When I enter the UK, often border officer asks me a question:
-What is your profession, sir?
-I am a sports scientist.
-Wow! So what are you doing?
Er…It is a good question.
Indeed, what sports scientists do?
There is a practical aspect of the training process, which is carried out by a variety of specialists. Obviously, these are sports coaches, as a rule, former athletes from this sport, but they are not the only ones. Today, many professionals, who may not have experience in the sport they currently work in, are helping athletes achieve their best. These are strength and conditioning coaches, physiotherapists, nutritionists, etc.
May we call them sports scientists?
Well, though their degree is often attributed to sports science, that, in my opinion, does not guarantee the ability to implement a comprehensive scientific approach to training.
They may be great specialists in their field but not scientists.
Practitioners sometimes lack scientific criticism and expertise. This may make them vulnerable to pseudoscience and weird ideas.
For example, once my student, 11 years old tennis player, started to go toilet every 10 min during our conditioning session. When I asked him what happened, he told me that his sports coach advised him to drink 4 litres of water a day. Coach read that in some “scientific” paper.
Another problem is that sometimes practitioner has very narrow expertise in a particular field and may miss a comprehensive picture.
When I worked in a professional football team during the pre-season, physio forced players to sit in cold water after training. He was a good guy, but really had no idea about all the disputes over recovery strategies (see article). Cold water immersion may give some limited benefits when you need to recover quickly between games during a competitive season. However, in my opinion, during pre-season training, this method probably impairs adaptation. Again, I am not insisting that I am absolutely right, although my opinion is based on quite extensive research. Still, at least, you have to learn something about treatment before advising it. This physio just heard that “everyone uses a cold bath”.
Practitioners, even in “scientific” areas, are not always scientists. Doctors are not scientists despite working in medicine, and programmers are not the same as computer scientists. Being a practical scientist means not only the ability to use the method effectively, but also an understanding of “why” and “when”. They should have at least a general idea of how the whole system works.
Another side of training art is theoretical.
This is covered by academia.
We expect that they dig deep into the science of training and give innovative but, at the same time, carefully weighed advice.
Well, I can say that you need to be very careful before taking academic advice on board. Whereas practitioners are often susceptible to pseudoscientific ideas, academia sometimes can be blamed for creating them.
“Black cat phenomenon.”
Often scientists devote themselves to some idea, which is basically incorrect. However, they are so passionately (and often sincerely) looking for “a non-existent black cat in a dark room”, that ultimately they can convince themselves and others that the black cat was found. This usually is achieved with the biased interpretations of facts, non-robust experiments, inappropriate statistics, etc. Or it is just a result of simple mistakes. Then the non-existent cat is getting wrap in nice scientific papers and is presented to the public as a discovery. Usually, the practical implementation of such discoveries is just a waste of time and money, but sometimes this may be harmful.
Just at a time when I am writing this blog post, a good example came from “The Economist.” It is not from the sports science but illustrates my point well.
There was a psychological study which had found that children from religious families are more greedy than secular kids.
This sensational result was published in many scientific and popular journals, including such respected as “The Economist”.
However, the study was wrong. It was a simple coding mistake. As I understand, while analysing data, authors mistakingly included country code ( e.g. US-1; Canada-2, etc.) as a value into calculations instead of treating them as non-value labels.
Even though the mistake was spotted relatively fast by another scientist, it took almost four years for the journal, which published the initial study to publish a retraction.
During these years, “discovery” was published more than 80 times!
Unfortunately, sometimes, the main goal of theoretical scientists is to publish a paper, and they really do not care about the quality of their work. They may be extremely incompetent and really far from reality.
Four years ago, I read the article of a group of Russian scientists, all of them PhD, who suggested a novel method— the definition of fatigue threshold based on a visual-discrimination task. In their experiment, the participant pedalled on a bicycle ergometer at 114% of VO2max for one hour. Well, anyone who is familiar with sports physiology should know that at VO2 max an athlete can withstand 5-10 minutes. So their definition of VO2 max was nonsense. Yes, authors were not physiologists, but they were writing the paper on physiological threshold. Should I trust these scientists? Well, probably not.
Sports science problem.
The specificity of sports science is that it is exploring the pretty uncertain, changeable, and multifactorial environment.
Predictions and theories of sports science are not easy to test in fully controlled experiments. The effects of the training studies are not always possible to attribute to particular causes. Laboratory findings are often not applicable in real-life situations.
All these and many other factors make sports science vulnerable to various biases.
Advice coming from academia is often impractical in the real sports environment. Results from studies are spoiled by “confirmation bias”, inappropriate statistics, and wrong assumptions.
Applied sports scientist: Bringing science into practice.
We are living at the time of informational flooding. The sports field is full of pseudoscientific ideas and “magic” training methods. In my opinion, there is a need for people who can navigate in these “stormy seas.”
These experts are practical or how they began to call themselves “applied” sports scientists.
Applied sports scientists should have scientific intuition based on wide knowledge, practical experience, and continuous education, which may help to filter nonsense from innovations.
They should be open to new ideas and methods coming from academia and practitioners; however, at the same time, to defend athletes from useless or even harmful rubbish.
Although not required, it is beneficial for a sports scientist to have coaching experience or sports background. That helps to get in touch with reality and test ideas.
Compared to academia, applied sports scientists perhaps should have a broader area of expertise.
They have to know “nothing but about everything.” I mean that applied sports scientists may not know everything in detail; however, he/she understands what specialists in different science fields are talking about and may evaluate suggested approaches and ideas. Moreover, because they know about everything, they can understand interactions between different factors and how this may influence the outcome of training and performance.
If needed, applied sports scientist can go deep and learn “everything about nothing”. This means the ability to make detailed research on a particular problem and to suggest a solution.
To drink or not to drink.
A good example of everyday life of applied sports scientists is the “beetroot juice problem”.
There is advice coming from academia about the benefits of drinking beetroot juice. This should enhance endurance. Sometimes studies report remarkable and, honestly, hard to believe improvements. However, beetroot juice is not a pretty pleasant drink, and some athletes don’t like it or even have gastric inconvenience after drinking it.
Martin Buchheit, the sports scientist from “Paris Sent German” football club, critically analysed evidence of benefits of drinking beetroot juice. In his opinion, although there may be some minor benefits, overall the usefulness of juice is overestimated. So he decided to leave it on the table, but not force the players to drink it if they do not like it.
This is a good example of an optimal solution for everyday life in high-level sport. Nothing extraordinary. That looks like an insignificant episode. However, imagine if a nutritionist insists that Neymar drinks beetroot juice, which the Brazilian possibly does not like. That can really annoy him and even distract his game! And this drink may actually be quite useless. I do not think the manager will be happy. One should take into account not only the possible advantages of a scientific idea but also the personal likes and dislikes of the athletes.
Applied sports scientist is a necessity in contemporary high-level sport.
Their tasks are:
1. Critically evaluate ideas coming from academia and practical coaching.
2. If the idea is worth to use, help “to shape” it: to make academical idea more practical and practical method more scientific.
3. Based on the understanding the whole picture, build training programmes and give recommendations that integrate as many influencing factors as possible.
4. Be innovative and try to find unordinary solutions. That should be based on science and common sense.
So what is my usual answer to the border officer?
“I advise people how to train better.”