Over the past 50 years, science and technology have transformed the development of all major sports.
From revolutionising the equipment used by players, spectators and officials, to the improved understanding of physiology and nutrition, to the advancements in the diagnosis and treatment of injuries.
Many of these interventions have been beneficial to coaches, and to the athletes themselves in the playing of the game. The spectator experience has been revolutionised by first television, then the internet.
However, sports science has gradually become more firmly rooted in academia and more detached from the coaches and athletes it propounds to serve.
As the gains offered by scientific research become ever more marginal, are we reaching the point where the tail is starting to wag the dog?
Are the games we play, and the people who play them being ruled by the science, rather than being served by it?
An ‘Evidence Based’ Culture
If this is the case, it should not come as much of a surprise. Our society and culture has become dominated by ‘scientism’; the belief that science is the most valuable aspect of human learning.
As the driver of the technological progress that has revolutionised society over the past 200 years, it is widely assumed to be the most serious, authoritative and beneficial. The roles of philosophy, spirituality and art are regarded as subservient, supporting actors in the minor scenes.
There has been a strong movement by sports governing bodies to make coaching ‘evidence based’.
While this sounds like a good idea, it becomes less worthy if coaches don’t understand how to weigh all the evidence available to them and ascribe a value to it before deciding how to proceed.
This lack of understanding has led to ‘evidence based’ becoming ‘science based’ with coaches and players less confident in trusting their own direct experience.
They rely more and more heavily on research carried out by other people, despite confusion about what ‘science’ is or how it works.
What is Science?
Science is simply a method of investigating the world around us.
The scientific method allows us to define and model the patterns and regularities of the environment. For example, when something is dropped, it falls to the ground, a regularity which can be observed and replicated anywhere on the planet.
From this regularity we derive the laws of gravity.
Experiments are an important element of this methodology. An experiment is a question asked of nature. For example, at what temperature does water boil at sea level? The enquiry is made by placing a thermometer in some water and applying a heat source.
The question is asked. Nature responds with the answer.
By observing and recording these regularities and patterns, we can predict with high levels of accuracy how phenomena will unfold in the future.
The technological advancements of the last two centuries have been based largely on this process.
It is reassuring to know when you get on board an aeroplane or drive across a bridge that someone has predicted with a high degree of certainty what will happen next.
What Science Can’t Do
This contribution to progress partly explains why ‘science’ has become so highly regarded and why there is so much temptation to apply the scientific method to other areas of life, perhaps where it is less appropriate.
There are several major misunderstandings about the scientific method when it comes to understanding the true nature of the human experience.
Firstly, the capacity to record and model the patterns and regularities of nature, doesn’t tell us what anything actually is.
Science is relative. It can only tell us how one object or phenomena is related to another object or phenomena.
How fast is fast if you have nothing to compare it with?
How high is high if you can’t measure it?
Science can explain a human muscle in terms of tissues, tissues in terms of cells, cells in terms of molecules, molecules in terms of atoms and atoms in terms of sub atomic particles.
But then it can only explain a subatomic particle in terms of its differences to another sub atomic particle.
All scientific explanations need a frame of reference and as far as the origins of the material world are understood, this is as much as we know.
Going any further, to explore what is before these elements is not a scientific question.
It is a philosophical one.
Science Is NeutralYou cannot explain why we play sport in scientific terms. How do you value the feelings and emotions we experience? How do you measure the thrill of an unexpected victory, or the despair of an unlucky defeat? How do you compare the play of a team from one era with that of another? Science is a very poor tool for evaluating subjective experience. Yet so often we see coaches and psychologists looking to science when it comes to making decisions about players, strategy or culture. This might partly be due to insecurity and attachment to results. If you believe that your well-being is dependent on your job, and your job is dependent on results, you are more likely to look for answers in something tangible, than to your gut instincts. At least then you have data covering your back if something goes wrong. So where does this leave us as coaches, and how do we proceed. Firstly, it’s important to state that this article is not ‘anti science’. As I stated earlier, science is neutral. It’s just a way of describing reality. And reality is how it is regardless of the way we choose to describe it. The problem comes with our interpretation of the information which science makes available to us. How do we evaluate that information and what do we do with it? Science cannot help us with that.
A True Coaching Philosophy
A critical weakness of ‘evidence based coaching’ is the ignorance of the primary context in which all evidence is experienced.
If we don’t know how we know what we know, how can we ascribe a value to it? The only way we can dispel this ignorance is to begin to explore the true nature of experience.
This is a philosophical enquiry, not a scientific one. No one will ever find proof of consciousness, the fundamental element of all experience, because what is being sought is what is seeking.
Yet if you asked any human being on the planet, ‘Are you aware? Or does consciousness exist?’ the answer would be affirmative. Anyone can carry out this experiment at any time.
So, the one thing that nobody can prove, is the one thing that everybody knows and accepts to be true.
This one realisation can be enough to restore a coach’s trust in their own instincts and intuition and cause them to question the wisdom of placing all their eggs in the basket of scientific theories.
At the end of the day, these theories are just another person’s interpretation of information.
Or beliefs, as they are more commonly known.
The Future of Evidence Based Coaching
Evidence based coaching can only benefit players if the coach or athlete understands that scientific knowledge can only be useful if it is underpinned by philosophical understanding. Not the other way round.
Understanding why we play must come before you can understand how to play.
Sport is played by human beings. The most fundamental, primary element of human experience cannot be explained by science. Science is part of the human experience.
It takes place within that which it is attempting to explain.
Trying to explain consciousness with science is like trying to bite your own teeth.
The more understanding a coach has of the true nature of that experience, the better they will be at interpreting whatever evidence appears within that experience.
This is true knowledge, the knowledge on which all other knowledge is based.
It is essential for evidence based coaching. If you would like to learn more about the nature of consciousness, and why understanding it is so important for both coaches and players, please have a look at this essay.