Sports Science Practices for Every Level of Sport

Recently, I was asked asked to give a presentation for a CoachesInsider baseball clinic here in the Phoenix area. With the majority of attendees being high school coaches, and given my extensive history working with amateur ballplayers, the natural fit for a presentation topic was Strength & Conditioning for High School Baseball.

Over the years, I have given several presentation variations on this theme, and with each year that goes by, my focus tends to shift and expand:

In my first go of it, I dialed deeply into the X’s and O’s of S&C work — the exercises, the drills, the sets and reps. However, with time and experience, my perspective on what is important and most applicable from one setting to another (which is important, because I am now 5 years removed from training high school athletes) has changed such that the ‘bigger rocks’ are what I tend to discuss; sharing principles rather than some of the more granular nuances like exercise selection.

This particular presentation (slides can be found below) certainly erred on the side of general, but I did venture into a relatively new area for me, in terms of a topic to discuss with high school coaches: sports science.

Over the years, professional baseball has afforded me the privilege of immersion within the evolution of sport science in our sport. As a former outsider from this area of performance, I am no stranger to the general confusion and misnomers that come from the ambiguity of this discipline in the United States. Which is where the goal of this part of the presentation for CoachesInsider came from: a desire to define what sports science means to me, personally, and how I believe taking a principles-based approach to the area will allow a high school coach to implement sports science practices into their own program.

What is Sport Science?

One of the greatest barriers to entry for a coach looking to infuse sports science with their team is, very simply, the understanding what sports science even means. While the field itself is not particularly new in the sporting world, when it comes to the landscape stateside in the US, it is in fact still a relatively novel area being explored. So, we certainly shouldn’t fault anybody for being less-than-clear on what it means to integrate sports science or to be a sports scientist.

And these days, given the rapid influx of technology in sport settings (with simultaneous growth of fitness and health wearables in the consumer market), one might immediately jump to the conclusion that sports science is the technology itself — or in the very least, the implementation of the technology.

Then consider what we are looking to attain with this technology: in the most literal sense, it is data. We are looking to collect data, and a lot of it. So, one might also consider the collection of that data — as well as its aggregation and management, analysis, visualization and interpretation — as being “sports science.”

And then, there are the decisions and processes that result from collecting data: this could mean biomechanical analysis based on motion capture systems, workload monitoring derived from GPS devices or manual tracking, the alteration of nutritional tactics based on blood glucose monitoring… the list can get quite exhaustive.

One might also think of the academic aspect of a field of study that is rooted in science: conducting research or combing through available literature to determine best practices.

While all of these components can certainly fall into the purview of a sports scientist, the fact is, they are merely granular and specific examples of what a sports scientist can do under various circumstances — namely, circumstances where budgetary, experiential, and staffing resources are not all that much constrained like they would be in most pockets of amateur sports.

So, rather than getting caught in the weeds of what a sports scientist can do, let’s look at a more general definition of Sports Science:

Sport science, therefore, is the application of scientific theory to sport, or the study of sport using scientific methods of inquiry in the fields of human performance, athletic endeavor, and sporting competition.

National Strength & Conditioning Association

Of all of the definitions I have come across, this has been my favorite interpretation, as it leaves room for scaling: working in a high-level, big market professional team setting might entail lots of technology, data, and support staff specifically trained and educated to deliver on sport science practices; however, the application of the scientific theory to sport, or the study of sport using scientific methods of inquiry can just as readily be done at the least-funded and supported levels of the game too. This definition from the NSCA says nothing about the technology, faculties, or resources. It simply speaks to the intended process of learning about sport and applying what you and the entire community of human performance have learned.

I personally have distilled the application of sports science practices for the high school coach down to two objectives:

Using Scientific Principles and Rigor to Evaluate Sport

Ultimately, sports science is in part decision-making science in sport. What information or knowledge can we develop or find to help us make better decisions — be they micro-level decisions such as tactics on the field (e.g. should we shift for this hitter? Should we give this player a day off today? Should we modify today’s lift to be more fresh for tomorrow’s game?) or the bigger-picture decisions of how to best plan practices, training-weeks, or an entire season’s worth of training and practice.

Of course, a coach could lean on anecdotal experience to make their decisions (i.e. “I believe this is the best route because I have seen it work before” or “because this is what I did as a player” or “because it seems completely logical and plausible”).

However, to do this even better, a well-rounded approach to decision-making could involve using scientific principles or rigor — the kind found in other forms of evidence beyond our “gut feeling”. Some forms of “evidence” that can support the decision-making process include:

  • Scholarly evidence such as that found within peer-reviewed literature
  • Other academic resources such as text books (which summarize the literature) and books written by experts in the field (who provide their own interpretation of the information available combined with their personal experiences)
  • Internally mined or collected data from your own team, athletes, or environment
  • Experiential “evidence” built on insights and intuition accumulated from time spent coaching; the “gut feeling” or “coach’s eye”

An approach that can often be taken by both those with no academic background in the sports sciences and those with PhD’s, alike, is to lean heavily or solely on just one or two of these avenues to support their decision-making. While each type of evidence has its strengths, they each also have limitations:

Scholarly evidence, alone, puts a lot of faith in the literature — literature that oftentimes has many limitations, especially as we try to extrapolate its results to our own athletes. On the other hand, experiential evidence alone is often riddled by personal biases and short-sightedness. Internally mined data is an effective means to learn about your own specific population, but oftentimes the sample sizes are very small, so it takes years upon years to tease out meaningful insights. And finally, resources such as books written by prominent coaches, researchers, etc are typically built on others’ interpretations, understandings, and experiences, and they are not any more immune to biases than we are.

While each type of evidence possesses limitations, their greatest strength is in their combination: when a coach, practitioner, or team of of personnel can utilize all forms of evidence at their disposal to bolster their decision-making.

With all of this said, what should the take-home be for the high school coach? Should you begin reading research journals every day? Do you need to fund-raise your way to obtaining sports tech? Do you need to fill your library full of reference texts and throw away all intuition and feel for the game? No, absolutely not.

A beneficial approach would simply be to start taking realistic steps toward bolstering decisions with some other forms of evidence aside from those that you normally rely upon.

But, where should you start?

Asking Great or Meaningful Sporting Questions

A relatively easy place to begin is with a question. Be it something simple — how many hard sprints do our cornerbacks make per game? — or something more challenging to answer with certainty — is it better for our team to lift pre-practice, or post-practice? — either way, it is a clear and discrete question that can serve as the foundation for a coach’s first foray into sport science practices.

With a question in mind, the coach or staff can then begin to take stock of the evidence already available:

  • There is the coaching staff’s collective intuition based on each coaches’ prior experience
  • There might be some available texts or books that speak to the subject; hey, maybe somebody already did a lot of the leg work to answer this question already?
  • Certainly some literature might exist as well, although it can often be hard to access research journals if you are not a student or paid subscriber

And then, there is the opportunity to learn from your own cohort as well over time by collecting data related to the question. Want to know how many sprints your Shortstop makes per game compared to your Third Baseman? Start tallying them up and keep a log for the season. Sure, GPS technology could be helpful, but asking bench players to keep track during a game will land you close enough at the high school level; you might end up a few sprints off, but personally, I would rather be a few sprints off than not have the slightest idea because I didn’t attempt to answer the question at all.

The best part, however, is not the first question, but where that one question can take you. There are rabbit holes to be found wherever you look — but, the key is you have to be looking. Set off to answer how many times your Point Guards accelerate hard to the right versus the left, and all of the sudden you might find yourself wondering what the highest injury rates are at that position as well; and then you might find yourself wondering if your off-season prehab interventions work in an attempt to reduce the likelihood of a particular injury the next season. And down the rabbit hole we go, answering more and more great and meaningful sporting questions.

In Summary

Strength and conditioning, sporting skills, nutrition, recovery… all of these areas in sport are universal in their applicability to the varying competition levels, from the youngest of amateur ranks, all the way to the elites. However, what makes them work across such a broad range of age and competitive levels is their scalability: for example, strength and conditioning practices can be utilized at every level of sport, but what is most appropriate and realistic for each level will certainly differ.

Sports Science practices can be viewed in the same vein: while they may look different between the professional and amateur ranks, there are, however, underlying principles that allow any coach to think and work like a sports scientist.

Namely, coaches can begin to enhance their decision-making by finding or developing evidence that can compliment or supplement their ‘gut feelings’ and intuition. And, this can be done by simply asking great questions of the sport.

With this approach, along with plenty of time and patience, coaches can not only expect to potentially make better decisions over time, but also to feel more confident in the process.

Respectfully,

RJF

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