up front that he will attempt to break the record, and slowly but surely the organizers began to accommodate his needs by offering up multiple pace-setters. It finally paid off in Berlin in 2007 when he broke Tergat’s four-year old record by 29 s. He tried again in Dubai last year, but came up short, and then passed on the Olympic Marathon in Beijing, dare we say so that he could have the legs to try again in Berlin last year. If that was indeed his reason for his absence on the streets of Beijing, it paid off (literally) as of course last year, hardly one month after Beijing, he became the first man to break 2:04.

The Sports Scientists’ Call

So now he appears primed and ready to have another go, and if he does it he will claim his 27th world record and walk away with $1.25 in prize and bonus money. Pacing is so important, and the prime example of this was last year in Dubai when he ran an insanely fast first half and then paid dearly for it down the stretch. He seems to have learned his lesson from that, getting it right in Berlin and running what must have been so incredibly close to his limit, although there is still room for improvement. Looking ahead to Friday’s race, he has the experience behind him, and good weather conditions as well, but the need for pacers until at least 35 km is critical and cannot be underestimated. No doubt the event has organized a team of guys to help him, but is anyone good enough to go through 35 km in about 1:42? If not, it leaves Geb, as great as he is, with quite a bit of road left before he crosses the tape in sub-2:03:59.

Normally we would say that to run so fast over so many consecutive marathons is not really possible, and therefore we would not expect another record in Dubai. However Geb continues to smash the conventional wisdom when it comes to predicting his performances. He now holds the three fastest times ever, and he achieved these in his last three races, and these only after running numerous other marathons between 2002 and 2007. Again, though, his pacing support will be key, and if his pacers are able to stay with him until late in the race, we can expect him to break his record. Left to fend for himself after 30 km, however, and he might come close but it is unlikely he will do it.

The full analysis

We will have the full analysis of the race, record or not, early on Friday, so be sure to come back here for our normal post-race wrap of both the men’s and the women’s races. Be sure to continue to help us grow the site and share this post with any or all of the links below!


Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Mind vs Matter

The Four-minute mile: The value of integration of physiology and mental aspects of performance

Yesterday's discussion on mind vs. matter, and the role of mental aspects to performance, left off with the short recap of a fatigue series that I wrote almost a year ago. It reminded us that the brain is ultimately in control of exercise, and that fatigue, or the decision to slow down during exercise is not taken because the muscles are failing, but rather because the brain is regulating the degree of muscle activation so that we are protected from physiological harm.

This was of course an extension of the somewhat philosophical argument of whether physiology or psychological is the key separator or differentiator between good and great athletes. The question "How important is the mind to elite performance?" forms the basis of this series, and specifically, I'm interested in understanding the integration, and overcoming the rampant over-simplification of this very complex argument that tends to infiltrate it.

The 4-minute mile

Perhaps the best illustration of both the good and bad aspects of this debate comes from the story of the 4-minute mile, which I'm sure is quite well known to many of you. I'm not going to recap the whole story here, there are plenty of good books that will do that for you (so no history lessons - it's not the point!), but will attempt to summarize the salient points into a relevant story, because it really does highlight both the importance of the mind, and the tendency people have to overstate that importance and hype it up.

Go back to 1945. The world record for the mile stood at 4:01.3, held by one of the great Swedish runners of that generation, Gunder Hagg. His performance was actually the culmination of a golden generation of Swedish runners, and in particular, Arne Andersson and Hagg were a dominant duo between 1942 and 1945. They set FIVE world records between them, taking the record down from 4:06.4 to 4:01.3 in the space of four years.

Inevitably, then, attention turned to the sub-4 minute mile. It was only a matter of time...

Turned out to be a long time. It was not for a lack of trying however, and the race to be the first to crack this magical barrier captured the world's attention. It co-incided, incidentally, with the race to conquer Mount Everest, which gives a nice illustration of how the achievement was being judged! Which was tougher - Everest or sub-4 minutes for one mile?

And the world waited. And waited. It would take a full 9 years before the record would fall (one year AFTER Everest was conquered, incidentally). This large gap is often cited as proof of the mental barrier, and we'll see shortly that this is only partly correct. However, it must be remembered that the world had just emerged from a war that claimed the lives of many young men, and also ruined the infrastructure and robbed athletes of training time required to produce decent performances (despite it being amateur back then). It would have taken a very unusual set of circumstances for a record-breaking performance during the aftermath of the war, given that the nations most likely to produce the athletes were also those affected most by it.

However, the action really started in about 1952. That was when John Landy started what would become an agonizing quest to crack the barrier. He would, over the course of a two year period, run the following sequence of times:
4:02.1 – 4:02.6 – 4:02.8 – 4:02.5 – 4:02.7 – 4:02.3

Points for consistency, yes, but not so much for the breakthrough everyone was waiting for.

After the last of those performances, in a race where he was on track to break 4 minutes until the final 100m, he was quoted as saying the following to journalists: "Frankly, I think the four-minute mile is beyond my capabilities. Two seconds may not sound much, but to me it’s like trying to break through a brick wall. Someone may achieve the four-minute mile the world is wanting so desperately, but I don’t think I can.”

So that was to become Landy's "legacy" - that quote, and a string of so close, so yet far performances.

Then enter Roger Bannister, on 6 May, 1954, in Oxford, and a performance that stopped the clock at 3:59.4. The four-minute barrier was gone, and Bannister was the man, not Landy.

What happened next is the fuel behind the mind vs. matter debate. 46 days later, John Landy, who had said "I don't think I can", went out and ran not sub-4 minutes, not sub-3:59, but 3:57.9! A full 4 seconds faster than he'd ever managed before, his own sub-four minute clocking, and proof that the four minute mile was most definitely NOT beyond his capabilities, as he himself had suggested!

The interpretation - a bit of moderation required

Now, this story has some very obvious interpretations. Physiologically speaking, we have to ask what might have changed in 46 days for John Landy? There's not likely to be some difference in his training, in his physiological make-up that allowed this huge improvement. The answer most settle on, of course, is that Bannister had broken down Landy's mental wall. Having removed a mental barrier from Landy's mind, Landy's physiology was able to express itself and produce the time his physiology allowed.

I have no argument there. I suspect part of it, a much more mundane explanation, is that Landy may have learned from Bannister how to pace the effort a little better (let's not forget Landy had blown in the final 100m of his previous attempt while on course). I'd argue, however, that this is still a psychological effect, and Landy's improvement is down to his improved mental approach to how to structure the race.

The mental barrier removed, and belief drives physiological performance

But I also believe that Landy went into that record race freed of the pressure, the barrier and the expectation and was able to more closely run to his own physiological limit. Quite what it is that allowed this beats me. I'm sure there is a psychological theory for it. But in line with yesterday's post, I would propose that the ability to maximize this physiological talent is dependent on the right psychological, or mental attitude. Whether that is belief, confidence, anger, composure, fear, doesn't really matter right now (it's worth unpacking another time), but I would certainly propose that Landy was a case of a runner who under-achieved under the pressure, and once it was removed, and belief was provided by Bannister's example, he expressed his physiology far more effectively.

Overstating the presence of the mental barrier

Where I think the role of psychology has been over-hyped is the assertion that was soon made that the four-minute mile is a mental barrier. (Thanks to Simon for pointing this out in his comment to yesterday's post and for inspiring this story, incidentally.)

People were quick to jump onto the "mental barrier" bandwagon, and argued that the long delay between 1945 and 1954, followed by the Landy performance, was proof that breaking four minutes was mental, and a deluge was predicted. What is interesting is that there was no flood. Simon's words now: "the number of people subsequently getting through the "psychological" barrier after that were 3 in 1955, 7 in '57, 4 in '58, 1 in '59. 5 in '60 and zero/no one in 1961, and so on. Certainly no flood. (Figures from "Bannister and Beyond" by Jim Denison)."

So the flood never came, but the story has survived nevertheless. It's still a fascinating story, because I do believe it illustrates the value of belief, confidence and mental preparation (including composure and pacing), while highlighting how detrimental to performance things like self-doubt, anxiety and excess expectation can be. It seems that Landy was at the end of his tether when he spoke to the journalists after that last race - that frustration and self-doubt, once replaced by belief and a removal of the pressure, allowed him to find a performance that he himself thought impossible.

And therein lies what I believe to be the take-home message from this story. Not that the four-minute mile is a mental barrier, because it's clearly not - more people would have followed Bannister and Landy if it was. Even today, breaking four minutes is not a Jedi mind-trick that any determined athlete can pull off.

Rather, the message is that we can each improve within ourselves by reframing our expectations, by challenging our beliefs, by identifying our own mental barriers and then breaking them down. I really do believe that whether you're running a 4-hour marathon or a 32-minute 10km off the bike in a triathlon, you will find a benefit in performance if you assess your mental approach to racing and work at believing what is possible for you.

Linking in training - mental and psychological factors are forged in training

And then very importantly, perhaps most crucially of all, is that your mental approach to racing, your confidence, your belief, are not simply mental tricks. This is not about just hypnotizing yourself into running faster, into suffering a little more. It's an approach to training. Once again, in the words of Jamie from yesterday's post:

"Training responses are initiated, determined, and dictated by the brain. Without attention to the control of thought processes...or attention to the encoding of exact movement patterns, many athletes will be trained inappropriately."

So the point is, training is an act of physiology, but it's also an act of psychology, and it's in training that the thought patterns, the elusive concept of mental strength, the belief and the ability to regulate pace, are laid down.

So let me end with another bit of information about Bannister and Landy. Roger Bannister would go on to become a decorated neuroscientist - he was studying medicine when he ran his 4-minute mile, and specialised in understanding the very organ that may have provided his edge - the brain. Part of his training included a session of 10 x 400 m repeats, run at race pace (59 seconds), with a 1:30 recovery. He was preparing his brain, and his body, and his mind (for the brain is not simply a mind - it's an organ of physiology!), for the effort it would take. Of course, I can't account for Landy's training, but Bannister's career focused on understanding the physiology of the brain. I dare say he did the same in his training. The result? 3:59.4, and a place in history

Conclusion from this story: Integrate and understand

The conclusion then, apart from what I wrote above about how everyone one of you must examine your own belief, mental approach and potential "brick walls", is that if you want to be a better athlete (regardless of your sport), you must challenge yourself, both physiologically and mentally. It's not good enough to isolate one and train simply for fitness. Training must be thoughtful, it must have a purpose and it must be understood. I really do believe that the simple act of concentrating during your performances will add to your physiological ability. You'll be benefiting from your own understanding, and approaching your own limit.

Preview of what's to come - more on this debate, plus our first race of 2009

So that wraps up this little history lesson. It's something of a departure from what I had planned after last night, but Simon's comment inspired this "detour", which really is a great story. I have a bit more to say about this issue of mind over matter, and I'll do so next week.

However, before then, we have the first big marathon of the year, in Dubai on Saturday. Haile Geb is going for another time-trial, um, world record, on a course where last year, he broke 2:06 after going off ridiculously fast early on.

So we'll take a break from "philosophy of sport" for a little while, and Jonathan will do a preview of the race tomorrow, and we'll bring you the splits and reports as they come through this weekend!

Then next week, we'll resume this debate, and also get into some new territory!

Thanks as always!


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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Mind over matter?

Mind over matter? Another unanswerable question

Interesting times and debates over the last week, where we discussed the issue of nature vs. nurture. It stimulated a good response, and some divided opinion, though most will probably agree that truly great performances are the result of a combination of genetic potential meeting hard work. Few would suggest that great sporting performances are entirely the result of a genetic gift that requires no training, and very few (the hopeless romantics) would suggest that anyone can be successful, regardless of their "natural talent" (a loaded word, as I'm sure you've come to realise).

For our part, we lean more towards the talent side of things when it comes to "physiologically-determined sports" (a made-up concept, I confess) like sprinting, cycling, distance running. In these sports, success without some cluster of genetic and hence physiological advantages is highly unlikely. In sports where technical skills are crucial (golf, cricket, possibly soccer to a lesser extent), training probably becomes more important.

Perhaps the best summary of all was provided by Jamie in his comment, in which he said: "One thing I do know for certain is that talented athletes that don't work hard will be good but never excellent, and hard workers with little talent the same".

Well put.

A new topic - related, but no less answerable

An extension of that debate, and one which has little hope for an answer, is the debate around whether mind or matter is the crucial determinant of success? For example, here's a hypothetical situation to consider: There are thousands of long distance runners around the world with the capacity to run a 10km in under 29 minutes (half of them probably reside in East Africa). However (and I'm using round numbers here), of those 1,000, perhaps 250 can dip under 28 minutes, and only another 50 can go under 27:30. Then you get the "sharp end of the sword", where perhaps 10 men have the ability to break 27 minutes, and only one with the ability to run under 26:20.

The question is this: Is the difference between this man (Kenenisa Bekele) and the other 9/ 249/ 999, a physiological or a mental one?

Take the same question and apply it to a sport where the opinion might be easier to express. Is the difference between Tiger Woods and the other professional golfers a technical one, produced as a result of physiology, or is it psychological? (which would also express itself as a measurable technical output in the golf swing, incidentally)

And, perhaps most importantly, should we even care? Can we even care, given how interlinked these aspects are - psychology determines the training attitude, training determines the technical parameters of the swing or the physiological abilities of the athlete, and that in turn feeds back to the mental and psychological state of the athlete! All this of course, happens within the framework of an athlete who we assume has the natural "predisposition" to succeed in the sport (we're not talking about an endomorph trying to crack 27-minutes here)

So it may well be a moot question. But it's one worth considering, especially for the endurance sports, which is obviously our focus. So herewith begins the debate on mind over matter!

A little bit of both, a lot of one or the other?

Perhaps as you read the hypothetical and discussion above, you've already dismissed this particular argument as irrelevant, for the answer is so obvious to you that it's not worth discussing. And to a certain extent, I agree. It certainly does seem obvious that both are required, and that any athlete who lacks either the physiological ability (as a result of genetics or training insufficiency, doesn't really matter) or the mental toughness (for want of a better word) is destined to underachieve.

So let me open the debate with our conclusion, courtesy Jamie, but with edits:

One thing I do know for certain is that physiologically-gifted athletes who lack mental toughness and capacity will be good but never excellent. And athletes with mental capacity off the charts who lack physiological 'hardware' will be the same.

Now, having said that, I'll bet that you can once again come up with a few examples of cases that disprove my contention! For example, you may cite yourself as a case of an athlete who simply lacks the physiological tools to run a super-fast time, but you believe that you've achieved 99% of your potential thanks to your mental approach to training. A far more likely case is that you have colleagues or training partners who would be streets ahead if they could just "get their minds right".

So there is a case for every argument, and a counter-case to prove the counter-argument, such is the debate.

But a common question asked in this debate, one which I've heard a few times, is "What percentage of elite sports success is mental?" And people throw out the numbers. Some say 50-50, you need both equally. Others reckon that it's 90-10 in favour of the mental - if you don't have the mind, the body will never follow. A famous golfer, I forget who, was quoted as saying that the most important distance in golf is the 6-inches between the ears.

That kind of thinking is what this series of posts is designed to challenge. Not because it's wrong, but just because it represents such an over-simplified view of how the mind and the body interact. And I really do believe that if the coach and athlete can understand the interaction better, and appreciate how they form a positive feedback loop, then the value of training can be increased.

Some problems with oversimplification

There are, to begin with, a couple of problems with this kind of oversimplification. The first is that the measurement of physiology is much easier than the measurement of mental strength (again, I hate that word, but I am sure you follow what I mean). This has a few consequences.

Firstly, it creates a situation where it's relatively easy to attribute unexplained performance to mental strength. I've mentioned a few times on this site that sports science really has very few answers to the question of why one athlete will beat another one. We can measure VO2max, lactate thresholds, fibre types etc, but the outcome of races never tracks these measurements perfectly. In fact, in elite populations, the correlations is poor. So now enter the "mind", and you have an explanation. I don't buy it. I am more of the opinion that sports science is failing to measure things, either by not measuring them at all, or by measuring them in too low a resolution. That's not to say the mind isn't vital, it's just too easy to dismiss physiology because you can't find evidence. The default seems to be to explain the unexplained by bringing in the unexplainable!

Second, and on the other side of the coin, the fact that it's all but impossible to measure the mental aspect of sport means that people often disregard it. This has the exact opposite effect in that mental aspects are dismissed and emphasis is placed on things like fitness, flexibility, speed - parameters that can be tracked. The difficulty around designing an intervention to improve this mental aspect of sport is a barrier, when one can easily design a programme to improve strength or speed, and measure it and report back to the head coach/physiologist on the progress.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, the two are interlinked so tightly that to debate them separately is, as I pointed out at the top, something of a doomed effort. The problem is that we see the achieving, winning athletes (like Lance Armstrong, let's say) and we see the athletes they beat (Jan Ullrich), and it's all to easy to say that the difference between them was Lance's toughness, his attention to detail and his never-say-die attitude. Problem is, none of those have ever been measured, nor are they really measurable, and so they are subject to human emotion, to propaganda and consequently, bias (by design or by accident).

The same goes for Tiger Woods - the "Lore of Tiger" speaks of his legendary training routines, his attention to detail, his mental toughness. So we believe it because he wins. I am sure you can think of others - as soon as they win, we find reasons why they are winners, in hindsight. And we're right - these stories, the backgrounds, the history are integral to any athletes' success, and can't be discarded. However, we attribute success to them, which again, is a gross undersimplification. And we never control for the fact that he might be a more gifted athlete. And we never ask the loser how tough he might have been, because we don't care - he lost, after all!

Apart from this, to suggest that one athlete beats another because of mental toughness can be incredibly disrespectful to the loser. Not always, because sometimes it is clear that an athlete loses because of some frailty in their mental armour. However, to suggest that Haile Gebrselassie beat Paul Tergat in five major 10,000 finals, including two Olympic Games, because he was tougher, is to say that Tergat didn't want to win. Unfortunately, this debate is often simplified down to the age-old argument, heard in pubs and bars around the world: "They won because they wanted it more". Rubbish. Having lost four races, did Tergat not eventually start wanting to win? Did Jan Ullrich start the Tour with the idea that he'd be satisfied with second? It just seems so simple to attribute success and failure to a difference in desire. Even if you believe mental is everything, you have to appreciate that there is more to it than this!

So, hopefully, the problem is clear: We cannot control for the absence of half the variables - physiology does not exist separate from mental aspects. In fact, they feed each other, so that the athlete who has both will end up being physiologically superior and mentally tougher. In that respect, the argument is somewhat circular.

The role of the brain in performance - not mind over matter, but matter over matter

However, before we get too philosophical here, let's just wrap up by saying where we are going with this.

About a year ago, I did a series of posts on fatigue. These posts are well worth a read for the current posts, because they'll come up next time again.

But the take-home conclusion from that series, is that fatigue (and ultimately, the limit to performance) is NOT a function of VO2max, muscles, lactate, glycogen, over-heating etc., but rather is a regulated process, where the brain collects all kinds of information from the body and then assimilates it into a perception of effort. The end result, which has been measured physiologically, is that the brain controls how much muscle we activate, and slows us down IF it calculates that we are in danger.

For example, when you exercise on a hot day, you don't slow down because you are too hot. Rather, you slow down because if you didn't, you would get too hot. The brain works out just what is possible and then regulates pace in order to achieve the best possible performance with the least possible risk.

Now, the obvious extension of this is that if your brain makes the decision, then you can "trick" the brain, or discipline it, into delaying that decision, which would allow you to run or ride faster before that point is reached. Instead of slowing down, you'll hang in there, guts it out, suffer through the pain, because your performance will be improved. It's classic mind over matter.

Unfortunately, this doesn't work, for much the same reason that people are not very successful at committing suicide by holding their breath! It doesn't matter much how badly you want to go, your physiology will win in the end.

However, there is no doubt that some people are able to get closer to this physiological limit than others. Perhaps, in the context of endurance sport, this is what we mean when we speak about "mental toughness" - the ability to approach that limit, either through desire, belief or any other complex collection of attributes and attitudes. Their brains regulate performance much more tightly than others, those who are "conservative" and finish the race with a much larger reserve. So therefore, we have a case of "matter over matter" - it's brain matter regulating body matter.

And since we're The Science of Sport, that's where the discussion kicks off next time - the physiology of performance, and the role of the brain in regulating our limits!


Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Nature vs nurture

Talent vs work: What determines sporting success?

Of the many debatable issues in sport (or in life, for that matter), few are as "unanswerable" as the issue of nature vs. nurture, the notion that people are born champions or made into champions through hours (and years) of hard work. This debate applies to just about anything - your salary, your ability to play a musical instrument, to paint, to play sport. We'll concern ourselves with sport, and that makes the debate a little more complex than it might be for other activities, as we'll see.

Further reading required

I recently did a couple of posts on the Matthew effect, and the logical extension of this debate is the debate about work vs natural ability, born vs bred. That was in fact suggested by a few of you in your comments, thank you very much! And so given the fact that it's topical and relevant, I thought that I'd do a short post today, introducing some preliminary thoughts. I have to do a great deal of reading before I commit to a more detailed, complete discussion about the matter, but this post contains some initial thoughts, with the promise to return to the subject later this year, once I've brushed up on some of the research and opinion.

There are a couple of good books on the subject. The initial discussion of the Matthew effect was stimulated by my reading of Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, and he devotes a section of the book to this discussion. It's called 10,000 hours, after the notion that this is the minimum amount of time it takes to become world class at anything. It's certainly well worth a read, but came across less than convincingly in the book - intuitively, perhaps as a result of scientific thinking, any dogmatic statement like "it takes 10,000 hours" will be met with scepticism.

Another good book, recommended by Simon (thank you!), is Talent is overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, which is next on my shopping list. Geoff Colvin wrote this article for Fortune magazine, which is something of an introduction to the idea, some preliminary reading, perhaps!

A question of perspective

Your position in the debate depends very much on your point of view and your own experiences. I suspect that every single one of you reading this can relate a story that supports either one of the positions. Perhaps you are yourself an example of someone who felt they did not possess the natural "talent" to excel at sport, but through hard work and training, managed to rise to the level of those who were more talented? (think Michael Jordan here). Or, you are the gifted athlete who has found that with minimal training, you can outperform most of your peers in a range of different activities?

I have to still do a great deal of reading on this subject - I'd be speaking out of turn if I laid all my thoughts down at this stage, with evidence. However, I will say upfront that I believe that both camps are right, within the context of their own arguments and experiences. That is, talent is crucial - some of us are naturally more gifted than others for sport. But talent is a low-resolution microscope, in that it's only good for separating people out into broad categories, on a global scale. Once you look a little more closely at a more homogenous group (that is, you match for ability), then the difference becomes work. The mistake made by both camps is that they tend to over-commit to their position, and discard the (in my opinion) likely possibility that talent and work affect performance differently depending on the group being evaluated. Because it's so context specific, one cannot be dogmatic and too sure of any position - if success was formulaic, then someone would be selling it by now!

I'll never forget a story related to me by Prof Tim Noakes after a trip to Kenya, where he attended the Nairobi marathon. A woman in one of the rural villages was constantly being disturbed by her noisy chickens early in the morning. She rushes outside one morning to see what is causing the commotion, and discovers that the chickens are being frightened by a group of runners out for their morning training run. Upon asking what they are doing running around the neighbourhood at 6am, she learns that they are training for the Nairobi Marathon in three months' time, where they can win money. Jump ahead three months, and SHE is the new marathon champion, having taken up running as a result of the dual inspiration provided by those runners and her noisy chickens! When three months of training can take a previously inactive person to the top of the tree, then you have a strong argument for natural talent.

However, in order to continue to improve and reach the very highest level (international marathons, in this case), she would have to do a great deal more training. That's because talent takes one only so far - without it, you have no chance. But to reach the higher levels, training and work become non-negotiable. The philosophical question, of course, is whether certain people LACK that natural ability to at least reach a given level of performance at sport. I believe the answer to be yes - you'd have a very hard time convincing me that every single person is capable of running a 2:10 marathon, even given enough training. So we have a hybrid of a talent and work model - one is insufficient when looking at the global picture. However, zoom in on a given level, and hard work becomes the separator.

Sports performance - a little more complex than just work

So now we focus specifically on sporting ability. And even here, not all sports are created equal. In the Fortune article, Colvin points to Tiger Woods as an example of hard work, from the age of 18 months, allied to a desire to constantly improve, as the force behind Woods' success. Perhaps golf lends itself to this.

I'm not as sure about running and cycling. Is it as simple as hard work equals winning? Can we conclude that Haile Gebrselassie is the record holder because he has trained harder than anyone else? Or did he train harder because he possessed some cluster of characteristics that set him off in that direction? In sport, the decision to train is rarely made without some assurance that the training will deliver a result and reward - that means that a natural predisposition to a sport is often the first requirement on the path to hard work, so the two are in fact inter-related.

Having said this, hard work is undoubtedly important, and in a sport like running (or any endurance sport, which we're obviously biased towards here at The Science of Sport) there is no substitute for training. But many athletes would not cope with even half the volume or intensity of training done by a Gebrselassie or Sammy Wanjiru. And even if they did rack up 200km weeks, running a 2:04 marathon would be beyond them, for reasons that are at this stage still unknown.

You've all heard of slow-twitch fibres, lung capacity, the genetic determinant of VO2max. These "limiting" factors are often put forward as reasons why some athletes simply cannot cut it. Conversely, whenever a great athlete comes along, we seek explanations in these numbers - "he has a VO2max of 85 ml/kg/min, his lung capacity is 5.8L and he only produces 3mM lactate at 80% of PPO" is a common argument for why a cyclist or runner is dominant.

This is the other extreme - the notion that great athletes are born, not made through training. As I've pointed out, it's likely to be just as incorrect. The fact of the matter is, if I gave you a list of elite cyclists or runners and their VO2max values, you would be unable to rank them in order of performance using that VO2max. Sometimes, the best cyclist doesn't have the highest VO2max, the best efficiency, the most slow-twitch fibres and the largest lungs.

The situation might be even more drastic for sprinting events - speed is without doubt the result of genetically determined factors meeting training effects. If you took a random sample of children from West Africa and another from a western European country, I have no doubt that on average, the West Africans will be faster in a sprint race. That's natural ability, physiologically determined, though the exact genes and physiological characteristics that go into this performance remain inconclusively known.

That's as much a reflection on the fact that sports science hasn't fully worked out what determines performance, and that performance is the result of a cluster of physiological, psychological and environmental traits that are currently too complex for us to analyse. Hard work and training is one of them, and when one looks at the very top level of performers, the difference made by hard work becomes the tiny difference between victory and defeat. But to tell people that they can achieve anything, regardless of their genes, seems to me to be misleading, when it is applied to sports like running and cycling.

However, I'm open to change, and plan to read up and find out much more - perhaps next time I post on this topic, later in the year, I'll be singing a different tune!


Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Matthew Effect Part 2

Mulling over the Matthew Effect

Yesterday, I did a post describing something that has been called The Matthew Effect, as applied to sports performance and talent Identification. Briefly, it refers to the phenomenon where a disproportionate number of elite level sports people are born during the first few months of the year. This comes about as a result of a confusion between ability and maturity, and the selection of those children into regional or school teams based on their ability at a young age. Unfortunately, at this age, 10 months is a significant difference, and those who happen to be younger are soon left behind.

In response to the post, we received some really interesting and thoughtful comments, which you can read at the original article. I tried to respond to those comments, but it's worthwhile mulling over a few of the points raised. In particular, the big question is: Given this effect, and the fact that children born in later months are seemingly disadvantaged by their younger relative age, what should be done to ensure maximum talent "delivery" at the senior level?

The key point is that a scientist who is faced with the seemingly daunting task of selecting a squad of sportsmen from a completely random sample would be reasonably accurate simply by asking everyone born in January, February and March to stay behind, and sending home those born in the latter part of the year! This in turn means that all those who are born later in the year are placed at a disadvantage, and you create a vast pool of "unrealised potential".

It's important to note that by the time the national coach, or the head coach of a profession team makes his/her picks, it's already too late. The damage has been done, many years earlier. Similarly, a sports scientist who is doing talent ID assessments for a high performance programme at say Olympic level cannot be concerned with month of birth - their job is simply to pull out those people who display talent or ability to perform better than others. The problem is, most of those they pull out will have been born early in the year, thanks to a decision made many years earlier. The question is what one should do to ensure that up to half the population remain eligible for success for as long as possible?

A split in age-groupings?

And that is a question I was thinking about a great deal today, and must confess that no easy solution presents itself. In his book, Gladwell suggests the creation of a "split" in the age groupings, so that children born in the first half of the year compete in a separate league structure to those born in the second half. I'm not sure about ice-hockey (which is the example he uses), but this idea would be very difficult to implement for most other sports. For one thing, it would require twice the coaching time and expertise and would more than double some of the resources required for the participation of athletes in sport.

That is, the entire basis for the Matthew effect is that younger players who happen to be older by virtue of their earlier birth month are given superior coaching, competition and opportunity. The creation of a second, separate league for those born later in the year would not solve this problem, unless the quality of coaching provided to that second group of children was at least comparable. In SA, there are barely enough decent coaches for one team, let alone two, so I'm not convinced this would work. And that's apart from the administrative problem raised by Gladwell in his book.

Weight categories?

The second possibility is the creation of weight categories for young children. The rationale here would be that in sports where size, weight and strength (these are often, but not always, associated) are key determinants of performance, the early developers and the relatively older children enjoy a large advantage which manifests itself as improved ability, and which is the basis for the fateful selection of January births rather than December births.

The creation of weight limits would ensure that children only compete against those who are in the same weight bracket as they are, regardless of age. It has some advantage, but there are also a couple of problems. The first is the incentive it creates for children to make weight. That's not to suggest that the use of anabolic agents or diuretics (depending on which direction they wish to go) would be the obvious result, but it is a possibility.

More than this, it creates something of a perverse criteria against which children are measured, one which I'm not sure is healthy. It also starts to mix children of very different ages together, and there is an emotional and intellectual difference that is not controlled for. Suddenly a 10-year old is playing sport against 15 year olds, in a league that is, by nature, likely to be much more competitive than should be the case for a 10-year old.

Secondly, many sports actually require a separation in weight before specific skills can be acquired. Being South African, the sport that comes to mind is rugby, but for those in the USA, the obvious one might be American Football. In both sports, positions are very heavily influenced by body shape, size, strength and physical stature. As a result, so too are the skills required from the players in those positions. If players compete in age categories, then one would be delaying the acquisition of these skills.

Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. Skills develop according to the situation presented to the player, and so a more all-round skill set would be the result if age-categories were adhered to, since no size advantage would exist for one player to easily dominate another physically. Late maturers would be rewarded, because they would develop skills that one would usually be found in the smaller, more nible players, and when they eventually "fill out" and bulk up, they'd carry through those skills, and remain skillful as "big men".

On the other hand, do you really want a team with all-round skills and reduced specialist ability? Once you reach the professional level, the very specific demands of playing each position would quickly expose weaknesses that have developed as a result of the lack of necessity to develop those skills earlier. It's a debatable one, for sure. It has been tried, that much I know - I believe that they tried weight groupings (mixed with age groupings) in Australia. I haven't had the chance to investigate that more thoroughly, so I'm open to input on that one.

Changing the focus of performance

Perhaps the best approach I can think of borrows from this principle that you want to discourage a form of play where size, strength and speed are the crucial factors that determine success. In this regard, many sports systems around the world are already making the effort, since they emphasize that younger children do not play contact forms of sport, play rather for fun and enjoyment and do not prioritze winning. The notion of play to play, rather than play to win, is the focus.

Recall that the Matthew effect develops when coaches select players and then begin to provide a superior coaching and competition environment. If those coaches are able to make their selection in such a way that ability is not confused with maturity, then younger players would remain in the system for longer, perhaps long enough that they could themselves develop and catch up to the older players.

The incentive (and the wisdom) of the coach is therefore the first element - they should not be driven to win. Unfortunately, in many sports, this is an unrealistic goal, and one can understand how coaches pick better players at such young ages - they are under pressure to perform. So the collective mindset of the team, the parents, the school and the club often must change before this happens.

Once it does, then the priority of the coach can become skill development, enjoyment and development of attributes where size, strength and speed are not solely responsible for performance. This will never completely remove the effect, but education, a change in mindset and a different set of priorities might go a long way to "rescuing" those younger players who are so quickly lost from the system. Ironically enough, this focus on play rather than performance at a young age is likely to help performance at an older age, through the creation of a larger body of "eligible" players.

An impossible puzzle to solve, I suspect. As I said, I'm actually going to be suggesting to a few sports federations here in SA that they look long and hard at this very phenomenon, and try to understand how young talent moves through the system. Part of this will be discovering where these "early developers" go, what happens to late developers, and what strategies might be effective in maximizing the available player pool. So we have the possiblity of a real-life "case-study" or two, and I hope to be able to report on that soon!