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Coach vs. Sport Scientist: Critical Thinking

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Critical thinking is the art and science of rationalism.  It’s the foundational belief that science starts and ends with problems.  The goal of the pursuit is iterative in approach with each failure leading closer and closer to a better explanation.  The result is a temporary theory or conjecture.  Supreme theories offer superior explanations and are tested/criticized more often. The “game” of science is a game with no end. 


Critical thinking is context specific in the world of coaching and sports science.  The major reason for this is the absence, or presence of time in making decisions.  According to Meyer [1]:


“Sport scientists try to reduce the number of variables influencing an outcome so that causation can be more easily disentangled. Scientists look for answers that are right or wrong, and time is not of the essence.”

This form of logic is called deductive reasoning.  The scientist starts with a premise (hypothesis, data, information etc.), and concludes by making an inference (a result).  The key with deductive logic is that the scientist does not move beyond the premise and make broad based inference. 

On the other hand, sport coaches do not get the luxury of time.  Many times, decisions need to be made well before all the facts are in.  Coaches’ are more concerned about solving immediate performance problems, rather than determining causation [2].  Coaches are influenced by tradition advice from mentors, and imitation from other successful colleagues [3,4]. 

This form of logic is called inductive reasoning (reasoning by repetition).  The coach starts with a premise (immediate information, video, game flow etc.), and reaches a conclusion.  In the case of the sport coach, he/she moves beyond the premise and creates “heuristics” (simple rules of thumb).  Heuristics are mental short cuts that minimize time-based decision making.  Heuristics are based on years of practical experience, and detailed content knowledge.  

Coaches and scientists may not see the performance world through the same lens.  This has to do with previous experience and bias (we all have it!). Each environment has its own inherent constraints.  In the private sector, our goal is to invest in technology that best measures the unique demands of sport (hard to do with hockey), is reliable, and easy to interpret and analyze (Body Fat testing, Laser Speed Testing, Force Plate testing, Bar Speed testing, TRIMP).  Our goal is to communicate results to our pro athletes within twenty-four hours and our team sport coaches within 48-72 hours.  We use simple charts and graphs to communicate.  We are also use analogies when communicating data.  Here’s an example:

Example 1:

Sport Scientist/Coach: “We spoke last session re:  TRIMP.  Remember that analogy that we used?  If you drive from Columbus to Cincinnati, TRIMP is your total gas mileage.  Looks like you’re getting more efficient as the same workout has used less gas this trip.

Athlete:  Thanks Coach. 

Example 2:

Sport Scientist:  We have all the baseline asymmetry data collected for our hockey club.  We flagged any concerns in red as these numbers are greater than what current research states may be acceptable?  Take a look at the asymmetry graph. 

Coach:  What do you mean acceptable?  Why is this important?

Sports Scientist:  Great question coach!  Current research suggests that a > 15% difference between force production in both left and right legs may predispose an athlete to an increase chance of injury and/or a decrease in performance. Picture eating a meal on a 4-legged dinner table, if I remove one leg, the table becomes compromised and unbalanced.

 It’s important because the best ability is availability.  We can get an awful lot of information out of this “test” without physical wear and tear on the athlete.  We can also use these numbers in the case of injury to reference previous numbers. 

Coach:  Ok. Great! 

At the end of the day, the goal is to allow open communication, while considering the unique background, bias, and previous experience of key decision makers.  Every environment is different.  However, a working understanding of each member allows for the integration and cooperation among team members.  This is how we operate in the private sector. 




Meyer, C. Science, Medicine and the US Common Law Courts. In Expert Witnessing, Routledge: 2020; pp. 1-29.

Sands, W. Communicating with coaches: envisioning data. Applied Proceedings: Acrobatics 2005, 11-20.

Sands, B. Coaching women's gymnastics; Human Kinetics Publishers: 1984.

Sands, W. The role of difficulty in the development of the young gymnast. Technique 1994, 14, 12-14.


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