Using Science as your Coaching Process

Coaching with Science

About a month ago I posted a story about the Role of Science in the work of a coach. The Role topic dealt with the Sport Science side of science. This post is concerned with a different side of science, the elemental aspect of science itself. What I’m referring to as elemental science is the scientific method and the application of scientific principles and practices to coaching. That is, coaching like a scientist.

There are 3 different ways that science gets involved with coaching.

  • The science related to technical area being coached;
  • The science related to the methods and practices of coaching, and now;
  • The scientific method and practices that can be used in active coaching.

Why would you Coach with Science?

When you look at it closely, coaching lends itself to the scientific method and practices quite easily. The decision to apply any coaching development method is almost never based on absolute truth and knowledge. It is almost always a best guess. The coaching decision is based on a theory or hypothesis about what method will generate the desired development. Applying the method will result in a testable and measurable outcome. The outcome will then confirm or refute the hypothesis and the cycle of experimentation starts again.

This cycle of hypothesis development and subsequent experimentation can be easily applied to all levels of coaching from Long-range planning through season plans, periodization cycles right down to individual training sessions. The benefits of using science as your basis for coaching are many and of significant value. Here are some of the benefits of coaching with science:

  • All coaching is done using standardised, repeatable process;
  • The process adapts perfectly to the individual variations between athletes;
  • The process maximises responsiveness to change;
  • Incorrect hypotheses are exposed early;
  • Correct hypotheses are confirmed and can be built upon to create development programs of increasing effectiveness;
  • The process is transparent and can be validated externally and independently;
  • All support providers; assistants, medical, biomechanics, sport science and others can understand and learn the process in a short period of time and apply it to their work as well;

How does Coaching with Science work?

Scientific Method ProcessThe process is simple:

  • Develop a hypothesis;
  • Create an experiment to test the hypothesis;
  • Run the experiment and collect relevant information;
  • Analyse the information;
  • Determine the conclusion;
  • Based on the conclusion, develop a new hypothesis.

Here’s what it looks like in practice for an Annual Training Plan:

  • Hypothesis: The athlete will gain usable speed through the mid portion of the event by increasing core strength supported by biomechanical analysis and technical development to allow effective use of the anatomical changes.
  • Experiment: Apply a movement specific core strength program over 12 weeks monitored bi-weekly by biomechanical analysis to identify changes and adaptive adjustments.
  • Information collection and Analysis: Use daily training records, results of periodic performance tests and basic statistical methods to determine the probability of observed changes being attributable to the change program.
  • Conclusion: Judge whether the chosen program has proven or refuted the Hypothesis.
  • New Hypothesis: Based on the X% improvement in mid event speed the indication is that the athlete will make further performance gains by extending the strength program for a further 6 weeks.

Here’s what the process looks like for a Meso (4 week) Cycle:

  • Hypothesis: That the athlete will be able to support an increase of 5% in training intensity without a significant deterioration of performance or requirement for excess recovery time.
  • Experiment: Increase training intensity by 5% for 1 week with an evaluation of training fitness before and after the training period and observation by the athlete and coach of performance effectiveness. This will be followed by a rest week then a repeat of the intensity week.
  • Information collection and Analysis: Review both pre and both post week evaluations for signs of maladaptation or accumulation of fatigue and review the coach/athlete observations for signs of performance degradation.
  • Conclusion: Judge whether there are sufficient indications that the athlete was able to adjust to the increase in training intensity to prove or refute the Hypothesis.
  • New Hypothesis: Based on Conclusion the athlete can/can’t manage an increase in training intensity at this time. The athlete will be able to support an increase in training load at the existing/new level of training intensity.

As you can see these experiments are not complex and they probably don’t vary much from your current practice except for the discipline of following the process and documenting the results and analysis. It will most likely be the case that multiple experiments will be run simultaneously.

As you can see, these experiments are highly individual. There is little value in attempting to run these experiments across multiple  individual athletes. Our process as coaches is not robust enough to support this level of scientific experimentation. We should leave that to the scientists who apply the methods with far more rigor than we do.

What is the best time to start Coaching with Science?

Now is as good a time as any. Start small and start simple. Document everything that you can. Treat working with science as an experiment in itself. You may need to run a few experiments based on adjusting your theory about how you can make this happen. No problem with that. You will just gain experience that will be useful in making this program part of what you do.

One of the best things about using the scientific method as your basis for coaching is that we’re surrounded by scientists. They will be happy to provide useful assistance in getting your science-based coaching program going. It will also mean that you understand their work better.

And that is a good thing.

Ethics in Sport?

Why Bother?

I got into an interesting Twitter discussion yesterday on ethics as they apply in sport situations. Specifically, the discussion centered around whether contravention of doping rules was unethical behaviour. While it is a fascinating exercise to have discussions like this in 140 character chunks, it’s a pretty cumbersome process where explanation is involved. Sometimes more room is needed to get the point across. So now I’ve done this.

Ethics covers a very large swath of philosophical territory. Luckily, we don’t need to go there. What a relief. It’s a mucky, murky place where one can follow a circuitous path right up one’s nether sphincter.

Why bother with ethics at all given the paragraph above? It turns out that ethics are very useful for defining rules for behaviour. These rules help to create a level playing field between individuals. The rules also help to ensure that there are remedies for breaches of ethical rules. Most importantly, the ethical rules allow sport to function.

A key feature of any sport are the rules. Some of the rules are functional in nature describing the size of the playing area, dimensions of the implements, duration of the contest, and so on. Other of the rules are ethical in nature and are commonly referred to as ‘fair play’ rules. All sports provide for specific penalties for violation of the ethical rules. For example, in most sports it will contravene the ethical rules if you kill, maim, poison or otherwise seriously harm your opponent outside of the context of the game. Appropriate penalties will be applied.

The rules associated with doping and doping infractions are another level of ethical sport rules. Doping rules are extra-sport, that is, these rules exist and are created outside of any individual sport and are adopted by individual sports. This is done in order to attain some level of consistency between sports as well as to create an environment where doping rules can be enforced at all.

Because of the adoption of doping rules by a sport they have the same impact and enforcement capabilities as any other rules of the sport. The doping rules become, by adoption, the rules of the sport and not some set of rules imposed from the outside by a foreign body.

Why does this confuse us?

No doubt, ethics can be confusing. The primary area for confusion is with morality, particularly individual moral values. Some folks seem to think that ethics are relative to an individual’s personal moral code. On an individual basis, this can be a valid proposition. Where any sport is concerned, this would be a disaster. Imagine any sporting contest where the participants were allowed to determine the applicability of the ethical rules based on each participant’s specific moral belief system. There would be no enforceable rules and no contest.

The area of ethics that sport is concerned with is called ‘professional ethics’. What makes professional ethics apply to sport, either to coaches or athletes? Sport requires a specific skill set that is unique to sport and that sport, to a great extent, is self-governed. There are two areas of conduct that professional ethics are concerned with.

  • The first is how professionals act between and among each other. The profession is charged with the responsibility of ensuring that the professionals, between themselves, conduct themselves so that no individual or group within the profession gains unfair advantage over another individual or group within the profession.
  • The second area of conduct for professional ethics is how the individuals in the profession affect those outside of the profession.

How can Ethics be managed?

For nearly all professions, ethics are managed using a specific ‘Code of Ethics’. This code contains a lengthy list of rules that need to be followed by the professional. The code attempts to be an all-inclusive document that has provisions for most eventualities. All codes also include a catch-all or universal rule that is generally stated in terms of ‘actions that bring the profession into disrepute’.

For example, nearly all codes have some form of rule that states, (this is a highly paraphrased and colloquialized form) ‘don’t fuck the clients/athletes/staff’. This is usually framed in both literal and figurative terms. It is easy to see that this rule may not be being used to prevent specifically immoral behaviour (at least where consenting adults are concerned). The behaviour may not be immoral at all. A rule such as this is based on lengthy experience that such behaviour generally ends badly for the professional, professionals associated with the professional and the profession in general.

In most cases, athletes do not have a specific professional association. Athletes are regulated professionally by way of an agreement. The agreement is usually not as comprehensive as a code of ethics but contains a list of rules of behaviour that are agreed to by the athlete and the sport organisation. The agreement nearly always contains a provision relating to the requirement to adhere to the doping rules as adopted by the international sport federation or the IOC. The doping rules referred to are nearly always those created by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

In any profession, ethical rules are adjudicated and enforced in a hierarchy going from the local profession level, through the regional profession level, the national professional level and up to and including the national courts. In sport, there is an additional international level in the Court for Arbitration in Sport.

Ethics is the Glue

Our ability to conceive of all the different ways that we can arrange contests of skill, capacity and strategy is probably without bounds. In every sport, without exception, there have been rules created to govern ethical behaviour to be able to contest fairly and in a commonly comparable manner.

Over the years, those who have chosen to ignore the ethical rules have attained a level of international infamy. During the last 100 years we have seen a vast array of ethical violations. The Chicago ‘Black’ Sox betting scandal, the Nancy Kerrigan kneecapping, the Lance Armstrong mega-doping, the FIFA, IAAF and IOC games awarding scandals and, most recently the Russian state-sponsored doping program to name a few that come to mind. In every case the violations damaged sport in some way and in every case, the ethical rules and related remedies helped to repair that damage.

Ethics is not a preventative that can’t reasonably be done; ethics is a restorative that can be done.

Sport without ethics is chaos, pure and simple. We need ethical sport and we need consistent and equitable enforcement of all ethical rules to allow sport to achieve its purpose. The purpose of contesting to determine who is:  FASTER, HIGHER, STRONGER.

What?, How?, What if? – Questions we should all ask


Using Questions to Enhance Performance

Questions, curious questions, insightful questions, inspiring questions, powerful questions… We all ask questions. Our questions define us and can either illuminate the darkest reaches of our inner lives or close the door to possibility.

Our powerful questions unleash untapped potential, solve intractable problems and quiet the most unsettled mind. Our ego based, biased and judgemental questions block progress, limit potential and narrow our thinking.

When we get right inside the development process it’s our questions that can bring about the most exceptional results.

What are some of the things that you could do to …?

How can we get more of …?

Imagine what other ways …?

Open-ended Questions

These questions open the mind to alternatives, foster a change in perspective, inspire insight and make us more resourceful. We perform best when we are most resourceful. Open-ended questions are the most effective at opening the mind to possibility, which is what makes us resourceful. Open-ended questions tend to lead to solution focused answers.

Open-ended questions can also be strung into a logical format like this: “What are some of the many ways that you could achieve ‘X’?” or “Why is that important to you? And what else?” or “How will you know when you have attained ‘X’?”. A string of open-ended questions and the responses in between are the foundation of a ‘coaching conversation’ that helps to guide the coachee toward discovery of productive solutions to challenging problems.

Questions are the foundation that we build on to create the difference that sets us apart from the rest.

Neurology and Questions

Some of the best questions being asked today are being asked about our brains.

Where does neurophysiology end and consciousness begin?

What is the role of consciousness?

What are some of the many ways that this goldmine of understanding can be used to improve sport performance? Some practical applications of recent discoveries in neural function are showing promising results:


A field of study that combines neuro-physiology with biomechanics with the aim of more completely understanding human movement. Franz Bosch is doing some extensive work in this field with rugby and football players.

Neuro-bio Feedback

Is a process where neural and other biological information is collected electronically and displayed to the user. The user then adjusts normally involuntary behaviours by using the feedback information. Dr. Penny Werthner at the University of Calgary in Alberta is doing extensive work in this area.

Solution Focused Coaching

A process that builds on the findings of neuro-linguistic programming and the work of psychologists such as Milton Erickson to create an environment where questions are used to focus development efforts on making productive changes using the client’s inherent resources. The International Coaching Federation provides leadership in this area.

All of these development modalities are founded on the assumption that consciousness is primarily inhibitory and real change in performance can come from accessing the unconscious.

Putting Questions in the Frame

Once the picture of successful performance is available along with the process to get there, the conscious mind can take this new understanding and work with it. This allows a greater scope for performance by following the route of the imagined performance. For us in the world of performance, the unconscious is where all the good stuff happens. Learn how to easily tap the unconscious through the magic of the open question as noted above and the boundaries of performance will be greatly expanded.

More on Questions

A very large body of knowledge now exists to confirm the performance gains that are generated through a coaching relationship where the coach has mastered the art of the question. I recommend that you give it a look if you’re after something that will make a difference to the performance levels of your athletes.

Why not give it a try? These works might be a good place to start:

The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More and Change the way You Lead Forever – Michael Bungay Stanier

Coaching Questions: A Coach’s Guide to Powerful Asking Skills – Tony Stoltzfus

Keeping the Brain in Mind: Practical Neuroscience for Coaches – Shawn Carson and Melissa Tiers

The Art of Asking Essential Questions – Richard Paul and Linda Elder