Smoke and Mirrors

The proliferation of sports science in field sports has had some very positive and some not-so-good effects.
Positively, things like the use of accelerometer and LPT (Linear Position Transducers) equipment in the gym to provide immediate feedback on power, velocity and acceleration and has allowed unprecedented accuracy in determining lifts that replicate the kinetics of the target activities, providing ever greater magnitudes of Dynamic Correspondence (Verkoshansky, Supertraining 1993).
On the not-so-good side of the equation, at times as coaches we can be “blinded by science”, and take the profiling of field sport a bit too literally.  This leads to the creation of contrived training environments that might address physical & skills qualities, but don’t actually stimulate the development of the athlete for what they have to do in competition.
…and exactly what is it that athletes have to do?
Rugby, soccer, AFL, hockey etc etc, are all sports bounded by unique rules that dictate a modicum of pattern, yet ultimately the games play themselves out in a randomized, unpredictable and unique manner.  No matter the level of patterns and structures involved…no two games are ever the same.
Preparing athletes for these environments is not simply a function of physiology and bio-mechanics (if it were it would be far easier).  Driving the body is a mind that is defined by its experiences…good, bad, hard, and easy.  The athlete’s ability to adapt to unique, rapidly evolving situations of undetermined duration is central to their ability to succeed.  
Don’t get me wrong…the correct physical capacities need to be in place, but so too does the correct mental status capable of surviving and ultimately dominating it’s environment.
What does the research tell us...
  • Pacing occurs during repeated sprint efforts in anticipation of the number of sprints included in the trial (Billet et. al. Med Sci Sp Ex 2011 43, 4)
  • Players alter game based strategy relative to an anticipated end-point (Gabbett et. al. Int J Sp Phy Perf 2014)
The ability of the athlete to “judge” the appearance of an opportunity and be able to physically take advantage is, in my opinion, learned as much as it is inherent.  It is a practiced art, to interpret the pace of a game and know when to exert yourself in order to press an advantage.  Ensuring your program reflects these tenants is as important as figuring out the futility of squatting 50%1RM fast in the hope that it will contribute to running speed (more on that later).
Kevin Giles was instrumental in developing the Brisbane Broncos (Australian Rugby League) training methods back in the '80’s.  He and legendary team coach (now British Rugby League Coach) Wayne Bennett conspired to design sessions that stretched the group beyond what was determined as “worst case scenario” situations.  In this case it was defending 4-5 series of six tackles in a multiple defensive sequences.  An almost poetic blend of conditioning, skill and psychology.
It’s certainly not brain surgery!  However, complex stimulation of physical, cognitive, and psychological components can be easily overlooked.  Why…paucity of time, complexity of planning, the challenging interpersonal relationships between key personal, and yes…excessive sport science!
Train the person not just the athlete.  The person drives the athlete. 
I highly recommend the implementation of mixed methods of training…sometimes explained, sometimes not, even in the weight room! 
Smoke & Mirrors…by definition a metaphor for a deceptive or insubstantial explanation.
Force adaptability.  Force thinking.  Force creativity to solve problems.  Force the organism to “empty the tank”. Show the athlete they can go further than they think, and despite the pain there is a high likelihood they won’t die! 
Coach well!


Ryan Gaias

Great advice for young coaches,
Cheers JW

Tim Gabbett

Another good post Old Bull!! Ironically, what you have described is really good “sport science”. When we train athletes, we aren’t training them to look good in the mirror. We are training their brains as much as their bodies. Muscles can’t think! Tim Noakes (who just happens to be a pretty good sport scientist) has shown us that.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published