The Sunday edition of The New York Times contains more information than our ancestors used to assimilate in their whole lives. But apart from The New York Times we have also radio, television, websites, blogs, podcasts, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. In most fields, access to information is not a problem anymore. However, we get much more puzzled when we have to select information, draw conclusions from them and put the outcomes into practice.
Building an appropriate "filter" that will help to make right decisions is a critical skill of a coach. To do this, deep factual knowledge and the ability to think critically are indispensable. This is of the utmost importance in the world of both amateur and professional sports.
Age-groupers show a strikingly exaggerated tendency to gather as much information as possible. Many amateur athletes measure everything that can be measured and look for new gadgets that will let them measure things that cannot be measured yet. Of course they do this in good faith, in pursuit of competitive advantage, this additional percent which is so difficult to gain when we have so little time for training and even less for regeneration. Usually such attitude leads to nothing more than growing uncertainty, decision paralysis, dependence on external devices that are after all fallible, but most of all it hampers sifting important information from the less important. I believe that the coach's role is rather to get rid of the entire "information fuss" than to meticulously analyse and interpret all possible parameters.
Jacek Tyczyński undergoing the tests in the Sports Institute, December 2015.
In the world of professional sports the preparation process is increasingly influenced by people who provide information, preferably in the form of tables, summaries, reports or charts: physiologists, biochemists and dieticians. It’s as if the sports outcome depended directly on the number of gathered information – the more, the better. Sometimes I wonder to what extent we believe more in faith and the impossible rather than in scientific explanation, and to what extent we are mentally lazy and just shift responsibility. It is much more easier to make decisions based on the scientifically-looking information, which does not imply that these decisions lead to more effective solutions. In my coaching practice I do not use the results from performance testing, however, when conducting training in the Polish Triathlon Federation I recommend to make biochemical, physiological and psychological tests in the Sports Institute. I don’t even know what I think about it :)
The training process can be aptly compared to driving a car. To a large extent we do it automatically – at the same time we turn the ignition key, check the mirrors, press the pedal, change the gear and off we go. We look out the windshield, naturally adjust the speed and the gear, automatically avoid potholes in the road and slow down when approaching a busy pedestrian crossing. Every once in a while we look at the dashboard, but we do not constantly follow all the clocks, lamps or indicators. When driving we look out the windshield and we check the particular indicators only if needed. In fact physiological and biochemical tests or extended training statistics should build such a dashboard in the coaching practice. In the same way as a readable dashboard facilitates driving a car, carefully selected information should help a coach to train an athlete or a team. A dashboard cannot be too large, after all it can’t block the view of the road on which we are driving. Like in the coaching practice, the rule "the more information, the better" does not apply here. The hitherto practice shows that in sports big data do not prove better than the well-known approach to the process of building the athlete's form, and even more to the form of the whole team.
Not so long ago I wrote an article to the Polish magazine "Bieganie" about gigantic changes in the discipline of triathlon over the past years – from the sports level, through the profile of bike routes, to the methods of winning races. The competition was completely different at the Olympic Games in Athens in 2004, in Beijing in 2008 and in London in 2012. This year in Rio triathletes will have to face, among other things, a very difficult technically bike course with steep uphill sections. That is why it is necessary to apply an Olympic training process which is different from the previous one and completely different tactics, and to look for one's own chances to win an Olympic gold medal from a different perspective. In an environment which is so dynamically changing and full of unpredictable interactions, an attitude based on the analysis of data gathered over the years is bound to fail. The NHL legend Wayne Gretzky used to say that he skates to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been. When making decisions "here and now" – during a training session or a race, or a talk with an athlete – we do not have access to the whole set of analytical data. What do we have are context, common sense and intuition. Big data usually do not keep up with ever-changing circumstances.
I have been inspired to scribble this text by Emil Wydarty, author of the ElKapitano blog.
O Captain! My Captain! – with dedication to Emil :)