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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Home ground advantage: International vs local differences

Home ground advantage: The effect of international travel on performance

So today is the third and final installment in the series on home ground advantage, and it's going to be a visual and quicker to read one (promise!).  That will be followed tomorrow by a video recap of the whole topic of home ground advantage, which will also be the "world debut" of our Science of Sport Video series (but more on that later), and then we hit the 2011 Tour de France for three weeks of hopefully great, and interesting (and dope-free), cycling.

In the previous post, I looked at the size of home-ground advantage in Super Rugby, and my (admittedly) brief analysis showed that:
  • Home ground advantage exists - 61% of matches in the Super 14 were won by the home team
  • The odds of a team winning an away match were 0.64 times lower than the odds that they'd win the home match (eg: If the odds of winning at home are 80%, then the chances of winning away are 52%)
  • Home ground advantage is worth 9.5 points.  This is calculated by looking at all home records and comparing them to all away records.  On average, teams win by 4.8 points at home, but lose by 4.7 points away, and so home ground advantage is worth 9.5 points
  • The teams with the strongest relative home advantage are the Lions, Cheetahs and Brumbies.  The teams with the weakest home records are the Stormers and Chiefs
The travel factor: As yet just out of reach, but international vs local analysis sheds some light

Now, what we need to consider is how travel might impact on this.  I'll say upfront that this is a question I'm going to pursue in much more detail in future.  The data I have so far don't allow me to answer the specific question about travel...yet.

However, what we can do, using historical records, is look at the following two questions that get indirectly at the issue:
  1. "What is the probability of the away team winning a match in its own country, compared to winning a match outside its country?"  
  2. "What is the size of the home ground advantage when a team travels away WITHIN its country compared to playing an away match overseas?"

In other words, there are two types of away matches in Super Rugby - those where a team plays a LOCAL opponent (the Johannesburg-based Lions travel to Cape Town to play the Stormers), and those where a team plays outside its country (the Lions travel to Auckland to play the Blues, for example).


These questions are relevant because they allow us to start seeing what the effect of travel may be.  Two limitations to the above questions are important.  First, this method doesn't allow us to see the acute effects of time-zone changes, because teams play those away matches for four to five consecutive weeks, so you have to include "time on the road" as well as travel.

Also, there are scenarios where being the home team still involves travel.  Imagine, for example, that the Lions have just played four away matches in Australia, and then fly back to South Africa to play the Bulls.  In that case, the Lions are the traveling team, even though they may be at home against local opposition.

This is a level beyond the analysis I've done so far.  However, as I said, I'll definitely look at it in future.  The results I present below thus only answer the question of "International vs Local" matches away from home - it's an indirect measure of the travel effect.  It's also a relatively small data set - with time, I'll build it up and go back many more years to strengthen it.  However, I think it reveals some interesting truths, but it's by no means final!

So let's look at those "truths"...

The odds: How likely is a team to win outside its own country?

So, the main implication of the above figure:
  • Home-ground advantage is considerably lower when you play against a team from inside your own country - the home team then only wins about 54% of matches (remember, the tournament average is 61%).  The odds of winning away are 0.85 times those of winning at home - not bad at all.
  • When a team goes overseas, the home team wins 64% of matches. Now, the odds of winning away are cut in half compared to winning at home.  
  • There, winning away matches outside your own country is far LESS likely than winning them in another country - home ground advantage counts for more when the visitors must travel internationally
  • I repeat the stat that says that since 2000, no team has won a knock-out match having had to travel to another country.  That may change this weekend, but it's 0 from 34 now, and that says a lot
To repeat, this doesn't mean it's exclusively due to travel (it may be "homesickness" if a team spends a full 5 weeks on the road).  And there are matches in the above data set where the traveling team is actually the local team, as I mentioned above.  But overall, it says that playing overseas has a significant effect on the likelihood of a team winning.

The size of home-ground advantage against local and international opposition

Next, we take the same approach I did yesterday, looking at every single team's home and away record to see how large their relative advantage is when playing at home.

First, the figure below shows points differences and average scores for all teams when playing against LOCAL opposition (from the same country) either home (top) or away (bottom panel):

So, you can see that most teams have winning records at home (green bars) and losing records away (red).  The black rings show examples of teams with winning records both home and away, while red rings show losing records home and away.  Some teams, like the Reds (see arrows) have a winning record at home, but lose away.  The difference between the home points difference and the away points difference is the home-ground advantage, but I'll get to that shortly.

Next, we look at the same 14 teams, this time home and away against international opposition:

Once again, some teams have winning records both home and away (like the Crusaders, ringed in black), while others lose both.  Interestingly, only two teams have winning records outside their own country.  It's quite clear from these two graphs that the average result being overseas is worse than being away within your own country.  And the red rings this time indicate the more common pattern - a winning record at home, but a losing one away.  For example, the Brumbies average a 27 - 20 win at home, but a 17 - 24 loss away.  Again, the difference between these two will tell us the value of being at home.

That value, the "home-ground advantage" is summarized in the graph below.

So, the top panel shows the relative home-ground advantage when playing against LOCAL teams, the bottom panel the advantage when playing international teams.  Bizarrely, the Bulls actually perform better away from home against local teams - if you go back up to the first figure, you see that their home record against other SA sides is a 23-21 win, whereas their away record is a 29 - 19 win.  I'm pretty sure there's nothing in this - it's the reason why the dataset needs to be expanded.  But they are the exception - all other teams far better at home against local sides.

Similarly, against international sides, everyone but the Chiefs do better at home against international teams.  You'll recall from yesterday that the Chiefs actually have the lowest home-ground advantage - this is why - they average a 3 point win at home, a 2 point win away (the error is due to rounding up/down).

However, the real significant fact is this:
  • Average home-ground advantage when playing against local teams is + 6.3 points
  • Average home-ground advantage when playing against international teams is +10.8 points
  • Therefore, home-ground advantage is increased when playing international teams.  To the tune of 4.5 points, which is the value I would attribute to "geography", in the sense that this is what it shows.  This is summarized in the graph below.

Once again, I must stress that this is doesn't accurately quantify the effect of travel, but rather of playing internationally or locally, and it uses a small sample size. To get the full value, one needs to a) go back further, all the way to 1996, and b) track results as a function of local or international travel, time away from home, direction of travel and home-ground advantage.

But it does start to indicate that the travel is a burden on teams in Super Rugby.  That being away from home, the probability of winning matches is much lower when you are overseas than in your own country - perhaps this is travel-fatigue, perhaps it is culture-related, perhaps it is related to home-sickness and motivation.  Whatever the reason, the early results suggest an affect.  Once again, I'd stress that this competition is unique in this regard.  Factor in the altitude (for some teams) and Super Rugby may have a lot to teach us about home-ground advantage!

All in good time, of course! That's a lesson to resume again in the future!

The Tour de France:  Three weeks of cycling coming up

And it's a wrap for home-ground advantage.  I realize that maybe the rugby focus was not relevant for many, but as long as it inspires some thought, thank you for reading!

The Tour de France is up next, and it's going to be all systems go!  The race starts this weekend, and you can expect analysis and thoughts as the race unfolds.  If there are any specific questions, or information, or power output values, or anything else, please don't hesitate.

The Video Series, launch imminent

And finally, an exciting (we hope) announcement.  Our main objectives with The Science of Sport are to share our insights and opinions (we mouth off on sport and science!) and to communicate scientific concepts, usually as applied to sport. The key is communication.

And so, we are always on the lookout for ways to improve how we communicate science.  That's why we created the Facebook page and our Twitter feed, so that we can provide links and thoughts more consistently than time allows us to post here.

But, one avenue we've never explored is video.  The thinking is that video lends itself to communicating science more effectively.  It's graphic, and we can talk through concepts rather than write them.  Maybe it's also more personal. 

And since we do a great deal of speaking and presentations (Ross in particular, being in an academic environment), we thought it a good idea to start publishing videos of our presentations and the topics we cover on this site!  That we, we can talk through ideas, and maybe condense your time a little.  We'll still keep going on the writing, don't worry, but the video hopefully brings an added dimension to the Science of Sport.  Please share and distribute!

The videos will go up on YouTube, they will be embedded here. We start with a video of a presentation on Home-ground advantage (which I will give internally at the Sports Science Institute tomorrow).  I know it's not a topic that many of you will relate to, being about rugby, but it's a start and in the future, I think we'll try to do this much more often, for topics ranging from the Pacing Strategy talk to Talent and 10,000 hours.

That will come shortly, let us know any feedback and how we might improve on our mission!


Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Home-ground advantage in sport: Theories

Home-ground advantage - theories and stats, Part 1

***Click here to see Ross of The Science of Sport talk you through home ground advantage in three video presentations, covering the theory and the stats.***

This past week in South African sport was punctuated by, among other things, a discussion around travel and the effect it has on professional sports teams.  The specific subject was the Sharks, a professional rugby team from South Africa, who flew to New Zealand for a playoff match in the Super 15 Rugby competition.  That discussion has turned out to be a nice catalyst for a couple of posts on home-ground advantage and the factors driving it (Part 1), followed by a post by Tuesday on travel and some interesting stats on how Super Rugby is influenced by both factors (Part 2).

Super 15 - an extreme model to study home-ground advantage

The Super 15, for those not in the rugby loop, is a tournament played between professional teams from South Africa, New Zealand and Australia.  It is now two weeks from its conclusion and is into the playoff phase.  The vast distances that are required, as well as the altitude for some teams in South Africa, make it a really great model to study home-ground advantage.  In fact, I'd go so far as to say it's unique in this regard, in that it has extreme travel (10 time zones a trip) and large changes in altitude (0m to 1600m) on a weekly basis.  But more on that next time...

Of course, travel is only part of the home-ground debate, but for the Sharks, it was the big one - they decided to leave South Africa on Tuesday, four days before the match, and so arrived, 10 time zones to the east, with only 2 days before a huge match.  The question then was whether it would be possible for the players to recover and perform optimally?

I thought it was pretty certain that they would not, which I said in the article.  Turns out they lost, 36 - 8, which is a pretty heavy defeat at this stage in the competition when you consider it's between the best of the remaining teams in the playoffs (3rd vs 6th in this case).

Of course, it would be an enormous oversimplification to say that the loss was due to travel fatigue, because sport is way too complex to reduce to one variable.  However, I think it probably played a part, particularly at the end of a long season and after some very physically demanding matches in the weeks before.

What wasn't quoted in the article was that I was of the opinion that the match would be very competitive for the first 30 to 40 minutes and then the scoreline would blow out.  The Sharks probably needed to be 10 points ahead with 20 minutes to play, because fatigue would influence performance more later, whereas motivation would "hide" it for a while, before it eventually told.  That fits with what eventually happened - it was competitive half-way, and the big defeat was inflicted in the second half.

Zero from 32 - the challenge of travel in Super Rugby at the end of the tournament

How big is home-ground advantage in the Super Rugby competition?  Well, consider that since 2000, not a single team has won a playoff match outside its own country.  That's 11 years, and thirty-two matches (they have playoffs and semi-finals), and not once has an international away team won.  Admittedly, part of this is because the home team is at home precisely because in the course of the season it has been better than the visiting team, but still, zero from 32 in a competitive tournament is a telling stat for how difficult it is to travel overseas in the final few weeks of a four-month long tournament.  

The main reason for that, I'm convinced, is travel, but I'll talk about travel in the context of Super rugby in Part 2 later this week.  First, let's look briefly at the science of home-ground advantage.

Home-ground advantage - consistently 50 to 70%

There is no question that home-ground advantage exists.  This article presents some numbers from US-sports, saying that in basketball, the home team wins 62% of matches.  In baseball and ice-hockey, 53%, and in the NFL, anything between 54 and 64%.  There is some evidence in football (that is, soccer, to avoid confusion!) that playing at home is worth 0.4 goals (1.5 vs 1.1 goal to home and away team over 5,000 analyzed matches).

For rugby, it's never been published, but I have done an analysis of the last five years of Super Rugby competitions (the format and number of teams changes every few years, so it's a shorter period) and in Super Rugby, the home team has won 61% of the matches they play.  If you break this down further into away matches against "national" teams compared to away matches internationally (ie: NZ side playing an SA/AUS side), then the figure is close to 80%, which is enormous.

You see the same thing, equally strikingly, when countries host international sports events like the FIFA Football World Cup or Olympic Games.  Medal hauls almost always increase at home.  There is a little more to this than simply competing at home, because the host nation almost always injects massive capital (human and financial) to improve sports performance, which is possible because countries know many years in advance that they are going to host.  So Olympic hosts perform better, but it may be due to increased spending to prepare athletes, in addition to the factors I'll discuss below.

Factors influencing home-ground advantage

This is a somewhat simplified summary of what we know, but generally, there are four factors influencing home ground advantage:
  1. Travel fatigue for visiting teams
  2. Familiarity with the city, the facilities, the playing arena
  3. Crowd factors, which can be further broken down into:
    1. How the crowd influence the players
    2. How the crowd influence the referee/officials
As mentioned, I'll tackle travel tomorrow, when I talk about Super Rugby, so let's look at the others, in reverse order.

The crowd influence on officials - a subconscious bias

Starting with the referees (a favorite of sports fans everywhere!), there is a real perception, true or not, that visiting teams are often ‘robbed’ by referee decisions. It turns out this is not a perception without some merit.  Studies have found, for example, that visiting teams in ice-hockey and basketball concede more penalties and have more players sent off for foul play than the home team.

It's also been found that the discrepancy in penalties awarded to visiting and home teams increases as the crowd increases in size.  And that when two London teams play football against each other, thus reducing the "unevenness" of crowd support, the discrepancy is reduced, suggesting that this may be the influence of the crowd on the referee. Even the most neutral and professional referee, with no intention of cheating can be swayed by the cheers or boos of a crowd.

For example, one study had football referees make judgments based on video footage of obvious foul play, but some refs watched without sound, while others watched with full sound, including crowd reactions to fouls. It turns out that with the sound, the referee is more likely to be swayed towards what the crowd is calling for - fewer free-kicks to away teams, more to home teams, no foul when the home team is guilty.  This is summarized in the figure below. And this is just on a TV screen, away from the cauldron of pressure of real-time action, where the crowd may have even more influence.

Further supporting this idea is that in the Olympic Games, the host country often wins significantly more medals, but most of them come in the subjectively scored events (ice-skating, gymnastics etc).  Given the football referee study, it's not difficult to see how a rapturous cheering crowd might be worth half a point here and there to a judge, despite their best efforts to block out crowd factors!

I must point out that there is other possible reasons why visiting teams are penalized more. One is that the "hostile environment" of the away arena produces a “victim” or “us against the world” attitude that sees visiting teams play more aggressively than they would otherwise.  This has in fact been documented for visiting teams, and, on occasion, for home teams, depending on the context of the match and the crowd behavior.

Also, the home team is often more aggressive and dominates play (defending their territory, perhaps), forcing the opposition to concede penalties as a result of applied pressure.  One analysis of decisions in the NHL found no difference in mistakes between home and away teams, suggesting that the penalty discrepancy may be justified (I am not quite sure how to reconcile that with the football study above, where the refs were making different judgments of fouls simply because of sound...)

Crowd influence on players - motivation, desire and anxiety

Harder to measure, but possibly as significant, is the effect of crowd support on player motivation and effort.  Certainly, sport is filled with testimonies of players who find "something extra", who raise their level because they're at home.  I guess one needs to be careful about taking a collection of testimonies and saying they are evidence (the plural of anecdote is not evidence!), especially because linking these factors to performance is very difficult.

But there's no question that "psychology" (an incredibly broad term) plays a role in sports performance.  But the sword may cut both ways when it comes to home-ground advantage.  A visiting team, with the odds against them, may well perform better than at home because of the desire to silence the crowd, and because of the added prestige of beating a team in their own country - I've experienced this with the SA Sevens side.

On the other hand, the effect of the crowd and the momentum they may give to players (who, for all the talk of "zoning the crowd out" must surely be aware of it) may be decisive - I have also experienced this with the Sevens team.  If you were to define a set of psychological requirements for success, you'd almost certainly put "confidence", "self-belief" and "high level of motivation" on the list, and in theory, that's what being at home brings.

To throw a curveball at that oversimplification of the theory, there was a fascinating opportunistic study a few years ago when a college basketball team had to play 11 of their matches behind closed doors because of a measles outbreak that forced the school to be quarantined.  It turned out that the team played better WITHOUT fans!  Their stats were up - more points, more free-throws and better shooting percentages.  Of course, 11 matches is a small sample when you consider how many factors might influence each performance outcome, but it does suggest that perhaps, fans influence players negatively, through increased anxiety.  Maybe the other team is just more anxious, and plays relatively worse!

Familiarity - 'no place like home'

The fourth and final factor, which is linked to the psychological factors I mentioned above, is familiarity with the playing venue, the weather, the training facilities, and also the people who the player encounters in the week leading up to matches.  There's some evidence for this too.

For example, in 37 sports teams who moved to a new stadium, home ground advantage fell by 25% in the first season at a new home (this is a small sample set, it must be noted, given the complexity of sports performance). The advantage still exists, but they are thus less likely to win at home than before.  Over time, this advantage returns.

Two things are in play here. First, they are no longer as familiar with their own stadium, and as trivial as it may sound, I believe this is a crucial aspect to performance, because it influences routine, focus, relaxation, confidence, and expectation prior to matches.  There may even be a more "primal" factor, in that the home team is protecting its territory, a theory that coaches play up all the time - the "our house" speech you may have heard a variant of!  New stadium, less territorial, less advantage?  Perhaps.

The second factor is that the visiting teams no longer have a potential psychological hurdle of entering the “fortress” that may have existed before.  This introduces the other side of the debate - the mindset of the visiting team.  In South Africa, we have a couple of rugby venues that are hostile to visiting teams, and knowing a few players, they don't particularly enjoy going there!  The media tend to hype up the fortress idea, and while players should in theory be able to resist this kind of intimidation, there's no question that mindset may be changed by the awareness of an away team.

In my experience, I actually feel that sometimes it is played up too much within teams.  Coaches and players always tell the media that it's still a game between two teams, a ball and four white lines, but they often create confusing internal messages, trying to downplay the mental aspect while simultaneously trying to inspire players to "be ready for the onslaught from the home team".  If any of this impacts the player, then home-ground advantage may have an effect through negative influences on the visitors.

Then there are also very specific factors - the Lehrer article talks about Boston's old basketball court with its uneven parquet floor and dead-spots, which visiting teams did not know about.  Weather conditions can influence this significantly (wind and rain adapted teams will thrive in their own conditions), as can pitch conditions (cricket is a big one for this).

In my experience, familiarity is a really crucial factor, perhaps the main one (though this is just my opinion born of my experiences with the Sevens side).  I believe it reduces anxiety significantly, and even allows players to find visual cues in the stadium that may help their performance.  Much of this happens away from the venue - it's in the hotels, the people, the food, the TV stations in hotels, the sights and sounds.  Just having family and friends around in the build-up is significant, provided it doesn't cause over-arousal.  The key is whether the familiar experience is a positive one or not.  Positive experiences are easy to reinforce, and so a player will be more optimistic, more confident when playing at home.

Experience counts - reducing home ground advantage?

This is why experience is such a vital factor for success in tournaments away from home.  Later this year, the Rugby World Cup takes place in New Zealand, which has historically been an incredible place to win.  There are a number of reasons for this - New Zealand has historically been the world's best team, so really, they'd be difficult to beat anywhere.  But the weather and travel distances don't help, and nor does the psychological block that teams take with them when they go there.  Positive experiences erode these factors, and so teams who want to succeed, will, I believe, have to rely heavily on players who have been there, won there, and know the stadiums, hotels and people.

Whether or not any of the above factors translate to better performance, I don't know, but I guess the bottom line is that playing at home CAN bring what sports psychologists recognize as crucial to optimal mental performance.

But then again, it's still four white lines, a ball and the same set of rules!


The factor I've left out is travel, and that's because it's worth a post of its own, especially given the Super 15 motives behind this post.

That comes tomorrow, so join us then.  Also, don't forget to get on Facebook and Twitter if you're on them - I try to use them as a supplement to the site, posting some thoughts, opinions and links to articles of interest.


Home-ground advantage: Super Rugby, travel and altitude

Home-ground advantage: The Super Rugby illustrations of travel and altitude

Yesterday, I did a post describing home-ground advantage in various sports, and looked at three of the four factors that may influence performance at home or on the road.  The plan was to tackle the effects of  travel on home ground advantage in part 2, using some data from the Super Rugby tournament.  But, once I began writing this post on the Super Rugby tournament, it was clearly a subject all of its own.

So rather than try to squeeze too much into one article, I thought it would be best to have a Part 3, where I will look at the impact of travel on physiology.  Of course, in Super Rugby, there is an additional factor affecting home-ground advantage, and that is the altitude (three teams - The Bulls, Lions and Cheetahs all play at 1,400m or higher).  But that too will feature in Part 3.

But for today, Part 2, I take a look at home-ground advantage in Super Rugby.

Home ground advantage in Super Rugby - travel and altitude effects?

I mentioned yesterday that the home-team has won 61% of the matches in the Super 14 competition, dating back 5 years.  It's possible to go further back, but the format has changed every few years, so we'll stick to that duration for now.  I analyzed every single result in the tournament and tried to tease out the value of home-ground advantage per team.  Of course, this is historical data - it would be wrong to apply it to 2011 teams in isolation, but it's interesting nevertheless. 

There are a three approaches to this problem.  The first is to take home performances at face value, asking how likely the home team is to win the match. This is certainly the most intuitive and practical approach - it's easy for commentators and analysts to look at the record books and say that "Team X has only lost once at home in 5 years", assuming that their home ground advantage is responsible.  This doesn't take into account the relative strength of a team, it merely looks at whether they tend to win at home or not.  

The second method is to start looking at RELATIVE chances of winning home vs away.  It uses win-loss ratios, and asks which team has a relatively better chance of winning away than others?  

The third approach is to look at more than winning and losing by considering also the points scored.  By factoring in points differences at home compared to away over a prolonged period, you get an idea of what being at home is worth, both to the results and the points scored and conceded.

Let's look at all three.

Method 1: At face value, who has the best home record?

First, the win percentages home and away for each team, grouped by country:

So, overall, the home team wins 61% of matches.  But some teams are clearly better - the Crusaders and Bulls, who have the best overall records (winning 73% and 65% of their matches), have won more often than they lose, both home and away.  Their home records are outstanding - the Crusaders win 9 out of 10 home matches, the Bulls 8 out of 10.  In contrast, the Lions and Cheetahs have won fewer matches at home than most teams have won away from home!  

Taken at face value then, the team most likely to be beaten at home is the Lions - they only win one in three matches at home, and so any team traveling to Johannesburg to play them is unlikely to hold much fear about the away match!  

In contrast, if you are heading to Canterbury to play the Crusaders, history suggests that you would not fancy the chances of an away win, because they win 9 out of 10 matches at home.  What is important to realize is that their home ground advantage is a function of both the strength of their team and their playing at home.  Both together make winning in Canterbury much more unlikely than winning in Johannesburg (Lions) or Bloemfontein (Cheetahs).

Method 2: The relative effect - odds of winning away RELATIVE to at home

But that doesn't mean that being at home does not give teams like the Lions some advantage, and this advantage may even be larger than for the teams that win!  The easiest way to understand this is to realize that if you are playing the Lions, it doesn't matter much where you play them, you're likely to win (they win less than a third of their matches, regardless of venue).  It just happens that they are more likely to be beaten away from home.  So the question should be relative (who is MORE likely to win away matches?),  rather than absolute.

So the key is the odds.  To illustrate this, imagine that home ground advantage did NOT exist - it was worth nothing to a team.  Teams would win 50% at home and 50% away.  Therefore, the ratio of away to home wins would be equal to one - you have an equal chance of winning, regardless of where you play.  If home ground advantage was enormous (imagine infinite), then the home team would always win (making this 100%) and the away team would never win (0%) and so the odds of winning away would be zero.  I have calculated an "odds away" ratio, shown in the far right column, which tells what the probability of winning AWAY is relative to winning at HOME.

In other words, the closer the odds away value in that column is to 1, the better the chances of winning away from home, and hence the smaller the home ground advantage for that team (put differently, it means the team "travels well", which is to say, their performance on the road is not much different to when at home).  

So, the teams with the best away records relative to home will have a higher "odds away" ratio, suggesting the smallest home ground advantage.  They have been the Force (who are almost equal, home and away), the Stormers, the Reds and the Waratahs.  To give a verbal illustration, the Stormers have an odds away ratio of 0.76.  This means that if the chances of winning at home are 100% (which is never true, but work with me!), then the chance of winning away is 76%.  This is much higher than the Cheetahs, who would have a 35% chance away from home.  If the chance of winning is 50% at home, then it's 38% and 18%, respectively.

So it's interesting that two South African teams, the Lions and Cheetahs, who play at altitude, enjoy a pretty substantial relative advantage at home.  Or, if you want to reword this, they are relatively much worse away than at home, possibly aided by the challenge of coming to altitude!  The Bulls, the other altitude based team in the competition, have a smaller advantage - they win 79% home and 52% away, giving them away odds of 65.4% relative to home.  It's higher, but certainly not the highest in the tournament.  They are a good traveling side - one of the few to win more often away than at home, and perhaps their greater ability away masks any altitude effect.

The New Zealand teams, interestingly, travel well (all have high ratios of away:home win percentages) and so to them, being on the road matters less than to the other two nations' teams.  Quite why the Force have such similar overall win percentages home and away is interesting.  It may be that a new team, they haven't yet established their "home territory", which makes their performances at home relatively weak.  In time, that home win percentage may climb and they'll come to resemble other Australian teams.

Let's look at points difference to consolidate this further.

Method 3, Points differences:  How much is playing at home worth?

The next approach is to look at how teams score points home and away.  The graph below is a summary of five years worth of Super Rugby matches, for each team, looking at their average scores both at home and away from home.

Here, green means a positive record (winning matches), red means losing matches.  Only three teams have had overall winning scores away from home, with two having tie-records.  Four teams have overall losing scores at home.  

Once again, the key is home relative to away.  Take a team like the Crusaders - they average a 31-14 win at home, and a 23 - 20 win away from home.  Best team, historically, in the competition.  This means that their home victory margin is 14 points better, on average, than their away margin, which is the size of the home ground advantage to them, in points.  In contrast, look at the Stormers of Cape Town.  They average a 4-point win at home, and a 1 point loss away, which means that home advantage is worth 5 points.  And finally, consider the Lions, the tournament's historically worst team.  They lose by 21 points when away from home, but by "only" 7 points at home.  This makes them the weakest home team in the tournament, in absolute terms, but relatively speaking, their home advantage is thus 14 points, similar to the Crusaders. I've shown the size of the home advantage for all teams in blue on the right.

There are problems with this approach, of course - teams don't play to score maximum points, they play to win and so a 21 point defeat and a 5 point defeat are not necessarily comparable as this method does.  Also, it needs many more years worth of data to become statistically meaningful because strength of teams changes and so to do seasonal variations in performance.

But, overall, it throws up some interesting observations.  As we saw for the odds-method above, the Lions and Cheetahs have very good home records, relative to away.  But they are still the weakest away teams in the tournament.  The Stormers, on the other hand, are not as good at home - their advantage is 5 points, and as we saw above, their odds of winning away are 76% of the odds of winning at home.  Overall, they enjoy a relatively smaller home ground advantage.

Interpretation of Super Rugby - large home ground advantage?

Yesterday, I received an email from a bookie who said that his stats (bookies have great stats on this because they use odds to calculate bets all the time) showed that in Northern Hemisphere rugby, home ground advantage was worth 3 points.  Taken together, the Super 15 data above have an average home ground advantage of just under 10 points.

So home ground advantage, at least in this admittedly small sample (blame the ever-changing competition format and my lack of time!), is greater for Super Rugby than for the equivalent northern hemisphere tournament.  This does not surprise me, and I believe it exists for two reasons:  Travel across time-zones and altitude at some venues.

Super rugby - a uniquely demanding competition

For these two factors, I think that Super Rugby is unique.  Consider the travel:  I am not aware of another competition where teams have to travel across so many time-zones so frequently with such short turnaround times (if you know one, let me know)  In US-sports, teams will occasionally travel across North America, a five hour flight across four time-zones, but this pales into insignificance when compared to multiple half-day flights across up to ten time zones faced by Super 14 teams. Perhaps the only comparison comes from Sevens rugby, where teams fly around the world three times in a five month period.  Tournaments like the World Cup or Olympic Games may of course involve big travel, but they last 4 weeks, and require no long-haul flights.

If you’re counting, it turns out that the cumulative change in time zones in Super Rugby is 38 time-zones for South African teams (with 4 to 5 consecutive weeks spent away from home), compared to 20 time-zones and 2 to 3 consecutive weeks away for New Zealand and Australian teams.

The greater time away from home is may be a factor – evidence exists that teams fare worse at the end of a long “road-trip” than at the beginning, but the issue of adapting to a new time-zone may be equally crucial for performance in the first week in particular.

I'm busy doing an analysis on this right now - it's hampered by the small size of the sample, but hopefully it will make for some interesting findings, which I'll try to discuss in Part 3 if the data look anything but chaotic!  One stat that I can't ignore is that in 11 years, and over 32 matches, not once has the away team been able to beat the home team outside of its own country in a playoff match.  It suggests a powerful effect of travel, because even though the odds should be stacked in favour of the home team, zero from 32 is a huge historical barrier to have to overcome.

Altitude effects - an advantage for some in SA

Then there is altitude.  Here again, the Super Rugby tournament is unique.  I don't know of another tournament where teams can play a match at sea-level, followed one week later by a match at altitude, then sea-level and then altitude.  That frequency of changes is unique - teams in US-sports play in Denver, a similar altitude to Johannesburg, but it's once off. Teams in Europe rarely travel to altitudes higher than 700m (Madrid, for example).

The altitude alone could create a significant home-ground advantage.  It is interesting to note that the Lions and Cheetahs are so much stronger at home than away.  That could be that they are terrible traveling teams, of course, but part of it may be that they benefit from the effect their altitude has on opposition teams.  

For more on the altitude, I will rather refer to the following three posts I did last year in connection with the Football World Cup held in South Africa:
  1. The impact of altitude: What to expect from altitude and team sports
  2. Performance implications of sport at altitude
  3. Timing of goal-scoring, fatigue and altitude

Taken together, the combination of travel and altitude is a huge challenge for a Super 14 team.  Earlier this season, the Highlanders, a team from New Zealand, undertook the 10 hour time-zone change to fly to South Africa, landing in Johannesburg. They then played the Lions, at an altitude of approximately 1,600m, and then fly to Cape Town, and then back to New Zealand. In and out within two weeks, but with the dual challenges of altitude and travel.

More on travel

The travel issue is especially interesting.  Tomorrow I'll do a short post on travel and the role it may have on Super Rugby home-ground advantage.  It may be impossible to get anything out of the analysis I'm trying to do, because it may take decades and hundreds of matches, but we'll see!  So join us then!


Thursday, June 23, 2011

10,000 hours, doping, sports science in the media and your suggestions please

10,000 hours, doping, media and a call for suggestions

November is a long way off still (we could see a Tour de France winner, a CAS hearing to change the winner, potentially two world marathon records and an IAAF world champs before then), but I'm building up with interest towards the next conference of the year (for me, anyway).  It happens in London, from the 23rd to the 26th November, and is the UKSEM Conference.  The previous one, ACSM, was a little disappointing, I'm certain this won't be because a) it's smaller and b) it has a pretty innovative set of themes and speakers lined up.

All talks coming to the Science of Sport

I've been invited to give a presentation and three workshops (so effectively, four talks) and all should, I hope, be good topics of debate.  As mentioned before, the plan is to get my talks onto the site in the form of video posts, where I talk you through the subjects - I know that I said this would happen for ACSM, and it will, don't worry.  I just need to figure out how to do it best, and keep the quality of the videos high but make them a little more "palatable" in terms of size and length.

Once that's figured out, I'm going to start doing regular videos, starting with the talk on pacing strategy from the Denver conference.  Of course, with Wimbledon underway and the Tour on the way, now may not be the best time, but it hasn't been forgotten! I also give presentations to teams and the public as part of my work with the Sports Science Institute, and I'll get those out as well.

The UKSEM programme

But back to UKSEM.  Partly to get it out there, set the ball rolling in terms of my thoughts on the four topics I'm going to be speaking on in London, and also to help promote the event, I thought I'd go through the programme now.

You can see the provisional programme here.  It's still being filled up (the workshops aren't included yet, for example) but the main speakers are already down.  Of particular interest to me are talks by Charles van Commenee, head of UK athletics, on managing expectations.  Daniel Lieberman (of barefoot running fame) will be there, as will elite coaches from Australia and Liverpool.

Of special interest to me is a talk by Daniel Coyle on the Talent Code.  He wrote the book Talent Code, of course, and as you'll see shortly, is one talk that I'm really looking forward to, because I have something of a contrary view!  Mathew Syed is also speaking, author of Bounce, and so the conference has a strong theme backing up the whole 10,000 hours of deliberate practice concept, that champions are made rather than born.

Workshop 1: 10,000 hours - the talent vs training debate

And that brings me to my first topic.  It will be a workshop, which I have tentatively titled "Champions are born AND THEN made: Why 10,000 hours is unnecessary and insufficient".

Bottom line, I don't believe the extreme view put forward in those books.  Don't get me wrong, I think the books are excellent, great reads and extremely thought-provoking.  

I just don't agree with them, mostly because they adopt such an extreme view.  The idea that it's ALL training or ALL talent is neither supported by the literature nor likely to be correct.  There are obvious oversights, and some subtle ones, none of which have been pointed out by the "other side".

Yet this debate exists, and if you haven't read one of the books - Outliers by Gladwell, Talent Code by Coyle, or Bounce by Syed - then I'd highly recommend them.  Only because it will bring you up to speed with the growing perception that genes and innate ability DON'T matter, that performance is purely constrained by training.  

The "father" of the whole deliberate practice theory is Anders Ericsson, and he wrote the following: "distinctive characteristics of exceptional performers are the result of adaptations to extended and intense practice activities that selectively activate dormant genes that are contained within all healthy individuals’ DNA" (Ericsson, 2009, NYAS)

The key is "all" - in other words, his theory (supported in the books) is that any person can achieve success and exceptional performance through training enough.  We all have the capacity to become Federer, Nadal, or even Bolt, provided we're exposed to the right environment and do the hours of practice/training.  And before you dismiss that (as I believe you should), Ericsson himself has argued this, that physiology is so plastic that anyone can become anything, provided they train enough.  The argument, to sum up, is that practice is SUFFICIENT for exceptional performance.  I disagree.

The now famous (thanks mostly to Outliers) violin experiment by Ericsson is the cornerstone of this theory, since it found that violin performance was strongly linked to practice time, and that it takes about 10,000 hours to achieve expert levels.  That number has been ludicrously applied in elite sport.  

One implication of this theory, of course, is that "talent identification" should be done away with.  That is, if it were true that all it takes to reach elite levels is 10,000 hours of training, then we can discard Talent ID completely, because the only thing you need to identify is motivation and the circumstances and desire to accumulate that training.  Federations have taken this to heart, and again, I believe it's a mistake, as a result of incomplete presentation of the data (particularly by Gladwell)

So there is a "but" in this whole debate (there is always a "but" or "however" in science), because what you're hearing doesn't tell the full story.  And I'm not going to give the game away now - I'm not making claims here, there is plenty of evidence that contradicts and challenges the 10,000 hour concept, and the idea that practice is sufficient.  

But I will say that when I speak at UKSEM, I plan to present the other side of the story.  The side that says that innate ability is equally crucial, that 10,000 hours of training is sometimes not enough.  It does NOT say that practice is unimportant, but it does question whether it is sufficient or necessary.  I'll present data that shows that some people succeed with far, far less than this, and that others fail to succeed with it.  

It should be a great discussion, so that's the one I look forward to.  And as mentioned, I'll roll it out right here in due course!

Workshop 2: Performance and doping detection

The second workshop topic will be whether performance can be indicative of doping.  That's relevant right now, with the Tour de France coming up.  But it's based on a series of posts I did last year, where I discussed how I believed that a power output greater than 6.2 W/kg for a prolonged period at the end of a Tour stage was not possible unless there was some "supra-physiological" factor (and this is a euphemism for doping, yes!).

The rationale here is a performance has physiological implications - it implies certain things about the system, the heart, lungs, muscles.  And those are measurable and definable.  And so when you see extra-ordinarily high numbers, they flag the physiology, because there are (currently, anyway) limits.  So given what we know, about how long the climbs are, how efficient cyclists are, how large their oxygen carrying capacity and their ability to sustain a given percentage of max, we can estimate the performances that should be possible.  In addition, if you have historical data, then you can better interpret the physiological predictions and measurements of performance.

I don't want to rehash all that now - you can check the two links above for those articles - but the second workshop in London will be on this subject.

Workshop 3 - Sports science in the media

This site started, to simplify, because Jonathan and I both felt that we had an opinion that we wanted to share, and we wanted to reach a wider audience than was perhaps possible through the normal scientific channel of peer-reviewed journals.  And we wanted to comment on news, rapidly, responding to stories and providing extra insights into what we were watching and enjoying.

The impact of sports science on the media, and vice-versa, is thus something we're both passionate about, and it's the reason for existence of the website.  And so the third workshop will be a session on "Sports Science in the media".  There are a number of ways to tackle this, and I need to still give it some thought, but some of the more recent case studies, like the way that Pistorius was covered by the media despite the science, as well as the Caster Semenya story, will be central.  Perhaps doping.  I'm trying to convince a credible sports journalist to weigh in.

In addition, there's a big aspect of social media that needs to be addressed.  Scientists will (and should) always prioritize peer-reviewed journals as the primary means of communicating scientific findings and theories.  However, we in exercise science are in the privileged position of studying something that touches and inspires and interests so many people.  And so I'm firmly of the belief that being an effective sports scientist, an "opinion-leader" in sport, requires that we access these channels and speak to more people, at a range of levels.  And so that will come up too.

Presentation:  Sports science in 2011

Then finally, I give a presentation on the first morning, which has been called "Sports science in 2011".  I guess this is mostly inspired by the "Year-in-Review" series that we've done on this site in each of the last three years.

For obvious reasons, I have to wait until November before I can commit to topics. At this stage, the big sports science stories of 2010 are doping related - the CAS decisions to uphold the bans based on the biological passport are big stories, and they have a great scientific link with the science of the passport.  The 2:03 marathon performances of Boston are a hot topic, because they bring us to the age-old debate of the sub-2 hour marathon.

I'm sure that Usain Bolt and Tyson Gay might throw up a topic later this year, and even Pistorius, with the help of the carbon-fibre blades that one expert has said give him a 10-second advantage over 400m, might come up.

Your suggestions please

But as I said, the 2011 story has yet to be written.  And here's an idea - I want YOU to tell me what the big sports science stories are.  Starting right now, and with reminders every month until November, I would love to hear your suggestions for what I should cover. 

It can be interesting cases, fascinating research papers you've read, controversial questions, anything that you think jumps out as a hot topic in sports science.  Obviously, I have my interests and will end up covering what fascinates me most, but I would love to include as many ideas as possible!

So use this post, and others in the future, to share your top sports science in 2011!

Looking ahead, shorter term

So that's a look ahead to November, and a promotion of UKSEM, and a start to my planning for the conference!

Pulling back slightly, let's look at the next few weeks.  Wimbledon, plus the Tour de France take centerstage, and then after that, I'll look at the video posts on pacing strategy, and a few other topics I've recently given talks on.

So join us over the next few weeks, it should be a fascinating period!


Thursday, June 16, 2011

30km World Record: Does it bring the 2:02 Marathon any nearer?

Does 1:26:47 for 30 km = 2:02 over 42 km?

Given the slew of comments and discussion on the whole barefoot running issue, we thought we would move to another controversial (and recurring) topic:  The 2:02 marathon.   If you missed the debate on barefoot running, we really encourage you to read the post and the comments, because dare we say that together they represent some of the best discussion on the topic anywhere.

But as we try to leave that topic behind (for now - Prof Daniel Lieberman has just been confirmed as a speaker at the UKSEM conference in November, along with Ross, so more to come.  Also, more on this conference soon!), let's move on to marathon running once again, and specifically Moses Mosop's world records at 30 km and 25 km at the Prefontaine meet in Oregon on 3 June.

The what record?

Yes, you could be forgiven for taking a second look at that, because the both 25 km and 30 km are hardly ever contested, falling outside the "traditional" 5, 10, 21.1, and 42.2 km distances.  But there is even a record for 50 km, incidentally set by Thompson Magawana en route to a Two Oceans 56 km marathon course record in 1988.  These more obscure distances are on occasions contested, and this was the case a few weeks ago in Oregon at the Pre meet.  It was a special event on the Friday night, and the last time we can recall one of these obscure records being challenged was back in January 2009 when Josh Cox tried to break the 50 km record by continuing past the finish line of the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon in Phoenix that year (he fell eight seconds short, by the way!)

Mosop debuted at Boston this year and lost to Mutai by only four seconds---2:03:06 compared to Mutai's 2:03:02.  So he burst on the scene with the fastest debut, and with a time almost a minute faster than the world record in a race that garnered heaps of controversy as the Boston course is not certified due to the point to point nature and elevation drop.  Our readers will recall plenty of discussion about that back in April, and you can check that here if you missed it - in the end, it was the wind that drove the times as fast as they were, not the course profile, but the times won't stand because of the profile.  For his efforts there he will be partly remembered but probably mostly forgotten, because who among you can recall the 2nd place finisher (and pacer) in Berlin 2003 when Paul Tergat ran 2:04:55 and won by only one second?

The marathon debutante:  Full of potential but bound to bust

What he demonstrated at Boston was that, at least for the moment, he must be taken seriously as a candidate to break Geb's current marathon record of 2:03:59.  Fast debuts are a funny thing, because immediately people peg the runner as a serious contender going forward, but they often fail to replicate their amazing first-time performance.  Until 3 June Mosop was in that category, but after his 30 km record, which was pretty much a solo attempt, he ups the ante and has shown that he has good form and potential.  Thirty km is not 42.2 km, however, and he still must prove himself in a Big City marathon this Fall or next Spring if he is to maintain his status as a potential record breaker.  But let's take a look at his 30 km record run and peer into The Science of Sport crystal ball for now!

The ever-important negative split

Below you will see a graph of Mosop's 15 km splits in the attempt, and the most notable aspect is that it was a huge negative split.  He hit 15 km in 43:54 and then went 61 s faster for the second half.  We have written about it plenty here, most recently about the 800 m distance.  That race is unique, but in longer races an even or negative split is optimal.  That is based on an analysis Ross did as part of his PhD that looked at the pacing strategies over various track distances, and found that the fastest performances over events 1500m or longer are almost always run at even paced with an "end spurt" in the final kilometer.  

In fact, out of 67 world records over 5,000 and 10,000m, only ONCE has the fastest kilometer of the race NOT been either the first or final kilometer - it is remarkably uniform that at the top level, at the limits of performance, you start quickly, settle down, then speed up at the end.  The result is an overall even pace and a U-shaped curve.  The granularity of the one km splits is farther down, but here we see his 15 km split:

To provide a comparison, Geb ran a near even split from 21 km to 42 km in his record in Berlin - he passed the 21 km mark in 1:01:48 and then hit 42 km in 2:03:27.  So a one minute negative split even over 30 km is quite a big one, and suggests that Mosop possibly could go a bit faster by adopting a more even pacing strategy.

Is 2:02 possible?  You decide!

What we did next was look at his km splits as recorded by his coach Renato Canova and posted in the LetsRun.com forum.  We then drew some lines on the graph to show the pace for the current marathon record (2:03:59, black), 2:03 pace (blue), and 2:02 pace (green), to show you where he was relative to those speeds during is 30 km attempt.  

It's pretty striking, actually, and at the very least shows Mosop's form right now.  But we all know that form can be a precarious thing and very transient.  It would be amazing if Mosop can produce this kind of form in which ever Fall marathon he chooses (Moses, if you are reading, we hear Chicago is nice in October!), but we would not be at all surprised if he cannot reproduce this level of performance.

But if you check the graph here of his one km splits, it's telling.  Yes, we know that 30 km is not 42.2 km, but perhaps most telling is his huge surge around 18 km, where he put in two very fast splits of 2:45 for the 18th and 2:46 for the 19th km.  The telling part is that he did not appear to pay for that later because he maintained a faster pace from there until the end, when he clocked a 2:47 for his last km. 

Again, we understand fully that 30 km is not 42.2 km, but taken together with his performance in Boston back in April this record has meaning.  We can't say for sure if it translates into a 2:02:xx marathon time, but until Mosop's next race it places him firmly in the pool of contenders.  Given the wind in Boston we might call his and Mutai's performances there flukes or outliers, because remember nearly everyone ran faster than "normal" and many set personal best times.  And it is possible that Mosop's performance there gave him the confidence to run at these paces, but again he will need to prove himself at this next level in a Fall and/or Spring race.

So Mr. Mosop, we now look to you and Geoffrey Mutai as the two most likely candidates to break the world record, especially given the untimely death of Sammy Wanjiru.  For now, as fans all of can wait with anticipation for the Fall marathons.  It's a big ask---it always is, breaking a record, especially one with such small margins for error as the marathon record.  But he should take confidence in this performance on the back his Boston race.  Given the right conditions, course, and pacers, on paper now he has a chance at besting 2:03:59, although going sub-2:03 might be out of reach for now.

On the horizon

Meanwhile it is nearly Tour de France time, and we are excited to see what the race will bring.  Controversy is on the list of deliverables, but there is likely to be good racing, too, and you can expect our regular analysis and commentary in July.  And let's not forget that the IAAF World Championships are in August.  There is plenty to talk about with Caster Semenya and also the regular analysis of who is and who is not on target for their Olympic campaigns for London 2012!


Sunday, June 12, 2011

800m: Caster Semenya & Robby Andrews

800 m musings - Caster Semenya, Robby Andrews and contrasting pacing strategies

Thanks all for the huge response to the previous post on barefoot running.  I can think of only one other topic that has produced the kind of discussion we've seen in the last few days, and those were our posts on Caster Semenya, who I discuss a little more below.

Some of the comments and discussion on the barefoot running issue were extremely enlightening and if you're eager to learn even more, then going through that discussion is as enlightening as any article, so thanks again and do take time to browse the discussion if you haven't already - we'll outsource it as a post all by itself!

800m - Caster Semenya's performances under the spotlight

Today though, I wanted to discuss the 800m event, specifically to highlight two really great talking points in the last week or so, beginning with Caster Semenya.

Semenya was always going to be one of the most scrutinized athletes in the world, her return to competition after a gender controversy bringing human interest, athletic interest, and scientific interest angles.

Ours is all three, but primarily the scientific and athletic, and so we've been watching closely to see how she performs now that she's had a full off-season to prepare and build to competitive shape.  Her comeback was actually in 2010, and she even won a few races in Europe, but that season was hampered by sporadic training caused by injury and the doubts over whether she would be able to compete.  The same can't be said now - she's known since this time last year that she would be eligible to run.

So her 2011 performances were always going to be the subject of discussion.  This situation became inevitable when Semenya, her lawyers and the IAAF decided that no public announcement of what happened in the aftermath of Berlin would be made.  The result was that the whole world knew there was a question mark, but it was followed by speculation and assumption, rather than an answer, even a basic one.

Speculation no matter what the result - the catch-22 for Semenya

As a result, every race for Semenya would be followed by one of two responses.  Either she would win convincingly, and the world's athletics followers would say "She has an unfair advantage, they obviously didn't change anything, and now thanks to her lawyers, no other women can even compete".  Or, if she didn't win her races, the world would say "This proves that she must have had surgery or treatment".   A catch-22 for Semenya.

But now a third response has appeared - she doesn't win, and everyone says she is losing on purpose.  And that's been the case after her first two races - the came second in Eugene a week ago, and third in Oslo on Thursday, and the talk on athletics websites is that she is deliberately losing races so as to avoid attention and further discrimination. 

No matter how you look at it, it's an impossible situation to be in.  And from the observer point of view, it's similarly difficult.  It would be great to just leave it alone and let her run, but the way things unfolded, that is basically impossible, because people want to know that they are watching a fair race, a competitive event.

So the current speculation was inevitable and this was exactly the reason we argued many times that she (through her lawyers) needed to make some kind of statement to at least assure people that something had changed.  Not the full medical details, those are hers and should be confidential.  But something along the lines of "I have worked with the IAAF and a team of medical professionals over the last six months, and all parties are satisfied with the resolution and progress, and that I can now compete fairly as a female.  I look forward to running and and competing again".

The IAAF could have made a similar statement, supporting that their experts were confident that she no longer had an unfair advantage, and perhaps some of the speculation would have been dealt with.  It would not have removed doubt or controversy, but at least there wouldn't be a shadow hanging over every performance, doubt that she's cheating by running too SLOWLY when she could dominate the event.  And if you think this is an isolated opinion, it's not, I suspect many people are wondering "why is that athlete wearing red trying NOT to win?"

I don't know the answer to this - I would find it difficult to believe that any athlete would deliberately finish second when they could win by a small margin (in a relatively slow time of 1:58.xx too - it's not as though she'd be running 1:54 to win every race).  And to finish third when they could finish second?  I find it difficult to believe, so I'd almost want to give her the benefit of the doubt.  Also, I'm not sure she or her team is that calculating, but perhaps I'm naive.  She is currently 4 seconds off her best, around 3.5%, which is a big distance off your best.  But that could mean one of three things - training hasn't gone well, she's running slowly on purpose, or she had treatment and the 1:54 from 2009 is now never going to be possible.

Also, I've seen her race BEFORE the controversy, and she looked pretty much the same as she does now, even when losing.  For example, in her World Junior Championships in Poland in 2008, she finished 7th in her heat, and looked much the same as she does now.  It may be that she just looks like that, that she never seems to be straining - short, chopped stride, no major upper body rotation - it would easily look like someone wasn't working hard enough.

But, then I see her race in Eugene and Oslo, and I can appreciate what people are saying - she led for 700m in Oslo and then in the final straight, just seemed to coast through to a third place finish.

But, you can see for yourselves if you haven't already.

First, here is the race in Oslo:

And here is the race in Poland, 2008.  As an aside, note the difference in her physical development from 2008 to when she won the World Title in 2009 in Berlin.  Truth is, if it hadn't been for controversies about gender, there'd have been a lot of people speculation about doping, such is the cynical age of elite sport we live in.

Your thoughts?  No matter what one believe, it's a difficult situation - the more I've written about this, and spoken about it, the more I've realized the problem of intersex conditions in sport is basically insoluble - there's no solution to satisfy everyone.  Of course, Semenya's case was handled so poorly and unfairly for her, and her response to it has been admirable.  But for the sport, the questions have to be asked.

Robby Andrews - great finish, interesting contrast in pacing

On a more racing-specific note, here is a fantastic men's 800m from the NCAA championships over the weekend.  It's fast, and competitive, one of the better finishes you'll see in an 800m race.  Watch the clip before reading on, spoilers to follow!

So the interesting thing for me is the pacing strategy - I'm biased, but I read quite a bit into it!  And the guy who ends up second, Charles Jock, runs a first 400m in 49.85s.  Super quick, and followed by a second lap in 54.90s.

Now that's a huge positive split - 5 seconds, which I don't believe is optimal.  Robby Andrews, who catches him, runs the first lap in a low 51s, which means his second lap is around 53.5 seconds.  That's a far more reasonable balance to the race, much more in line with how the best 800m performances have been recorded.

But the point I'd make is that Robby Andrews' super quick finish (which is amazing, don't get me wrong) only appears that fast because the rest of the field was far too fast early on.  To give you more numbers, Jock was recorded at 1:17.1 at 600m.  That means after a first lap of 49.85s, his next 200m took 27.3s. And his final 200m took 29.65s - he was getting progressively slower.

So was Andrews, to be honest, and it's a safe bet that Andrews was a little quicker than 27s to the 600m mark.  But then Andrews finishes with a final 200m of about 26.5 seconds (assuming he's ± 1 second down on Jock at 600m), compared to Jock's final 200m of around 27.65 seconds.

In other words, Andrews just slowed down the least, and that one second gap which looked so enormous at 200m to go, was overcome as a result of a better overall pacing strategy, combined with a huge slow down for the rest of the field.

Pacing strategy is not a precise science, at least with the knowledge we currently have.  But a + 5 second differential in an 800m suggests to me too fast a first lap, whereas the + 2 for Andrews is a much more controlled, and probably closer to optimal, performance.

But a great race, nevertheless.  Can Andrews go faster?  Probably.  Can Charles Jock?  Definitely, because he should have a big improvement there if he gets the pace right!

But more on pacing in the series coming up when I'll share the video of my presentation on the subject from the recent ACSM!

Enjoy the Diamond League!