Monday, October 31, 2016

Outsiders’ intelligence: Time to re-think current practices?

“If nothing is going right, turn left”

We live in an era of accelerated knowledge. In modern elite level sports and in particular in football, input from the backroom staff (medicine and science practitioners) is considerable and influences the coaches’ decision-making process. However, it appears that there is a huge gap between knowledge gained in the lab or via research and actual benefit for the team in the field. As an example, injuries incidence in elite football players remained unchanged over the last 10 years. This was despite the growing number of scientific papers on prevention over the same period and the fact that some clubs are using injury prevention programs regularly. Another example, again in elite football, is related to the effect of congested fixture on performance. As most of you know, congested fixture will possibly result in performance decrements despite the fact that training and recovery methods have been substantially improved over the last years. Are we heading in the right direction? Should we start thinking differently?

Why injuries incidence remains stable?
With reference to the first example above, a number of reasons may explain the relatively low effectiveness of injury prevention programs on the injury incidence in elite football. Some of these factors are: the lack of applied research which is real-life questions driven, the inability to translate current research into effective practice, the relatively low players’ compliance with the prevention training. If player’s commitment with the specific exercise program is an issue (as some researchers and practitioners suggest) we should concentrate more on understanding our players rather than on developing exercise drills. Knowledge from social sciences might help in understanding our players better. In extension to that, it is assumed that the lack of fresh ideas and of the 360o view might also be a factor. As in other expertise knowledge from other areas, outsiders’ knowledge, could add value and help in finding solutions to current challenges.

What can we learn from the outsiders?
In terms of injury prevention and risk detection approaches in elite footballers, the majority of strategies so far are fragmented. Screening tests, mostly performed at the start of season and in isolation to the game context, are correlated with the injury incidence throughout the season. However, to link any injury with its risk factors we should at least analyze the specific movement and the context (e.g. time of match, style of play) that it occurs. For that reason, we must integrate measures and data from movement and performance analysis, energy system function, psychological status and previous training principles. This requires a dynamic and holistic approach in data analysis. Several business units of a dynamic nature use approaches to deal with big data and reach meaningful conclusions, being, for instance, the risk of taking a decision, prices/budget forecasts, consumers behavior etc. I am sure that modern sports have to learn a lot from these practices.
USA navy wanted to use the most advanced tools to screen their pilots’ ability to perform well under high psychological stress. This initiative was driven by the strategic objective to reduce the human lives losses and financial cost in case of fatal events. Their research showed that certain proteins are valid candidate molecules to identify individuals who can perform well while under high stress. I am not claiming that we should use exactly the same genomic approach as in pilots but this knowledge from outsiders might help us to improve the tools we use in football.

Football can learn from top business
Business owners in the City of London wanted to know which biological factors affect the traders’ decision making. If they are able to identify the influential biological markers next step would be to manipulate them towards the optimal level. Saliva samples were collected from the traders every morning and were analyzed for testosterone and cortisol concentration. The saliva hormones daily variations were plotted against their performance (money profit and losses). The results showed that the traders were making profits in the days that testosterone concentration was high. This is particularly relevant to elite sports where all actions should align to optimize performance at a certain time of day.

What’s next?
To my view we should rethink the way we approach, plan and execute science in modern sports. To provide effective solutions to coaches/managers, being tools to injury incidence reduction and performance enhancement, we should also look at other areas and places. Knowledge from outsiders might help.

George Nassis holds a doctorate degree in exercise physiology & sports science and has long experience as a physiologist and head of performance in football. He has extensive experience on the integration of sports medicine and science for injury prevention and performance enhancement. George has published more than 50 papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals (h-index=18).