Every morning, I get up and proceed to make my breakfast in a bit of a daze. Often, I find myself staring aimlessly at the toaster, waiting for that tumultuous moment when my toast pops up and I’m disappointed with the lack of golden-brown or the excess of black. Yet, in staring at the toaster, I’m often amazed at how little effort has gone into improving or advancing the technology of the toaster. A quick Google search reveals that the modern pop-up toaster was pretty much perfected back in the 1920’s once the right high-resistance nichrome wire was developed and combined with a variable timer.
So, what does my toaster have to do with sport science’s shortcomings? I think we can agree that modern civilization is pretty content with the quality of the toast that is being popped out of $20 toasters. The result is that people are not knocking themselves out trying to improve the toaster, publishing web sites, books or DVD’s with better ideas on how to enhance breakfast. Sport science, on the other hand, is not happy with the quality of “toast”. Sport scientists and pseudo-experts are constantly making claims that they have improved training methods, discovered new techniques and developed new concoctions of sport drinks and supplements to fuel athletes to victory. I am of the mind that what is actually happening is that we are being distracted by all the sport-science “smoke-and-mirrors” and getting away from tried and true methods of training. As the great coach, John Wooden stated, “The worst thing about new books is that they keep us from reading the old ones.”
Charlie Francis had some interesting insights into the world of sport science and research. On one occasion, he emphatically stated that, “Sport scientists should not be telling me what to do as a coach. They should be telling me why what I’m already doing works or doesn’t work!” He went on to say that many, if not most, sport scientists are attempting to answer questions that didn’t need to be asked. In essence, they are trying to improve toast when it doesn’t need to be improved. Or, they were trying to find out if toast was suitable for dinner. Charlie believed that coaches were the innovators because they, not the scientists, were the ones working with athletes on a daily basis and could see the impact of their adjustments and changes on the athletes under real-world conditions – not the artificial environment created by a science experiment.
Let’s take running mechanics for example. On a weekly basis I hear or read about a new technique that has made the rounds. These techniques are often bolstered by marketing efforts that extol the virtues of an “innovative” approach to running. The techniques are given fancy names such as “Pose” or “Chi” running and boast of improved running economy and reduced injury. Dubious studies are conducted in an effort to artificially support the claims of the marketing department, with studies conducted on treadmills under unrealistic conditions with less than suitable subjects. Somewhere in the master plan, a book deal, video series or speaking tour is integrated into the dog and pony show.
When I asked Charlie Francis about the history of running/sprinting technique, he stated, “Things haven’t really changed since the days of Jesse Owens. Certainly the overall volume, frequency and organization of training has evolved, but essentially the actual running technique has not.” This statement was confirmed by my casual research of track and field books from the 1940’s that had descriptions of sprinting and running technique. In most cases, these books provided significantly better descriptions of the techniques of starting, accelerating, sprinting and running than most, if not all, of the books being published today. The only difference was that the athletes of the past had shovels as opposed to starting blocks. It appears that today, many of the sport scientists and “experts” are the ones with the shovels.
Of course, I am presenting a bleak outlook of sport science that perhaps many people to do not want to be shown. Nobody wants to hear that the earth is round, when they all are comfortable with (or are profiting from) the assertion that the earth is flat. And, there are small pockets of scientists and experts that are actually doing fine work. But, there are numerous signs that our society as a whole is regressing in many ways. Provided below are just a few of the phenomena that are facilitating this downward slide and making the world – including the sports world – a dumber place.
- The Internet. While hailed as the “information highway” it has also become a bit of a back-alley of misinformation with questionable reliability. I remember one of my younger track athletes arguing a point with another athlete a few years back. When pushed on his point and sources of information, he replied, “I did my research on the Internet. Of course it’s true!” I had to inform him that the Internet is just a medium that can hold information – much like the inside of a restroom stall. It is up to the individual to adequately confirm the validity of the information and not take it at face value. But that takes effort and persistence. The quest for knowledge is paved with good intentions, but so is the road to hell. If you rely on the Internet for your information, make sure to cross-reference your sources of information, get second and third opinions and avoid being complacent (unless of course you are Googling the history of the household electric toaster).
- Cell phones and, particularly, “smart-phones”. The other day I overheard someone saying, “How did we ever meet up with someone in the crowded Downtown area before cell phones and texting?” I had to restrain myself from yelling in their face, “Plan ahead to meet at an agreed upon location and be there on time you moron!” Ultimately, the oxymoron deemed “smart-phone” is making people dumber. Messaging and texting has replaced meaningful conversation and common sense communication. People rely on using their phone for Google queries to make them appear intelligent at social events. Paying attention in school wasn’t an option, so the mobile phone is now bailing them out. And, people are walking into light posts, stop signs and shopping mall fountains because they are constantly hunched over these devices, lacking awareness of the reality that surrounds them. The fact that iPhone apps are created to teach people how to exercise makes me cringe. If there was an electromagnetic pulse that destroyed all mobile electronic devices, would Western civilization be relegated to being unfit, fatties. Wait – too late!
- GPS. Did you hear the one about the Canadian couple that used their in-vehicle GPS device and ended up lost in the back-country of Nevada for seven weeks while on their way to a convention in Las Vegas. No this is not a joke, but a real news story. The poor husband wandered away from the vehicle and is presumed dead. Drivers rely so heavily on these devices for navigation, that if an evil villain wanted to hack into the GPS units and direct people to drive into the nearest body of water, I am certain that a large percentage of them would most certainly do so. But perhaps Dr. Evil would be doing us all a favour and reducing traffic congestion (but not marine congestion) and raising the average level of societal IQ. Unfortunately, most people couldn’t read a map to save their lives, let alone find their car in a multi-level parkade.
- Spell-check. I mark a good deal of coaching certification assignments each month through a home study program. One coach sent in his assignment with an apology. He wanted to let me know that he was embarrassed about all of the spelling mistakes that I would find in his paper. “The spell check function in my word processing program wasn’t functioning properly!” was his excuse. I held back in my email reply and did not point out the obvious fact that spell checking applications are primarily used for correcting typos and the odd misspelling of a word, not translating his idiotic gibberish into coherent english.
- Reality-television. Why meet someone through the gradual, organic process of friendship, intelligent conversation, common interests and romance when you can surround yourself with random, surgically-altered bimbos in a hot-tub on some exotic island where good taste and class are in short supply. The popularity of such television shows is indicative of the public’s acceptance of mediocrity, lack of creativity and crap. But, I’m sure that more than a few readers of my article will be wondering where they can tune in to the aforementioned program. “Bimbos you say… ?”
The whole point of my rantings is to urge people to build their foundational knowledge based on tried and true methods that have been passed down from coaches who possess experience and wisdom. The ancient masters of sword-making in Japan did not hone their skills by watching YouTube videos. They learned from a master over years, decades and, in some cases, a lifetime, taking the proven techniques of these skilled craftsmen and applying the techniques as intended over time. In some cases, there were subtle innovations that incrementally improved the process. But these changes were introduced carefully and gradually to ensure that the improvement took hold and withstood the scrutiny of other masters. We can be certain that they were not hammering their anvils on top of vibration platforms.
The industries of sport and exercise have much to learn from the ancient masters and, dare I say… the toaster. Discerning minds must maintain techniques and technologies that work, and discard those which are frivolous and propped up by profit seekers and pitchmen. Too many people are dumbing down the public rather than coaching them up. Technology and scientific advances are truly beneficial to the growth and maintenance of society. But technological advancement must be borne out of necessity, not personal agendas.
The next time you make some toast, consider what I have written and make a case for wisdom over Wikipedia, and running… the old fashioned way.