The Need For Evidence-Based Coaching In Sports

By Dan Peterson

It’s something that every coach and every athlete of every sport is searching for… the Edge. That one training tip, equipment improvement, mental preparation or tactical insight that will tip the game towards them. The body of knowledge that exists today in each sport is assumed, with each competitor expected to at least be aware of the history, beliefs and traditions of their individual sport. But, if each team is starting with the same set of information then the team that takes the next step by applying new research and ideas will capture the edge.

That is what sports science is all about. The goal is to improve sports performance by imagining, analyzing, experimenting, testing, documenting and training new methods to coaches and athletes.

If sports science is going to thrive and be accepted, it faces the challenge of inertia. The ideas and techniques that are the product of sports science can also be captured in the phrase, “evidence based coaching”. Just as evidence based medicine has slowly found its place in the physician’s exam room, the coaching profession is just beginning to trust the research.

Traditionally, “belief based coaching” has been the philosophy favored on the field. Training drills, tactical plans, player selection and player development has been guided by ideas and concepts that have been handed down from one generation of coaches to the next. Most of these beliefs are valid and have been proven on the field through many years of trial and error. Subjecting these beliefs to scientific research may not produce conclusions any different than what coaching lore tells us.

However, today’s coaches and athletes see the competition creeping closer to them in all aspects, so they are now willing to at least listen to the scientists. Billy Beane, Oakland A’s general manager and Moneyball protagonist, likens it to financial analysis and the stock market. The assumption is that all information is known by all. But, if someone can find a ratio or a statistic or make an industry insight that no one has considered, then they own the competitive advantage; at least until this new information is made public.

It takes time, though, to amass enough data to convince a head coach to change years of habits for something unknown. Reputations and championships are on the line, so the changes sometimes need to be implemented slowly.

David Bishop of the Department of Exercise and Sport Science at the University of Verona has been looking at this issue for several years.  It started with a roundtable discussion he had at the 2006 Congress of the Australian Association for Exercise and Sports Science with several academic sport scientists (see: Sports-Science Roundtable: Does Sports-Science Research Influence Practice? )

He asked very direct questions regarding the definition of sport science and whether the research always needs to be “applied” versus establishing a “basic” foundation.  The most intriguing question was whether there already is ample research that could applied, but it suffered from the lack of a good translator to interpret and communicate to the potential users – coaches and athletes.  The panel agreed that was the missing piece, as most academic researchers just don’t have the time to deliver all of their findings directly to the field.

In a follow-up to this discussion, Bishop published his proposed solution titled, “An Applied Research Model for the Sport Sciences” in Sports Medicine.  In it, he calls for a new framework for researchers to follow when designing their studies so that there is always a focus on how the results will directly improve athletic performance.  He calls for a greater partnership role between researchers and coaches to map out a useful agenda of real world problems to examine.  He admits that this model, if implemented, will only help increase the potential for applied sport science.  The “middleman” role is still needed to bring this information to the front lines of sports.

Brent Rushall, Professor Emeritus of Exercise and Nutritional Sciences at San Diego State University, captured the debate very well in his seminal article,  “The Second Law of Thermodynamics”.  While the title is a bit scary, the analogy is interesting.  Rushall compares coaching with the fight against error or entropy in the system.  As he states, “When coaches are left alone and do not continually upgrade their knowledge with evidence-based events, they invent matters that lead to greater disorder [error].”

Transferring sports science research into useful, sport-specific cognitive training tools is the mission of Axon Sports and we join with Professor Rushall’s campaign to reduce entropy in coaching systems everywhere.

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2 Responses to The Need For Evidence-Based Coaching In Sports

  1. This is the greatest blog I’ve ever read on this site. WELL said my friend. From the looks of it you and I are both persuing the same thing – Evidence Based Coaching! You can find my precious thoughts on the matter here –

    Please continue articulating such great content as the “middleman” is EXACTLY what I want to be known for and it looks like you do too, Dan. Keep up the good work!

    All the best,
    Sam Leahey

    • Dan says:

      Thanks, Sam! We love this stuff and committed to helping all athletes with their cognitive training.

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