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The Advantages and Pitfalls of Science-Backed Coaching

BY Andy Kirkland

Most logical humans like science as it provides a bedrock of truth — or something close to it that has been proved or disproved through testing. Here's how to consciously coach better using science.


Many of us talk about and prescribe training in scientific-sounding ways. We want to hear about the latest nutritional strategy, aerodynamic gains or the latest footwear, which will help enhance performance, preferably backed up by the latest scientific evidence. But what does science mean to you, and how important is it to your coaching? As a coach and chartered scientist, these are questions I have wrestled with for years. My conclusions have not only made me a better coach, but they’ve also helped me see the world in a different light. In this article, I’ll review the strengths and pitfalls of science-backed coaching.

What is Science?

We are living in a post-truth era, where one’s right to an opinion is seen by many as more important than the truth of the matter. This is not a new phenomenon. Socrates, an ancient Greek philosopher, warned us that we should not accept what others tell us at face value, especially from those in positions of authority. Rather, he advocated that we seek out evidence, engage in rigorous reasoning and challenge assumptions through observation. But what exactly is science? One definition comes from The Science Council in the UK: 

“Science is the pursuit and application of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence.”

Now, I want you to consider science in relation to your coaching practice. Do you believe that your coaching practices are science-driven? What is scientific about your coaching? What scientific material do you draw upon in your coaching? I cannot answer these questions for you, but I do want you to reflect on your answers at the end of the article. 

Are You Scientifically Informed? 

In many cases, the ways we learn to coach are not systematic. Rather, most coaches learn through trial and error by watching and listening to others. As a result, we may have difficulty explaining what we do and why. Additionally, our brains are full of cognitive biases and flawed patterns of thinking that influence how we make decisions. For example, we often seek information that supports our pre-existing beliefs and makes us feel good about ourselves. 

Comparatively, science often involves experimentation, critical analyses and scrutiny from expert peers. But does this make scientific approaches better? The answer depends on:

  1. The quality of the scientific evidence and 
  2. Your ability to understand, interpret and apply it. 

The Limitations of Science-Backed Coaching

The fact is, whilst academically rigorous methods may have been used to produce evidence in the sports sciences, these methods tend not to hold up when we apply findings in the ‘real world’. Most scientific disciplines follow reductionist approaches in which complex phenomena are divided into smaller chunks and are labeled in terms of discipline and sub-discipline. These approaches require carefully controlled environments in which researchers seek to prove or disprove a hypothesis using some form of observation or experimentation. However, these types of studies are difficult to generalize to our coaching practice. 

To overcome such limitations, it is important for scientists to test findings in real sporting settings by conducting implementation studies. These studies are difficult to conduct and often produce ‘messy’ results, which, whilst reflective of the real world, are difficult to publish. This means that such studies are rarely conducted and that many scientific beliefs have limited real-world evidence to support them. 

Scientifically Aware, Experience-Based Coaching 

Earlier in the article, I asked you to consider three questions:

  1. Do you believe that your coaching practices are science-driven? 
  2. What is scientific about the way you coach? 
  3. What kind of scientific material do you draw upon in your coaching?

Remember, Socrates advocated seeking out evidence, engaging in rigorous reasoning and challenging assumptions through observation. As coaches, we should not dismiss our own experience-built beliefs as being less objective than science. But we must always keep an open mind, considering alternative approaches and different points of view too. Being able to do so means using intellectual reasoning, sometimes supported by scientifically driven methods. It also means not accepting scientific evidence at face value. Rather we must know how and why science works in the real world and have evidence to support our beliefs.

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About Andy Kirkland

Andy Kirkland Ph.D. is a Lecturer in Sports Coaching at the University of Stirling, delivering on the MSc. in Performance Coaching programme. He is an expert in endurance performance an active triathlon coach and a Chartered Scientist. He worked for British Cycling for 6 years as a coach educator and is a TrainingPeaks certified coach. You can find out more about Andy on his website.

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