Rethinking Sport Science to Improve Coach–Researcher Interactions

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Irineu Loturco Federal University of São Paulo and Nucleus of High Performance in Sport, São Paulo, Brazil

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A typical comment made by coaches in high-performance sport is “I avoid interactions with researchers because they often fail to effectively address the issues that impact my daily work.” Moreover, it is not uncommon to hear statements like “I don’t utilize the scientific services offered by my club because conclusions and recommendations are vague and abstract” or “Results lack clarity and the methods employed are too complex to be implemented at the speed and scale required in my professional context.” In contrast, it is also common to come across sport scientists expressing concerns regarding the limited openness exhibited by practitioners. Complaints such as “Coaches appear resistant to adopting new concepts” or “Despite being informed, they continue to use inappropriate techniques” are frequently reiterated. Notably, these critiques have endured since my early days as an undergraduate student, and they still seem to be far from resolved. This is why coach–scientist relationships remain a key issue to be tackled and overcome.

A first step in this direction is to acknowledge our limitations as researchers. Science is essentially reductionist. In our experiments, we break down complex processes into simpler elements in order to explain a certain phenomenon. In sport science, to assess the efficacy of a given intervention, it is necessary to isolate the independent variable of interest (eg, exercise or relative load) to examine its effects on the dependent variable (eg, muscle strength or power). However, in real-world situations, coaches combine multiple stimuli into a single session, often adjusting training content according to subjective factors and unforeseeable events (eg, perception of effort, muscle soreness, changes in match or training schedule), which drastically limits the relevance of highly controlled studies.

A similar rationale may be applied to repeated studies on validity and reliability, comparing measurements and measures that already exhibit elevated levels of precision and consistency. Does it make sense to continue carrying out these highly specialized studies under these complex and ever-changing circumstances? The real challenges faced by coaches still revolve around the ability to establish simple and effective forms of control over the whole training process, enabling them to make prompt and well-informed decisions under highly demanding scenarios, where slight variations in performance are expected and usually found.13

A good example is the topic of sprint performance. While many discussions about the most effective sprint-training methods persist within our community, the challenges faced by coaches in the real world seem to be quite distinct. In an insightful commentary, Haugen4 sheds light on this topic by questioning whether we should train elite soccer players to become faster or we should simply “buy faster players.” After listing a number of complexities related to this matter, the author draws attention to the fact that the proper development of sprinting skills not only includes aspects related to coaching and training techniques but also involves making critical decisions on the extent to which soccer-specific training can be “sacrificed”—which is always a problem in elite sports.

The pursuit of speed enhancement not only presents an intricate challenge for soccer players but also emerges as a significant limitation for sprinters. One study2 revealed that, from their early to mid-20s, the annual improvements in sprint speed in world-class sprinters were estimated to be ≤0.2%. In addition, in the 5 years preceding peak performance, sprinters from various countries (data gathered from a sample of the top 100 athletes worldwide in each season, extracted from the statistical section of “World Athletics,” between 2002 and 2016)2 exhibited improvements of <2% in comparison to their personal bests. This perspective indicates that the results achieved by young sprinters in the early stages of their competitive participation will significantly shape their performance in the senior categories. Furthermore, it suggests that the extensive support available to these athletes during their professional careers will have a very limited impact on performance progression.

Equally interesting is the observation that this sample comprises sprinters from various countries, training under the guidance of multiple coaches, influenced by a variety of training cultures. Curiously, these athletes have access to highly contrasting economic, technical, and scientific resources, yet these differences do not appear to influence their evolution over time. In the same vein, a recent study3 revealed that male and female 100-m sprinters of varying competitive levels (personal bests ranging between 10.07–10.61 s and 11.03–11.61 s, respectively) and trained by different coaches exhibited an average variation in sprint times not exceeding ±1.4% (CV = 1.3%) during the annual season. Collectively, these factors reinforce the notion that the distinct—and potentially divergent—training approaches adopted by coaches make only modest impacts on the competitive performance of their athletes.

In light of these thought-provoking data, some questions arise: Do these results contradict the ongoing advancements in sport science? Is there a gap between scientific principles and their application in high-performance sport? Or perhaps, as researchers, are we not adequately addressing the issues that coaches encounter in their daily routines? The simplest way to explain these results is to attribute them to the limited trainability of elite athletes and the limitations of human performance. But if this fact is already as well established as it seems to be, why do we continue to invest research efforts into exploring new training methods instead of seeking new avenues for research? The phenomena and responses surrounding these issues are incredibly complex and influenced by various perspectives. Nevertheless, to maintain our momentum in generating knowledge and insights in this field, it is crucial to consider the following: Perhaps the knowledge we are producing might not be as effective as presumed or might not be applicable at the level of high-performance sport. Alternatively, there might be a combination of both scenarios. This questioning is vital to ensure that our research remains relevant in actual training settings, prompting us to reconsider our approaches, methodologies, and viewpoints.

Maintaining a balance between rigorous research and practice requires constant reevaluation of our methods and an understanding of the needs and concerns of those who apply our findings. As researchers and sport scientists, we need to be aware of these issues and consider that meticulous studies, including those with great potential for citation, are not necessarily the most accessed by practitioners. This shortcoming occurs because most of these studies, given their uniform and highly controlled nature, fail to identify and address the real challenges faced by coaches in their daily practices. In general, coaches are constantly striving to adopt simple and time-efficient methods, capable of producing and detecting even the slightest changes in performance. Many of these methods and their particularities cannot be easily tested by rigorous studies. These circumstances lead us to an important reflection and place us face to face with a crucial decision: What direction do we want to take as a community? Reflecting on these issues goes beyond boosting the number of citations of our papers and the impact of our journals. This reflection is directly associated with improvement in athletic performance and, more important, with the future of sport science. In this context, we hope that IJSPP will make a difference by publishing high-quality, practically relevant research in the field of elite sport.

References

  • 1.

    Hopkins WG. How to interpret changes in an athletic performance test. Sportscience. 2004;8:17.

  • 2.

    Haugen TA, Solberg PA, Foster C, Moran-Navarro R, Breitschadel F, Hopkins WG. Peak age and performance progression in world-class track-and-field athletes. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2018;13(9):11221129. doi:10.1123/ijspp.2017-0682

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  • 3.

    Loturco I, Fernandes V, Bishop C, et al. Variations in Physical and competitive performance of highly trained sprinters across an annual training season. J Strength Cond Res. 2023;37(5):11041110. doi:10.1519/JSC.0000000000004380

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    • Export Citation
  • 4.

    Haugen T. Sprint conditioning of elite soccer players: worth the effort or let’s just buy faster players? Sport Perform Sci Rep. 2017;1:12.

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The author (irineu.loturco@terra.com.br) is an Associate Editor for IJSPP, https://orcid.org/0000-0003-1309-2568

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  • 1.

    Hopkins WG. How to interpret changes in an athletic performance test. Sportscience. 2004;8:17.

  • 2.

    Haugen TA, Solberg PA, Foster C, Moran-Navarro R, Breitschadel F, Hopkins WG. Peak age and performance progression in world-class track-and-field athletes. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2018;13(9):11221129. doi:10.1123/ijspp.2017-0682

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 3.

    Loturco I, Fernandes V, Bishop C, et al. Variations in Physical and competitive performance of highly trained sprinters across an annual training season. J Strength Cond Res. 2023;37(5):11041110. doi:10.1519/JSC.0000000000004380

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 4.

    Haugen T. Sprint conditioning of elite soccer players: worth the effort or let’s just buy faster players? Sport Perform Sci Rep. 2017;1:12.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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