or decades in sport, the most common new addition to what a team or athlete does each season was heavily influenced by what the champions did to win the previous year — as if to suggest that all you have to do is copy them and you’ll achieve the same success.
Often that can lead people on a wild goose chase.
Enter the hydro-dynamic moustache of swimmer Mark Spitz. Following his seven gold medals in the Munich Olympics, he jokingly spoke of how his facial hair played a key part in his swimming success.
When he arrived at the next major championships, every competitor on the blocks was sporting a moustache, except Spitz, yet he still won.
But what if you are the champion? Who do you copy if everyone else is copying you? How do you stay ahead of the game? Or better still, if you want to become the champion, how do you know what to copy? As the saying goes, ‘What got you here won’t get you there’.
Fortunately, sport has moved on and the days of running laps because the former greats did just that has been replaced by the objectivity of sports science.
It is not to be misinterpreted as a cure-all for high performance but as a critical tool in finding the edge and applying best practice to optimise performance.
Sports science encapsulates everything to do with the preparation and planning of an athlete before, during, and after they compete. Nutrition, psychology, analysis, coaching, and training have all been advanced by the research evidence of sports science over the last 20 years. Jim Gavin, the Dublin football boss aiming to repeat last year’s All-Ireland success, is a modern-day manager in every respect.
There is no doubting he has embraced sports science in his pursuit of greatness. A quick study of his set-up and the structure within which the players have developed points to the implementation of evidence-based research. He is not afraid to bring in specialist coaches from other sports to inform, educate, and improve an already winning formula. Yet he is not one to dismiss tradition. He is a man on a mission to bring gaelic football into the 21st century while staying true to its core values. His teams play attractive, free-flowing, attacking football. But not as we once knew it.
The Dublin players are living, breathing examples of what any player can become when trained and coached by an informed, up-to-date commander-in-chief.
There is a freedom of expression on the field within a structure that is put in place by those off it. The riveting All-Ireland semi-final between Dublin and Kerry is a case in point. Full credit to Kerry for their part in making it the game of the season. But the manner in which Dublin responded on both occasions when Kerry had two high-scoring bouts over the 78 minutes is a message to every other county — either get with the times or get left behind.
Kerry would have won that game against any other team — or any other previous Dublin team for that matter — such was their resilience and never-say-die attitude. However, the game intelligence displayed by Dublin, as they nonchalantly scored the final two points, had an air of inevitability about it that will be felt throughout the country.
There should be no surprises in elite sport nowadays as accessibility to information is at an all-time high. When Leicester City won the Premier League last season, word broke out about their use of cryotherapy as a post-match recovery protocol as if to suggest this was their secret weapon. Quickly it was understood that every other team in the Premier League was also using cryotherapy, or at least considered it at some point in time, or since decided on an alternative cold-water immersion therapy to aid in athlete recovery.
The point being, if you think you can survive in elite sport without wholly embracing sports science — think again. Foam-rolling and protein shakes, S&C and GPS, skill acquisition, and video analysis are all here to stay and make a positive, meaningful impact.
It may sound clinical and sterile, but better coaches make better athletes and better athletes give better performances.
The application of sports science requires a commitment to the process. It is a mindset more than anything else, focused on continual improvement and the search for people and concepts that can make everything you do better. It is not a box-ticking exercise to go through to be seen to be doing the right thing.
For starters, athletes will be the first ones to smell a rat. It is a step-by-step installation of best practice principles to ensure that win, lose, or draw you can look yourself in the mirror and say, with surety, that you did all you could.
The best managers and coaches appear to be ahead of the game; they’re not, they’re up with the game. They’re prepared to sample the fruits of sports science first hand rather than wait for someone else to tell them that it works. Sports science has significantly improved the quality of the decisions made by managers, coaches, and their backroom staff in the preparation of their athletes, and it is available to all if you know where to look. The processes are easy to apply if you are prepared to get outside your comfort zone. The strategies are straightforward to implement if you are not afraid to fail and reflect honestly on your failures.
Finally, the excuse of budget and how one team having more money than another as a reason for their success does not hold water and is disrespectful of the process they are engaged in. Sports science provides you with options, not just one solution, but a variety of ways to achieve your potential.
Sport is best served when the best win, especially when they win doing the right things and this Dublin team is certainly worthy of imitation.
- The author is a skill acquisition specialist across sport with extensive experience in football and hurling at the inter-county level. He is a regular contributor to the Irish Examiner’s Championship coverage this season. Follow him on Twitter: @DrSkillAcq