Reflections about coaching, strength and conditioning and the emergence of cargo cult science in sport

I have been thinking long and hard about writing this blog. Mostly because time to put in words what I have been thinking about in the last few months has been lacking but also because I wanted to reflect about what I have been seeing in the last 12 months around the World and take stock.

For the readers, I am not having a go at any particular individual and/or association/group of people, I am just writing about my worries and they way I see things going.

Before getting into some details, it is important to understand where this reflection is coming from. It is coming from my personal career history, where I started and how my journey is going, and how things have changed during my journey.

When I started this career in 1993, right after graduating with my first degree in Sports Science, I was mostly a coach with an interest in the scientific applications of strength and conditioning. I was fortunate enough to have met Professor Bruno Cacchi who was the Head Coach of Italian Athletics which setup the first laboratory to study strength training in Italy in the then ISEF of Rome. What I learnt in the 4-5 years I was in that lab was to develop an inquisitive approach to training. Prof Cacchi was the most famous Italian track and field coach at the time and I remember him telling me that he organised the lab so he could learn more about what he was doing as he had many questions about the activities he did with his athletes on track. So he wanted to measure as much as he could and simulate sessions he was doing to separate the wheat form the chaff. Equipment was very limited at the time, computers were running MsDos and Windows 3.1. Very few laptops were available and the state of the art for our testing activities was the biorobot (the early version of Muscle Lab) and photocells mounted everywhere (with very basic software). My coaching was mostly on the track and on handball courts and I was starting to provide strength and conditioning support to various sports. What Prof Cacchi always told me was: “if we want to understand what we do as coaches we have to have a training programme, we have to know what the athlete completes and we have to assess how they progress“. This lesson still drives me today but somewhat it seems lost.
This was taken in 1998 in Sportilia in a training camp with the Italian Handball NT

Despite the enormous advancements of sports science and the subsequent professionalisation of sports science specialists, things do not seem to get much better. I still see enormous improvisation in the coaching community, with far too many people not having a programme and a structured approach to assessing what works and what does not work. There is still a lot of improvisation in too many places. Coaches turn up and do something, completely unstructured, with not much clarity and knowledge over the implications of their sessions and unclear ideas about progressions. In many cases, I see coaches picking “sessions” in random order and with limited control over loading. This is why I believe we see many injuries still. Injuries are too many times the result of inappropriate loading patterns which is a consequence of poor planning and/or inappropriate training choices.
Scientific support in these cases is challenging, as most of the times it is only necessary to point out inadequacy of the training paradigms used. And there is no way sports scientists can help improving the quality of a training programme if there is no programme.
The other worry is the proliferation of cargo-cult science in coaching communities. The Internet is now full of courses, podcasts, articles, online access to content. Information is now available anytime anywhere. But sadly there is also a proliferation of coaching courses offered by various entities in different part of the World of dubious quality. International and national federations do offer coaching courses which should have some form of quality control/assurance, but clearly the big bucks are in courses and activities offered by private institutions and/or individuals. While I am a strong believer that knowledge comes form anywhere and confining it to rigid structures can be counterproductive, I also believe that somehow somebody somewhere should guarantee quality of the message. 
Well, in many instances I see a lot of pseudoscience and absolute rubbish being “sold” to coaches. Some of the terminology I hear makes no sense, and the mutterings of aerobic, anaerobic, power, force, CNS etc etc in random order really drives me insane. Not to mention the non existing definitions and /or observations and definitions that have no evidence and are totally non-sensical. If you have ever heard about “CNS session” you know what I mean. This is not a war on semantics, it is about making sure that the distribution of bullshit stops. Too many coaches are now convinced about things that do not exist and in an era of high speed cameras are still convinced they can see stuff that it is not there (I will call it the “Nessie Phenomenon” to pay tribute to the monster nobody can see in the North of Scotland). 
Training Philosophies are now turning into religious-like beliefs (are you a “believer” and a follower of coach X method? ) and this is probably the consequence of too many coaches teaching other coaches such beliefs not supported by evidence or sold on the basis of some athlete winning some medal somewhere. What I have rarely experienced is a coach which lectures about what they do (for real!) without too much philosophy but with evidence of what is the programme, what they assess and when, what are the typical changes in whatever indicators they have during the seasons and what evidence they use to predict performances for their athletes as the season progresses. Instead of this, I sit in too many lectures in which I hear about philosophies, I listen to non-existing pseudo-science, and I see few pictures or videos of successful athletes. But no idea of the content (what did the coach do? How was the load progressed? How progress was assessed, how did the coach “teach” the athlete”, what did the athlete learn etc etc.).
The worrying aspect is when coaches are also encouraged to branch out to other professions providing therapy, nutritional advice, medical advice, interpretation of clinical examinations etc etc. This is unacceptable and dangerous. This is the reason why sometimes athletes may fail a doping test and/or might delay rehabilitation following an injury and/or develop an injury. Coaches should be great at coaching and teaching as well as creating positive environments for athletes to improve. Everything else should be left to specialists, people that know what they are doing. Having a coaching philosophy is for sure a good idea (anybody needs a vision/beliefs/ways of approaching a problem), but at the end of the day sport performance is brutally simple, it is in fact about getting better and trying to be better than others. 
Philosophies seem to permeate the development of the strength and conditioning community as well. When I started, it was pretty clear to me that my job was to try to make people stronger, faster, more flexible, I was driven by writing content and assessing outcomes and trying to understand what worked and what didn’t. In my view after having seen quite a few lectures/presentations from strength and conditioning specialists, I hear a lot about philosophies but I rarely see content and I mostly see poor or non-existing outcomes. I fear the scientific approach is gone (and for science I do not mean the one you do to write a paper, I mean systematic approaches to documenting what you do and measuring some outcomes). While I see all this, the era of Big Data is upon us. Everyone talks about it, but many are struggling to see where the big data are. To me the biggest data still missing are the ones related to training content, what is planned vs what is executed and how things progress. I am also interested in knowing about technical development, how we should teach things to athletes and we should assess if they develop technically. In the Athletics World you hear a lot about techniques and how coaches “see” technical errors in sessions and in competition. What I am stil struggling to find is evidence about how true are such errors and most of all how and if such errors can be corrected. This to me is the art of coaching, but we can now build the evidence for it and we should strive to understand this aspect more.
Sports science is evolving, we have more devices, more information, more ideas. However we are still lacking easy, simple, non-invasive ways to understand more about the implications of single training sessions as well as the effectiveness of different training schemes. We have to still rely on invasive approaches in physiology and some of the approaches in other aspects of science are not practical in the real world (have you ever tried to play table tennis with an EEG cap and wires?). So this is where the biggest gains will come, in the ability to understand more what happens in the real world moving the labs on the field as much as possible.
So this is my pledge, I will try to understand more, learn more and try to develop better ways to work in sport. My advice to you working as a coach, as a strength and conditioning specialist or as an “ologist” with athletes at any level is to avoid the “Nessie Phenomenon” and try to critically analyse any information coming your way. Do not accept what you hear or what others tell you. Go and find the information, try things yourself, try to assess what works and what not, document your experiences, reflect. Only in this way you will be able to separate the wheat from the chaff.
We are exposed to B–sh-t every day, and there is science about it too, just read this paper and hopefully you can find a way to use appropriate filters.

3 thoughts on “Reflections about coaching, strength and conditioning and the emergence of cargo cult science in sport”

  1. Very well put Marco. I yearn to hear from a presenter that tells me the things that didn't work.
    Been asked to present to 60 physios on “end stage gluteal rehab”. I don't know.what that means!
    I only get athletes back to their sport, not isolate a muscle:getting asked to do this indicates a lot that is wrong(thinking of your glute firing blog).

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s