23 April 2010

Rugby coach vs scientist

With the Super 14 in full swing , Health24's FitnessDoc, Dr Ross Tucker, grapples with why rugby has a bad attitude towards science.

Health24's FitnessDoc, Dr Ross Tucker, grapples with why coaches and sports scientists are at loggerheads.

A big focus for us sports scientists is the role of science in improving sports performance. There are coaches who don't think science has value, and there are those who embrace what we have to offer.

My personal and professional battle in the last few years, in the South African sporting landscape, has been to promote the value of the science, to help people realise what it can do to improve sports performances, because in SA at least, it has largely been under-valued.

And what has gradually dawned on me is that a big part of the problem is that the science itself has not communicated its own value to the coaches.  Instead, what has happened is that science has tended to explain existing answers, rather than answering the questions. Science arrives too late to the party, producing research that only serves to explain the mechanisms behind what is already known. 

The coach, who typically spends eight waking hours a day (and probably a good few hours in their sleep) thinking about the sport, has often figured out the answer long in advance of the scientist arriving to tell them what they need to do. 

There is still enormous value in this - it helps us understand mechanisms, and validates current methods and practices, but it often makes the science seem out of touch.

The coach is less interested in looking back and proving himself correct than he is on finding the advantage moving forward, and so this kind of science is often dismissed as unhelpful.

What is good science?

When the science is too forceful, and fails to appreciate this, it even creates hostility - the "who are you to tell me what I've known for five years?" syndrome. 

Good science, at least from a coach's point of view in high performance sport, is science that answers a very specific question and allows the coach/athlete to make changes in advance of failure or a negative outcome.  It is prescriptive rather than reflective.

The way to achieve this is to have coaches and science working intimately with one another, so that the science is "coach-driven" to answer specific questions that he/she may have regarding player preparation, strategy, match tactics, injury rehabilitation, environmental management (heat, cold or altitude, for example) and ergogenic aids to performance. 

If the science is not "immersed" in the team environment, and not driven by the central character, the coach, then the likelihood of it adding value is greatly reduced.   

The value in science is not the content, but the process by which new things are discovered.  In other words, the scientist is not there simply to contribute specific knowledge on energy, heart rate, muscle injuries and so forth. This is important, certainly, but the real value comes from implementing a "hypothesis-driven" approach, and then embarking on a process that produces deeper understanding of what would otherwise remain intangible and unknown.

In elite sport today, where the margins between winning and losing are so tiny, the purpose of science, in my opinion, is to instill a culture of measurement, monitoring and hypothesis testing at every level of player preparation and performance. 

You cannot manage what you don't measure is one adage, and science is there to help measure and manage the right things. In doing this, it could help the coach, his support staff and the player find 1% improvements in five different areas.  If that happens, the result may be a 3-5% improvement, and a completely different outcome.

§The physiological demands of rugby: how far do they run, how often do they tackle, how much energy, and what intensity is the game played at?
§Rugby and altitude - when should teams aim to arrive for altitude matches?




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