Sports Coaching: coaches should rely more on sport science than sports trends

Coaching has always been something of an art

Coaching has always been something of an art. But in a thought-provoking article, Tom McNab argues that many coaches should pay more heed to science and less to following the latest trends…

Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds should be obligatory reading for all coaches. It was written by Charles Mackay back in 1841 and details the various crazes that have afflicted mankind over the centuries. Among those discussed are The South Sea Bubble, Tulipomania, and the Crusades. Indeed, the list of lunacies to which mankind has at some time subscribed is a long one!

Athletics, and in particular running, has not been immune to such delusions. Prior to the practice of coaching, and in its early years, this was both understandable and excusable, because science had not yet been extensively applied to sport. However, it is less excusable now, especially when some degree of scientific scrutiny can be applied to each new technique or training method.

Past (and present) delusions

It might be worthwhile to cast our eyes back to history to consider some past delusions and some that are still in vogue today (see boxes 1-8). Now, not all of these ideas were totally misguided; some simply represent misapplications of valid training methods. However, I hope that they might, in their totality, put in perspective some of the flabby thinking that has often invaded some recent coaching methods.

As I said at the outset, not all of the methods described here have been discredited. Some (like interval training and 100 miles a week) were simply misused or misapplied. Some, like circuit training (though of some value for the unfit) must be seriously questioned as a means of training for mature athletes. And some, like speedball, are just plain daft! The problem is that all have been at some time accepted as Holy Writ, and this of course begs the question of how many of our present widely accepted training methods will stand up to serious scientific scrutiny.

Drills training transfer

It is, I believe, possible to determine which course a coach has attended by the drills he presents to his athletes a week later! The big toe drill, the left eyebrow drill, a drill for the index finger devised by Professor Alucard of Transylvania University – any or all of these can be adopted by coaches simply because that drill has become the current orthodoxy. In very few cases are these drills subjected to even the slightest scrutiny. This is often because coaches believe they must surely be right – they are after all being proposed either by an ex-international or by the coach of a prominent athlete!
Thus, within a week after any course, various mutations of these drills surface all over the place, many as different from what were originally demonstrated as I am from Hercules! At this point I should raise my hand and plead guilty; I have for years used and developed the running drills of the late Bud Winter (former US Olympic track coach). Indeed, these drills helped to take British 100m runner Greg Rutherford from around 11.50s to 10.38s in two years. But then these were not isolated drills taken out of the event, but focus-drills that all were practiced within the skill of running itself.

Effective drills are all about transfer of training and might therefore better be called ‘related practices’. Assuming it’s valid and practised within the skill of the sport itself, to be effective any drill must be applied within the full movement as soon as possible if there is to be successful transfer. However, what is more often observed on the training ground is ‘drilling’, with athletes of widely varying abilities, and all for some reason doing the same number of repetitions, but in isolation, with no early transfer to the event itself!

There is ample precedent for this type of activity. I well remember land drills, deployed as late as the 1950s as a means of learning to swim. The fact that, when I was placed in the pool, I was still quite unable to swim bothered my teacher not a jot. He had taken me through the drill. The fact that I could not swim was my fault!

Football drills

Let’s take a look at football, where the Dutch coach Coerver has devised a series of ball drills for children. These include the ‘Cruyff step-over’, the ‘Ronaldo shuffle’ and many others. However, Coerver tries to put these mini-skills into two against one and small team games as early as possible, in order that there is effective transfer. Without that, they remain sterile drills with little practical value.
All of this is not to deny that most drills have some value. What I’m hoping to do here is to question the amount of time spent on them, (particularly with beginners), to stress the need to secure transfer, and the importance of subjecting each new drill to rigorous technical scrutiny. Each moment we spend with an athlete must have a justifiable purpose and measurable benefits.
It is said that the discus thrower Wolfgang Schmidt of the former East German Republic admitted that, although he described dozens of discus drills to coaches eager to learn new techniques, he only ever used two of these drills himself. His explanation was that he was only providing what coaches wanted to hear, and what they wanted was to return to their athletes with a fresh set of drills!


The ‘good old days’ are usually only evidence of bad memory. But in the past, national coaches tended to act as a filter for any new ideas. Now, however (in the UK at least), the link between our voluntary coaches and practical international level coaches who are capable of subjecting new methods to some degree of rational scrutiny has gone. But there is no good reason why coaches cannot create filters of their own by subjecting new and fashionable drills and trends to good old-fashioned scientific scrutiny. This being said, it is important to repeat that coaching is not a science, but rather a practical art – it is how we deploy scientifically tested methods that will determine our success as coaches. But someone or something must surely be created to protect us from another speedball and to evaluate Professor Alucard’s index finger drill!

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