What Actually Drives Performance Improvement?

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Statement 1 – In the last thirty years the understanding of techniques and tactics and training methods has improved enormously, leading to the increased performance we see today.

Statement 2 – In the last thirty years equipment and technology have improved enormously, leading to the increased performance we see today.

If asked I am reasonably certain that everybody involved in sport would agree with both of those statements with the proportion attributed to each variable due to the particular sport that person is most involved in.

A Canadian science show recently did a piece investigating and trying to isolate the effect of technology on performance in a few individual events.  The show can be seen here.  The basic premise of the show was to give current performers the conditions of their predecessors and see how they perform.  The most interesting one was the world championship 100m sprint bronze medallist who was given similar conditions as Jesse Owens.  Running on a cinder track, with leather shoes and no starting blocks, he ran 0.7 seconds slower than Owens.  There are of course other contributing factors (including habituation to the conditions and absence of competition) but it is a stunning point.  The athletes in other disciplines showed similar, if less stark results.  These results suggest a ‘what if?’.  With all of the increases in training knowledge, technical knowledge and pharmaceutical assistance, what if the majority of improvement in performance can be attributed to improved equipment?

Yesterday, I posted about the psychology of improved performance.  Athletes perform relative to their expectations of performance.  Perhaps they model their performance somehow on previous performance, their own and others.  As an experienced coach, this makes some intuitive sense.  I could also name specific examples from my own personal experience and from history when the performance of a team has improved simply because a new coach brought with him higher expectations.

Putting those two threads together if you consider training, equipment and psychology, could it possibly be that training, training methodology, technique, tactics, scouting, (drugs) are actually the least important component of our programs?  At the very least, the above evidence seems to suggest that we may be overvaluing their importance.

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  1. I think, that all the mental aspects of sport, that includes expectations, are certainly very important and mostly not valued enough. When all athletes on a team get the same training, equipment etc. why are some (or one) so much better then the others? Talent, athletics or any similar explanations do not explain these big differences. It has to be something outside from what is trained, what some athletes probably bring with them OR how some athletes adopt or use what is trained compared to the average. Both indicate some mental issues, don’t they?

    When I understand research right, then training is very important. But it has to be training, that follows scientific foundations. What we normally do not pay attention to is, that the athletes will have to accept this training, use it the right way and most important embrace challenges to improve. It’s the mental side in training and competition that is needed from our athletes. I think while making all these methods and equipment so much better psychology lost importance because the big steps were made by first equipment then training methods. And now that all are using these methods and equipment, psychology comes back into our minds as the big difference maker. The challenge I see is combining all the pieces and finding out about their importance within that combination and not ruling one out as least important. Otherwise the circle will start again. First we focus on psychology, then equipment, later methods… Just a presumption.


  2. I saw a TED Talk that spoke to this subject from what seems like a common starting point in looking at modern sprinters vs. Jesse Owens and talking about technological gains. It also brought up what could be described as body type specialization. It was interesting.


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