As a high school science teacher, I genuinely love working through the process of science with my students. Upon making observations of phenomena of which they are completely unfamiliar, they will often exclaim, “That happened because… [insert something partly or completely incorrect here]!” We can spend weeks trying to learn what principles guide the behavior of isopods or why hydrogen peroxide bubbles furiously when poured over beef liver. The slow and sometimes painful process of using the scientific method to uncover truths about the universe can be arduous, but when carefully planned, highly controlled experiments yield data that dissuade us from continuing to believe falsehoods, the feeling of that “eureka moment” is both liberating and worth all the work. As the captain at the helm of this educational ship, I am both scientist and artist. I choose what information to reveal to the students and when to do so. I carefully craft the right question to ask at the perfect moment to spark further curiosity. I swerve, twist and dodge as I orchestrate the room of 34 teenagers to have them reach the “eureka moment” at the crescendo of my opus. In order for my performance as their teacher to be captivating, I must employ a well-rehearsed, well-informed, and clever balance of science and art.
In addition to teaching science to brilliant young people in my community, I also train young distance runners to compete over 800m - 5,000m. This arena is not much different with regard to walking that clever balance of science and art. I am proud to say that the teams I coach, are top-tier teams in Arizona, with individuals leading the state with their performances, and overall team rankings that make the program one that coaches and athletes around the state know and respect. I have accomplished this by balancing the science and art of coaching a team. My bookshelf in my office and my nightstand next to my bed are cluttered with works on the science of coaching athletes by Dr. Jack Daniels, Steve Magness, and Owen Anderson to name a few, and works on the art of coaching athletes by Brett Bartholomew and Joe Newton. I believe it is a healthy mixture of learning the science and the art that has helped to propel my program and my athletes to the forefront of our sport.
As a new coach in my first couple of years, I did what most other coaches do, I planned training based on the conventional wisdom passed to me from watching my high school and college coaches, who learned what they knew from whatever it was their coaches did with them. I will venture to guess that the majority of high school cross country and track coaches train their athletes based upon well-intentioned suppositions based upon some limited amount of experience, or something they have found online or in a book that seems well-founded. While this is a great start for any coach who is new to coaching runners, it is an incomplete basis upon which to train athletes.
Shortly after getting my feet planted in coaching runners, I found that the abilities of my athletes, and my inability to confidently field the questions I would occasionally receive from them and their parents about our training, led me to “do my homework.” If I couldn’t authoritatively answer questions about why a weekly long run was important, or how I knew that static stretching is better left for after a workout rather than for preparation for a workout, I knew I would lose buy-in with athletes and their parents. In addition, what kind of scientist would I be if I were believing things in the absence of true evidence? Thus began my search for guiding evidence upon which to modify my approaches to training athletes.
Evidence-based practice (EBP) has become a buzzword in many arenas of training, yet completely absent in the vocabulary of the high school coach. And with good-reason; high school coaches are place in a position of great influence with almost no formal education with which to do so. A teacher may be recruited by an administrator to fill a position out of necessity, and will be very poorly compensated for their time. However, for the dozen or so coaches at the top of the state rankings in nearly any sport, you will likely find a working example of EBP.
Evidence-based practice, as adapted from medicine for the field of strength and conditioning can be defined as a systematic approach to the training of athletes and clients based on the current best evidence from peer-reviewed research and professional reasoning. Coaches employing EBP are committed to reading scientific literature and weighing lots of evidence that is not often time effective in the short term, but can have huge long-term benefits. EBP coaches aren’t just in search of evidence, but the current best evidence available, which requires a coach to revisit long-established methods to learn if their underlying guiding principles have been revealed as incomplete and in need of modification, and if so, the long-established training methods must also be modified accordingly (English, Amonette, Graham & Spiering, 2012).
The scientific research can be lagging, however, as the data can be produced slower than new beliefs in strength and conditioning can be conjectured. This is why professional reasoning must fill in the gaps that exist in research (English, Amonette, Graham & Spiering, 2012). A comprehensive understanding of all available research data (and notably, the best and most recently published data) can instill in the coach the sense of how best to fill in those gaps until the research exists to verify or falsify a coach’s conjectures. Another reason why scientific evidence cannot complete the coach’s arsenal of training is that every individual athlete is unique (English, Amonette, Graham & Spiering, 2012) in anatomical structure, and therefore, biomechanics, and in genetic make-up, and therefore, physiology. These two aforementioned areas give way to the art of coaching athletes.
An artful coach can take the underlying principles they have gleaned from the body of scientific research data and apply it to the individual they are coaching. They can be presented with a highly individualized scenario (like an injured or ill athlete, or an athlete who hasn’t adhered to the prescribed program, as examples) and make a well-informed decision about how best to proceed given the situation (like the time that remains until the goal/target race, for example). The artful coach can observe signs of overtraining (like elevated resting heart-rate, for example) and decide how best to throttle-back while still keeping the athlete confidently committed to their outcome goal(s). The artful coach knows how best to discuss a poor performance with an athlete while leaving the athlete in psychological and emotional states of motivation and confidence heading into their next race. These given examples are areas of coaching that are so dependent upon a coach knowing the specific nature of each individual athlete, that science cannot fully guide the coach in how to interact; some level of artfulness is required (Bartholomew, 2017).
Evidence-based practice is an essential platform upon which coaches can build the best possible program for their athletes. Scientific research weeds-out training principles that are unsound and elevates principles that have been substantiated through controlled experimentation. This data provides practical applications that provides coaches with confidence in the training methods they employ; methods that yield the best possible results with the greatest avoidance of athlete injury. A confident coach instills confidence in his or her athletes, which further drives excellent performances. While difficult to abide in a massive body of ever-growing scientific literature, it is the truest way for a coach, athletes, and athletics in general to continue to progress.
Bartholomew, B. (2017). Conscious coaching: The art and science of building buy-in. North Charleston, NC: CreateSpace.
English, K. L., Amonette, W. E., Graham, M., & Spiering, B. A. (2012). What is “evidence-based” strength and conditioning? Strength and Conditioning Journal, 34(3), 19-24.