Sports Science

For an athlete, it seems to good to be true. A "sports supplement" that increases alertness, concentration, reaction time and focus while decreasing muscle fatigue or at least the perception of fatigue. It can even shorten recovery time after a game. HGH? EPO? Steroids? Nope, just a grande cup of Juan Valdez's Best, Liquid Lightning, Morning Mud, Wakey Juice, Mojo, Java, aka coffee.

Actually, the key ingredient is caffeine which has been studied repeatedly for its ergogenic (performance-enhancing) benefits in sports, both mentally and physically. Time after time, caffeine proves itself as a relatively safe, legal and inexpensive boost to an athlete.  Or does it?

Michael Phelps, Nastia Liukin, Misty May-Treanor and Lin Dan are four Olympic athletes who have each spent most of their life learning the skills needed to reach the top of their respective sports, swimming, gymnastics, beach volleyball and badminton (you were wondering about Lin, weren't you...) 

Their physical skills are obvious and amazing to watch.  For just a few minutes, instead of being a spectator, try to step inside the heads of each of them and try to imagine what their brains must accomplish when they are competing and how different the mental tasks are for each of their sports.

 Imagine winning a gold medal at the Beijing Olympics.  No really, go ahead, close your eyes and visualize it.  What did you see?  Were you standing on the medal platform looking out at the crowd, waving and taking in the scene through your own eyes, or were you a spectator in the crowd watching yourself getting the medal put around your neck?  This choice between "first-person" or "third-person" perspective actually has an effect on our motivation to achieve a future goal.

You are a coach, trying to juggle practice plans, meetings, game prep and player issues while trying to stay focused on the season's goals.  At the end of another long day, you see this in your inbox:

MEMO
To:         All Head Coaches
From:     Athletic Director
Subject:  Monthly Reading List to Keep Up with Current Sport Science Research 
-  Neuromuscular Activation of Triceps Surae Using Muscle Functional MRI and EMG
-  Positive effects of intermittent hypoxia (live high:train low) on exercise performance are not mediated primarily by augmented red cell volume
-  Physiologic Left Ventricular Cavity Dilatation in Elite Athletes
-  The Relationships of Perceived Motivational Climate to Cohesion and Collective Efficacy in Elite Female Teams

Just some light reading before bedtime...  This is an obvious exaggeration of the gap between sport science researchers and practitioners.  While those are actual research paper titles from the last few years under the heading of "sport science", the intended audience was most likely not coaches or athletes, but rather fellow academic peers.  The real question is whether the important conclusions and knowledge captured in all of this research is ever actually used to improve athletic performance?  How can a coach or athlete understand, combine and transfer this information into their game?

 As the puck was cleared to the other end of the ice, my 9-year old son's hockey teammates raced after it. Then, I saw him. He was lying motionless and face down at the blue line. He had slid headfirst into the boards to make a play. By the time our coach made it over to him, he had started to move. After a few minutes, they both skated to the bench where I saw the two talking. Coach looked up at me in the stands with a grim look and motioned for me to come down. The next four hours were my introduction to sports concussions.


A concussion, clinically known as a Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI), is one of the most common yet least understood sports injuries. According to the Centers for Disease Control, there are as many as 300,000 sports and recreation-related concussions each year in the U.S., yet the diagnosis, immediate treatment and long-term effects are still a mystery to most coaches, parents and even some clinicians. The injury can be deceiving as there is rarely any obvious signs of trauma. If the head is not bleeding and the player either does not lose consciouness or regains it after a brief lapse, the potential damage is hidden and the usual "tough guy" mentality is to "shake it off" and get back in the game.

 Sometimes, during my daily browsing of the Web for news and interesting angles on the sport science world, I get lucky and hit a home run.  I stumbled on this great May 2007 Wired article by Jennifer Kahn, Wayne Gretzky-Style 'Field Sense' May Be Teachable.  It ties together the people and themes of several of my recent posts, focusing on the concept of perception in sports.

Wayne Gretzky is often held up as the ultimate example of an athlete with average physical stature, who used his cognitive and perceptual skills to beat opponents. Joining Gretzky in the "brains over brawn" Hall of Fame would be pitcher Greg Maddux, NBA guard Steve Nash and quarterback Joe Montana.  They were all told as teenagers that they didn't have the size to succeed in college or the pros, but they countered this by becoming master students of the game, constantly searching for visual cues that would give them the advantage of a fraction of second or the element of surprise.

 Its something that every coach and every athlete of every sport is searching for... the EDGE. That one training tip, equipment improvement, mental preparation or tactical insight that will tip the game towards them. The body of knowledge that exists today in each sport is assumed, with each competitor expected to at least be aware of the history, beliefs and traditions of their individual sport. But, if each team is starting with the same set of information then the team that takes the next step by applying new research and ideas will capture the edge.

To me, that is what sport science is all about. The goal is to improve sports performance by imagining, analyzing, experimenting, testing, documenting and training new methods to coaches and athletes.

 Athletes, both professional and amateur, as well as the general public are convinced that human growth hormone (HGH), Erythropoietin (EPO) and anabolic-androgenic steroids (AAS) are all artificial and controversial paths to improved performance in sports.  The recent headlines that have included Barry Bonds, Marion Jones, Floyd Landis, Dwayne Chambers, Jose Canseco, Jason Giambi, Roger Clemens and many lesser known names (see the amazingly long list of doping cases in sport) have referred to these three substances interchangeably leaving the public confused about who took what from whom. 

With so many athletes willing to gamble with their futures, they must be confident that they will see significant short-term results.  So, is it worth the risk?  Two very interesting recent studies provide some answers on at least one of the substances, HGH.

Here are some quotes we have all heard (or said ourselves) on the golf course or at the ball diamond. 
On a good day:
"It was like putting into the Grand Canyon"
"The baseball looked like a beach ball up there today"

On a bad day:
"The hole was as small as a thimble"
"I don't know, it looked like he was throwing marbles"

The baseball and the golf hole are the same size every day, so are these comments meaningless or do we really perceive these objects differently depending on the day's performance?  And, does our performance influence our perception or does our perception help our performance?

Visit any youth soccer field, baseball diamond, basketball court or football field and you will likely see them:  parents behaving badly.  Take a look at this Good Morning America report on "sideline rage".  Sometimes, these are the extremes, but at most games, you can find at least one adult making comments at the referee, shouting at their child, or having a verbal exchange with another parent.  Thankfully, these parents represent only a small percentage of those attending the game.  Does that mean the others don't become upset at something during the game?  Usually not, as there are lots of opportunities to dispute a bad call or observe rough play or react to one of these loud parents.

 The difference is in our basic personality psyche, according to Jay Goldstein, a kinesiology doctoral student at the University of Maryland School of Public Health.  His thesis, recently published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology (see reference below), hypothesized that a parent with "control-oriented" personality would react to events at a game more than a parent with an "autonomy-oriented" personality.