The Role of Science in Performance◆ ☕️ 5 min read
Sport science is a multidisciplinary field concerned with the enhancement of sport performance. The intent is to use the scientific process to guide sport practices.
More often than not, the outcome in sports is impacted by a complex interaction between a list of factors. To identify those is a challenge but also a requirement to improve performance. Sport scientists try to study those underpinning physical demands and then try to spread this new understanding to the coaches that can apply it in the field.
The translation of this new knowledge is what often becomes the issue. Research takes time. The work is very focused, there is quality control and validation processes involved and the knowledge isn't often directly applicable. Practitioners work in a dynamic environment with the need to quickly make decisions and thus need direct application, which is rarely provided by the research. This results in the practitioners often relying on intuition in decision-making, as they don’t have the time to wait for a debate on a particular topic within the scientific community to finish.
This is further complicated by the relative youth of the sport science industry, which is still finding its place within the ecosystem of sport. As such, there is still a large focus on the “discovery” of how things work and not necessarily on the “synthesis” of how to apply those findings. There’s a lot of focus on tiny details and not enough on understanding the big picture. This takes away from the applicability of the research, which the practitioners desire.
In many ways, the coaches and scientists aren’t really speaking the same language yet. This gap needs to be bridged. The science community and coaching community need to merge in an interdisciplinary manner. The coaches need to become more scientific and the scientists need to becomes more practical.
As of currently, it’s still largely like a continuum. One extreme is dominated by practice-based evidence coaches with years of “in the trenches” experience which they base all their decisions on. But just because you’ve always done something a certain way doesn’t mean it’s the best way to do it. At the other extreme are the evidence-based practice scientists that only go by the book and what the research has proven. But just because the research has drawn a certain conclusion doesn’t mean this is the absolute truth. It doesn’t mean that if a method lacks concrete scientific backing yet that it might not have it in the future. It might be down to the current lack of research on the topic. It’s very rare that the research community comes out with something that hasn’t already been adopted by some early adopters in the field. As such, it’s a two-way street - the practitioners feed data to research, and the researchers provide evidence base to daily systems.
Sport science as a scientific field is still in a place in which we test rigid questions to cement our existing practices with scientific support. Unlike other fields with hundreds of years of history that test broader theories, sport science is still trying to prove the effectiveness of specific methodologies. This is not to say that it’s not necessary to “map” out what really works and what doesn’t, but rather that as long as we rely on reductionist approaches we won’t necessarily improve our understanding of the whole system.
Therefore even though much of what coaches currently deliver has been informed through sport science research, a lot is still unknown. It’s essential that coaches appreciate and respect the sport science community and understand what, when, and how to combine the science with experience to inform their decision-making processes. The key is the combination of evidence and practice. The high level of specificity within the research heightens the importance of context. It’s a rare case that a practitioner can apply sport science research in the shape it was conducted. Adaptations are often warranted. Ultimately, the coach needs to decide how do the findings play into their specific context and how do their existing experiences assist in this process.
This is not something to be taken lightly. Being “evidence-based” doesn’t mean reading the abstracts of research papers and adopting the ideas presented in their direct form. This process needs to include a form of literature review or better yet a collection of a random sample of sources and a conduction of independent probability statistics on the reported results. The source of the research needs to be critiqued along with the context from which the ideas have emerged. Who is the author? Who is the publisher? Did the research receive any funding? Is there any evidence of logical fallacies, cognitive distortions or just plain inaccuracies? We all have our own unique contexts and our own individual biases that affect the lens through which we view the world. Did you track the trail of references and look at those through a similarly critical lens? If the answer is no then you haven’t really done any real research. Too often our understanding of “research” implies reading something with little objectivity that aligns with our implicit biases that we then subconsciously emotionally attach to. This is not research. Practitioners need to understand what “doing research” really means.
Science has a prominent role in sport performance. It’s important to understand the context of the researchers and the context of the practitioners and the interactions between. We might have different lenses through which we interpret a problem and thus the way we solve it, but it is still essential that everything we do is based on the best-available evidence, which has been gathered through a rigorous process of making sense of the available research.