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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Top 8 of 08: Number 7

Number 7: The margins between victory and defeat, and the myopia of sports science

Since the 1970's, the Olympic Games have thrust human performance squarely into the limelight. The margin between Olympic gold and failure is so small, so intangible, that four years of work and training can often be undermined by the length of a fingernail. And so the seventh biggest story of the year, through the sports science lens, is the margin between success and failure, and my somewhat philosophical perception of the role of science in determining the outcome.

Much of this is inspired by my own personal experiences this year, first with South African sport (where science is non-existent, and where the sports science is viewed so narrowly as to make it obsolete), and then with the SA Sevens Rugby Team, where the coach (Paul Treu) and manager (Sebastian Prim) have shown South Africa just what proper intellect and science can do for performance, and created the template for high performance success that the rest of the country, maybe even the world, should be copying in the future (rest of SA, take note).

Race of millimeters

Take for example the picture below, which I'm sure many of you have seen. It is a photo taken from the bottom of the Beijing pool, and it shows, on your left, Michael Phelps, on his way to his 7th gold medal, and on your right, Milorad Cavic of Serbia, on his way to a silver medal in the 100m butterfly event.

Had you not seen this race, however, you'd be tempted to tell me that I've mixed up my right and left. There is no way, surely, that Cavic, on your right, can lose this race. He has led for 99.5 m of a 100m race, and is centimeters from the wall. But Phelps touched first, by 1/100th of a second, in one of the moments of the Games.

It is against this backdrop, where gold and silver, history and anonymity are separated by millimeters, that sports sciences and the value of attention to detail become apparent. If you look at Cavic on your right, you'll see that as part of his early reach for the wall, he has begun to hyperextend the neck, and the result is that his head is starting to rise out of the water. Phelps, on the other hand, has made a call to get one last stroke in. His head is down, his arms are making one final sweep for the wall, and he is about to pip Cavic on the line.

What this race comes down to then, is Cavic's head position, which may have increased his drag (this is according to Phelps himself), and the timing of a lunge for the wall. Such are the margins between gold and silver. Phelps goes on to become the first man in history to win 8 gold medals at a Games, Cavic may never again be so close to an Olympic gold and a place in history as the man who denied Phelps the perfect Games.

Sports science - a marketing myopia and short-sightedness that creates lose-lose situations

Now, this may not seem like a normal application of science to you, and herein lies the key point - our understanding of human performance has evolved, and hence the way we apply sports science to performance must be revised. It is no longer acceptable to simply define sports science as the measurement of a VO2max and lactate concentration during a test on a treadmill or stationary bike.

This understanding is unfortunately what we sit with in South Africa. To many, sports science means a finger-prick, a VO2max test and a laboratory where performance outcomes can be conveniently measured and predicted based on a set of nice, ordered numbers. I am sure that many of you reading this are familiar with this kind of attitude or approach to sports science - "What do you do as a sports scientist?", is the common question. "Well, we measure VO2max values and lactate values and can tell you how fit you are or how good an athlete you are" is the common, and ultimately ignorant answer. Remarkably, this is the level of service that is offered to most sports, certainly in South Africa, perhaps around the world.

It is an attitude that comes from sports scientists themselves, who suffer from the same short-sightedness that marketing expert Theodore Levitt wrote about in his famous "Marketing Myopia" paper in the Harvard Business Review. Sports scientists often suffer from myopia, not fully understanding their own business and value, and ultimately creating a lose-lose situation, where they fail to add value to athletes and coaches, and eventually reduce their own value as a result.

The consequence of this attitude towards sports science is that the sciences and intellect are relegated to the role of support function, rather than becoming a driving force behind athlete preparation and performance. A few countries have managed to overcome this problem, and have succeeded instead in immersing sports science with athlete preparation. Rather than being a sideline function, sports science should form part of the strategy, an integral part of the preparation of the athlete.

South Africa have not yet done this, and a case in point is the recent decision by some of our sporting codes to veer away from the best expertise and towards the facilities and location. Given the margins for error, the tiny differences that separate champions from losers, one can ill afford to prepare with anything less than the best. When administrators then choose to bypass the best people, they are asking to lose - they are the losers. This pre-occupation with facilities is the inevitable outcome when people are too ignorant to recognize the importance of sports science in the strategy, and would rather use it as a support service only.

The new wave of sports science

What is required from the new view of sports science is a comprehensive, intellectual approach to sport that INTEGRATES and IMMERSES the sciences into the day-to-day preparation of the athlete. My background is in both sports science and management, and I recall the words of a famous management theorist, Peter Drucker, who was known to say that "you can't manage what you don't measure".

And this is where sports science is heading - the measurement of ALL aspects of athlete preparation and performance. Once this begins, it is not difficult to see how the sports scientist, being immersed in the measurement of various performance indicators for the athlete, would soon develop a large role in the preparation of the athlete. Once measurements are being made, they form the basis for subsequent improvements. These improvements are measured, and further changes, in pursuit of further improvements, are the result. The continual measurement, adjustment of training/technique, and measurement of response form the basis for athlete development, and just happen to be the scientific method. This would soon expand into a role in the selection of athletes, the identification of talented juniors, and significant inputs into the strategy of the sport for high performance.

This situation already exists in many nations, where coaches and teams of advisors work with athletes to make sure that every single avenue for improvement is explored. The coaches of many of the technical events, for example, are men and women who hold high level degrees in biomechanics. These are people who have spent years of their lives trying to find ways to find half a meter of improvement, a degree of difference. When you consider that many athletes don't even video-tape their technique and performances, then the problem becomes apparent - if you fail to invest in intellect, if you fail to immerse that intellect and science in the process of performance, then you will find yourself on the losing end.

And so the 7th biggest story of the year, from the sports science annals, is the changing of (my) understanding of the role of the science in performance.



Anonymous said...

Hi guys!

I was wondering if you could give some examples of the nations and sports you are talking about when you say this:

This situation already exists in many nations, where coaches and teams of advisors work with athletes to make sure that every single avenue for improvement is explored. The coaches of many of the technical events, for example, are men and women who hold high level degrees in biomechanics.

Also curious to know how these sports receive their funding.

I'm a huge fan of your blog. Thanks for all the good reading in 2008.

Anonymous said...

Hi there
I'm the editor of HarvardBusiness.org and I noticed the link to Ted Levitt's Marketing Myopia is broken. Here are a couple links that might help folks out:
Here's the article on HBR.org (full text available to subscribers only but the exec summary is free):

Here's the Wikipedia entry on the article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marketing_myopia

Thanks, and thanks to my dad, the sports scientist, for pointing this out!

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Dear Eric

Thanks a lot for that one! I didn't realise - it worked when I posted!

I've updated the original post and included the link you provided!

I love your site, by the way, visit it often in my "other life" in business!

THanks for visiting, hope you read again!


Jamie said...

Hi Ross

As a South African coach I struggle to find confidence in our "sport scientists" especially here at home as most of them dont seem to know what they are talking about. Take most of them away from rugby/cricket/soccer and they are generally useless.

My general impression is that they are too intellectual about what the coaches and athletes need and are not really trying to understand where the coach needs help. They seem to want to dictate to the coaches what they should be doing based on textbook science even when the coaches are obviously doing the right thing (or at least the winning thing).

Sport scientists often seem to forget that coaches learn from trial and error and although it may not be published in a peer reviewed journal in the end those experiences are made in the real world with real athletes and real competitions. Add these up over 20-40 years and you get real knowledge. The coaches may not be able to explain exactly why it works or how but they know it does work.

At the same time this knowledge or experience is often dismissed by sport scientists because there is no scientific support for it. The attitude seems to be from many sports scientists that we know everything now and there are no unknowns. But this is obviously short sighted considering how many things have changed in the field in the past 10 years i.e. understanding of lactate, understanding of how the brain controls performance etc.

I saw on two occasions this year sport scientists walking out of presentations given by coaches of Olympic champions in Beijing muttering about how the coach is wrong!

I was at the World Rowing Coaches conference in Paris in November and there were presentations from three Gold Medal coaches and all three only made passing reference so sports science support and one openly said it was rubbish and that he didnt use it (Dick Tonks from NZ who has coached Gold crews at the last three Olympics)

Equally I think that coaches miss out on oppotunities to enhance performnce because they are not keen to have other input into the training process

How about an article about how you think the coach-athlete-scientist should interact and particularly how we should be using sports science to enhance the performnce of our sports and particularly the Olympic codes toward 2012 and 2016

Thanks once again for a great blog and some decent sport science!!!!


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Jamie

Thanks for a great post and comment. You are 100% right, there is a huge communication gap between coaches and scientists. I can see both sides of the argument, and many times (not necessarily in SA, where I think the science is poor and the scientists don't know what's best) it's difficult for the scientists as well because they genuinely believe they can make the difference through the application of their knowledge.

So they sit in these presentations, and they're comparing what they hear to what they believe, and the difference between the two is intepreted as "incorrect". Call it arrogance, call it ignorance, who knows? But they do often miss out by not listening to those who've seen what works. I think that the best scientists, rather than criticizing and walking out, should be asking "what are we missing here?", because by asking that, they could very well start on a journey where future research provides the information that will convince them. Or, it may not, and then they'll have been proven right - the coach was wrong, and by being open-minded, they've managed to prove it and hopefully everyone (most notably the athlete) is better off as a result.

And herein lies the key - the scientist and coach should be working together, bringing two different sets of skills to the relationship. But it has to be a relationship, not a service provision. If you relegate science to the role of service provider, then you foster this situation of "I say, you say", and that becomes destructive. Instead, I think the optimal role is for the coach to direct the thinking, the scientist to evaluate it, and the two together to refine it. Does that make sense?

That's where I begin to differ from the "classic" approach of sports science, which I believe to be very limited. I tried to get at that in this post, and in 2009 I definitely will post more on this. My own view of science and sporting performance is that the value added by a scientists is NOT his knowledge of lactate, VO2, power to weight etc, though of course this is important.

Rather, the scientist's value is his ability to answer questions through the formulation of a hypothesis, the measurement of important data, the intepretation of that data, and then the revision of the hypothesis.

So how would this work in practice? First of all, the scientist must be IMMERSED with the coach. I think this is vital. I've experienced it first hand with the SA Sevens Rugby Team, where the coach (Paul Treu) brought on board a PhD student to do his game analysis. Over the months, the role of this scientist grew until he became the squad manager. He has added huge value, not because he knows about 40m sprint tests and flexibility scores and statistical variance, but because he THINKS a very specific way, and it allows the coach to experiment, try things out, and discover what works best.

I don't know enough about the sport of rowing, so I apologize for the lack of a specific example. But I'll bet you that as an expert in your sport, if you and I were working together for say six hours a day, talking rowing, my view of the world would challenge yours enough to generate a question, an experiment, a solution, that could be applied to your rowers to make them better. Of course, I could do the normal lame VO2 max, power-output, lactate tests etc., but the real value would come if we worked together to solve problems - are the rowers recovering between sessions? How can we measure this? How do we quantify training load? Does the addition of gym work make this better or worse? How should be video the rowers to help with technique? Four random questions, and perhaps you have the answers already, but if you work closely with a scientist, you'll be able to go about answering these questions. And the answers would make you a better coach and the scientist a better scientist.

The same should happen for all sports. I realise this may seem radical, but it is simply taking advantage of the skill-set, not the knowledge, that a sports scientist should bring.

Unfortunately, in SA, our sports scientists don't have this skill-set (which is a telling statement). We have a few of them, and they should be recruited into the system, but on the whole, it's not a lack of VO2 knowledge, lactate and so forth that makes our science weak, it's the absence of that ability for critical thinking, for hypothesis creation and testing that weakens it.

Then of course, the problem is that the scientists go "out of scope" and start to coach, and criticize, as you point out. They define their role incorrectly, and that creates problems too. Their text-book knowledge often doesn't work, they offend the coach, and he ends up calling their contributions "rubbish".

I am partially relieved to hear that this is not simply a problem in SA! One thing I must point out is that if this system works, if the coach and scientist work together and share knowledge, eventually, the coach will become self-sufficient. His own ability to answer questions improves to the point where a good coach is a scientist! He has a group of "subjects", he designs an experiment (a training programme), he measures its success, and then he changes it accordingly! That's science, and that's why the best coaches don't see the need for science - they're doing it already!

In SA, we don't, for the most part, and it needs a change in mindset to get scientists to recognize that their true value comes not from the reams of theories they've been taught, but from the ability they've learned to critically evaluate, measure and refine thinking.

I'd appreciate your thoughts, and look forward to discussing this in 2009! Speaking of which, I'll be changing jobs in 2009, and part of my new role (as a self-employed consultant) will be this very subject, so if you're in SA, let's talk - I'm in Cape Town, obviously!