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 …
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In the Zone launched

Endorsed by Sir Steve Redgrave, In the Zone aims to engage young people and the general public with the science of how their body works during sport, exercise and movement. I was involved as a member of the advisory group to define the experiments and kit and provide ideas and advice on the interactive touring exhibition. It was a true multidisciplinary effort with experts from a variety of fields from education to textile technology to art. I think the result is amazing and I hope many schools will contact the Wellcome trust to receive the FREE educational kits (you can see them below).

Make sure you visit the website http://www.getinthezone.org.uk/ with all the information about this project as well as details on how to obtain the free kits for your school and the dates of the touring exhibition.

In the Zone primary school kit

(Primary School kit – credits The Wellcome Trust)

The initiative will send free science investigation kits for every primary school, secondary school and further education college in the UK.

In the Zone secondary school kit

(Secondary School kit – credits The Wellcome Trust)

For primary schools

Download the Curriculum Planning Guide – ages 4-11.

Brilliant Bodies (ages 4-5)
Investigate balance and find out about different parts of the body.

Stupendous Steppers (ages 5-7)
Explore how quick off the mark you are and how many steps you take to do different activities.

Super Athletes (ages 7-9)
Discover whether having longer legs helps you to jump further.

Heart Beaters (ages 9-11)
Find out the effect exercise has on your body and what affects recovery.

For secondary schools and colleges

Download the Curriculum Planning Guide – ages 11-19.

On Your Marks…Get Set…Breathe! (ages 11-14)
Discover how exercise affects your breath and your breathing rate.

From Strength to Strength (ages 14-16)
Explore the strength of your muscles and discover how they are used during movement.

I’ve Got the Power (ages 16-19)
Investigate how the cardiovascular system adapts during different exercise or sports.

Here is a short movie about the project.

Conference in Italy in November

It is always a pleasure and a surprise to be invited in Italy to speak at a conference. I left Italy many years ago to pursue a career in sports science and research and being invited back home to speak to coaches and sports scientists is always a proud moment and an opportunity to speak my first language again for few days.

The invitation this time has come from the Italian Athletics Federation and CONI for a conference called “Atleticamente”. I have been invited to present in a special session to celebrate my PhD supevisor and mentor Professor Carmelo Bosco. I am very happy about the invitation to this conference and proud also because Bosco’s supervisor, Professor Paavo Komi will be there.

Over the course of my career both Paavo and Carmelo had a great influence. I was always hoping to become as good as they are and have been and to this day they are still a source of inspiration and I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to meet them and spend time with them.

I will talk about my work with Prof. Bosco from the Lab to the field as well as my own research work on the present and the future of sports science in the applied setting.

The conference will be a great opportunity also to learn more about other sporting systems and catch up with colleagues and friends few months before London Olympics.

Free software for notational/video analysis

 

I have recently downloaded the most recent version of LongoMatch, a free software capable of performing video analysis and tagging with loads of functions. This is another great tool, completely free and very useful for coaches, sports scientists and performance analysis.

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This is a brilliant software, easy to use and user friendly. I spent about 20 minutes to figure everything out and was able to complete quickly some analysis of Handball games.

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With LongoMatch you can tag the most important plays of the game and group them by categories to study each detail of the game strategy. Once you tagged a play, you can review it with a simple click, even in slow motion, and adjust the lead and lag time of each play frame by frame using the timeline. LongoMatch has support for playlists, an easy way to create presentations with plays from different games. If you prefer, you can even export the playlist to a new video.

The Manual is available here.

If you are a coach and/or a sports scientist willing to perform tagging of specific activities performed by your athletes, you definitively need to try LongoMatch a great free software!

Sports Science degrees and Sports Science in elite sport: a case of dislocated expectations?

I have been recently reading an interesting article written by the authors of the (excellent) Sports Scientists Blog on the myopia of Sports Science and decided that it was about time I wrote something about sports science degrees, sports science in academia and sports science in elite sport based upon numerous discussions I have with colleagues around the World on this issues.

What I aim to do with this article is to stimulate a discussion and also try to learn more about the situation in various countries and generally speaking how people feel about it.

Before going into the “meat” of the article, I would like to explain few things first which hopefully will clarify and explain (and possibly help to justify) what I will write next.

I have been fortunate, and allow me to say also wise enough, in my career to be “exposed” to 3 diverse educational systems (I obtained degrees in Italy, USA and Hungary) and 4 main career pathways: academic research, sports science jobs with elite athletes, applied research in elite sports settings, research for commercial entities. So, I think I am pretty much a coach that wears a lab coat or a scientist that wears a track suit…..up to you to decide.

Sports Science is a relatively new profession, evolved from old faculties of Physical Education which aimed at educating individuals to move into physical education and coaching-type jobs. In many countries (mainly in the European eastern block), sports science degrees still allow progression up to PhD level in sports specific qualifications (Ph.D. in sports specific projects) with an emphasis on coaching and coaching-related research. In most “western” countries, sports science degrees are offered with a variety of options, mainly focusing on physiology, biomechanics, biochemistry and in general, human biology-based programmes.

Sports Science Education

In many Eastern European Countries (and in Italy when I was a student), access to the sports science degree was based on an entry “selection” characterised by a series of physical tests and competitions (vertical jumps, shot put, sprinting etc.), a full medical screening and some generic “educational” tests. The aim of such approach was to select only students fit enough to endure the gruelling series of practical activities performed and also students with a strong sporting background which were then able to become coaches in their respective sport. So the selection, was pretty much disallowing “non-athletes” to become sports scientists. Coursework was a combination of “practical” courses (i.e. Track and Field, Swimming, Ball games, Gymnastics etc.) together with the “theoretical pillars” (i.e. Anatomy, Physiology, Biomechanics etc.). In my view, what such approach determined was a serial production of possibly good coaches and good physical education teachers, with very few opportunities to foster a research-based (or evidence-based shall we say?) mentality.

On the contrary, I have been working in the British system where there is absolutely no practical aspect in sports and all coursework is geared towards training young human physiology students. Not to mention the total absence of a selection process looking at physical abilities of the students. This system is for sure pretty good in forming good scientists and/or individuals able to understand human physiology and how humans respond to various forms of exercise, however what I come across every day is the absolute inability for such students to prescribe any form of exercise in a structured and meaningful form not only for elite athletes but also for the general populations. As a matter of fact, very few universities (if any at all) in the UK actually run a full course and examine exercise prescription. So, while many institutions are keen to advertise “sports science” programmes to attract students, very few actually prepare students for the “real world”.

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Reality

The “real world” in sports science terms is in need to sports scientists able to have a good understanding of science and able to provide applied, practical and meaningful solutions to the coaching staff. In my view, sports scientists should be actually able to drive the coaching programme being more than just a “support role”. As stated by my colleagues in the Sports Scientists blog,for a sports scientist to be able to make a real impact is not about doing a VO2 max tests and few lactate samples in the lab. More techniques are becoming more and more available to be taken to the field and technology is changing our job enormously, however what we need to still keep in mind is that a sound scientific approach needs to be used in order to develop “evidence-based” coaching. Bioengineering is also emerging and sports scientists need to be aware of advantages and limitations of various technologies as well as be able to design and develop customised solutions for coaches and athletes in terms of hardware and software. Last but not least, a solid knowledge of statistics and the ability to use less conventional statistical approaches to understand single subjects observations and forecasting performance is going to be what is needed to really make an impact out there.

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Academia and Sports Science

I strongly believe that many universities create in students the illusion that they can actually work in elite sport one day after completing an undergraduate and a postgraduate degree. This is not the case unfortunately, because in too many institutions students are not “exposed” to relevant topics, relevant practical experience and also relevant individuals with practical experience in such settings. In too many UK institutions offering sports science degrees, students are lectured by individuals that never worked in sport (at any level) and/or have never had a significant role in elite sport. Furthermore, most of the topics, the literature and the practical courses proposed to UK students prepare them for a lot of things, but not for elite sport. Last but not least, most of the research activities conducted in various institutions are of no use to sports scientists working at the elite level. So, in my view, I find inappropriate that many UK institutions use the term sports science in their degree titles as the appropriate terminology should be exercise science.

A similar situation has already been highlighted in the USA by my colleagues and friends Prof. Mike Stone, Bill Sands and Meg Stone. In their article, entitled “The Downfall of Sports Science in the United States”, they described the same issues I have been presenting here.

A certain degree of academic snobbery also exists when it comes to sports science research.

Sports scientists working in academia are driven by the need for publishing their studies in high impact factor journals and nowadays are also forced to seek funding for large sums to be able to progress in their careers. This, in my view, has driven some very good minds away from making a meaningful impact in sport and has in some way diverted the attention of research projects towards studies designed to be publishable in a good journal rather then research work able to help coaches and athletes.

On the other side, Sports Scientists working in elite sport are not driven by the need for publishing their research findings (most of what is done at very high level is covered by confidentiality agreements and needs to be “secret” to protect potential competitive advantages) and are purely judged by the impact they make in a sport.

This difference in approach has determined a superiority complex in certain academics which see the sports scientists working in the field as “non-scientists” simply because they don’t publish on high impact factor journals and/or don’t show interest in basic type of research.

On the other hand, and this is possibly even worse, some sports scientists working in the field have developed an inferiority complex towards some academics thinking that whatever they do is not as good as the scientific work published in well-respected journals.

Unfortunately, sports science students are the ones losing together with athletes and coaches. Academic institutions willing to provide education for sports scientists should make use of academic minds working together with elite practitioners providing a wide range of research activities and educational opportunities. Furthermore, sports should try to engage with a variety of experts, provided that they can add value.

Solutions?

So, where is the solution? I believe that Sports Scientists working in elite sport should be educated by industry-based postgraduate courses. Ph.Ds funded by sports bodies in partnership with academic institutions with the students based in a sport setting. The model is pretty similar to what the Australian Institute of Sport has been proposing in the last few years. This would allow a student to be exposed to academic guidance and rigor while working in an applied setting, developing scientific work to help a coach and/or a sport.

Sports scientists not working in sport-related research should be termed “exercise scientists or exercise physiologists” and the should lose the term “sport” in their job description.

Elite athletes and coaches could benefit a lot from a variety of experts in various areas providing advice, but most of all, they could benefit from individuals that can add value to what they do on a daily basis trying to minimise the empirical approach to training and develop an “evidence-based” approach.

Scientific journals should be more opened to “applied” studies and to case studies on elite performers.

There is limited funding for elite sport research. However, many granting agencies offer funds to try to answer specific research questions to benefit the general population. Many topics or research areas funded by charities, funding agencies and commercial entities are very relevant to elite athletes and could use athletes as subjects for the studies. The mode I propose is similar to space research. Many discoveries generated by research work related to the space programme have been very useful for the general population.

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Finally, too many commercial entities producing goods for the sport industry provide limited funding for research that could benefit their products. Only the big shoes and apparel manufacturers seem to dedicate funds and personnel to research activities also conducted with elite athletes with the aim not only to “validate” the effectiveness of their products, but also to develop better products for the average consumer. This approach is commendable and unfortunately not followed by companies producing fitness equipment and/or nutritional supplements which seem to be more interested in maximising gains from advertisement and unsubstantiated claims rather then investment in research. Last but not least, real food companies, when are they going to invest in research showing the benefits of real food on exercise and eventually on performance?