The Lab Rat and The Dinosaur: A Tale of Two Coaches
This is a tale between two coaches. Joined by a singular common goal. To to turn those under them into achievers. To make them better than they were before. And yet these two coaches remain divided. While one coach favors tradition and practical experience, views coaching as an art, and uses these to form his methodology, the other favors scientific theory and new practices, they view coaching very much as a science. A natural disagreement in how to manage those they worked on led to a dispute, and consequently one was labelled the dinosaur, an old-fashoned, inefficient coach and an obstruction to progress, while the other was labelled a lab-rat, a coach with next to no practical experience, a pompous atitude, no grasp on leadership or motivation or “knowing the athlete”, and practices that are about as useful outside the laboratory as they themselves are on the pitch, that is to say, not very. And so, a rift developed that, in many coaching teams, still exist today.
I am of course discussing a relationship dynamic seen between head coaches or managers and Sort Scientists or Strength & Conditioning Coaches. This is clearly not a view that I alone share. As two texts I have read have outlined this as a potential problem in a coaching team setting. The book Developing Sport Expertise: Researchers and Coaches Put Theory into Practice, outlines a gap in outlook between the two types of coaches, with the scientists lack of practicality being cited as one issue, and the head coaches closed-mindedness being cited as another (Farrow, Baker et. MacMahon, 2013). Another text, Youth Development in Football: Lessons from the World’s Best Academies, echoes these sentiments, quoting “the more knowledgeable and experienced the coach or other staff are, the more they know this feels more like an art form than a purely scientific enterprise”, acknowledging that this can “bring a source of misunderstanding and tension into the relationship between some sport scientists and coaches” and that sport scientists can sometimes have the impression that “if we cannot measure it, it doesn’t exist” (Nest et. Sulley, 2015). The book also acknowledges that most great coaches were lauded more as artists and leades than pure scientists, but also confirms the massive contribution of Sport Scientists, quoting Raymond Verheijen as a driving force behind improved fitness and reduced injuries.
It cannot be refuted that the introduction of formal sport science and strength & conditioning has made a huge difference in sporting performance, even from a coaches standpoint. Just look at Arsene Wenger’s efforts with his Youth Squad development and improved player nutrition and training methods. However, whether its a cure for cancer or this week’s lottery numbers, if no-one’s listening, your words hold no value. So it goes without saying that a rift caused by either a conscious or subconscious difference in opinion and methodology can massively damage productivity and hurt the very people whose improvement is the sole focus of both coaches, the athletes.
I’m speaking as a person who has been on both sides. I was, and still am, head coach to the Institute of Technology, Blanchardstown Boxing Club,since 2012, and I’ve been a practicing Sport Scientist for 4 years now, working with well over 100 clients. My best example of a difference in coaching outlooks hurting productivity was when I served as S&C under coaches Bobby Brown and Eoin Leary, two lads who had as much appreciation for science as the pope does. Between forbidding us from doing Injury Prevention training (because they were afraid it would injure the players!) and canceling S&C sessions last minute for no apparent reason, we were more or less rendered useless in working with the team.
While working with the Boxing team I can certainly understand the “artist” view of training. During technical drills, its not about motor learning, it’s not about physiology or biomechanics. Its ablut, does it look right, does it seem right, does it feel right and, most importantly, does it work (get results in competition). However, I have always made every attempt to be as scientific as possible in my approaches and continuously try to merge the science with the art, regularly experimenting with new coaching and training methods. And so, this brings us to how we should go about fixing this unproductive dynamic. And so I’ve outlined a few practices I feel can help when constructing a team of both coaches and sport scientists.
A Better Understanding of Theory and Practice
It goes without saying that both sides have areas that are in need of improvement. The scientist needs to evaluate how practical his or her methods are, particularly in a team setting, and understanding and knowing their athletes, rather than simply seeing them as test subjects, while coaches need to spend more time studying the theory behind their methods, and changing them if need be, change is scary, but so is being sacked because you’re the next coach is promising something newer, shiner and more effective. I’ve had coaches say they don’t have the time to research these things. Thats basically the same as saying you don’t have time to become a better coach! Find the time! No-ones asking you to study molecular physiology, just basic understanding of the body is enough. And studying doesn’t mean reading a college library every evening. Chat with the team sport scientist about why they’re doing what they’re doing. Or listen to a podcast. Or even read an issue of Muscle & Fitness Magazine. Anything!
Improve Team Cohesion
Its like Kiera Knightley said to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Alan Turing in The Imitation Game: “You’re going to need all the help you can get. And they are not going to help you if they don’t like you!” (great film!) And the sentiment remains true for any administration. Team cohesion remains of the utmost importance. Many academies have copped on to this with Bolton FC placing great emphasis on team bonding trip for coaching staff (Nesti et. Sulley, 2015). If a team get along they are much more likely to understand each others decisions and be more prepared to compromise. So get to the administrators: Get the BBQ and paintball guns out! Could save you a lot of grief in the long run.
Go for Experience
Education is learning what parts of a book you need to remember, experience is learning what parts of the book you need to forget. There’s a reason experience is considered a valuable thing. It helps a person learn what can be done vs. what should or could be done (under different circumstances) and allows them to identify those circumstances. Plus, more experienced coaches/sport scientists are usually better at managing and dealing with the people around them, be them superiors or subordinates. So, whenever possible, choose the person who has the more (relevant) experience.
Developing Sport Expertise: Researchers and Coaches Put Theory into Practice: Second Edition, by Damian Farrow, Joe Baker and Flare McMahon, 2015
Youth Development in Football: Lessons learned from the Worlds Best Academies, by Mark Nesti and Chris Sulley, 2015