September 22, 2010

If it Ain’t Broke … Research & Innovation in the World of Soccer

Think about this phrase:
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Have you heard it before? Used it yourself? It’s a common philosophy in modern society, infiltrating all areas – from politics to education to daily life. And what does it mean? Literally, it means that if something is working as-is, then leave it alone. Tinkering around with it may waste your time (at best), or destroy what you’ve already got (at worst). It’s about being safe, resisting unnecessary change.

But how do we determine what change is ‘unnecessary’? There’s been a lot of
philosophical debate recently about the stagnation of creativity. We’re losing the ability to think outside the box, to come up with new and novel ideas. I argue that using the same old strategy just because it seems to work ok is not the best way to become the best in the world, in any forum. Leaders must take risks and move forward. Innovate.

Of course, my interests lie in sport – and in particular, soccer. I believe that soccer needs an injection of innovation at the moment. Training protocols, player testing, game analysis – most teams are still using the same formula that has been used for decades. To be the best, that’s simply not enough. It’s time for a change.

Soccer needs scientists
Ok, so how do I propose such a change? It sounds very dramatic, and expensive. But actually, my proposal is very simple – soccer coaches/trainers/players need to work directly with research scientists. Why? Because science is where innovation occurs. The whole premise of science is the inception of new ideas and the methodical testing of these ideas in a rigorous context. Science builds on previous work and moves it forward.

And I’m not suggesting that soccer needs researchers just specialising in sport, because physiologists, behavioural ecologists, medical professionals, technology engineers, and so on can all contribute new and interesting ideas. Behavioural ecology (the study of animal and human behaviour), for example, may seem very irrelevant – but in fact, this field of science has testable theories about how games are played and how players may behave differently in different scenarios. The application of theories like these to sport has the potential to dramatically enhance performance and talent development.

So, it would seem that soccer needs a diversity of scientists.

Innovation in research
Many of you will be familiar with cases where science has already enhanced sport performance. So you may be thinking – how is this any different? Even in science we can find ourselves thinking inside the box. Much of the scientific work done on sport performance has stemmed from the Olympics, including studies on physical conditioning, injury prevention, and recovery from injury. And many of the traits examined are athletic ones – sprint speeds as well as longer-distance running. Of course, these tests have filtered into soccer. In fact, if you’re a soccer trainer, think now what tests you use to assess the performance of your players. Are they based around athletic traits?

Knowing the athletic abilities of players is indeed important, but in the context of a skill-based game like soccer, I argue that it’s even more important to be able to assess and develop the skilfulness of players. In soccer, skill is a much more predictive tool than athleticism. After all, was Diego Maradona known for his athletic fitness (no wise remarks needed here), or his technical and creative abilities? Of course it was his technical and creative talents, but these types of abilities are rarely, if ever, tested among soccer players.

The bottom line
And this brings us back to the issue of change. It’s my experience that many teams and clubs are resistant to change their existing methods, even in light of good scientific evidence. Sadly, few soccer programs in the world seem to embrace innovation and research-driven approaches to development. One nation that is beginning to fully utilise innovation and creative science in their soccer development programs is Germany. And they are becoming world leaders as a result.

I’ll readily admit that my heart lies with Australian soccer, and I’d like to see us continue to grow and develop in the World Game. Unlike many of the European nations, we (as are the USA) are a developing soccer nation. This is a good thing – it means that our training methods are younger and less-entrenched, but we must embrace innovation to move forward. Australia can lead the world in innovative, research-based soccer development – a move that I believe will make us world leaders in soccer performance as well.

Post written by Dr Robbie Wilson with Dr Amanda Niehaus

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