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Dr Ed Coughlan: We need to get to grips with the myths about sporting technique

Every so often a paper emerges in sport science or coaching science that encourages academics and practitioners to stop and think, writes Dr Ed Coughlan

This rare occasion when optimists and cynics alike are forced to engage with each other because something has been written that speaks from a position of authority and rigour and not just opinion.

Earlier this month, one such paper was published in Frontiers in Psychology by Dr Richard Bailey and colleagues. Dr Bailey is linked with the International Council of Sport Science and Physical Education, based in Berlin. In addition to his recognition as a leading thinker in PE, he is also known as a straight talker.

So when his paper ‘The Prevalence of Pseudoscientific Ideas and Neuromyths Among Sports Coaches’ came into print recently, it was no surprise that it quickly became a hot topic across the typical social media platforms, where everything seems to be decided nowadays.

Of particular interest in an Irish context is the fact that Irish sports coaches were a significant part of the study carried out, with all our major and some minor sports been represented in the work. The basic premise of the paper was to investigate how prevalent are ideas and concepts that have little or no evidence to support their merit in the coaching domain.

It is not too much to assume that anyone involved in coaching is trying to do their best, whatever level they are involved. This is no different from the volunteer coach to the full-time coach.

However, what coaches use to guide their work is not always robust and often times is based on hearsay. This can lead coaches astray and all the time and effort will prove fruitless or at best sporadically produce some good results with little or no understanding why or even worse, attributing the success to something that could be described as tenuous at best.

Dr Bailey and colleagues asked 545 coaches to complete a survey that focused on their knowledge and understanding about learning, coaching, and the brain.

The purpose was to identify whether some long-held incorrect beliefs that exist in domains such as education and business have managed to find their way into the world of coaching.

Obvious ‘fake news’ items from the past are things like the once-held belief that we only use 10% of our brains and that there are distinct left-brain and right-brain thinkers — nonsense on both accounts.

Among the topics raised by this work were the concepts of preferred learning styles and personality profiling. The concept of learning styles suggests that we all have a preferred way in which we learn best and that if information is provided for us in our preferred method, we would all have a greater likelihood of retaining information.

The personality profiling concept is linked with a popular psychometric test known as the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory. Its basic premise is that it can identify the type of person you are and predict the type of jobs you would be good at based on their findings.

In both of these situations, the evidence to support learning styles and personality profiling is at best weak and depending on the research you read, completely worthless. Yet, they still prevail with many people using such methods to gain insights into the people they work with.

The findings from this recent paper were no different. 62% of the coaches surveyed believed in the myth of learning styles. Perhaps a little more concerning is the result that over 65% of the coaches believed that there are critical periods in childhood after which certain skills can no longer be learned.

Consider the impact such thinking could have on the development of children and adolescents? Consider the interaction from coach to child where the ceiling for potential growth and development is coming down to meet you?

It begs the question, how do such falsities endure? Also, is the desire to win and succeed so strong amongst coaches that we let our guard down when filtering information and choose only to look at the outcome of others to determine whether we should follow?

It is important to note that the paper does state ‘that the absence of evidence does not imply evidence of absence’, meaning that just because we do not have evidence for something, does not mean it does not work. But in cases where there is such confounding evidence we need to do better to follow evidence-based practice. Furthermore, where there is an absence of evidence we should not be afraid to objectively pressure test a concept as the time invested in doing so will no doubt save time in the long run.

A publication such as this forces one to look out for myth and fallacy. What prevailing thoughts and so called truisms have seeped into common vernacular?

Take the hurling grip for example. Where did the notion of the dominant hand at the top of the hurley come from?

Barack Obama holding a hurley with Enda Kenny in May 2011

Unlike hockey and golf where the rules specify that the ball can only be struck off one side of the head of the stick, a hurley is identical on both sides of the bas and the rules do not stipulate any constraints. In fact to follow that logic would be to suggest that depending on the side you strike from, a player would be encouraged to change their grip.

However, most kids who have ever hurled in this country will have been coached, if not forced, to hold the hurley with the dominant hand at the top of the grip as if to suggest a one-size fits all approach to hurling. Biomechanically, it makes sense for golf, but the same reasoning does not follow for a dual-sided sport such as hurling.

Mind you, there is no evidence to support such a claim, but in lieu of any we need to ask better questions and challenge the status quo more often.

We should continually challenge the message from coaching manuals and resources selling the idea of the perfect technique. We should look to the individual and what they bring to the space and put our time and effort into seeing them without bias.

However, learning styles, personality profiling, and coaching approaches may be the lesser of other more disruptive, imperceptible nuances that grow the proverbial arms and legs without much notice.

For example, when Alex Ferguson was at the peak of his powers at Manchester United, it was identified that the most common accent across the four English football leagues, Major League Soccer in America, and equivalent football leagues in Australasia was Scottish.

Alex Ferguson in 2011

If we are susceptible to the charms of an accent for the hiring of a coach, is it any wonder such pseudoscientific myths prevail elsewhere?

How often do we allow ourselves to be swayed by something as basic as an accent or as fanciful as a well-edited video clip to convince us of something or someone’s worth to a team or organisation?

We owe it to ourselves as coaches and the players we hope to improve to challenge more and accept less, in the hope of creating environments that hold up to rigour rather than crumble under anecdote.