The Right Amount of Science in Sports Science

All of the converging disciplines in sports science, and so many of them are technical and/or data-heavy, they make it easy to lean heavily on the science part of sports science. Science is a useful, effective model for doing things that haven’t been done before. Scientists make progress using the scientific method (hypothesis, experiment, results, review, repeat) and with hard work, they see regular improvement to their projects and, probably, to themselves. Improvement is essential to athletes but it might not be ideal to consider each and every developing athlete a science experiment, because that would imply that coaches, trainers, clinicians, nutritionists and everyone else involved with athlete performance are, at some level, scientists. Currently most of the people working on athlete performance do not see themselves that way. The work is task-specific and more functional than experimental but the situation is changing as new technologies and methods come into being, and as organizations put a premium on innovating. The English Institute of Sport recruits scientists to become coaches:

Recruiting the right people is a vital part of the challenge to ensure EIS S&C Coaches can best impact performance programmes across the breadth of sports it works with. “We are not only looking for individuals to have a strong scientific understanding, we are looking for those with a strong coaching bias” says Wolf, on what he’s looking for in prospective applicants to work at the EIS as part of his team.  -Mark Upton, EIS Coaching Science Manager,

As a process for ongoing improvement science works, but it can be tedious and slow. In recent years digital startups in the U.S. have adopted a school of thought called Lean Startup Methodology. This method stresses continuous dialogue with customers about rapidly developed prototypes (sometimes called “minimum viable products”) that get iterated, leading to more features, increased utility and greater complexity. The goal is to avoid the overhead that goes with a lengthy master plan to make something in favor of an agile, evidence-based process that “pivots” when problems or opportunities surface. Last week an article in Businessweek described how Lean Startup was being adopted by General Electric, an important practical test for how well (and how big) it can scale. I think it also possible to use Lean to organize a sports science and athlete performance operation that function at a high level and innovate opportunistically. Buying into science (or Lean) is not what really matters ultimately. What matters is the buying in. Pete Carroll has his Win Forever philosophy and the Seattle Seahawks have bought in. Buying in is what gets all of the sports science collaborators on the same page and functioning at 100%. For applied sports science to work, science plays a role like technology plays a role and like data analysis and insight play roles. But the engine for effective athlete performance is collaboration though, and culture plays a big role here.

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