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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!