Sports Science Monthly – July 2020

Every month we take a deep dive into the latest research in sports science. In the July edition we start off by taking a look at some lessons coaches can learn from medicine in dealing with COVID-19. In addition, we break down the latest research on hamstring strength asymmetry, resilience, willpower, nitrate supplementation 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

Lessons from COVID-19

» Quick summary: Have a decent grounding of general, foundation skills should assist in adapting to unusual situations, such as the COVID-19 driven lockdown. From a coaching perspective, being able to step in and act as an S&C coach, biomechanist, nutritionist, and physiologist increases both your robustness to external influences, but also the conversation you can have with experts under “normal” conditions.

As I write this in mid-May, I’ve been in lockdown for 8 weeks, as has much of the rest of the World. The Olympic Games have been postponed for a year, and many people, myself included, have had either seen their work completely disappear, or have a reduction in the work available to them. As you read this, I hope things are better, but there is a good chance that they’re not.

The COVID-19 pandemic was largely unpredictable, and, I think perhaps more importantly, had someone predicted it, the prediction would have been so unbelievable that it would not have been listened to. Having been caught off guard, many of us are now undergoing some introspection to explore how we avoid being so vulnerable in the future. Off the back of my own introspection, I came across a paper in the Journal of Hospital Medicine, not my usual browsing place, which stimulated some thought.

The paper, titled All Hands on Deck: Learning to Unspecialize in the COVID-19 Pandemic, explores how, in medicine, many doctors go down an increasingly specialized path, which, at times of crisis, can be harmful to the whole medical system. Specialization makes us all very good at one thing, but less effective at a number of other things. In the case of COVID-19, what the medical system needs is an ever increasing number of people who have airway and intensive care skills in order to assist in patient ventilation and care, or people to replace the doctors who do have those skills in their daily practice when they are seconded to intensive care. A well-established, and highly skilled, skin doctor likely hasn’t required intensive care skills since they underwent their medical training potentially 40 years ago; as a result, this highly skilled and experienced doctor is, given that not essential medical appointments have been cancelled, essentially of no use to the medical system.

This has clear parallels to sport. In the Australian sporting system, for example, the majority of athletes are based at either a national training centre, or a state sporting institute (in many cases, the two are one and the same). Like in medicine, those involved in sport are becoming increasingly specialized, and, in many cases, the “coach” is merely in charge of technical training, with physical training outsourced to S&C coaches, testing to physiologists, psychological skill development to sports psychologists, and filming and analysis to biomechanists. As a result, in the current crisis, with support staff members unavailable, the coach—who has to step into these other roles—may not have the ability to do so. By accepting this increased specialization, the coach-athlete pair have become, to use a Taleb-ism, “fragile” to the current scenario.

It’s easy to think that COVID-19 and its associated issues is a one-off, but is it really? Just 6 weeks before the COVID-19-driven shut down, athletes based at the Australian Institute of Sport were unable to train due to reductions in air quality (on some days, Canberra, where the AIS is situated, had the worst air quality in the world) due to forest fires raging close by. High performance sport is a heavily government funded entity; should that funding reduce or even disappear, perhaps due to a global pandemic, health emergency, or climate crisis, would business just continue as normal? Most likely not; we would see fewer support staff and/or facilities and equipment available, and so there would be a greater emphasis on the coach to deliver all (or at least more) aspects of the program.

As a summary, it’s clear that, by maintaining the air of a generalist, we can ensure that we’re better able to respond to unforeseen or unlikely events, making us less fragile and more robust. This means that, as a coach, you need to be able to deliver the other parts of the program. You need to understand the nutritional requirements of your athletes. You need to be able to develop them psychologically. You need to be able to conduct valid and reliable performance tests. You need to be able to film and analyse their technique. It’s not a case of being as good as the specialists in these things, but good enough to enhance the overall package you deliver. Under normal circumstances, this enhances the depth and quality of conversations you can have with the various members of your support staff. In situations where your support staff disappear—including when the athlete underperforms and so can no longer access the support—you become ever more invaluable. (For more on the importance of being a good generalist, I’d recommend Range by David Epstein).

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