Simplifying the “Sport Science” Process

Sport science is way more involved than I am about to portray it today, and failing to recognize and emphasize this would do a mighty disservice to the professionals who earn a livelihood in this area and spent years in school and on the job developing their craft. However, that does not mean that other non-sport scientists — whether they be strength coaches, trainers, or sport coaches — can’t take some principles from the realm of sport science to apply to their own athletes, teams, and systems.

To simplify and reduce some of the processes behind sport science, I will be harkening back to a lesson most of us learned in Elementary School: the scientific method.

At the time — in my case, it was the 3rd grade — I am sure many kids were just like me: why do I need to learn this? Science experiments themselves were fun, but the lengths that it felt like we were being asked to go to document the process? Well, they seemed extreme to the 9-year me.

But in all reality, much like so many other subjects that went underappreciated in my youth, the scientific method has become an invaluable part of being in the sports performance field in the 21st century, where objective data and insights are now expected to drive performance. Teams and organizations are racing by the season to onboard new technology, all in an effort to gain a competitive advantage by objectifying nearly every aspect of their athletes’ training, competition, and well-being.

Winning a sports tech arms race, however, is only as valuable as the processes are in place to manage, analyze, interpret, and apply the millions of data-points pouring out of these devices. That is why even a team that uses outdated tech or has few data streams can still make substantial progress with their athletes; if they determine what is important to them and have dialed in their systems to support this, then they can reap the rewards of whatever data they do collect.

And, that is why I write this piece today: not to help a premier, major sports organization get better at their sport science initiatives, but to help the underfunded, lesser-versed sport and strength coaches of ____ High School or ____ State College figure out where they ought to begin.

Ask a Great or Meaningful Question

Depending on which variation you were taught, there are a handful of steps in the scientific method:

  1. Make an Observation and Form a Question
  2. Research the Area and Construct a Hypothesis
  3. Conduct an Experiment
  4. Analyze the Results
  5. Form a Conclusion
  6. Reflect

When they taught us the scientific method in grade school, step one was always the most challenging for me: come up with a question. I would look around the room at all different objects and wrack my little brain for the question I should ask. After a while, my curiosity waned, and it simply became a rush to just find something to get the project done. I would imagine that is why so many kids end up with questions like…Which brand of paper towel absorbs the most water?

That is because so many, myself included, were doing the science experiment just to do it; we were just trying to get the science fair over with. We weren’t seeking to solve anything meaningful; our findings were not going to be novel and, realistically, we probably would never even apply our own findings anyway.

And then, there are the kids that ask questions like,“is it possible to design an application that can translate English instructions directly into compliable code that a robot can execute? That is a real question by a 13-year old from about a decade ago, (found in an article on PCMag Nine Google Science Fair Projects That Could Change the World). The difference between this project and the one centered on paper towels isn’t just that the latter is a novel question; it’s that the question was truly curious in nature, and thus it motivated a young kid to set out on a path paved with diligent, thoughtful, and hard-working steps to answer it.

Fast-forward into your 20’s, 30’s and beyond, as you trek through a career in sport; I can imagine you have just as many questions about your game as I do. And, if you think about it, these questions carry an enormous weight — much more than a grade in middle school biology class. How your athletes train and ultimately perform will influence the team’s wins and losses, personal successes and failures, career progression or regression, job security, and so much more.

Without a process built on pillars like the scientific method, we are staking all of the above on experience, opinions, and personal beliefs alone. While these things do count for something, the unfortunate reality is that we all have our own biases, and oftentimes we do not know when they are skewing our judgement or perception. Intuition and instincts born from experience are irreplaceable — but they are calibrated best when they are bolstered by objective insights. So, when you have a question about training or sport, you could let all of the chips ride on your gut feel or biological plausibility, or you can use these things to form a hypothesis prior to “experimenting” to find your answer.

Biological Plausibility: the causal consideration that an observed, potentially causal association between an exposure and a health outcome may plausibly be attributed to causation on the basis of existing biomedical and epidemiological knowledge. — Oxford Dictionary

Or, to paraphrase in my own words: using what we know about one area of science and extrapolating it to others because it seems plausible

Answering one valuable question in sport has the potential to be a game changer for everyone in the club. And for every question you answer that doesn’t make that kind of season-altering impact, you are still bound to learn something valuable about your sport and training, even if it is “just” what does not matter (which can be just as valuable, as it can help determine where time, money and other precious commodities are not worth investing).

Whether you are collecting data from sophisticated sports technology devices, or simply logging information by hand in Excel or a notepad, making sense and — more importantly — good use of that information comes from knowing what you are looking to learn.

Collect all of the data that we want, but without questions, we will ultimately end up just staring at numbers on a spreadsheet hoping something insightful jumps off of the page; or, we may not even start collecting information because we can’t decide on our what, why, or how. With questions, however, we can find the appropriate place to begin collecting data; or if we have the data already, we can start digging in deep to find meaningful answers.

And that is where it all starts in the scientific method, and as complicated as it may seem, that is also where it begins in sport science: asking great, meaningful questions; questions that move and motivate people to find answers among all of the data, information, experiences, and opinions we take in on a daily basis.

Respectfully,

RJF

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