Sports Science Monthly – November 2020

Every month we take a deep dive into the latest research in sports science. In the November edition we start off looking at elite coaches. Player development pathways are often discussed, but what are the pathways and processes of elite coaches? After that topic, we dive into some analysis of talent identification in jumping events, within-sport specialization, putting ecological dynamics in practice, the Cirque du Soleil, and more.

As always, the full Sports Science Monthly is available exclusively to HMMR Plus Members. You can browse the past topics on our archive page. The first topic below is free to everyone, but sign up now to read about all the latest research. To get an idea of what Sports Science Monthly is all about, the April 2016 edition is available in its entirety for free.

This Month’s Topics

The processes and pathways of elite coaches

» Quick summary: Elite coaches were interviewed to better understand their day to day processes and developmental pathways. The coaches identified the need for a strong coaching philosophy, a clear vision of where to go, knowledge of how to get there, the ability to utilize and work with good people, and maintain an appropriate developmental environment—allowing for the development of a clear framework to inform elite coaching behaviors.

Whilst much is often written about athlete development pathways, often far less attention is given as to elite coach’s development, and what their own developmental pathways look like. This is potentially a major limitation; whilst athletes win medals, coaches develop those athletes, and coaches can develop more than one athlete at any given time, as well as across generations—suggesting that adequate coach development can drive efficiencies within any given system. As such, ensuring that the coaches within a given sporting system are optimally developed is massively important for continued success. Similarly, what coaches do on a day to day basis as a means of supporting successes is often not well understood. A 2016 paper from the International Sport Coaching Journal provides some crucial insight to elite coach daily practices and development pathways, and makes for important reading. Here, the authors interviewed 17 serial winning coaches—defined at those having coached athletes to multiple Olympic and/or World Championship medals, or having won elite professional leagues—to better understand their development. The majority of coaches were male (only two were female), and came from a variety of sports and countries. Together, they had won 160 medals/championships between them.

» Learn more: study co-author Sergio Lara-Bercial was a guest on GAINcast 50.

Based on the responses of the coaches, the authors we able to develop a day-to-day practice framework of elite coaches, comprised of:

  1. Coach Philosophy – The coaches all reported having a very clear philosophical standpoint, which provided purpose and direction. Some major themes that emerged included having an athlete-centered approach, optimizing work-life balance, and having a high moral stance. This included an understanding that you coach a human being, and not just an athlete.
  2. Vision – The elite coaches reported having a clear vision of what is necessary to win, and being able to articulate this, as being central to success. Understanding what it takes to win, and how to achieve those aspects, was determined to be crucial. This process also included the ability to simplify complexity, seeing into the future, having a long-term approach, being able to monitor and review performance, and use this information to lead planning. Elite coaches have to be able to identify the constituent parts of success, and fit them together in priority order to “solve the puzzle of success”. Furthermore, the elite coaches identified being able to have clarity around “where the biggest returns in investment” were as an important part of this process. This links to an ability to strategically plan the training process, which I wrote about previously for HMMRMedia here.
  3. People – The selection of athletes and support staff, in line with the desired culture and values of the coach and program, was deemed as crucial for success. Once these people were in place, the development of a shared belief, ongoing management of high performance, and athlete and staff individual management formed important parts of the coach’s daily tasks. From a leadership standpoint, coaches could harness social capital through their past experiences as an athlete or coach, along with their ability to develop a positive bond with their athletes. This positive bond could be cultivated through the ability to hold open and honest communication, empathize with their athletes, being emotionally stable themselves (including being calm under the pressure of performance), and bringing an holistic approach to athlete development. Many of the athletes who worked with these coaches—who were themselves interviewed—reported that these elite coaches tended to work with the athletes as part of an on-going, stable, and collaborative relationship, as opposed to with an authoritarian approach. They also noted that these coaches had developed a flexible approach in their coaching delivery, as opposed to being excessively rigid.
  4. Environment – The elite coaches were able to develop a culture and climate that was a driver of athlete success; this included developing a challenging training environment with high expectations and demands, leaving no stone unturned in the pursuit of high performance, providing influence to the athletes, and developing stability and dependability of both athlete performance and environment. Part of this included being really clear on the behaviors expected of all during training, and enforcing these behaviors in an on-going manner. This included developing a sense of personal responsibility and accountability in all involved.

The researchers also asked athletes coached by the identified serial winning coaches as to what, in their opinion, differentiated these coaches from other, less successful coaches they had worked with. Whilst recognizing that these elite coaches tended to have higher levels of knowledge, the athletes also highlighted the personal skills of the coaches, identifying their ability to understand the athlete as a person as one of the main differentiators.

From a developmental pathway perspective, the authors again had some really interesting findings. In general, the coaches had strong academic backgrounds; just over half had a sport-related degree, with the majority having attended university in some form. Almost all coaches had the highest level of coaching qualification available within their country. The coaches viewed their academic and coaching qualifications as crucial early on in their coaching journey, giving them the required level of knowledge to support their future success. Many of the coaches were able to identify a mentor-like figure who played a key role in their development process, though typically this was in an informal, organic manner—in which the coach found themselves close to another coach they admired, and tried to learn as much as possible from them.

Similar to elite athletes, the career pathways of elite coaches were diverse, with each finding their own route to the top. Nevertheless, when examining their developmental biographies, some important themes emerge; these included the important role of others (e.g. parents, family, teachers) in shaping them as humans; the developmental environment in which they grew up; and some adversity during their development, such as non-selection for events as an athlete, serious injuries, being from a lower socio-economic standing, or mocked by other coaches. Only one of the coaches had not been an athlete in the sport in which they were coaching; ten had been internationals/professionals, with the others competing at national level. The coaches identified their own sporting “careers” as having had an important influence on their development as a coach, allowing them to develop empathy for the athletes they were currently working with by allowing them to understand what it was like to be in their shoes. In general, the coaches felt they did not reach their potential during their athletic career, and so wanted to “make amends as a coach”.

As a result of this research, the authors identified four key areas of significance for elite coaches:

  1. A well-developed personal philosophy;
  2. A compelling and clear vision of success;
  3. The need to pull together the right people and manage them effectively;
  4. The creation of an environment in which everyone can thrive and realize the vision of success.

These elite coaches also had an unrelenting pursuit of development, in terms of both themselves and their athlete’s. The authors referred to this as a form of “driven benevolence”, which they defined as “the purposeful and determined pursuit of excellence based on an enduring and balanced desire to considerately support oneself and others”. A key driver of driven benevolence is the coach’s personal philosophy and values, which, for coaching effectiveness, must include genuine care for others whilst maximizing their development. This key driver can then provide the grounding for decision making, in line with the coach’s own philosophy and values—providing “cognitive and emotional elasticity” need to make tough, but considerate, decisions that benefit the overall outcome.

Personally, I think this paper should be mandatory reading for all who aspire to be high performance coaches. It outlines the key skills and traits present in a cohort of serial winning coaches, which can act as targets for us all to work towards. It also, via driven benevolence, demonstrates how this can be done ethically and with a person-first approach. I strongly recommend that everyone takes the time to read through the article and digest its findings, the implications of which coaches can harness to drive their own development.


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Ecological dynamics: from theory to practice

» Quick Summary: We’re becoming increasingly aware that training should mimic competition at certain times as a means of better preparing athletes; however, doing so is a challenge for coaches, as much of the research on representative design is more academic-focused. A recent paper provides a more applicable framework for coaches looking to utilize such an approach in their practice.

When it comes to sport, there is an increase in academic and research interest around enhancing performance. Overall, this is a good thing; it allows us to understand elite performance, and how to prepare athletes to achieve this performance, better than ever. However, many academic terms are potentially confusing, or at least not intuitively understood, and this can harm the translation of strong, effective research into real-world applications, meaning that athletes and coaches at the coalface are not able to most benefit from the hard work of academics. Personally, an area where I find academic terms to be rife is that of skill acquisition, where phrases such as ecological dynamics and complex adaptive systems are widely used. Hopefully I’m not alone in this, and, fortunately for me (and others struggling), some of the key researchers in this area have put together a highly applicable paper that explains how coaches can utilize the academic research in this field to design better, more realistic training sessions, allowing athletes to perform better on the day of competition. Let’s take a closer look.

In many sports, opponents are in direct competition with one another for success; in football, for example, teams play against each other to try and score more goals than the opposition. The presence of opponents increases the complexity of the sport, as opponent behavior can change, meaning that the team has to adjust their response. Football is also a series of somewhat unpredictable contests; how the ball bounces, referee behavior, and individual decision making under pressure and fatigue all increase the amount of “randomness” that can occur. Within track and field, middle distance running is also highly complex; in many cases, at least at major championships, races can end up mimicking a chess game, with athletes making tactical moves to try and elicit a certain response from their competitors. Athletes don’t know what decisions their competitors will make in advance, of course, adding to the complexity and unpredictable nature of performance.

This means that coaches, rather than providing athletes with the solution to any given problem, need to instead prepare athletes to be able to solve a variety of different problems, with a variety of different solutions. For example, if a football coach designs a training session where the players are practicing shooting in an unopposed manner, this doesn’t necessarily crossover into a game, where opponents will influence the behaviors of both the passer of the ball and the shooter themselves. Similarly, in middle distance running, setting a race pace run over 600m might not prepare the athlete for the multiple pace changes and physical contact that could occur in an actual race.

One example of an application of representative design principles in elite sport comes from Heads Up Footy, a framework utilized in an elite Australian Rules Football team. Here, the goal is to “design the problem, not prescribe the solution, in practice”. There are five key pillars to this framework, detailed below:

  1. Is the training environment game like? (Academic translation = designing a representative learning environment). Within this pillar, the practice task needs to be guided by an accurate understanding of what actually happens within competition. In AFL, for example, this could be time spent in possession of the ball prior to a kick, with research suggesting that players tend to perform a kick in either less than a second, or more than four seconds, of possession time. This knowledge informs coaches as to mis-matches between what happens in competitions, and how training sessions are designed.
  2. Do athletes rehearse problems or repeat stable solutions? (Academic translation = embed a constraints-led approach). A stable solution suggests that the same skill, delivered in the same way, will produce the same outcome. However, given that sport is complex and adaptive, we know this won’t be the case; instead, exposure to problems is what should drive training session design.
  3. Do athletes have the freedom to explore solutions to the designed problems? (Academic translation = Embracing degeneracy [there is no single solution to a task goal]). Understanding that there might be more than one solution to a given problem, are athletes being provided with the opportunity to explore all options?
  4. Do athletes problem solve autonomously? (Academic translation = encourage self-regulation). Questioning prompts from coaches may channel the player’s attention in a specific direction, but, where possible, answers should not be directly fed to the athlete.
  5. Are athletes given the opportunity to lead the program? (Academic translation = embrace player ownership). This can be important from an engagement perspective, with players/athletes involved in designing training scenarios that mirror their experiences of competition.

Within this framework, coaches are viewed as “learning environment designers”, acting to facilitate athlete-environment interactions. This means that the coach has to a) identify and understand the key constraints within performance, and b) manipulate these constraints within the practice environment to provide athletes with a solution that needs to be overcome. Overall, I found this to be a really interesting, practical paper that explores a concept of increasing interest. To my knowledge, I’ve yet to see much research on ecological dynamics within track and field, but athletics coaches might be prompted by some of the concepts raised in this paper, and make some changes to their training sessions to improve the within-competition problem solving ability of their athletes.

Talent identification in the jumping events

» Quick summary: Highly ranked youth athletes tend not to be highly ranked senior athletes; the future elite senior athletes tend to differentiate themselves from future non-elites in performance at around age 18 or 19. More evidence that, in track and field, early talent selection is unlikely to be either effective or efficient.

Successful Talent Identification and Selection is a Holy Grail within many sports. In English Football, for example, many clubs will sign up players as young as 6 into “elite” youth teams, with the implicit assumption that many of these players will go on to be successful senior players. This happens across the majority of professional sports, with teams typically operating either youth programs or youth teams as a means of developing young players their scouts have identified as talented. The same is true of track and field; across the globe, decisions are made by coaches, sponsors, parents, and governing bodies as to the “talent” of young, developing athletes, in the hope that the early identification of these athletes increases their chances of future success.

The problem is that these selections are almost exclusively made based on the current performance level of the athlete, and, as research suggests, this is often an inaccurate—or at least highly incomplete—barometer of future success. A recent study, published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports, demonstrates this by taking a detailed look at the jump events within athletics. To do this, the authors collected the data of the top 100 athletes per year per event from 2000-2019, along with the names of athletes who competed at the World Under-20 and Under-18 Championships from 1998-2015. They used this information to create all-time top-50 ranking lists of athletes at 16, 17, 18, and 19 years of age, along with the senior age group, and established the proportion of athletes who were in the top-50 rankings across different age groups. This allowed the creation of some additional subgroups; Only Under-18s, which referred to athletes who were in the top-50 rankings for ages 17 or 16, but not as a senior, and Top-50 Senior, which referred to athletes in the top-50 rankings in the senior category, irrespective of whether they were in the Under-18 rankings or not. In total, 5981 athletes entered the database and were analyzed.

The results make for stark reading. When it comes to transition rates, only 8% of male and 16% of female jumpers who were ranked in the top-50 at age 16 became ranked in the top-50 as seniors. There were also substantial differences between athletes in the Only Under-18 category, and those in the Top-50 Senior category. Specifically, athletes in the Only Under-18 category entered the database at a significantly younger age (generally just before they were 16, compared to around 18 for Top-50 Senior athletes), had worse personal bests, and achieved these personal bests at a significantly younger age (around 20 years old, compared to 25-26 years old in the Top-50 Senior category). For the Under-18 Only category, there was also a significant Relative Age Effect (RAE), whereby athletes born in the first quarter of the year (i.e. January to March) were significantly more likely to appear in the rankings than athletes born in the last quarter of the year (i.e. October to December). This builds on previous research that early success in athletics—and other sports—is strongly linked to relative developmental level, with slightly older children tending to be slightly better at younger ages. Similar to this previous research, in this study the relative age effect was not present in the Top-50 Senior group, suggesting that it does not play a detectable role in senior success.

This tells us that 1) it is uncommon (but not impossible) for elite under-18 athletes to progress to being elite seniors, and 2) elite seniors tend to reach their peak far later than athletes who are elite at under-18 level. As a result, when it comes to talent ID, the message is clear; selecting athletes based on performance at under-18 level does not deliver success later on. Furthermore, the performance of athletes who were in the only under-18 and top-50 senior group were more or less the same at age 19—suggesting again that accurate selection of “talent” based on performance at that age is exceptionally difficult. It appears to be between the ages of 20 and 21 that successful senior athletes pull away—in terms of performance—from the athletes who make up the only under-18 group. As a result, when it comes to developing talented athletes, we should perhaps take a broader view—supporting more at a lower level, as opposed to actively deselecting athletes from a talent pathway—before making selection decisions much later than is often commonly thought—typically around the age of 19 or 20. A sobering reminder of how difficult it can be to accurately identify talent—something which is often confused with early maturation—in athletics at young ages, which is an important reminder to us all.

Why specialization is not always a bad thing

» Quick summary: Whilst early specialization between sports—i.e. specializing within one sport at the expense of another—is generally shown to be negative in terms of athlete development, the research is much less clear on this effect when it comes to specialization within a sport—in terms of playing position, or, in the case of athletics, event group. This paper suggests there are no negative effects of within-event group specialization within athletics, representing an important piece of evidence in the emerging body of research.

Building on the above article—which demonstrates the complex and non-linear nature of athlete development, we now switch our attention to early specialization, and its effects on athlete development within track and field. Early specialization within sport is generally considered to be negative, with research on the biographies of elite athletes demonstrating that they tend to take part in a variety of sports at a younger age, and then specialize in their main sport later than slightly less successful athletes. For example, in a study of British Olympians, Arne Gullich and his fellow researchers noted that “Super-Elite” sportspeople—defined as serial Olympic and World Championship medalists—tended to specialize in their main sport later than athletes classed as “merely” “Elite”. In a separate study, specifically within the sport of athletics, Gullich found “strong responders”—those demonstrating substantial improvement in their late teens and early twenties—tended to specialize in athletics around the age of 16, when compared to “weak responders”, who specialized at around 11 years of age. The negative effects of early sport specialization are well established, and include an increased risk of injuries, burnout, and lack of improvement in the senior age group. As such, the consistent—and correct—message is that we should typically avoid specializing in a single sport too early, and developing athletes should sample across a broad range of sports and skills.

Athletics, however, is complex. Unlike, say, soccer, where all the players on the pitch are playing the same game with broadly similar demands, athletics is comprised of multiple different events with highly diverse demands. As a result, it can be considered as sports-within-a-sport; in this case, the evidence regarding early specialization within a particular event group in athletics, but not specializing solely in athletics (the sport) is lacking. So, whilst it’s clear that a developing athlete should take part in other sports outside of athletics, should they take part in multiple event groups within athletics—and what is the harm if they don’t?

I have a vested interest in better understanding this area, as I have an extreme bias to what I want to answer to be. When I was 13, I broke my school’s 100m record, whilst also playing a variety of other sports, most notably soccer and rugby. My parents took me to an athletics club, where I was put in a middle-distance group; it’s fair to say I’m not a natural endurance athlete, I hated the experience, and subsequently quit athletics. Fortunately for me, my parents convinced me to give it a go, ensuring I was only to do sprint training, which eventually developed into a semi-decent career for me. But the fact remains—I almost stopped doing a sport in which I went to the Olympics in, because of diversification within that sport.

Fortunately, a recent piece of research from Philip Kearney, Thomas Comyns, and Philip Hayes explores the effects of within-athletics specialization in developing athletes. To do this, Kearney and colleagues collected information on the top-100 ranked male and female UK-based Under-13 and Under-15 athletes from the 2015 season, across four diverse events; 100m, long jump, shot put, and 800m. They did the same for athletes in the Under-20 age group, but, for this group, also collected their individual data from when they were under-13s and under-15s, before conducting their analyses.

The results from the Under-13s and Under-15s suggested that specialization within a single event group was relatively uncommon; around 10% of under-13s and 25% of under-15s were only competing in a single event group. Within the top ranked 100 under-20 athletes, females were more likely to have diversified within athletics than those who did not progress (32.5% vs 23.4%), whilst there was no difference between male athletes. Early event group specialization within athletics also did not appear to harm athlete retention, with specializing and non-specializing athletes staying within the sport to the same extent.

This all suggests that, whilst uncommon, event group specialization within the sport of athletics does not appear to be, in and of itself, harmful to either future performance or retention, at least within this cohort of UK-based athletes—but with the assumption that they should be taking part in other sports during their development. As a result, whilst early specialization into a single sport is likely negative, specialization within an event group is not. For my biases, at least, this is good news.

Quick-fire round

  • Stress ReactivityStress, which is provoked by stressors, is ubiquitous in daily life; we’ve all experienced stress, and likely do so on a regular basis. Stress, in and of itself, has the potential to be positive, with the hormonal and cardiovascular responses to stress prepare the body for action. For athletes, stress is therefore a good thing, with the anxiety of competition potentially allowing athletes to perform at a higher level, provided they can control it and harness its performance benefits. If stress is too prolonged, and too chronic in nature, however, this can become problematic, promoting biological wear and tear that gently erodes our health, wellbeing, and performance. Stress is therefore adaptative when our stress response is in magnitude to the threat of the stressor, and provided we can return to a normal state once the threat of the stressor subsides. However, if our stress response is an order of magnitude larger than the stressor’s threat—for example, if we respond like we’ve just been attacked by a lion when we see an ant—or if the stress response is prolonged, this is where problems may occur. In today’s world, we typically experience a prolonged stress response, in part because we can often anticipate—correctly or incorrectly—a stressful situation coming, but also because we can ruminate on stressful situations long after they occur. Back in our more “natural” days, we likely didn’t spend time thinking we were going to be attacked by a lion; instead, we went about our daily life, the lion appeared, we had a large stress response, and then the situation was resolved (hopefully favourably for us). Today, if we have an important meeting in a week, we might spend the whole preceding seven-day period worrying what might happen, and, if it goes badly, running through it in our heads for days afterwards. This article, recently published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, is an excellent overview of the current science of stress and health, as well as interventions which may support adequate stress reactivity. For those interested in this area, it’s a highly recommended read.
  • Injury Prevention: Lessons from Cirque du SoleilIf you’ve ever seen a Cirque du Soleil show, you likely watched in awe as highly trained and skilled performers completed a multitude of complex, and somewhat dangerous, movements. Training for circus performance mimics the actual performance itself, meaning that these performers are exposed to high physical workloads, with a reported injury incidence of between 7-10 injuries per 1000 performances. As I wrote about in the series on Performance Health, sports injuries are complex and multifactorial in nature, with many methods utilised to try and better understand why they happen, and what can be done to guard against them. This open access paper explores injuries from a systems perspective, and may have useful cross-sport insights—making it worth your time.
  • Probiotics and exercise recoveryThe benefits of probiotic supplementation are often touted, by rarely studied within sport, at least at the elite level. Some initial research suggests they may be useful in supporting immune function, and, as I wrote last year, may also enhance performance in power and endurance events. A recent study added to the slowly growing evidence-base of probiotic supplementation in sport, suggesting that supplementation may support recovery from training in a group of rugby players. Here, 19 players from an elite rugby union team were randomised to receive either a probiotic supplement or placebo across a 17-week period, which comprised of pre-season training camps and in-season matches. During this period, the players provided subjective ratings for sleep quantity and quality, along with muscle soreness. After the 17-week period, the researchers analysed these self-report measures, finding that self-reported muscle soreness was significantly lower in the probiotic group throughout the study, and there was a small association between probiotic supplementation and sleep quality—overall, decent evidence that regular probiotic use may support performance in elite sports people.
  • Personality, stress, and sleepThe relationship between stress and sleep is well-established, and circular in nature; being stressed harms your sleep, and poor sleep makes you more likely to feel stressed. This interesting study recruited 260 “elite” youth athletes, and carried out personality assessments across the cohort to understand a) their neuroticism and conscientiousness traits, b) their interpretation of stress, and c) how well they tended to sleep. The results suggested athletes who scored highly in conscientiousness and moderately for neuroticism tended to score lower in terms of stress response. Conversely, athletes who scored both highly on the conscientiousness and neuroticism scales tended to demonstrate a higher stress reactivity, along with an increased risk of insomnia and worse sleep quality. As a result, the authors suggest that this demonstrates a link between personality types and sleep outcomes in athletes, and that personality profiling may assist coaches and support staff in being able to identify those athletes most at risk.