Sports Science - Gurus or Gremlins?

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James Hird and Mark Thompson will be scratching their heads and searching for answers on the back of a disappointing couple of months. The spotlight looks to be squarely focussed on the sports science department.

It is an area that has taken on monumental proportions over the last decade. Everyone wants to be an innovator in this game and the search for the holy grail of preparation and conditioning is high on the achievement list.

A team wins a premiership and 17 other teams focus on every aspect of their player management, coaching structure, game plan and training regime. It is analysed and dissected to within an inch of its life. Modifications and changes are made in a somewhat pathetic attempt to emulate the champion team.

Altitude training has gathered momentum on the back of the Pies' success and similarly core strength and power has been seriously investigated after the Cats monstered their opposition for a few years.

It's all reactive, follow the leader, herd mentality.

Club budgets in the sports science domain have dramatically increased over recent years and I am still unconvinced of its merit.

The closest we came to success at St Kilda was on the back of the senior coaches and players adopting a more "hands-on" approach to pre-season preparation. We had tried everything and everyone to no avail.

We put in place a "wellness" program and significantly raised the bar on effort and intensity, focussing specifically on mentally challenging activities that exposed "weakies" whilst harnessing and developing team morale.

"Turbo" sessions were created every Saturday morning at 7am - usually in the sand dunes at Sorrento - and we bought the players breakfast afterwards out of respect for their effort. They were gut-wrenching, heart-breaking sessions that tested the resilience and fibre of the group. You were more obvious by not vomiting as most players took their turn in what seemed to evolve into a badge of honour.

The team spirit and morale was taking huge leaps forward along with the obvious benefits of the conditioning and mental toughness.

Every step of the way the strength and conditioning team, or 'Training Services' as we preferred to call them, were there casting a doubting eye over proceedings. Forever coming forward and mentioning "you will break them" or "it's too demanding".

The leadership group and the coaching team spoke about doing more than any other team. Doing it on a day and at a time that all other teams would be snuggled up in bed, recovering and relaxing after a tough, demanding pre-season week.

In essence we had endured everything Training Services could throw at the team and the players wanted more. They developed this "gutbust" session and it definitely wasn't for faint hearts. It included grappling against each other on your knees with boxing gloves, triathlons, severe dune hill sprints, medicine ball activities and general team challenges.

Most of all it significantly developed morale and spirit which was the most enduring outcome. It tended to fly in the face of the guiding principles of the program being conducted by the sports science team however it was the players' session for themselves - and on their own time.

There is no doubt it set us up for a strong season.

There has been no proof that sports science gurus have decreased the injury levels over the last decade. I think it is a complete farce.

It has developed itself into a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby teams are reluctant to take control or interfere with the "specialists" for fear of increased injury levels.

The "gurus" have positioned themselves as critically important pawns in the preparation process and during that time developed a more than healthy budget to pay for bulging support staff numbers and increased science specialists. To what end?

I'm not certain - and therein lies the problem.

You are darned if you do and darned if you don't. After all, they are the specialists, they have the qualifications and credentials, they know what they are talking about - or do they?

There is no doubt that diet, rest and recovery is a very important piece of the pie when it comes to elite athletic performance. My theory is that stress plays a major part in muscle related injuries.

Why does Sydney have the least injuries of any team in the competition, year in and year out?

Sydney continually has the most players playing the most games every season.

Is it because they have access to the best daily recovery procedures in the ocean? Is it because they can walk around anonymously without the stress and focus from the local media and community?

It seems the more stress and focus the Bombers are under the more they capitulate as they ride out increasing soft tissue injuries. Why is that?

Do the strength and conditioning staff have the answers or are they just shaking their heads in disbelief? The team that wins the premiership cup this year will provide the blueprint for other teams' preparation next season - rightfully or wrongfully.

One thing is certain, clubs will continue to research and develop their programs for elite player preparation and conditioning.

That shifts the responsibility from the coaches to the sports science gurus, however I'm not sure it solves the problem.

User comments
Good call Grant, your comment about "Turbo" sessions being conducted in the player's own time highlights the sorry state of football at the moment - responsibility for ownership of the club "brand" needs to return to the players and the head coach, not the scientists who are only trying to justify their own existence. Ask any fan and they will tell you that all the sport science in the world does not improve the spectacle of the game, instinct and ball skills will always win the crowd, Natanui, Franklin, Rioli to name just three.
Good start Grant. There are however specific diffierences between sport science departments and injury prevention departments and unfortunately there is less general understanding of this. North Melbourne and Richmond are probably very well led in this area. Gut busting training sessions are about improving performance. This is what makes a team look and perform better. Finding weak links through screening and assessment is about improving durability. If sports science staff only allow performance training, we see what happens at Essendon - durability suffers. More money is not what's needed, a different emphasis is what's needed..... We don't have to reinvent the wheel, the New paradigm is already in place in the places where lack of durability really costs $... Pro North American and European football, and this paradigm shift is in
if you look at geelong,adelaide,brisbane they all won several premerships because they knew they could,not physical but more a mental game plan.thats why they won.the afl teams are getting closer to each other all the time.if you arent switched on,on the day you can lose.its that simple !!!!
Regarding injuries today against yesterday, I dont think they have increased. But what I do believe is that the players of yesteryear were ignorant to what permanent damage they were causing themselves and they simply played on each week for the love of the game ( short of an actual break which would put them in cumbersome plaster casts and render them useless)The cry was give me quarterzone before the bounce and another at half time and make sure you have some at training on Tuesday!!
Grant - I think that is a fair comment. Seems to be much comment now on the value of stretching as well. Noticed in country football very few injuries in the non stretch era and big increase in the stretching era. Whether this is incidental to it all. I know not.
Can't believe the 'boffins' don't allow kicking practice. The most accurate kicker I've seen would have to have been Jonny Wilkinson, the English Union player. Also read that he practiced kicking for goal everyday of the year, including Christmas day. Not sure about his injury record but he rarely misses a goal kick.
Very well said Mr Thomas. Although I have followed Rugby League all my life, I do take an interest in the AFL. I have always had a suspicion that there are more injuries today in either code than there was back in the 1970's & 1980's. My theory is that Strength & Conditioning "Gurus" focus on way too much attention on doing weights especially the legs. The Human Body isn't designed to Squat 150 kg then go out and run & change direction at full capacity without something giving way.
It seems to me that attitude and discipline of the individual from an early age is the key component to making an elite athlete who is prepared to work in a team environment to obtain the rewards of consistently winning. Intense training as a group raises the bar where trust and expectations of winning are a reality. Must recruit to right person for the task initially and good coach will prevail. I like your thinking.
Grant you’re as insightful as usual but the article failed to mention that the boffins don’t allow kicking practice. Given that this is a key part of the game that they prevent been worked on, if I use Kurt tippet as an example who needs to kick straight what he can’t do thanks to them is during the off slash pre season say keep up the aerobics with running and spend say four hours a day just kicking to get it spot on like a golfer tweaking or changing there swing. The science people won’t allow it to happen but then when you play the actual game you kick a lot. Does this then place a stain on the body that is leading to the spate of soft tissue injuries? The dollar value cost is budget braking and if as is becoming the fashion, altitude training will see the cost of running a club be so high that it then threatens the viability of many of them to keep up with the joneses?
This seems to be true in cricket as well - Fast bowlers bodies (and minds?) seem to be breaking down more often now that the sports science gurus are "looking after" the bowlers. Previously hard work and constant bowling built the strength and condition for bowlers to perform for long periods and still show up and perform the next day. Even blokes like Merv Hughes , while not as seemingly fit as Shane Watson, Phil Cummins and Mitch Johnson, had the strenght to bowl just as fast on day 5 as day 1.

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