Sunday, 2 March 2014

how to win more medals...a guest-post from Matt Jordan

This is another guest-post from my Canadian Sport Scientist and Strength Coach Matt Jordan.  He last wrote a couple of weeks back, and his thoughts on sport science were very well-received.  This post is response to a fairly recent article that gained quite a bit of traction in the Canadian media - mainly because it was written by Brett Wilson - for those that do not know, Wilson is a Canadian entrepreneur now known primarily as one of the Dragons on Dragon's Den.  He is also an owner of English football team Derby County FC. 

I personally felt his piece on the 'controversial' elite sports funding initiative in Canada called 'Own the Podium' was naive, cliched, and uninformed - I didn't bother to write a response mainly because it probably would have caused me more annoyance than it was worth.  Fortunately, Matt is far more patient than I - and has shared his thoughts on how we really should judge Olympic Success - as well as his ideas on how best to affect this process...

(by the way, Sean Gordon wrote a post-Sochi follow-up piece on the Globe site today...far more well-written than Wilson's)

Do Olympic medals equate with success?  

In a recent Globe and Mail article, Brett Wilson proposed that Own the Podium (Canada’s primary sport funding partner) has taken the wrong approach by focusing on medals.  He suggested the process was a better measuring stick than the outcome.  In principle, I agree the process is important, but Canadians have come to expect medals, and the medal tally is a strong correlate for an effective process.  Additionally, every athlete and nation at the Olympics is engaged in a process - be it one commensurate with the monumental achievement of an Olympic podium or not.  The process of striving for excellence and the outcome of achieving excellence are not mutually inclusive, especially at the Olympics where there is a low probability of reaching the podium.  But, when the process is used as our measuring stick, we must be clear on what this entails.

Sochi was my fourth Olympics as a sport scientist, and I have witnessed the journey of many athletes.  My definition of Olympic success and failure is shaped by my experience.  I conclude that the only failure in the Olympics is to not embrace the scope of the challenge, and overlook the relentless and purposeful preparation required to attain Olympic excellence, especially when achieving excellence is the agreed upon objective.  

Olympic success, therefore, is the purposeful and relentless preparation displayed by an athlete and sport organization as they strive for the common goal of excellence - which may or may not include a podium result.  

However, it does include those athletes who, in the face of deficits in physical ability still choose to engage in the epic challenge and never reach the top.  These athletes have the toughest job in the Olympic business as they are often self-supported and rely solely on self-belief. For example, I challenge you to read the story of Larisa Yurkiw, the Canadian alpine ski racer who qualified for the Sochi Olympics after a four-year return to sport following a serious knee injury, and not agree she is an Olympic success.  Her self-belief and accomplishments transcend an Olympic medal.  Our definition of Olympic success must include these athletes as they inspire a country to believe that anything is possible, and that regardless of the limitations we can all strive for excellence.  

Larisa Yurkiw, competing in Sochi

My definition of Olympic success also includes those nations that choose to compete when a podium result is a near impossibility.  For example, consider Japan, that courageously steps forward to compete in women’s ice hockey where the probability of an Olympic gold medal is non-existent. It is because of Japan’s tenacity that women’s ice hockey survives, and Team Canada benefits due to the high probability of a podium result.  How can Olympic success exclude Japan’s hockey team? 

It is the virtue of taking great risk against all odds that underpins Olympic success, and the athlete and nation alike must embrace competition not only when winning is probable but also highly improbable.  The decorated athlete who steps forward to the line after years of relentless and purposeful preparation, and bares her soul to the world in Olympic competition only to fall short is not a failure.  And likewise, an Olympic medallist who entered the competition with poor preparation and nothing more than a whimsical dream that maybe luck would be on her side is not a success.  

On the part of a nation or a sport organization, taking great risk to support its athletes in the most competitive sports (e.g. men’s 100m track & field, alpine ski racing) and falling short of a medal is not failure.  Likewise, only supporting those who have a high chance to win is not success.  It is the unconditional and relentless support for the athlete striving for excellence that defines the success of a nation and a sport organization.  The nation, the sport system, the sport and the athlete must embrace the uncertainty of the outcome and engage in the process of striving for excellence together, for better or for worse.    

So - how can a system/sport win more medals?  

I see all events (with the exception of change and death) as a probability statement that contains a degree of uncertainty.  Therefore, I believe the important question is: “how can a system/sport increase the probability of medals?”  Ultimately, if medals are a correlate for an effective process, then a sport needs to have effective processes that can produce a cluster of athletes who have the physical ability to win a medal and the preparation to deliver performance on demand.  If we assume a conversion rate of somewhere between 25% and 60% this would mean a sport requires somewhere between 3 and 4 medal potential athletes to have a high probability of a single medal.    

I think there are many aspects of an effective process, but I am going to focus on four elements that I think are the most critical:

1. Culture

First and foremost a culture of winning needs to be established.  This depends on having well-identified values that are set at the top of the organization and passed down to the coaches and onto the athletes.  The bar needs to be set high to establish a culture of winning.  The status quo must be continually challenged in all performance factors including recruitment, talent development, science, innovation and programming.  In a winning culture, values drive decisions and values are never compromised for the sake of an individual. 

2. Talent Pool

Second, a sport and a system must build a talent pool.  The template for developing a talent pool is unique to each sport.  A bobsledder is developed differently than a speed skater both in terms of recruitment, physical preparation and the time required to for specific skill development.  

3. System Consistency

Third, it takes consistency in the actions of the system/sport to pursue excellence - not over the short-term but the long-term.  The minimum time period for the fruitions of purposeful and deliberate preparation to show up as medals is a quadrennial, but more often than not it takes two quadrennials.  Throughout this time, it can feel as though the hard work is done in vain.  However, as with any partnership, it requires commitment to fight for the cause through the good times and the bad times.  The hard times must strengthen the resolve to the best in the world and not weaken it. 

4. Effective Preparation

Finally, it takes an understanding of what is “relentless and purposeful preparation”.  To me, this means that the athletes, coaches and supporting cast members centralize and prepare every single day as a collective to deliver performance on demand.  The support team brings expertise to help remove physical barriers for performance on demand.  The coaches bring technical expertise and sport know-how to ensure the athletes have the ability to perform on demand.  And the athletes engage these experts and engage in rigorous preparation to deliver performance on demand.  This needs to be executed from the smallest scale (i.e. the passing seconds) to the large scale (i.e. the passing years), and done so in a highly repetitious manner to establish the mental and physical skills to deliver performance on demand. 

The Olympic medal tally is not enough to evaluate success but it is a strong correlate for the process.  It is in the process, however, that the true measure of success can be found.  This statement comes with great responsibility on behalf of all those involved in Olympic performances to truly embrace the magnitude of the challenge, and engage in relentless, purposeful and long-term preparation in pursuit of the shared goal of Olympic excellence, while accepting at the front end that there are no guarantees.  Therefore, only the athlete and the individuals in the system supporting the athlete will know whether they have been successful or not.  And this is probably why all great athletes who reflect on the success of a career remember the journey with all its ups and downs, and not just the shiny piece of metal hidden away in their closets.    

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Matt Jordan is a PhD student in the Faculty of Medical Science at the University of Calgary.  He is also the Head of Strength and Power Science at the Canadian Sports Institute in Calgary, Canada, and is about the smartest strength coach I know.  Matt is a lecturer in the Faculty of Kinesiology at the University of Calgary and has published many articles on strength and conditioning for athletes. He has also presented at National and International conferences on strength training methods for high performance athletes. He's worked in the trenches for almost twenty years, working closely with some of Canada's top winter sport athletes.  

He has previously written a short piece on McMillanSpeed on the nutrition industry. Give him a follow on Twitter...

Thursday, 27 February 2014

random thoughts from Sochi...

The Games have been over for a few days now - my plan was always to give a pretty thorough debrief of my experience - alas, the sport got in the way, and I was unable to write as much as I could.  Instead, I will share some brief thoughts on the Games - from highlights to lowlights.

“The Jamaican Bobsled Team
...just may be the biggest scam in the Winter Olympics”

This is a quote of former bobsled and skeleton coach Greg Sand.  Pretty controversial.  But almost just as surely correct.  The reality is this ‘team’ is still living off of the hype of ‘Cool Runnings’ - the gateway for 99% of the public’s experience with bobsled.  Which is fine, by the way - 2010 Olympic Gold medallist in bobsled Steve Mesler has the following to say in regards to this:

"Do you know the Jamaicans?" is the inevitable question every bobsledder has been asked since the dawn of time. Or at least since 1994. ‘Cool Runnings’ and the popularity given to the Jamaican bobsledders is the bane of all bobsledders' existence. Everyone knows ‘Cool Runnings’; no one knows who any of the Olympic gold medalists are from that same period.

This is the rant that goes through most bobsledders heads. But it's ridiculous because here's the thing - without ‘Cool Runnings’ and the 95% of countries that are non-bobsled-fan nations (which is everywhere except possibly Germany, Switzerland, and Russia) no one would know what the sport even is! ‘Cool Runnings’ breathed life into an overpriced sport years ago and continues to be the best PR machine possible.

Sometimes I forget this. Then, when I least expect it, I'm reminded what Disney did for us all those years ago. In September of 2013 I was visiting a school in the middle of the San Jose slums in Costa Rica. Myself and the Executive Director from a foundation toured the school and then met with about 40 students. He translated everything I said and when it came time to describe bobsled to the 12 year olds, their faces went blank. They new Olympic gold, but not bobsled. Amidst the spanish being spoken, all of a sudden I recognized two words that brought smiles, understanding, and amazement to the kids' faces. 

Those two words were ‘Cool Runnings’.

The flip-side is that it is no longer 1994.  The 2014 fairytale involves a bobsled-as-a-hobby, Wisconsin-living, 46 year-old salesman, who’s main motivation appears financial.  After public donations of somewhere between $200,000 and $300,000, and a sponsorship from Samsung Mobile, the Jamaicans showed up in Sochi in a beat-up old sled and a volunteer coach, and were bartering for borrowed runners right up until the day before the race.  In which they finished dead last.  By a large margin.  What’s the point?  

Or maybe I’m just a hater.  A hater that sees hundreds - thousands - of serious athletes, seriously training, making serious sacrifices in pursuit of their dream.  Almost none making it.  Almost all going into debt.  

In the shadows of the hustler...

The Russian People

It seems that the entire population of Sochi was brought in to volunteer for these Games.  I’d say probably 5 times as many as they actually needed!  Shame that none of them were actually trained.  Although they have been incredibly pleasant, and tried to help in any situation - they simply were not given any information at all.  On anything.  On the whole though, these almost exclusively young people have gone out of their way to ensure that all the athletes, coaches, and staff have had a positive experience.  Very interesting when you compare this group to the paid staff - the housekeepers, maintenance workers, and cleaners.  Generally over 40, these folk are what you may conjure up in your mind when you think of the ‘typical Russian’ - sad, grey, hope-less.  

The pride of the young was especially evident during the Opening Ceremony - I watched on TV with many of the Coastal Village volunteers.  Each time a Russian athlete came into screen, there was screaming and stomping of feet. Obviously desperate to portray their country in a positive light to the world, there was hardly a dry eye in the place as they rushed from in front of the giant screen TV to the window to watch the fireworks and back again...

Who’s Olympic?

Just because you are the only one in your country to compete at a sport, doesn’t mean that you are an Olympian.  Just because you went into debt to pay your way to the Games does not make you Olympic.  Just because your presence adds interest to the sport in your region does not give you the right to compete at the Ultimate test of sporting excellence.

The Olympics are for the best athletes in the world.  If you are not one of them, then you should not be there.  I understand that IFs and the IOC are trying to spread the popularity of certain sports throughout the world - but in my mind, this is the responsibility of the National Federations - sort out your own houses first, begin competing on a World Level, and then - if you’re good enough - you can go to an Olympic Games.  Yes - this means that Jamaica should not have been here.  Nor should Vanessa Mae.  Nor should the Mexican skier (despite his pretty cool mariachi ski suit).  And nor should have the Brazilian bobsled team.  If the IOC do not change their views here, it is only a matter of time before we see another tragic event like the death of Georgian luge athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili in Whistler in 2010.

NOT the way to drive a bobsled...

X Games events are fun, but they're not Olympic.  

I blogged about this last week.  The Olympic Village resembled more of a skate park than a high-performance athlete Village.  And like I said in my post, I have nothing against these kids - I enjoy watching their events - but this is the Olympic Games.  And for me, they should be a celebration of the world’s greatest athletes.  These kids simply are not.

Apparently, skiing on rails is a sport, but wrestling is not...really IOC?

What's next?  Bridge? this Olympic?
(these are two Olympic athletes training in the Mountain Village weight room - believe it or not, this was not unusual...)

Again.  Get. Out. Of. The. Way.

The Canadian bobsled coaches haven’t been reading my posts, apparently.  48 hours before the beginning of the 4man Competition, they decided to change crews around.  Apparently believing Justin Kripps to have a better shot in the race than Chris Spring, the coaches flipped crews.  Even though Spring was the higher-ranking pilot (5th in the World Cup overall rankings for the season).  Even though Kripps was in his first Olympic Games as a pilot, and was a long-shot at best for a 4man medal (this is no affront on Kripps - the 4man field was incredibly deep, and Kripps has yet to win a World Cup 4man medal - in fact, he is yet to break into the top 7 - so to expect him to win one at the Games was always going to be a tough ask).  Kripps performed well in 2man - holding strong in 4th place until a poor final run pushed him back to 6th.  

Needless to say, this move did not work out well.  But it led to one of the memorable moments of the Games.  Kripps crashed in his second run.  The walk up to the sled take-out was greeted with thunderous applause.  Two of his crewmen were unable to continue the following day.  So the two Alternates now took their place alongside Kripps, and Jesse Lumsden.  Two alternates that now were legitimate Olympians.  Once again, they were the fastest starting Canadian crew. Once again they were given a standing ovation at the end of the run.  Even by all on the Starting Dock, watching on the monitor.  Heroic stuff. 

AP Sportswriter Tim Reynolds asked...

I answered that it was highly doubtful...but it is a fair question

What happened to #WeDemandChange

The Sochi Experience

There are three Villages - the Coastal, the Mountain, and the Endurance.  For the first week - before competition started for the sliding sports, and before any of the hockey players arrived - we stayed in the Coastal.  I had a 1200 sq ft penthouse apartment to myself, with a spiral staircase up to a rooftop terrace overlooking the Black Sea.  The remainder of the time, I shared a 150 sq ft room with one of our therapists. 

You can guess which Village I preferred!

The Mountain Village is stunning, though.  Nestled within the Caucasus Mountains with amazing 360 degree views, it is truly a breathtaking place - the big question on everyone’s minds is what will happen to the Village once we all leave.  We all hope it remains - it will be a wonderful vacation venue for Russian snow sport lovers.

The Coastal Village is really quite a nice little apartment-town home community, along the coast of the Black Sea.  It is first class, and will be an amazing place to live.  

The Mountain Village wasn’t quite finished.  It seems the concrete was probably poured the week before we got there - as most of it had completely fallen apart by the time we left.  No landscaping was complete - a fact made increasingly obvious as all of the snow melted away - revealing piles of dirt, mud, stones, and rock.  

I saw two stray dogs.

Best tweet of the Games:

The transportation started as a complete nightmare.  And ended up just being slightly annoying slash funny.  Whether it got better, or I just got tired, I don't really know...

There was a ton of pre-Games hype about supposed security risks.  It honestly never entered my mind once I arrived.  The Sochi Security was tight.  Never felt safer.

#SochiProblems was a pretty funny hashtag.  At first.  Like most trends, it got pretty old quickly...but here is one of my favorites:

...another trend was the #SochiSelfie...I took one, with John Daly:

Some other highlights / memorable moments:

my view each morning

Skeleton bronze-medallist Matt Antoine

Kaillie Humphries doing a sprint was warm!!

3/4 of Team Kripps post-crash

women's bobsled medallists

Noelle Pikus-Pace & coach Tuffy Latour

Elana Meyers & Lauryn Williams at the flower ceremony 

Night Train 2


In conclusion, I was pleasantly surprised by Sochi, Russia, the Games, and the relatively smooth manner in which everything bounced along.  The weather was unbelievable.  The people were cool.  And the region rivals Vancouver-Whistler.  Truly Sea-Sky...

Saturday, 22 February 2014

'fourth sucks'...a guest-post from Jeremiah Barnert

Google 'fourth place finish', and you will find a myriad of quotes from athletes.  Most make reference to it being the hardest place to finish - so close to a medal, you can taste it...but not quite close enough.  The psychology behind this is interesting, and can hopefully guide a future post.  

The Canadian luge team were especially unfortunate in this regard - finishing 4th in three of the four events.  I asked their Strength Coach Jeremiah Barnert for his thoughts on his Sochi experience, and in particular the close calls.


In a sport measured to the thousandths of a second the margin between success and failure is incredibly small.  While hurling your body down an icy track feet first, Luge athletes can travel in excess of 140km/hr.  To prepare an athlete for the sport of Luge, the start is incredibly important.  By having a top 3 start the probability of being on the podium drastically increases.  As the Strength/Start coach for the Canadian Luge team this is where my focus lies throughout the year.

According to Hopkins (2004) in order to be in contention for an Olympic medal, you need to have a worthwhile change of 1.5% during the World Cup season leading up to the Olympics and another 1.5% at the Olympic Games.  Now if you closely examine the start times of the Canadian Luge athletes we were able to achieve this, however it resulted in three 4th place finishes - narrowly missing the medal by hundredths of a second.  

So what separated us from three bronze medals? Was there as issue with being able to convert….

To critically evaluate our performance at the Olympic Games in Sochi, it is important to look at past performances of the Canadian Luge athletes in the previous Olympic Games.  In 2010, the highest placing by one of our current athletes was a 7th place by Sam Edney.  Prior to these home Olympic games, the best ever finish by a Canadian was a 5th place by a doubles team in 2002.  

In fact...

Canada has never medaled in Luge at the Olympic Games….EVER!

However, the results of this past World cup season gave the Team high expectations for these Games:

  • 14 World Cup Medals
  • Two Canadians (Alex Gough and Kim McRae) shared the podium at the same event for the first time in history (on a German track nonetheless)
  • The doubles team of Tristan Walker and Justin Smith won Canada’s first ever World cup Double’s medal
  • Alex Gough took home the globe finishing 2nd Overall
  • The team relay composed of Alex, Sam, Tristan and Justin also took home the globe finishing 2nd Overall

It was a season of Canadian best ever finishes but why was there not enough momentum to push the Canadian team over towards Olympic glory?

...and to top it off, the three bronze medals that eluded us were won by individuals who had not won a single World cup medal this past season. Is this highly unlucky or was there something else that prevented us from a dominant Olympic performance?

A common criticism of Canadian athletes is that they are ‘participation’ athletes, simply  ‘happy to be there’ - ‘happy for the experience’, and lack the fight of our neighbors to the south.  This is something that we are attempting to affect - not only in Luge, but sport-system wide at Winsport Canada - the Home to Canadian Winter sport, in Calgary.

Since the Olympic Games in Vancouver, we have tried to change the culture and level of expectations of our athletes.  They have shed the ‘participant’ attitude, and now compete in every competition with medals on their mind.  Each of our luge athletes has excelled and maximized their potential each season with better results than the season before.  With a season of Canadian best-ever finishes, the one item missing from this season was an Olympic medal - but this alluded them...not once but three times.

In Canadian sport, 4th place doesn’t put food on the plate.  

So how does all this all relate to the area of exercise science and strength and power?  What have I learned through this experience that I can pass on?

Human performance is not a redundancy mechanism

You push every limit to achieve absolute athletic achievement using scientific methods and philosophies in order to be in a position to achieve athletic greatness.  However, nothing is guaranteed - especially at the Olympic Games.  The human body is a complex organism consistently changing and adapting.  Without a proper system in place you cannot critically evaluate the effects you have on an individual.  

A particular result will not guarantee another!

A culture shift doesn’t happen over night

Changing a culture of an entire organization can be a challenging process that may take years, but without the right people in place you will always be spinning around in circles wondering why? 

Be patient and pick your battles.

The end result does not tell the entire story

Despite the results, we are only able to influence the athlete from an athletic standpoint. We have no control over a multitude of factors such as weather, how equipment runs, or the standards of the playing surfaces and how these may change during an event.  

Life is a learning process

If you take every experience and learn from it you will be better than the day before.  If you consistently evaluate your methods and philosophies, you will continue to improve as a coach or scientist.  Stagnant individuals are complacent…we must push the boundaries - even when it is not the norm.  

Just because a certain way of doing things has worked for years doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be critically evaluated.   


I have taken the 10 days since the end of the Luge events at the Sochi Olympic Games to reflect upon not only the Games, but the World Cup season, and the previous 4 years.  It is important we keep the entire picture in mind - and are not blinded by the latest results.

What this team has accomplished over the past 4 years is nothing sort of amazing.  I have had the privilege of working with great individuals and a coaching staff that demands excellence from everyone.  

The Canadian Luge Team had three 4th place finishes.  Truly gut-wrenching for the athletes involved.  But I am confident that this experience will make them better.  Prepare them better for Pyeong Yang.  It will also make me a better coach.  I can’t wait to get started.

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Jeremiah Barnert is currently a Head Strength and Conditioning coach with the Canadian Sport Institute- Calgary.  Jeremiah has worked with a number of athletes across winter and summer sports including Luge, Wrestling, Rugby, and Soccer.  In his short time at the CSI, Jeremiah has worked with numerous World and Olympic medalists across a wide range of disciplines. 

Jer owns a ranch, where he raises grass-fed cattle, he's a real decent guy, and you should give him a follow on Twitter if you're interested in his views.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

sport science...what's the point?

This is a guest-post by Canadian Strength Coach and Sport Scientist Matt Jordan.  He is currently in Sochi for the 2014 Olympic Games, where is is supporting the Canadian Alpine Ski Team.  We sat down, and also discussed over email a few topics.  I'm going to roll a few of them into a Q&A, but this one needed its own forum.

The questions was:

sport science...what's the point?


The first point of sport science for me is to quantify the impact of my training program.  I have a hard time with strength coaches who have a high level of perceived success based on them having a handful of supremely talented athletes on their client list who would be great despite the training program.  I also have a hard time with strength coaches who browse the scientific literature, use scientific terminology and claim a cause-effect relationship between their programs and performance, but never actually measure anything themselves.  Essentially they cherry-pick the scientific literature when it suits them, criticize science as being 10 years behind the times when it doesn’t, and never do anything to quantify impact in their own approach.  I’m not saying a strength coach has to go to the lengths to publish studies, but I do think it’s reasonable for us to be expected to know what matters, measure what matters and show that we changed what matters.  

I think the problem is that it takes time to do this and sometimes it takes more expertise than what is provided in an undergraduate degree.  This is why I’m a big advocate for pursuing a thesis-based Masters degree.  While this process is certainly not foolproof, it does hold the individual to a much higher level of accountability when it comes to making claims about the effects of interventions.  Through this process I think an individual learns how to perform the steps of investigation, evaluation and knowledge translation, which are key for a strength coach.

Now, I completely agree that high-level science is very hard - if not impossible to do on elite athletes - but I always emphasize the importance of quantifying impact.  Let me give you an example: I just read a tweet the other day from a very well-known strength coach saying that a compound found in a particular food burns fat.  This tweet got re-tweeted a dozen times by a bunch of athletes and the compound that this individual identified in his tweet sure made him sound smart.  The problem with this is that in the total absence of data, this tweet distracted a bunch of athletes into thinking there’s something out there they are missing when the reality is there is nothing to be gained.  To me, quantifying impact would be regularly monitoring body fat in your training group and demonstrating that when this particular compound was used that the group saw an uncharacteristically large drop in body fat that occurred independently of changes in the training or nutritional program.  It could be as simple as saying that 7/10 of athletes in my training group experienced a meaningful change in body fat when I began using compound ‘x’.  I realize this is not a publishable study, and is far from high quality science, but I think it’s reasonable to expect a strength coach for elite athletes to be demonstrating this basic level of testing to quantify the impact of their interventions before firing off random tweets.  The accountability is very low to provide evidence in our world or to quantify the impact of what we do.        

I focus the majority of my testing on how athletes apply force.  The reality is that I have seen tons of freaky athletes who were not the leanest or the strongest in the weight room, but undoubtedly were able to apply force in ways that others couldn’t.  I also think looking at how athlete’s apply force and generate mechanical power provides a foundation to think outside of the box with our approach to training.  For example, Nick Simpson - one of the strength coaches in our group - has done some excellent work with our sprint speedskaters using block periodization with his strength and power program.  Not only is he helping to place athletes on the podium in World Cups but he is also demonstrating that with concentrated blocks of lifting he is able to improve lower body mechanical muscle power in a meaningful way with more than half the lifting the athletes did previously.  In this context, when Nick says this approach works, he has a decent amount of data to quantify the impact of his approach.  I’m also using this approach for assessing athletes returning from ACL injury in the late phases of rehabilitation and to evaluate the potential benefits of eccentric loading to improve movement velocity in our speed and power athletes.

know what matters...

The second point of sport science is to know what matters for performance.  For example, I have seen strength coaches assess variables such as the 1RM power clean, 3RM front squat and a host of other strength measures that have next to ZERO correlation to performance in the sport.  From this, they generate tables and standards for what someone needs to be able to do to be good at the sport.  My response is: based on what??  Show me this is the case.  Generating a table saying this is what these athletes are capable of is meaningless.  In small cohorts over shorter time periods, I will use simple correlation analysis.  As my group gets bigger and I amass more data, I will begin to use multiple linear regressions to identify important strength and power variables.  And then once I have got a ton of data, I will use techniques such as principle component analysis to identify important differentiators for performance.  To me this is absolutely critical for success in any program.

UFC fighter Nick 'the promise' Ring - an athlete Jordan has worked with for 8 years

monitor readiness...

The third point of sport science is to monitor an athlete’s readiness to train.  In all aspects of life, science is used to monitor systems.  There are monitoring systems in your car, in hospitals, in Formula 1 car racing and in environmental science.  Yet, when it comes to elite sports, too many coaches simply rely on the tried, tested and true art of asking: how are you doing today?  Now, I’m fine with this, and trust me, I learned a long time ago how important it is to ask questions and pay attention to body language and energy levels.  However, this isn’t sufficient.  I use monitoring to back up what I see and feel, and often my monitoring identifies potential issues before even the athlete is aware of them.  

I also use this to guide my return to sport process after injury and illness.  I also go back retrospectively across years of data and correlate changes in readiness to training loads.  In my elite alpine ski racers, I have four years of data as they progressed from a young group of ski racers to the top of the World Cup podium.  I can identify things that worked, things that didn’t, and to identify phases of the year where things went well and where they didn’t.  I then use the numbers to gain insight.  I find this incredibly useful.     

I also think this process becomes extremely valuable at major Games when everyone’s senses are heightened and it’s easy to ignore the obvious or dwell on the minutia.  In this setting, monitoring the athletes’ readiness is hugely valuable.  It’s very reassuring when we are sitting in meetings to be able to provide this information to the coach to support the decision-making process.  In my opinion, if you’re not doing this you are simply shooting from the hip.  

I think a good analogy with this is the weather.  I once watched a documentary that focused on the well-known pattern of global warming that is now referred much more appropriately to climate change.  This documentary revealed that on 9/11 the planet experienced a sharp increase in temperature.  The cause for this was unknown.  However, by reviewing data collected around the world from agricultural settings where the water evaporation from a pan in a 24 hour cycle (pan evaporation) was measured, they were able to identify that due to a reduction in air pollution that more sunlight had actually been making it to the earth, and therefore had the potential to accelerate climate change.  Two things were fundamental to this: 1) systematically record basic measurements like temperature and pan evaporation; and 2) maintaining a curious and inquisitive mindset to dig deeper into the anomalies.  In fact, the anomalies identified from routine monitoring often reveal the most groundbreaking insights.  

Now, 1000 years ago, humans were simply looking to the sky and getting a sense of what was to happen in the weather from what they saw in the clouds, how they felt and how the animals behaved.  They also thought based on a very limited understanding of how it all worked that if they burned some herbs and did a dance they could change the weather.  I bet if I asked a present day nomad who lives off the earth to give me a weather forecast that there would be decent agreement with what environmental science predicts.  However, the scientist has much greater insight that has evolved out of subjective assessments.  Through advancements in our understanding, the scientist is able to provide more accurate forecasts and understands that no amount of dancing or burning of herbs is going to affect the weather because the weather is influenced by other factors.  I took the liberty of using this documentary as a parallel for sport science – no doubt our starting point is to observe and look qualitatively at what we see.  But, through science and monitoring, our qualitative observations lead to good methods to measure what we see and to understand what factors influence the behavior.  From here we can use this systematic process of quietly and ubiquitous monitoring to identify anomalies, which help us make decisions and hopefully weed out the useless practices that have no effect.  

To reiterate, I’m not saying this process has to mirror the scientific process - I am the first to recognize there are major limitations with this.  
Some of the limitations include: 
  • bias and corruption in the peer review process; 
  • the difficulty in changing scientific paradigms; 
  • the time-course to get something published; 
  • the lack of applicability from science done on non-elite populations; and 
  • the huge challenges in doing science on small groups of elite athletes.  

But good or bad, the scientific process is the best one I know for generating new insight in a rigorous manner.  No doubt others will disagree, but I think the process of engaging in rigorous observation, evaluation and knowledge translation still needs to be applied in our day-to-day practice.  You can call this evidence-based practice but I prefer to call it quantifying impact that involves knowing matters, measuring what matters and showing we changed what matters.  In the absence of this, we are simply like the nomad who looks to the clouds and with great experience and wisdom makes observations about the weather but due to limitations in understanding believes that a rain dance will bring showers.  

measure - don’t feel...

Right now I’m involved in this PhD and for the most part I love it.  I’m not going to make more money because of this process and it’s a lot of work, but I am doing this for other reasons.  The plan is to identify the neuromuscular deficits that persist following ACL reconstruction in elite athletes to develop effective re-injury prevention strategies.  This process started with the simple observation that some of my elite ski racers with ACL-R presented with significant deficits up to two years after injury, and that some of these athletes returned to pre-injury performance levels, while others either suffered re-injury or were not able to make it back.  With routine assessments that I was doing to assess lower limb kinetics during jumping and squatting, I began to observe a threshold that seemed to differentiate the copers and non-copers.  I started using this as a guide throughout the late phase of rehabilitation to identify at-risk athletes and to guide my training prescription.  Now, this is where many strength coaches stop the quantification of impact.  However, I wanted to take this further and to have my ideas vetted and tested in the scientific community.  From these observational studies, I’m delving into the neuromuscular mechanisms underlying the observed functional deficits and going through a prospective study to identify the factors related to knee re-injury.  

As I move through this process, no doubt it’s been challenging.  I’m really forced to think about this on a much deeper level than I would have.  BUT, I can tell you that my initial hunches were wrong!  The factors that I thought were important based on the opinions of other strength coaches, and then my observational studies have proved to be small factors in terms of how these athletes cope.  I’m finding new insights and I think this is a great example of why you need to measure not feel.  In fact, Dr. Benno Nigg (noted biomechanist) reminded me how important this is at a recent conference on science in skiing.  I opened my conversation with: “I feel this is important…”.  His response was very curt and pointed: MEASURE, DON’T FEEL.  

Touché Dr. Nigg.  

Long-term, I’m hoping my research also leads to new insights on how we train elite athletes who have suffered ACL injury, so that they not only remain injury free but also return to pre-injury performance levels.   

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Matt Jordan is a PhD student in the Faculty of Medical Science at the University of Calgary.  He is also the Head of Strength and Power Science at the Canadian Sports Institute in Calgary, Canada, and is about the smartest strength coach I know.  Matt is a lecturer in the Faculty of Kinesiology at the University of Calgary and has published many articles on strength and conditioning for athletes. He has also presented at National and International conferences on strength training methods for high performance athletes. He's worked in the trenches for almost twenty years, working closely with some of Canada's top winter sport athletes.  

He has previously written a short piece on McMillanSpeed on the nutrition industry. Give him a follow on Twitter...