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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Kayaking wrap from Poznan

From Poznan to London.  Sports science:  Process vs outcome?

The 2010 ICF Sprint World championships in Poznan are now over, and the focus now shifts to Olympic qualification next year, and then hopefully onto London 2012.  Apart from pacing strategy insights (which offended a lot of fans, it would seem), the week in Poland was very informative and helpful for our ambitions moving forward.

For kayaking enthusiasts, the high speed video below shows Ed Cox of Britain paddling the final leg of a great K1 relay in which Spain, who you will also see in the video, held off the GBR challenge to win the gold medal.  It was one of the highlights of the regatta, and I'm sure you'll appreciate the video, which I took from the 100m to go mark.

Sports science - the plumbers of the sports world?

Now, having got the video out the way, a brief discussion point of the role of sports science in high performance sport.  This is admittedly aimed at a fairly narrow bracket of our readership, but indulge me as I share something that struck me (not for the first time) in Poland.

Sports science seems simultaneously the most valued and the most criticized component of a high performance system.  Few athletes or teams achieve success without some form of scientific intervention - ranging from altitude training, to proper nutrition, strength and conditioning, to doping, sports science prepares world class athletes for world class competition, and these days, when you talk of a high performance model, it invariably is centred around sports science services.  The same is true in Sevens rugby, in rowing, and in triathlon, but it struck home last week, mainly because there is, as always, an uneasy tension between science and coaches.  This was typified by a comment received on my last kayaking post, where sports scientists (me, specifically) were relegated to failed sports people trying to wangle their way into the Olympics in order to bump up their CVs.

And the only reason I bring this up is because it is a perception shared by many coaches, and dare I say, administrators.  I was fortunate enough to chat with a few coaches and sports science support staff at the Poznan regatta, and in South Africa, we have this problem, which I now realize is not unique (though it may be more extreme - we're a little far behind the rest of the world).

And the problem is this:  People view sports science as the plumber who must show up to unblock the drain.  In other words, when things go wrong, when things begin to smell a little off, then a sports scientist must be called, and in an hour or two, they must sort out the problem, leaving athlete and coach half a second faster.  In the aftermath of Beijing, South Africa did this - every federation recognized that the lack of expertise was a problem, and they sought to fix it by getting the contribution of scientists, doctors and successful coaches.  So far, so good.

Intellectual immersion:  Don't just talk, get married

The problem is that they didn't commit to a "marriage".  Call it "intellectual immersion", call it full-time involvement.  The key is that sports science only works because the process is more valuable than the outcome.  It is only the day-to-day, systematic application of scientific principles that sports science can begin to chip away at time or distance advantages.  And the scientific principle is nothing more than asking the right question.  Could Tim Brabants have gone faster in his K1 1000m final?  The answer is yes, and scientific understanding of pacing strategy tells you how.  Can the French men be beaten in the K2 200m event?  The answer is yes (it has to be, otherwise we'll all just stop paddling now and award that gold medal).  Can David Rudisha break 1:41 for 800m?  Yes.

The road-map is science, measurement and analysis

But that by itself is meaningless, it's not the right question.  If you accept that there are gains to be made, half a second here, half a second there, then at least you have a purpose.  You still have no road-map.  That road map comes from science, measurement, and analysis - this is how you know what you need to do, and how you need to do it in order to move forward.  You have to analyse the race, the start, the acceleration, the top-speed phase, the deceleration, and only then do you understand what it will take to match a competitor over say 200m in a boat. 

Then, you know the literature, you compare what you did to what others have done.  You notice discrepancies, you challenge them, you change things.  You recognize that your pacing strategy was not optimal, and then you interrogate why not?  You ask whether you can be better (and hopefully, you don't get offended by it).  But when you make changes, you have to study the effect of the change - you are indulging in a scientific study, whether you like it or not.  If you adapt the training, say to focus more on peak power, then you must monitor the athlete very closely or you are effectively navigating in the dark.  Good coaches do this naturally, but most rely on intuition which can sometimes lead down blind alleys.  All the while, sports science is the map against which you compare.

And here in Poznan, there are teams measuring everything - start sequences, mid-race, GPS data on boat speeds, body mass, recovery, blood values.  Everything.  Does the coach receive immediate gratification?  No.  Often, there is not one thing that is going to tell the coach or the athlete, that they should "do X in order to produce Y".  Applied sports science does not work that way - there are too many experts and too many knowledgeable people for that kind of thinking to provide the competitive advantage.

The question is far more valuable than the answer

The competitive advantage comes from immersing the expertise in the PROCESS of improving performance.  For every one thing you study, you learn two new things.  For every answer, you produce two questions, and if the coach and the science are working well, then these questions are what drives performance, NOT the answers.  I've said this before, but it bears repeating - the value of sports science is NOT limited to its content.

In other words, it's not what you know, it's how you know it.  It is the process of seeking answers, of testing interventions, of failing and then adjusting, that makes the difference.  This requires enormous manpower, of course, and time, because at best, you're probably only 20% efficient - 4 out of 5 things you do won't make a tangible difference.  But they're there, adding up in the background.  And if you understand this, then you can appreciate that even the things you DON'T know are valuable means for improving performance.

And on this note, I have to emphasize that I have met accountants, marketers, and business consultants who could do a better job of high performance sport than some sports scientists, myself included.  Their value is the ability to step back, assess the system, assess the coach and the athlete and then ask objective (and difficult) questions that can be answered through measurement and analysis.  And somewhere, on the way to answering that question, performance improvements begin to add up, 0.1% here, 0.3% there, and suddenly, you have a squad of world-class athletes.

Great Britain have done this better than anyone, and that's why, despite all the tensions and faults, their Olympic performance in 2012 will meet expectations.  The rest of the world will have to catch up.  But they will fail (and this is autobiographical, because in SA, we fall into this category) because they don't recognize that knowledge doesn't unblock drains.  It takes years to set up a culture of scientific thinking, and generations for this to improve athletics, bottom up.