What is “Sports Science”?

Note from MR: I don’t normally run a ton of guest content, but I’ve gotten a ton of good stuff submitted lately – and I guarantee this one is going to make you think!

I’m actually reading “Unplugged” right now, and I think a lot of Adam’s thoughts in this article will follow suit.

Plus, he has the added benefit of eight years of real-world and practical experience in the sports science realm. He may not have the fancy letters after his name, but this guy understands both the coaching and sports science parts of the equation.

Here’s Adam…


I am not a sports scientist.

I do not have a formal education or university degree in sports science or analytics.

I entered the world of sports science in 2013 when a very good friend asked me to help him manage an Adidas miCoach GPS player tracking system for a professional soccer team.

I knew NOTHING in 2013 about sports science.

As of 2017, everything I know comes from trial & error, countless failures, reading & listening to numerous resources, and many, many thanks to the several sports science professionals who answered an email, shared a beer, or picked up the phone to help answer my hundreds of questions. I am still learning.

A Validation of Intuition and Refining Methods

“Intuition is nothing but the outcome of earlier intellectual experience.” – Albert Einstein

In last year’s article on application of technology in training and rehab, I provided an example of how a veteran soccer coach I worked alongside was able to subjectively evaluate player performance through his own intuition and evaluation.

More often than not his subjective evaluation was in accordance with my objective evaluation via key performance indicators (KPI) from a GPS player tracking system.

Practitioners and coaches often ask many questions and defer to research or sports science for answers. In many instances the answer is in agreement with what the practitioner or coach may have intuitively presumed.

Sports science may be a validation of intuition that encourages the individual to say, “what if” and continue to challenge the status quo. Sports science may help us ask more questions and objectively measure what many experienced coaches and practitioners intuitively presume in a systematic and organized fashion.

Additionally, sports science commonly helps refine already well practiced methods and tailors those methods for that specific team, individual, or sport. Below are 2 examples of what I experienced to be a validation of intuition and refinement of methods.


At Dave Tenney’s 2017 Sports Science Weekend in Seattle, Amber Rowell’s recent research on measures of recovery was presented and discussed. Shortly after the Seattle trip I was on the phone with Lance Goyke and I asked him this question:

How many hours do you think it would take an athlete to recover from a high intensity training session?

Lance’s response was “48 hours.” He went on to further explain why and we touched upon some well-established physiological timelines in addition to our own training and coaching experiences.

The research conducted by Rowell et al showed a return to baseline biomarkers at 42 hours following a training session. The research validated Lance’s intuition and the commonly accepted practice of 48 hours between high intensity sessions.

Rowell’s research not only validated Lance’s intuition, but it also helped refine a well-practiced method.

When details matter, such as preseason with two sessions per day, perhaps we can better schedule high intensity training sessions at 42 hours apart rather than 48 hours.

Furthermore, Rowell’s research showed a comparable timeline of recovery to baseline regardless if the player performed moderate or high intensity loads suggesting there appears to be a threshold of intensity that would require 42 hours of recovery.

Therefore, when the training plan is a “Low” day it may be beneficial to keep the training “Low” and avoid “Moderate” to respect the findings from this recent evidence.

Example #2

Following a team training session during my time with a professional soccer team I would ask players for a Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE).

On a day that was 90 degrees, sunny, no wind, and what I thought to be somewhat of a moderate training session intensity (5/10 RPE), one player said to me “That shit was hard!”

Last year’s article suggested that sometimes the verbal output of the brain is the best technology because of the ability of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) to effectively appraise all sub-systems within the human system.

With respect to the PFC and this particular player’s comment, wouldn’t we intuitively presume his RPE may be higher than expected?

Furthermore, perhaps we may intuitively presume his scores on his subjective questionnaire prior to training may be a bit abnormal?

Below is an explanation of the sports science used…

…and here is what the sports science data showed for this particular player on this particular day:

Was our intuition validated?


If we take a myopic view and consider ONLY training volume and intensity, I perceived the particular session to be a 5/10 RPE.

So why did this player report “That shit was hard!” and an RPE 8/10?

If we take a global view we may be able to suggest why and validate our intuition:

  • Player’s reported sleep quality was significantly less than his normal rating.
  • Player’s reported sleep hours was significantly less than his normal number of hours.
  • Player’s body soreness was significantly worse than his normal level of soreness.
  • The environment was 90 degrees and sunny.

Sports science validated both the player’s and my intuition as to why “That shit was hard!” and also led us to refine some of his sleeping habits during this time period.

Sports Science – A Double-Edged Sword

A veteran soccer coach who has been coaching for over 29 years once asked of me in his thick Scottish accent:

Where do we draw the line of all of this sport science, training load rubbish and just get on with training?

An absolutely valid question for someone who has had international success with several clubs and national teams prior to the sports science era.

In fact, he experienced some top class applied sports science with one of his national teams he was coaching in previous years and his quite familiar with sports science.

Similar to anything else in this world, there are ups and downs to sports science. Sports science can become a double-edged sword at times.

The boom in the sports science era over recent years has provided invaluable insight to numerous topics related to this young human performance era.

Acute:chronic workload ratios, physiological profiles of match play in sports, neuromuscular profiling, and the effects of training on blood biomarkers are few of the many topics that have emerged from the sports science era.

The information has significantly changed how many teams, coaches, and practitioners approach a wide variety of situations. We can all attribute some level of improvement or success to some form of sports science.

Performances continue to improve.

Championships continue to be won.

World records continue to be broken.

On the contrary, the amount of technology and ways to assess performance are unfathomable to the point that it has become overwhelming.

I have experienced conversations with sport coaches who are focusing on GPS metrics, which is stealing focus from tactical decisions.

I have experienced conversations with players who were more concerned about their heart rate during the training session rather than focusing on the coaching cues provided by the sport coach during the session.

I even experienced a player attributing a poor individual performance and a team loss on the weekend to the training load 2 days prior.

Without question, each of the aforementioned scenarios are valid inquiries and certainly warrant consideration.

  • But do we wish to have players and sport coaches concerned with numbers and analytics?
  • How much information is necessary to educate and how much is too much to the point of worry?
  • Some sports science methods inquire about female menstrual cycles or require visits into bedrooms for sleep analysis. Where do we draw the line of too much inquiry to the point of invasion of personal privacy?

I fully acknowledge that many questions are derived with good intentions to better help these athletes and improve performance.

But is every detail necessary to the point athletes and coaches feel uncomfortable and begin to worry too much about minuscule details?

The double-edged sword of sports science can provide resourceful information, yet can also produce undesirable scenarios.

One final sports science consideration – Nike failed in breaking the 2-hour marathon despite probably the most advanced engineering and detailed sports science attempt to date.

How much is enough and how much is too much?

When are we willing to accept that the abilities and compensations these athletes have developed over years of deliberate practice may be unexplainable?

It’s OK be sore and tired.

It’s OK to not know.

And it’s OK to “just get on with training.”

About the Author

Adam Loiacono, PT, DPT, CSCS spent 8 years with the New England Revolution of Major League Soccer (MLS) in addition to volunteering time with the Orlando Pride of the National Woman’s Soccer League (NWSL). Adam held roles that involved him in soccer coaching, sports science, rehabilitation, and performance training along the spectrum of males and females from youth to national team soccer players.

Adam has recently transitioned into professional basketball as a Performance Therapist for the Atlanta Hawks of the NBA.

(Lead photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

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