It would be completely inconceivable for education or professional practice in medicine, biology, or engineering not to be based on scientific evidence. However, although it is paradoxical, it is very common to find unscientific content in the science of sport and physical activity. In fact, this has been demonstrated in a recent study on the ideas and practices that circulate among sports coaches in the United Kingdom, one of the countries at the forefront of sports science. The voice of alarm has been raised, and in order to try to bring awareness to the issue, an opinion article is soon to be published in the scientific journal Apunts. Educación Física y Deportes, detailing five assumptions that support these practices, as well as some possible solutions. Participants include Isaac Guerrero, member of the Knowledge Area at F.C. Barcelona; Natalia Balagué and Rafel Pol, members of the Research Group on Complex Systems and Sports of the Instituto Nacional de Educación Física de Cataluña; and participants in the club’s Professional Master in Football. A Common Problem with Multiple Causes “It is a very extensive problem of which we are perhaps not very aware,” explains Balagué. “Interestingly, and although it seems paradoxical, the problem appears to have grown as access to information – both scientific and not-so-scientific – has become easier through the Internet.” Professional practice has evolved somewhat anarchistically in recent years, “often altering the appearance without reviewing the fundamentals,” she reports. The authors point out five principal assumptions or beliefs that they seek to combat:
- Sport is a phenomenon that is too complex to study scientifically: traditionally, sport sciences have been dominated by the more classical science of biology. However, there is a more modern vision that embraces complexity and proposes “a new perspective of the athlete, the team, and the game based on dynamic principles – a view that revolutionizes biology, especially involving physics and the mathematics of complexity,” explains Balagué. This perspective enables the synthesis of the core principles underlying athletic behavior, improving the understanding of its evolution and offering effective intervention criteria. Although its implementation is slow due to the resistance of traditional practices, it is a promising position for future exploration of sports as a phenomenon.
- The role of basic science in sports and the role of sports in science, in general, are underrated: however, both basic and applied sciences are associated with each discipline of physical activity, whether at the biochemical, psychological, physical, or sociological level. In fact, sports “is an exceptional testing ground for science because it allows for studying different dimensions – such as physiological, psychological, sociological ones – of human and social behavior in a well-defined space and time. In natural conditions, it would be much slower, and much more labor-intensive to explore these behaviors, especially under conditions of maximum pressure. Sports are, basically, a demonstration of the processes of cooperation and competition that occur in nature: life under pressure,” reveals Balagué. For sports, basic science is as fundamental as applied science, keeping in mind that the former cannot be restricted to physics or biochemistry. For example, we cannot comprehend issues such as fatigue or decision-making based solely on biochemical or electrophysiological processes. Theories must be developed on a behavioral level to help better understand these processes. New theories give space for new training methodologies that, in turn, inspire new lines of applied research.
- In sports, practice and experience are more important than theory: practice provides knowledge that is extremely rich but subjective, an unscientific knowledge that does not allow for formulating theories. Nor can anecdotes or testimonies, therefore, replace systematic evidence. Theory and practice go hand-in-hand, such that a constant cycle of review and renewal can occur between them. A current theoretical understanding of the issues related to sports is essential because, as English mathematician and philosopher K. Lewin once said: “There is nothing more practical than a good theory.”
- All theories have a portion of truth and are equally acceptable: this belief purports that various incompatible theories coexist with each other in sport science, and that professionals mix contradictory assumptions and fundamentals. Scientific models and theories – even those that appear untouchable – evolve, being replaced by others that better explain or predict reality. Therefore, some must be dropped and others embraced in order to promote more coherent practices.
- There are hard sciences (based on biology) and soft sciences (i.e. Social Sciences): the superiority of biological sciences over social sciences is an unfounded and generalized preconception. The thought behind here is that science can only take place in laboratories with precise measuring instruments. However, science is not characterized by these stereotypes; it is all about holding theories up to real data. The problem is finding appropriate ways to measure. Since it is more difficult to do so with behavioral concepts than, for example, with the activity of a muscle fiber in the lab, the former has been undervalued. “In addition, it’s common to see opinions on social sciences (or in sports) that are not based on any scientific knowledge. This contributes to trivialization,” explains Balagué. “But this is a mistake. In fact, personal values or motivation, which develop more slowly – that is to say, which remain more constant in time than many biological parameters, such as lactate in the blood – have a more lasting, and in this sense a more relevant effect on the body.”
Some Advice and Suggestions The following recommendations are among those suggested in the article: adequately review educational programs based on criteria of scientific quality; promote collaboration among disciplines with a mentality that is both scientifically rigorous and also open to the advance of knowledge; help students distinguish between science and pseudoscience; and value sport as a phenomenon that is beneficial for science in general. For Balagué, the overarching recommendation is to “get rid of general decontextualized formulas and better understand the phenomena that are related to sports. Students and trainers should know that science is a continuum and that we must be attentive to its development. Professional experience is important, but professional profiles that are both practical and scientific have a greater likelihood of success.” The Barça Innovation Hub team