Functional Training Zones

Science & Professional Practice: Unfinished Business

by Steve Plisk

Here are some intriguing questions — along with unpublished answers — from a terrific series of roundtable articles.

"Science is often misrepresented as 'the body of knowledge acquired by performing replicated controlled experiments in the laboratory.' Actually, science is something much broader: the acquisition of reliable knowledge about the world."
— Jared Diamond, Collapse

In 2006-07, I had the opportunity to participate in a 9-part roundtable article chaired by Dr. Bill Kraemer entitled "Using Science To Improve Professional Practice", to be published in Strength & Conditioning Journal. I eagerly accepted the invitation to join the discussion, as the questions Dr. Kraemer prepared were very important and timely (not surprisingly, considering his wealth of knowledge). I was also excited to contribute to a panel that reads like a who's who of experts in the field: Dr. Jill Bush, Dr. Steve Fleck, Dr. Jay Gump, Dr. Jay Hoffman, Dr. Terry Housh, Joe Hughes, Jerry Martin, Mike Nitka, Meg Stone, Dr. Mike Stone, John Taylor, Jon Torine, Dr. Travis Triplett, Al Vermeil and Dr. Darryn Willoughby.

Unfortunately, the series was discontinued after the first 3 installments. Parts 1-3 addressed the following issues respectively:

Part 1: For today's Strength & Conditioning specialist, what type of academic and professional training can optimize a young person's chances for success in the field in the 21st century?

Part 2: As we learn more scientifically about different aspects of sport and exercise science, how can the Strength & Conditioning coach best use the scientific literature to their advantage in the practice of the profession?

Part 3: With the increasing amount of information that is being produced scientifically by laboratories around the world, what would you tell the Strength & Conditioning coach as to how to keep up and monitor things?

Revisiting my answers to these 3 questions as well as the remaining 6, I found that my thoughts haven't changed much — although my disdain for "mythologists" (as Dr. K calls them) is probably even stronger now than it was then. As I mentioned in a previous post, I believe we have a big problem in this field with our signal-to-noise ratio. More about that and some other follow-up ideas below.

Enough Digressing Already

More importantly, I think Dr. Kraemer was drilling into too many thought-provoking issues to go three-and-out. So here are questions #4-9. I will humbly include my responses in the hope they'll kick off some discussion, but I believe the real value here is in the questions themselves (if you'd like to offer any constructive insights, please post a comment). My good friend and colleague John Taylor has also been kind enough to share his responses.

Questions 4-9

Question 4
A coach once said "I cannot wait for science to tell me what to do, I have to train athletes." How can science be used, yet not impede progress for new program innovations and practices?

Plisk: In my experience, these kinds of statements are used as a smokescreen by nescient or obstinate coaches. Such people are easy to spot because their methods are often driven by preferences rather than principles, sometimes to the point of being unsound. In any case, this mentality isn't just irrational. It's unprofessional and intolerable because other people's efforts are wasted or misdirected as a result.

Having said that, our scope of practice has expanded and diversified to the point where it's very challenging — and often unrealistic — for one person to master all the competencies. The key is to grasp and apply scientific, fundamentally sound practices while continuing to learn and grow professionally.

Keep in mind that every branch of science can be understood at an elementary level. For example, the laws of motion (upon which movement mechanics are based) are taught in high school. Granted, these can get lost in the curriculum — and science teachers may not illustrate essential concepts like force, impulse, power and so on with sports/training examples. But I struggle with the notion of "waiting for science" when it's so basic.

Taylor: It is not necessary to wait for science when developing training protocols. Provisionally it is important that professionals continually enhance their understanding of the physical world around their efforts to develop the highest standards of practice. Much of the practice of Strength & Conditioning is based in the elementary aspects of science (physics, i.e. Newton's Laws and basic lever systems).

The profession is still very young. Even with the recent explosion of research-based information, what is done in practice is often ahead of research. Although it is likely this situation will always exist at some level, what is important is the on going search for knowledge and its practical application. Those who espouse the premise "they can't wait for science" are likely unwilling to take the time to investigate what the science says. Change is often difficult, especially for those who have been in the profession many years. New science may suggest professionals need to alter training methods that have been used for years. This often requires a major paradigm shift, thus the need to let go of methodologies that are ingrained in their psyche. The challenge is to overcome the psyche and apply what one learns from science to propel oneself forward, while continuing to innovate and experiment with the practical application of new knowledge.

Question 5
Obviously, not all Strength & Conditioning coaches interact with exercise and sport scientists. How can this occur and what ideas do you have for initiating such contacts for coaches at all levels of our field?

Plisk: Contact the exercise/sport science faculty at nearby schools. With internet/e-mail capabilities, this has never been easier. Invite them to visit your site, conduct in-service training with you and your staff, and/or participate in clinics or workshops. Likewise, offer to contribute to similar activities hosted at their site. In either case, be proactive and willing to help with the organizational work.

Attend and contribute to local, regional and national conferences or seminars whenever possible. Consider participating in committees or special interest groups. In addition to helping advance the profession, these are excellent opportunities to network with colleagues and start productive relationships.

Taylor: At the collegiate level this can be accomplished by contacting the exercise science or physical education department and offering to collaborate on potential research studies (including facilitating access to athletes as possible subjects as well as use of equipment and facilities). Professionals can further interaction by offering services as an adjunct instructor or guest lecturer, and inviting professors to provide in-service training for staff and/or educational lectures for student-athletes. This approach in creating relationships with academia can also be used at the high school level, although it may be somewhat problematic if a college or university is not nearby. All professionals can facilitate collegial relationships with the scientific community though networking at national conferences and local professional events.

Question 6
A professor at The Ohio State University in information technology gave a commencement speech and said the biggest challenge for the 21st century is to teach people how to evaluate information. How would you suggest that coaches evaluate information?

Plisk: In a word: wisely! As knowledge workers, it's a daily challenge to avoid information overload and distraction. A fringe benefit of the principle-based approach is that it makes an effective noise filter and baloney detector.

Every profession has its self promoters and carnival barkers who are better at hyping than educating. My recommendation is to put personal preferences aside and stick to the fundamentals. They're invaluable for making objective, non-judgmental decisions on whether a given idea is sound.

Use common sense and be especially wary of half-truths. The mythologists of the world usually try to use kernels of truth to justify — and sell — nonsensical ideas.

Taylor: First and foremost, one must evaluate the source of information. Is it an authoritative source? Consider the reputation of the author and the publisher. Experts amongst their peers are usually cited and referenced in the literature. It is important to discern whether authors are accomplished professionals with regards to the subject matter. Do they display knowledge of theories and schools of thought as well as provide sufficient methodology for purposes of duplication and verification?

Consider the accuracy of information. Is it peer reviewed? Do authors make use of referenced information? Is the information dated? New information may be available that invalidates the old.

Consider the scope of coverage. One study does not provide a definitive answer. Does the information extensively or marginally cover the subject? Does the information update or substantiate other information?Consider if the information is a primary source (actual research study) or a secondary source that's based on primary sources.

Consider the objectivity of the information. Is the persuasive language biased or overly opinionated in providing analysis of the subject matter? What is the reason for providing the information? Consider possible advertising influences as well as underwriting.

When evaluating information, do so with an open and questioning mind. Consider all information even though it may not support one's case or point of view. Look for answers but don't always expect them. Evaluating information should be thought-provoking and assist in one's decision making. Look not strictly for answers, but direction.

Question 7
What do sport and exercise scientists need to know in order to better direct their research toward questions and problems that are important to the Strength & Conditioning practitioner?

Plisk: Researchers and practitioners both need to realize that science is a two-way street. Just as good practitioners apply evidence-based coaching methods, good scientists conduct practical research studies. In an applied profession like ours, practitioners have a "civic responsibility" to help steer the scientific process. Don't wait for an invitation. Proactively seek opportunities to give back.

This brings us to a key point: Every field has secretive practitioners. Each of us should consider how much of what we do is really original versus how much was learned from others, and then applied with modifications and wrinkles. We all stand on the shoulders of colleagues and predecessors, whether it's from reading the literature, attending presentations or interacting with mentors.

Sharing best practices facilitates the growth of our profession (and society). Secrecy and protectionism hinders it. Although our profession is competitive by nature, I believe we each have an obligation to share our ideas and experiences.

Taylor: Sport and exercise scientists need to know the perspective of the practitioner. Often information that is most useful is produced by exercise scientists that were or are practitioners to some degree or have had experiences as a practitioner. For those who have little experience as a practitioner, it is vital they work collaboratively with practitioners. This creates a climate where sport scientist and practitioners have a mutual interest and understanding of important questions and problems.

Collaborative efforts are often impaired due to secrecy on the practitioner's part, especially in the fiercely competitive collegiate environment. Some believe training methods need to be kept secret in an effort to maintain a teams' edge on the field of competition. Empirically speaking, practitioners know certain methods are effective. These methods need to be shared with the scientific community for study. Sharing increases the body of knowledge and the use of evidence-based methods, both of which promote professionalism.

Question 8
What is the role of science in today's field of Strength & Conditioning? How can it play an effective role?

Plisk: Science is the basis of rational thought and productive action in any discipline. In an applied knowledge profession like ours, there is a reciprocal relationship between science and practice. Science should be the foundation upon which the art of coaching is based. Practice should be the proving ground where principles and theories are applied, and new hypotheses are generated.

Taylor: The role of science in today's profession is more vital then ever. With the growth in number of colleges and high schools that have full-time Strength & Conditioning professionals comes added pressure and accountability. Sport coaches look to the Strength & Conditioning professional to ensure athletes are prepared for competition. Good professionals need to utilize evidence based means and methods to maintain a competitive edge and ensure accountability.

Most sports coaches have little or no expertise in the area of sport and exercise science. Many times they expect professionals to use non-evidenced based approaches, solely because it's what they have done in the past. It then becomes necessary for the Strength & Conditioning professional to educate the sport coach on the importance and effectiveness of utilizing an evidenced-based approach.

Often sport coaches still question or disregard suggested training methods validated by science. Most likely this will continue until such time the body of knowledge is so great that evidence-based methods can't be ignored; or a high-profile coach consistently wins utilizing evidence-based methods. Humans are creatures of habit. It has been my experience that sport coaches fall into the extreme category, especially if they have had any prior success with a particular approach. One often hears "This is not the way we did it at University X" regardless of whether University X used evidence-based methods. Change is difficult, especially for sport coaches when they become familiar/comfortable with methods they have utilized for many years, even though those methods aren't evidence-based (or have even been disproved by the scientific body of knowledge as ineffective or counterproductive).

Science legitimizes the profession of Strength & Conditioning. It provides the evidence to validate (to sport coaches, administrators, athletes, parents) one's methods. Science makes it difficult to dispute evidence-based methods, thus assisting the Strength & Conditioning professional in changing a culture based strictly on old habits and flawed belief systems.

Question 9
With the internet and marketing today on a host of products how can the Strength & Conditioning specialist evaluate the veracity of information in today's field?

Plisk: Please see response #6.

Taylor: Most of the same principles stated in the question regarding evaluating information can be applied here:

- Consider the source. Is it authoritative?
- Consider the accuracy. What does the science say?
- Consider the scope of coverage. Is information on the product updated or substantiated with other information? What experiences have other professionals had with the product?
- Consider the objectivity of the information. Is there possible advertising influence as well as underwriting of the product?
- Evaluate information/products with a critical mind.

Afterthought: A Call For Best Practices

Before proceeding, I'd like to suggest going back through the questions one more time without reading the posted answers.

This is not the last word on the subject, but I think #9 brings us to the motherlode: The key to evaluating information — and more broadly, to improving practice through science — is to be disciplined enough to first consider the right questions; and then take a "best practices" approach to finding the answers. Asking the right questions begins with not settling for cookbook solutions or menus of drills. Basically, it means asking why and how instead of just what.

I know, best practices is a buzzword that gets hackneyed all over the place. But when you unpack this term, you'll find some pretty powerful ideas. For one thing, it takes you to a place that's principled as well as evidence-based — two extraordinary things to be. I'm not talking about just reading some research studies or trying to do the right thing in a vague sense.

Here's What I Am Talking About

Spell out a set of principles that you have enough conviction in to write down, post in plain view for all to see, and explain in terms a child could understand. The good news is that you don't need to invent these from scratch. When you consider the big picture, a time-honored and battle-tested set of training principles emerges. You can tell you're onto something special if they seem like no-brainers when considered individually, but involve some challenging trade-offs or paradoxes when considered collectively.

Consider the body of evidence. This is no small task because our field is multidisciplinary by nature, and each line of evidence is a work in progress that exists on different levels. This brings me to my next point.

Embrace the concept of levels of evidence. Rigorously validated, bulletproof facts are at one end of the continuum; empirical ideas/hypotheses are at the other. There's nothing wrong with empiricism as long as you recognize it as such (in fact, this is where many valuable ideas are generated).

It Gets Even Better

Being principled and evidence-based goes a long way toward filtering out the noise, but there's still a problem: Principles and evidence can be misinterpreted. Indeed for a variety of reasons, they often are. So we need some kind of check-and-balance to keep us from going off the reservation. Fortunately we've got a good one: consensus.

Consensus decision-making is the linchpin of our best practices paradigm. It's not the only way to resolve a problem and it isn't perfect, but for purposes of fine-tuning the baloney detector it's tough to beat. Sound complicated? Here's how straightforward it can be: If two rational people — using evidence and principles as their guide — can look one another in the eye and agree that an idea makes sense, chances are they're on the right track. If they can't agree, chances are someone is veering off. It's that simple.

The state of the art in any discipline is a moving target, so best practices are more than just an operating platform. They are a point of departure for innovation and experimentation. That's especially valuable at the cutting edge where the stakes are highest, but the noise is often loudest. Our goal is to help practitioners improve their signal-to-noise ratio.