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A passionate plea for evidence-based coaching and the appliance of science

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Richard Bailey

Professor Richard Bailey addresses delegates at Milton Keynes

Coaching methods that have no empirical foundation are a blight on the industry, according to Professor Richard Bailey, who has made it his mission to drag coaching out of the dark ages and into a new age of enlightenment.

  • We are in the age of technology, but the coaching industry has been reluctant to jump on the bandwagon and embrace scientific innovation.
  • The lack of scepticism and critical thinking in coach education has the potential to damage the reputation of the industry.
  • Coaching methodologies that have no empirical foundation are being sold to coaches on governing body courses.
  • ‘It’s a disgrace, and we need to start doing something about it,’ said Professor Bailey.

Professor Richard Bailey was in rip-roaring form when he delivered his keynote speech at the Open University’s second annual Sport and Fitness Conference in Milton Keynes.

The presentation was a stimulating and intriguing look at how coaching is set in its wicked ways, embracing and perpetuating coaching methodologies that are – to use just a few of his colourful descriptions – ‘voodoo rubbish’, ‘absolute nonsense’ and ‘mumbo jumbo’.

Professor Bailey pulled no punches as he ran through a long list of questionable coach education practices that he would dearly love to see consigned to coaching’s Room 101.

Opinionated (some may argue), outspoken (yes, and proud of it), controversial (at times), humorous (without a shadow of a doubt), warranted in his onslaught (that’s for you to decide).

He began by lamenting the fact that the age of technology, science and curiosity has had a frustratingly feeble impact on the coaching industry, before mounting an impassioned myth-busting attack on some dubious coaching theories being propagated by governing bodies on their qualification courses, and the damage they wreak.

The metaphor made famous by astrophysicist Carl Sagan, that science is a ‘candle in the dark’, was quoted in the foreword to his presentation. It should perhaps be adopted as coaching’s modern-day mantra, with Professor Bailey determined to drag the coaching industry out of the dark ages and usher in a new age of enlightenment through a process of scientific scepticism.

Light years behind

This requires a major shift in policy and behaviour, but Professor Bailey’s reputation and vast experience in empirical research mean his words carry the gravitas needed to spark change.

A highly esteemed figure in the world of coach education and psychology, he is currently Head of Research at the International Council of Sport Science and Physical Education (ICSSPE) based in Berlin, which is essentially the world’s governing body for sports organisations. As part of his role, he has undertaken funded research in every continent of the world.

He was formerly Professor of Sport and Education at the University of Birmingham, and has also worked as a teacher in primary and secondary schools, as well as a teacher trainer and coach.

But there is really only one place to begin a summary of his presentation: pizza scissors.

I feel an explanation is warranted.

Slide 1

Professor Bailey admitted to spending a disproportionate amount of time and money on ingenious, if inane, inventions in the mould of the aforementioned pizza cutter, a gun that administers mustard in an amusing fashion, or chopsticks that contain an attached fan that cools your noodles as you lift them from your plate to your mouth.

Other more era-defining gadgets that get people giddy with excitement in our tech-addicted society include mobile phones, tablets, MP3 players and hand-held remote controls.

‘Technology and science have bled into our culture in an extraordinary way,’ he says. ‘It influences our mental processes, our understanding of the way the world works.

‘And yet, when we move into coaching, when we are dealing with things like people’s well-being and health and happiness, with children’s introduction to sport, many of us seem to think it is OK to rely on tradition, convenience, common sense, and let science go out the window.

‘We know an enormous amount about helping people develop, thrive and flourish, yet it has impacted on coaching almost not at all. And that really bothers me.’

No, it really bothers him. He goes as far as to say that giving more attention to the science of an iPhone than the science of a coaching session keeps him awake at night, ‘raging’, and asking, ‘Why does it matter more to us that we have a very precise way of cutting a pizza than using science to motivate learning and develop ways that children can learn?’

Science and pseudoscience

According to the views of Professor Bailey, the move towards science and evidence is long overdue, and necessary if coaching is to become a truly respected profession that is not torpedoed by the dodgy ideas that are entrenched in its current teachings.

‘These dodgy ideas can be dangerous, can waste time and effort, waste money, damage reputations and undermine the idea of professional coaching.

‘It makes us all look stupid. We have to think about our values, morals and standards if we are to go down this route.’

Rather like Cuba Gooding Jnr’s character in the film Jerry McGuire, who would strut around repeatedly shouting the catchphrase ‘Show me the money’ at a progressively higher decibel level, Professor Bailey cut a similar figure during his speech, only his rallying cry was ‘Show me the evidence.’

So what are some of these coaching theories and practices that abound?

Here are a few for starters:

Slide 2

In the firing line

Professor Bailey shoots them down one by one, like ducks at a fairground shooting range.

On the 10,000-hour rule (look away now, Matthew Syed – though, to be fair, even staunch advocates are the first to admit it is a theory, not a rule): ‘People thinking, why has he got 10,000-hour rule up there? I’ll tell you now. There is no 10,000-hour rule. Nobody thinks there’s a 10,000-hour rule outside of sports coaches and dodgy journalists. It’s an entirely fictional construct.’ Ping. Direct hit. Reload.

Never criticise, only praise: ‘That’s simply nonsense. Empty praise results in a lack of trust between athlete and coach. It damages children’s self-esteem when it sounds like you don’t mean it, and place the emphasis on confirmation rather than refutation by ignoring all the negative evidence.

‘I will give you the keys to my house if you can show me one single study that shows that criticising children damages their self-esteem. It’s bad teaching, bad coaching and is a trend, a fashion that has wafted over the Atlantic from America.’ Ping.

Driving ranges: ‘You do not learn to play golf on a driving range. The purpose of golf is putting the ball in the hole. They are fabulous if you are Tiger Woods trying to iron out a small flaw in your swing. If you are a beginner, it is a pointless waste of time.’ Ping.

Left-brain vs right-brain thinking: ‘It doesn’t make any sense. There is no such thing. In neurology, psychology, cognitive neuroscience, it doesn’t exist, although people make a lot of money selling books. We have a left and a right side of our brain, but it tells you absolutely nothing about the way those sides of the brain think.’ Ping.

Lines and drills: ‘It does nothing at all except bore children to death; pointless biomechanics.’ Ping.

Governing body of sport survey

After knocking down all his targets, Professor Bailey challenged his critics to take him to task if they doubt his accuracy, and to show him some peer reviews or hard evidence that back up the claims of these well-established ideas and practices – which often only exist, he said, because of custom and tradition.

With the starters out of the way, it was time for the main course as he turned his attention to some more methodologies that, he claimed, have no empirical foundation.

The ICSSPE carried out a survey of 800 coaches in the UK and Ireland through social media, asking if they had encountered the following 10 coaching practices on their governing body of sport course – seen here on the slide.

Slide

Demonstrations and feedback, guided discovery, problem solving and getting children playing games all received glowing endorsement from Professor Bailey, but the ones with red arrows pointing to them were next to incur his wrath.

ATA stands for ActionTypes Approach. The official website defines it thus: ‘The vision of ActionTypes is to create a reference based on the importance of natural movement for the human being with a focus on the best possible conditions to allow the emergence of individual expression. By-products are: self-confidence, open state of mind, health, creativity, etc.’

Alarmed that any governing body identifies with 1920s Karl Jung theory in their talent development process, Professor Bailey went on to refer to the approach as ‘voodoo rubbish'.

‘Does it work? We don’t know because they have not published any evidence based on the strength of their ideas.’

MBTI stands for Myers-Briggs personality types, a personality profiling technique and another theory that relies on opinion rather than empirical evidence.

‘Some 1950s nonsense invented by two housewives over a kitchen table.’ As put-downs go, mercilessly withering.  

BrainGym, meanwhile, is committed to the principle that moving with intention leads to optimal learning. The official website adds that the movement-based programmes empower all ages to reclaim the joy of living.

According to Professor Bailey, Jeremy Paxman quizzed the inventor and got him to admit there was no scientific foundation to the principle. And yet around 12% of coaches said in the survey that they always or often use it in their coaching.

With regard to NLP, neurolinguistic programming, Professor Bailey revealed he is a master practitioner. ‘I am qualified as I don’t criticise things I don’t understand,’ before adding, ‘The simple fact is it is without evidential support.

‘Some bits are interesting, such as being reflective of your mental state. I’m sure that side is extremely useful, but if you think you can coach using NLP (looking at movement of eye patterns, position of the shoulders, the words and metaphors you use), you’re wrong.’

Professor Bailey has a particular antipathy towards VAK (visual/auditory/kinaesthetic learning styles).

‘“Did you know every child has a learning style, and if we tailor our curriculum how wonderful that would be?” Absolute nonsense. Learning styles damage children’s education. Nobody has ever demonstrated learning styles exist. Everything about the idea is wrong, and yet 90% of English teachers believe that children and adults have learning styles, and roughly 60% of coaches have been taught learning styles by their governing body of sport.’

A national disgrace

While the study found that coaches are less likely than teachers to use questionable ideas taught on courses in their practice, it is still shocking, he said, that there exists a culture whereby, if you make it ‘a bit sciencey and neuropsychophysiological’, coaches are happy to buy it – literally, having paid out good money for the course!

‘It’s a disgrace, and we need to start doing something about it,’ he added.

Professional reputations are at stake, which is important, but even more critical is the fact that ideas that are uncorroborated by scientific evidence have the potential to cause harm.

Quite what he makes of the nation’s insatiable appetite for wearable technology, I am not quite sure as time got the better of us. Is it good science or bad science? Does it provide reliable data, or should we be treading carefully? Especially after claims that fitness tracking wristbands purporting to accurately monitor heart rates can be wildly and in some cases dangerously misleading.

One more thing Professor Bailey did highlight before wrapping up a fascinating 45 minutes was extending his warning over gullibility to not believing everything you read online. Even supposedly trustworthy websites can be guilty of spreading erroneous content.

‘Apples cure cancer’ and ‘cauliflowers improve your intelligence’ are just two examples he cited to illustrate his point.

‘It is offensive to intelligence, and profoundly offensive if you have cancer and someone is telling you to just eat a few more apples. And [that particular] website has 12 million viewers.’

Beware any website lauding an educational learning tool or theory. It will make monumental claims and likely be chock full of testimonials emphasising how the method has transformed their coaching. If similar testimonials are not replicated on scientific websites, then this should trigger alarm bells, he advised.

Agree or disagree?

Professor Bailey implores the industry not to be taken in by the hype attached to some coaching methods or be too quick to give them their stamp of approval.

The gauntlet has been thrown down: We must all consider ways in which sports coaching can achieve a stronger scientific foundation that is in the interests of both the athletes and the coaches.

His plea was enthusiastically and assertively expressed in front of a rapt audience. Do you disagree with any of the points raised in this blog? If you do beg to differ, please don’t shoot the messenger, but do fire off a response.

Next steps

UK Coaching (formerly Sports Coach UK) has recently launched two new workshops - ‘How to Coach the Fundamentals of Movement’ and ‘Coaching Children 5–12: The Next Generation’ - that translates cutting-edge research into practical ideas that coaches can use straight away.

You can read more about the workshops in our blogs:

UK Coaching is also investigating how technology can better support coaching. You may be interested in reading:

Embracing Technology is one of the central themes in this year's UK Coaching Summit, being organised by UK Coaching. This year's event theme is 'Extending our Reach'. More information here

 

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Comments (7)

   
Rugbycoach66

Weird. I use some of those methods and my current figures for converting school rugby players to club rugby players is twice the national average for all sports. Technology has it's place but it's a safeguarding minefield in youth sport. I will happily have the prof to training sessions to debunk some of what he says though.

22/04/17
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RichardBailey

Hi Rob, I just wanted to address a comment of yours about technology. I don't think I mentioned it my talk! By 'evidence-based', I just mean ideas and practices that survived fair tests. I don't real really have an opinion about technology i coaching.

I'd love to have the opportunity to watch you coach! Unfortunately, it's unlikely to have soon as I don't live in the UK. But I would be interested in hearing about your use of the methods I criticise. Are you suggesting that they are responsible for you success? If so, I doubt it. Evidence (!) suggests that YOU (your knowledge, skills, values and attitudes) are far more important than specific practices.

05/05/17
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jim.mcr

The good discussion point here is everyone has an opinion, and we don't know what we don't know. I have found a really good starting point is to question all opinions and ideas with Why - Why does it work Why is this being published - if you as Why enough you will come to your own conclusion.

23/04/17
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RichardBailey

Wise advice, Jim!

05/05/17
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andrewb62

I have been exposed to both ActionTypes and NLP, at NGB national conferences – presented uncritically, as “the next big thing”, with little scope for discussion or challenge.

I can see applications for both (yes, even the underlying principles of ATA), but tempered by other knowledge and experience (even old-fashioned “gut feel”).

Ultimately, the decision to adopt or discard has to come down to the athletes and coach – if it works (= results in greater engagement with practice), keep doing it!

+++
Aside – I believe in “purposeful practice” (not sure if there is any evidence to support this!), which might be defined as “complete engagement in a practice activity that challenges existing skill sets (technical, physical, tactical and/or psychological) and demands development of new skill sets”; “challenge” is central to purposeful practice, and might be explicit (“to succeed in this challenge you will have to develop…”) or implicit (“see how you get on with this” or “can you beat this?”…and see what skills you develop along the way).
+++

My question for Prof Bailey, however, is this – where is the evidence?

Most of what I see published as sports “science” is observational – we watched coach X/team Y/player Z and this is what they did; they win more often than they lose, so whatever it is that they do must be good. How can sports scientists carry out “gold standard” research? (can sports scientists carry out “gold standard” research?)

24/04/17
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RichardBailey

Hi Andrew, I wrote a rather long response to your comments, but they suddenly disappeared! So, I hope you'll forgive just a brief note now, before tiredness makes me completely incomprehensible!! I'll come back to finish off on another date.

You write: "Most of what I see published as sports “science” is observational". I found this odd, because it is simply not true. I've never seen an article in a respectable journal that fits your description. Editors and reviewers would agree with your assessment - they would be bad science.

But your bigger point is spot-on. We do not know very much about the science of coaching. It is a new field. So what can we do? I think the answer is to realise that coaching draws on evidence from a wide range of sources. I've studied Physical Education, Philosophy of Education and Cognitive Neuroscience, and I'm just finishing off a Masters in Psychiatry and a second PhD in Sport an Exercise Science (it's a long story!). Other working in this area look outside of coach for information (Dave Collins and Jean Côté are psychologists, Istvan Balyi is a physiologist, etc.). Working in this way means that coaching can drawn on much stronger an established research traditions.

And in a similar way, we can (and should) be more confident in our dismissal of bad science. Psychology tells us that the evidence for learning styles is VERY weak. And neurosciences teaches that the brain don't work that way. Neuroscience also says that NLP is based on a view of the human brain that os 40 years out of date. And science teaches us that methods that have tested precisely zero times, like ATA, are nothing to do with science. That's why I feel much more confident condemning bad science than celebrating good ones. And why I don't think we should tolerate questionable ideas in coaching. They undermine any credibility and professional standards that coaching might acquire, and shows that coaching is still not connected with,

05/05/17
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andrewb62

Hi Richard - belatedly getting back to this thread (and after listening to your podcast with Stuart Armstrong). Could you point me at some sports science research that is not observational. I had not meant to imply there was none, only that, as a coach, I was not seeing any.
I won't give you my full bio, but I am happy reading scientific papers - Chemistry degree and 13 years in STM secondary publishing.

15/06/17
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andrewb62

This is the sort of “observational” study that crops up in my timeline.

Visual function of English Premier League soccer players
James W. Roberts, Anthony J. Strudwick & Simon J. Bennett
Science and Medicine in Football
Pages 1-5 | Accepted 11 Apr 2017, Published online: 08 Jun 2017

The paper appears to have been published online only :

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/24733938.2017.1330552

Rob Gray (@ShakeyWaits) has critiqued the claims in the paper and the supporting press release:

https://twitter.com/shakeywaits/status/875435998485782528


What I have not yet seen is the type of study you describe in your conversation with Stuart Armstrong (the third podcast from this page: http://www.thetalentequation.co.uk/single-post/2017/05/31/3-podcasts-for-the-price-of-1) – a controlled trial of two (or more) different coaching interventions.

15/06/17
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robertepetersen

I think you have your finger on the problem, Andrew. That kind of research is extremely rate. But I enthusiastically add that your finger is also on the solution. We, as coaches, have a unique opportunity to use and compare multiple coaching interventions.

16/06/17
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andrewb62

Not to labour this point, but here is a better example of the "observational" research I referred to (from my twitter timeline this morning): Key characteristics of the world's best coaches https://playerdevelopmentproject.com/key-characteristics-of-the-worlds-best-coaches/

The original research appeared as a chapter in a book (Sport and Exercise Psychology Research, published in 2016), not a peer-reviewed academic journal, but the provenance appears highly (academically) credible. It also confirms my own biases. But is it evidence of best practice?

19/06/17
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robertepetersen

When I saw the title of this presentation, I was very excited to get a cuppa, sit down in my study, and find a kindred spirit. I've been a proponent of what you call "evidence-based" coaching for quite a while and, as a statistician, I've never understood why coaches will put so much religious-like belief in certain concepts to the exclusion of all others. In Carol Dweck's terminology, it's as if we have "fixed mindset" and as a result are not open to criticism or alternate points of view. That's the opposite of what science should be about. "Hurray", I thought, "finally someone else will be stating the case for subjecting our training techniques to scientific scrutiny". A kindred spirit who will argue the value of measuring students before and after: to look at how much a little training leads to a little improvement and a lot of training to a lot of improvement, to collect scores that can be used to demonstrate the effectiveness of one approach over another. We'll you get the idea. If we believe in our approaches, how can we not take the effort to prove them? We seem to be willing to spend more time defending our approach and criticizing alternate ideas than we do in the demonstration of our effectiveness. Is that what our students want? I don't think they do. They want you to SHOW them, prior to signing up for your program, that it works.

I appreciate that you want coaches to think carefully about our beliefs and the platitudes we recite. That it's not that easy to use and share our personal techniques like they were baseball cards, but we have in our hands, right now, every day, a very unique opportunity to begin to collect and report, the evidence that supports our training programs.

Asking why do they work is a fine idea. Six Sigma business improvement techniques include the 5 whys. Dig deeper 5 times with "why". That's always a good start. But I'd rather see us DEMONSTRATE that our programs ARE EFFECTIVE. Are we afraid?

24/04/17
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Nollzer

Excellent article. Totally agree with most of his observations. 10,000 hours originates from research on violin players by Ericcson. It is amusing to think we think that this figure is the same for field sport or other persuits. Praising children or as I call it the American Way is wrong. Honesty in our communications with athletes is to me the most important, ( opinion no evidence). Also spare me from VAK and drills! Great to see someone questioning the status quo of coaching theorem.

29/04/17
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robertepetersen

Interesting, Val. I'm reading Ericsson's new book Peak. He has an entire chapter entitled, "No, the Ten-Thousand-Hour Rule isn't Really a Rule". The expression apparently comes from Gladwell's book "Outliers". It's quite clear that Ericsson's never intended it to be used as a hard and fast rule. He saw it as a concept worth considering.

29/04/17
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Nollzer

Robert,
Agree fully with your observation. From my experience, you get good at what you do a lot of. I certainly, have see how players develop excellent kicking skills with a deliberate practice programme.
The real genius is having the ability to spend hours practicing , day in day out. Not many have this dedication.

29/04/17
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robertepetersen

Yes. In our recent research on effectiveness of different training methods, the most serious problem is finding enough students with the grit to keep at it. As you say, it's more fun to head down to the range to shoot a few rounds of skeet with the boys than it is to stand on post 4 doubles and not see much smoke. Still, there are some who get it.

05/05/17
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