Reconnecting with classical work

I love travelling because it allows me to spend time reading and thinking. Long flights are perfect as you cannot receive calls/emails, your desk cannot be hijacked by colleagues and you have time to chill, think, reflect and most of all read in peace. I landed last night in San Diego to attend the ACSM conference and to speak about technology in sport in a symposium. While I was looking for material, I came across this fantastic book thanks to a link provided by my dear friend (and sprint coach) Hakan Andersson:

Health by exercise. What exercises to take and how to take them, to remove special physical weakness. Embracing an account of the Swedish methods, and a summary of the principles of hygiene

by Taylor, Geo. H. (George Herbert), 1821-1896
Published in 1880

I started reading it, and it is an amazing book. I have a small collection of “ancient” exercise physiology books at home in Italy as I am always interested in history and a bit of archeology and to me reading the past serves the purposes of reminding us to be humble and be inspired to continue the journey of discovery. As I have already written on this blog, many times in the sporting industry people try to sell old ideas as new. They rebrand things already well known, package them with fancy terminology and cool campaigns and as of sudden, before we know it, may athletes/coaches/sports scientists are suddenly hooked. The new generation suffers form what I call the “PDF” syndrome. This is a syndrome caused by the fact that very few people these days spend time in a library. In the old days (I am old school after all you know…) you had to spend a lot of time to find information in print in shelves. 
And sometimes while looking for a specific paper you stumbled across a book or a paper or a collection of journals you had never heard about before and you started reading and taking notes. One of my favourite/saddest places when I go in Italy is the library of the Olympic training centre in Formia. Nobody uses the library anymore. Somebody years ago wanted to throw away the collection of articles and books because they said it was pointless to keep them. There are some amazing books and collections of papers form the 50s and 60s there as well as photogrammetric analysis of athletic performances done by a coach in the 60s (This is pre-dartfish era for the newbies, Nicola Placanica’s photogrammetric analyses are still fascinating to see). Many things are still relevant today. But clearly nobody reads these days. Or better, nobody reads meaningful things. In this day and age, coaches (and strength and conditioning, personal trainers specialists, physicians, sport scientists not working in academia, physiotherapists, nutritionists) don’t need to visit a library. All they need is a wi-fi and a device to connect to the Internet and as of sudden they can come across tons of information. Pubmed is easily accessible as well and it is easy to look for papers. However, despite all this, many only read “recent papers” thinking that recently published work is all new and relevant and unfortunately many don’t put much effort in finding papers they cannot access in PDF form. So knowledge suddenly becomes biased by availability rather than quality and accessibility. We also “consume” a lot of crap information about the latest training fad/equipment/nutritional advice and are always sold old things as new. The example from the book I read this morning is a great one. I came across a picture and a description of what is known as “the nordic hamstring” exercise and decided to put it on twitter.
Marco_Cardinale
“New” exercises for the hamstrings from 1880 https://t.co/Fmu8EuMi2Z @RodWhiteley 😅 http://t.co/IMhfWgOHeW
25/05/2015 18:39
In the same book, there are also numerous examples of exercises nowadays sold as “new” approaches to train “core stability” whatever that is (maybe a topic for another blog). 
Then I also looked at this one which I dowloaded few weeks ago:
which contains a lot of interesting concepts which are still used today.
Finally, I also liked the following ones, I am amazed how many things are still valid today, but also how much our understanding of the human body has improved.
1860, Longmans, Green, and Co.

Athletic and gymnastic exercises

in English
So, sometimes when the new “craze” comes out, make sure you read some old stuff, maybe the training method you are sold as new is not that new after all.
In the next few days I will be listening to the talk on the Basic Science of Exercise fatigue, remembering one of the most fascinating books I have ever read :

La fatigue intellectuelle et physique: intellectuelle et physique 

by Angelo Mosso (1908)
Available here.
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Athletics Coaches Survey

This survey was designed to collect data on how Italian Athletics coaches see various aspects of coaching as well as how they find information/learn and develop their knowledge. The data collection in Italy was completed last year. I would like to experiment the survey with coaches around the World and want to make sure everyone can see the outcomes as data come in. For this reasons, I have designed a simple dashboard with Tableau which is linked to the google spreadsheet and updates itself as soon as somebody fills in the questionnaire.

The questionnaire is available here. If you are a coach in Athletics, make sure you fill it in and if you have colleagues/friends interested, pass them the link.

You can also fill it in from this page

In the meantime, some data are available here:
Athletics Coaches and Testing

New Article Published

This paper was the result of a collaboration with the University of South Wales and part of Dr. Brian Cunniffe’s PhD work. A unique study looking elite rugby players in the real world of competitive sport. Just like every study some limitations but a good chance to look at what happens away from the laboratories.

‘Home Vs Away’ Competition: Effect on Psychophysiological Variables in Elite Rugby Union 

Section: Original Investigation
Authors: Brian Cunniffe1,2, Kevin A Morgan3, Julien S Baker, Marco Cardinale1,5, and Bruce Davies 3
Affiliations: 1Institute of Sport Exercise and Health, University College London, UK. 2English Institute of Sport, Bisham Abbey National Sports Centre, Marlow, UK. 3Dept. Sport, Health and Exercise Science, University of South Wales, Pontypridd, Wales, UK. 4Division, Sport and Exercise Science, University of the West of Scotland, Hamilton, Scotland, UK. 5Aspire Academy, Doha, Qatar.
Acceptance Date: April 28, 2015
Abstract
This study evaluated the effect of game venue and starting status on pre-competitive psychophysiological measures in elite rugby union. Saliva samples were taken from  players (starting XV, n = 15  + non-starters; n = 9) on a control day and 90 min prior to 4 games played consecutively at home and away venues against local rivals (LR) and league-leaders (LL). Pre-competition psychological states were assessed using the Competitive State Anxiety Inventory-2. The squad recorded two wins (home) and two losses (away) over the study period. Calculated effect sizes (ES) showed higher pregame cortisol (C) and testosterone (T) difference values before all games compared to a baseline control day (ES: 0.7 to 1.5). Similar findings were observed for cognitive and somatic anxiety. Small between venue C differences were observed in starting XV players (ES: 0.2 to 0.25). Conversely, lower ‘home’ T (ES: 0.95) and higher ‘away’ C (ES: 0.6) difference values were observed in non-starters. Lower T difference values were apparent in non-starters (vs. starting XV) before ‘home’ games providing evidence of a between group effect (ES: 0.92). Findings show an anticipatory rise in psychophysiological variables prior to competition. Knowledge of starting-status appears a moderating factor in the magnitude of player endocrine response between home and away game venues.
Keywords: Home advantage; hormones; psychophysiological; cortisol; testosterone; rugby.

Functional nonsense. The new "F" word.

The new buzzword in the sporting domain seems to be “Functional”. Everything these days is has this F word attached to it. I have read and known of Functional Nutritionists, Functional Strength and Conditioning, Functional Medicine, Functional Biomechanics, Functional Psychology etc. etc. (If you don’t believe me, search all of the above terms on google and see how many hits you get for each discipline preceded by the F word).
I am a bit old school you know, when I see this word in front of a scientific discipline or I hear about functional training I get a sudden increase in blood pressure. This makes no sense. To all the young practitioners out there, please do not fall into this nonsensical trap. You don’t need to separate functional training from training. Training is training and is made to improve someone’s performance in the sport of choice.
Let’s first of all understand what the word “Functional” means. Functional is an adjective and it means “designed to have a practical use” or “working properly” according to the Merrian-Webster dictionary. The wiktionary link is here. 
So, if you are a strength training coach working in any sport, you should design training which improves performance in that sport. By definition your training should have a practical use and should translate into improvements on the field. So there is no need to add the word functional to everything you do as if it isn’t you should not be there. Functional strength training is no different from strength training. The only difference is in the ability of the coach to design an appropriate training programme to improve performance in the specific activity performed by the athlete/client. However marketeers of course have an interest in making sure it is perceived to be “different”. There is a whole market to books, courses, DVDs, tools, T-shirts to sell. And perception in young coaches is now that if you use Olympic Lifts you are not “functional”. Nonsense.
Every training programme should be tailored to the need of individual athletes and their abilities/shortcomings. It does not need the functional adjective, because by proxy it should be functional. It’s the same with nutrition, isn’t it about getting people healthier/slimmer/bigger? So it is functional per se. What is the difference between a functional nutritionist and a nutritionist? Aren’t they all try to design diets which have a practical use? What about a functional biomechanist? How different is from a biomechanist? And a Psychologist or a Physician? Isn’t medicine supposed to be about having a practical outcome (health)? So why Functional Medicine? Do you know of anybody trying to do non-functional medicine (I might say I could write a thing or two about dysfunctional medicine…)?
The supporters of so called functional training claim that this is the ONLY way to improve sports specific movements. However when I see videos like the ones below, I lose it. Can this really be considered a training session? How many of the exercises/activities could be done in other ways? Is this intensity/activity really going to improve performance?
(Just to make it clear, I am not criticising the manufacturers of the equipment used, I am just trying to understand what the training prescription is supposed to do.)

Strength training is about improving strength. In order to do this, you do require to lift/push/pull relatively heavy loads (see generic recommendations by various organisations on different groups ACSM, NSCA) in a progressive manner. Performing few sets of 30 repetitions of pulling or shaking a rope will not improve your maximal strength unless you are completely untrained. Also, if I try to use the functionalist approach,can somebody explain me how shaking a rope is “functional”? functional to what exactly  (tug of war has not been in the olympics since 1920)? 
So let’s not get polarised between the so called “functional” and the so called “conventional”. There is  nothing to be polarised about. Strength training should be designed using appropriate exercise modalities with appropriate loading with appropriate movement patterns to make sure that the athlete improves in the tasks he/she needs to perform and also reduces the chances of injuries. With that in mind, it is clear that in a well designed programme there is space for various things which might involve free weights, barbells, dumbbells, maybe some isoinertial devices etc etc. What the S&C coach needs to know is what loading each exercise is likely to apply to the body and by assessing progression of the athlete the coach needs to understand if the programme has been effective. Too many times I hear coaches and S&C coaches say “my programme works” but sometimes the evidence (data) is not there.
Anytime a so called “functional” exercise is proposed, it would be worthwhile discussing aspects like:
– What is the loading (force/power/speed of movement)?
– Which muscles are used?
– Can the activity cause injury?
– How does each exercise prescribed fit in the training plan and in trying to accomplish the right outcomes?
– After a period of training did the athlete improve? In what? And how does that affect his/her performance in the chosen sport?
Only after the last question has been answered we will be able to find out if the training prescription has been functional or dysfunctional.

Coaching Types Continued

The power of the internet and social media is incredible. The previous blog on coaching types has been read in many parts of the World and many of my former colleagues have asked me which type they are…the answer is simple, you know who you are, just have a laugh, think about what you can do to change (if you need/want to).
I have few more types to introduce, let’s wrap this up and in the following articles I will cover something about building good working relationships in high performance sport (or surviving in a pool of sharks as sometimes it may feel like).

Here they are:

6. The Bully

The bully is a coaching type you can come across frequently. This type is very popular in team sports and combat sports (stereotyping…I know…). This type is loved by CEOs of team sports clubs and tends to get hired to replace another coach when the season is going badly. It is in fact popular belief with general managers and CEOs of sports club (should write something about them as well…) that when a team is not performing you need to hire a bully as many times the perception from the boardroom is that the athletes and staff are not “working hard enough”. The bully comes in, shouts at everyone constantly and controls everything. The bully does not like freedom of expression nor alternative ideas. With the bully you execute and you have to be prepared to have a shouting match. With the bully heated discussions do not happen behind closed doors, they happen on the field, in front of anybody (that’s why he/she is a bully!). The bully has a plan most of the times (in his head), and when shared with staff and players it is fixed. The bully does not grasp the concept of progressive overload (in fact, the word progressive does not belong to his/her vocabulary). The periodisation plan of the bully is affected by good and bad results. Bad results = massive increase in training volume and intensity, good results = constant high volume and intensity. 

8. The friend coach

The friend coach is the nice guy. The one that sometimes even when results are bad can’t be fired because “he is such a nice guy”. The nice guy reads a lot of psychology and sociology. The nice guy does not shout and will refer any sign of DOMS to the medical team for an MRI (just in case). The friend coach cares about the health of the athletes, their families, the staff and the fans. He/She wants to make sure everyone is happy. The friend coach likes questionnaires, psychological profiling and likes to talk. His/her training approach has solid pedagogical foundations. It’s the Montessori approach to training in fact! The friend coach has a plan, but this is discussed with the athletes and staff. Everyone has a say and in the end nobody has a plan as most of the times the friend coach facilitates an anarchic system where everybody does whatever he/she likes to do when they like to do it. As a sports scientist supporting the friend coach you will need to be firm and organised (but this is a trait you need anyway for every other coach) as otherwise you will not get much done. New iterations of the friend coach these days contain “new age” elements. Sometimes in fact training sessions can be performed barefoot and with soft music in the background (have you ever tried to lift weights with Mozart’s music blasted in the gym?). He/she can take you to a camping trip so you can all bond and/or perform a training session in weird/remote places. When a friend coach is sacked there are lots of tears and teams might need weeks of therapy to recover from the loss. This is very different from the sacking of a bully coach where teams celebrate the release with fireworks displays.
9. The Statistician
The Statistician loves his/her numbers. Very common coaching type in CGS (centimetres,grams or seconds) sports. The statistician knows how fast Usain Bolt run when he was 11 and has learnt mnemonically the World ranking in his and other events for the last 30 years. The statistician make s use of numbers and loves numbers. His/her training sessions are detailed. You will know how much, how many times, how fast/slow, with what cadence and sometimes you might have add-ons like breathing rate! The statistician will get your brain going, so make sure you learn all key times and bring a calculator as sometimes you may fall into the trap of believing the numbers to find out later that they were utterly wrong (sometimes!). The statistician also loves predicting performances. He/she is able to tell you fast somebody will run/swim/cycle just by knowing how many push ups/medicine ball throws the athlete performs together with his body mass, speed in specific distances and age. How does he/she do that? Easy! The statistician uses secret formulas which were developed in East Germany in the 50s and were obtained from another coach after winning a drinking competition in a Bar in Budapest or exchanged for a box of cigars before the Berlin wall came down. The formula has also been “improved” by the statistician coach over the years adding a k he/she developed which improves the precision of the predictions. If you think you can go on PubMed and look for the formula you are a fool. There is no trace. Your best bet is to head to Budapest and try to find the Bar. Support to the statistician is relatively easy if you know your numbers and you provide evidence based reports. However, if you don’t know or understand statistics, you are better off considering a career in another industry as this one takes no prisoners.
10. The SAS coach
One of my favourites and loved by everyone with OCD. The SAS coach applies military techniques to coaching and managing staff. Your morning meetings will be at 07 hundred hours (0700 am) and will start with a briefing. Anybody arriving late to anything will have to do 20 push ups. The SAS coach has a plan, everything is planned to detail with exact times and list of activities. Meetings are sharp and run on strict agendas and end with a series of actions. Athletes and staff know their roles and responsibilities. There is no place for complacency, no compromise means no compromise. When SAS coach asks you to do something, he/she is not asking. It’s an order. Training sessions are built on solid routines. Everything is built on solid routines. The SAS coach is not a bully, but he/she can be at times. Definitively more organised than any other type, however sometimes lacks empathy. So some staff or athletes may get the “hairdryer” treatment at times, but the SAS coach means well. He/she demands excellence (and most of the times obtains it!). Not everybody can work with the SAS coach. The main aspect is to be incredibly well organised, have good routines and deliver consistent excellence.


So, my list is finished. Joking aside, in order to work with various coaches in a sports science role you need to:

– Understand how the coaches work, what is their experience/background and what their philosophy
– Learn about their approach/take notes/ask questions/observe/measure where possible
– Reinforce all the positive, anything that works
– Discuss what does not work when you have evidence and not when their philosophy does not match yours
– Be organised, have good plans, gather (relevant) data to improve the quality of service you can provide to the coach/athlete unit
– Remember you are part of the support team, not the main actor, your place is behind the scenes
– No one is indispensable
– If you get a chance, get some coaching qualifications and try to coach somebody in any sport, you will find out that putting the human performance puzzle together is not as easy as running an incremental test in a lab
– If you think you know everything it is time for you to move on, working with athletes of any level/age allows you to discover something new every day if you ask the right questions (or assess routinely certain aspects) and critically appraise what you do
– Be prepared to have the difficult conversations (and many times you will be at the receiving end!)
– Never forget that when working with a team or an individual athlete everyone is trying to do the same thing (improving performance) but each member of the team might do it in a different way
– Never lose sight of the big picture

Coaching types

In the last few weeks I have been reflecting a lot about the evolution of the coaching profession. When I started my career in Sport, I was more interested in coaching than sports science, later on I drifted to science, mainly because I am the kind of person mostly interested in evidence and numbers, in structures and processes and find difficult to get lost in philosophies and opinions which unfortunately still permeate part of the coaching community.
In my view, coaching is teaching. It is about making people better, and it is about “igniting” passion for something. Coaching is about facilitating the expression of talents as well as instilling a culture of hard and honest work and passion for the activity the athlete is doing.
So, when I was coaching, I aspired to be a great teacher, a great motivator, a man with a plan able to communicate clearly to my athletes what we were doing and why and I tried to measure and understand most of what I was doing in order to separate the good from the bad. In my view at the time, a great coach was also an excellent communicator, and was somebody able to facilitate creativity within a structure of play (I was a Handball coach after all). 
As a Strength and Conditioning coach I was clear about my role: I had to make my athletes stronger and faster and robust enough to endure training and competition. Over the years my career has taken different directions, from pure science to scientific support to managing holistic approaches to performance. In such roles I have met many coaches and practitioners with my daily interactions, but I also came across many individuals in coaching conferences, workshops and seminars and also on the Internet. I have to say that over the years I learnt to “box” coaches according to the way they work and would like to share this on my blog. This is not a critique to the people working in a coaching role, but is a tongue-in-cheek  blog which I hope it can be used for self reflection to understand where the coaching career is going and also be used as a guide for young sports scientists.
1. The multi-medal winner who is always right
This is challenging coach to work with. He/She has won everything there was to win, has been successful over the years and is grounded on his/her beliefs of what works and what does not work. In general, the multi medal winner is obsessed with (old) routines and thinks that his/her way is the ONLY way to improve performance and win. The only way to win his/her trust is learn about his work, collect evidence. Build and collect evidence and he/she will listen to you. With no evidence your philosophy and your beliefs count nothing. After all, he/she has won everything, not you, so why should the coach listen to you?
2. The motivator
The motivator gets incredible attention from staff and athletes. He/She can get anybody to climb mount Everest. He/She is capable of inspiring the most incredible performances. However most of the times he/she is completely disorganised. Cannot put together a structured plan with a sense, improvises and has no idea why certain things work and what does not work. If you work with a motivator coach you will always be in a great environment but unstructured and random. So what you will need as a sports scientist is organization and structure. The motivator suffers from ego-boosts periods when things go well and excessive rehearsals of Al Pacino’s any given sunday speeches when things go pear shaped, so be ready for loads of pep talks and inspirational videos.
3. The Lecturer
This coach is going to lecture everybody, his/her athletes and hi/her staff. However, just like any university lecturer, few times athletes and staff will fall asleep…The lecturer coach is always prepared (to give a lecture) but most of the times what he lectures about is not what he/she coaches. He is too busy to put together cool quotes to self reflect and find out that what he thinks he/she is doing is not what is happening. Sports science support to a lecturer coach is challenging as it means many times falling into the trap of producing power point slides to get to your points. If you end up working with somebody like that, get ready for death by power point and numerous hours of meetings in which you will be lectured.
4. The pseudo-science guru
This one is fascinating. This is the guru. The one that also has sometimes cargo-cult science following. He/she is always right just like the first type, is a great motivator and a lecturer. Is the combination of all of the above. What makes this type more dangerous than others is that this coach reads stuff. Blogs, books, articles in Russian, philosophy theories, books nobody has read or can buy, and has a side interest in physics. This type comes up with new terms previously unknown to mankind and claims facts that were published in some obscure journals (or on the walls of a cave) which helped him/her develop the new theory of coaching. This one is lethal, because will challenge any sports scientists using collections of sciency words in random order and will confuse you so badly that at times you will think that what you learnt in your degrees was just a pile of nonsense. He/she has a following after all, and everyone wants to work with him/her. So if you question or refuse to accept the mumbo jumbo you will be quickly dismissed as an innominato, a non believer. Best way to work with this type? Get your facts right, über right! Make sure you translate the mumbo jumbo in something meaningful and take your time to understand how he/she works. Sometimes great gifts are given in ugly packages, so you might learn something new if you listen but this happens rarely. Many times you will shake your head in disbelief and will have to challenge the non sense using scientific facts. Be prepared, as the pseudo-science guru does not like to be contradicted, so unless you are really really good and absolutely correct, you might lose your job before you know it. 
5. The Artist
The artist creates. He/She is never prepared. There is no structure, no plan, no thinking forward, no idea of what happened last week. Nothing, nada de nada. The Artist coach will surprise you with curve balls coming from everywhere. His/Her plans (which reside only in his/her head) will be always changed at the last minute. Whatever you agreed to do will have to change. So if you work with this type, better learn how to sail and read the wind, as the working journey with this type will take you to places you have never been before…This type should come with a warning if you have OCD and/or love structured plans.
… TO BE CONTINUED …

New article on strength training in the elderly

 

In 2013 I was kindly invited by my colleague Dr. Urs Granacher in Potsdam to give a talk to his institution about science in sport. During my stay we discussed about many aspects of sports science and spent a lot of time talking about bilateral deficit and the fact that there was not much research on assessing it in various populations and also on the effectiveness of various training interventions on this interesting neuromuscular phenomenon. In particular, I was concerned with the amount of training prescriptions characterised by exercises involving two limbs, while most movements are performed with one limb. Also, we discussed how this was relevant for the elderly, as the risk of falls is large for older people and falls occur normally when most of the weight is supported by one leg.

Discussions moved to actions, and the project has been now published on Plos One. The abstract is below and if you want to read the article you can click on the image.

Abstract

The term “bilateral deficit” (BLD) has been used to describe a reduction in performance during bilateral contractions when compared to the sum of identical unilateral contractions. In old age, maximal isometric force production (MIF) decreases and BLD increases indicating the need for training interventions to mitigate this impact in seniors. In a cross-sectional approach, we examined age-related differences in MIF and BLD in young (age: 20–30 years) and old adults (age: >65 years). In addition, a randomized-controlled trial was conducted to investigate training-specific effects of resistance vs. balance training on MIF and BLD of the leg extensors in old adults. Subjects were randomly assigned to resistance training (n = 19), balance training (n = 14), or a control group (n = 20). Bilateral heavy-resistance training for the lower extremities was performed for 13 weeks (3 × / week) at 80% of the one repetition maximum. Balance training was conducted using predominately unilateral exercises on wobble boards, soft mats, and uneven surfaces for the same duration. Pre- and post-tests included uni- and bilateral measurements of maximal isometric leg extension force. At baseline, young subjects outperformed older adults in uni- and bilateral MIF (all p < .001; d = 2.61–3.37) and in measures of BLD (p < .001; d = 2.04). We also found significant increases in uni- and bilateral MIF after resistance training (all p < .001, d = 1.8-5.7) and balance training (all p < .05, d = 1.3-3.2). In addition, BLD decreased following resistance (p < .001, d = 3.4) and balance training (p < .001, d = 2.6). It can be concluded that both training regimens resulted in increased MIF and decreased BLD of the leg extensors (HRT-group more than BAL-group), almost reaching the levels of young adults.