Sport Science and Elite Performance

May 2, 2014

I have been sitting on this article for a while. Greg Wilson, the Editor in Chief of the Journal of Australian Strength and Conditioning, wrote an editorial in the March 2013 journal essentially asking if 40 years of sport science is having an impact on sports performance. The author collected data on several track and field events from 1970 to 2012 (100 meter, 400 meter, 10,000 meter, high jump, long jump, and shot put for both men and women) as well as Olympic weightlifting performance from 1973 (i.e. post-press) to 2012.

In terms of weightlifting, the authors used the 56 kilogram weight class and the superheavyweight class. Keep in mind that over the period from 1973 to 2012 the weight classes changed several times and these two classes were the most consistent.

The track and field events that were analyzed focused on the Australian Athletic Championships. For weightlifting, the winning athlete at the World Weightlifting Championships were analyzed.

The results are interesting:
• For the male track and field events, when comparing the 1970’s to the 2000’s, performance in the analyzed events experienced improvements ranging from almost 1.5% (10,000 meter) to almost 17% (shot put). However, if the shot put is removed them performance improvements ranged from almost 1.5% to almost 4% (high jump).
• For the female track and field events, when comparing the 1970’s to the 2000’s, performance in the analyzed events experienced improvemetns ranging from almost .25% (100 meters) to a little over 6% (high jump).
• When looking at weightlifting performance from 1973 through 2012, the 56 kilogram class improved by more than 10%. The superheavyweights improved by almost 6.5%.

The author selected these events because they are not very influenced by equipment and the technology associated with that. What is interesting is that much of the performance improvements seen in the events occurred during the first 20 years of the study (i.e. 1970 to 1990), with little gains after this time period (although the male 100 meter and male shot put are exceptions to those trends). This is especially concerning to the author because the Australian Institute for Sport opened in 1980 and many of these performance improvements occurred prior to this.

When discussing the surprising results, the author makes a number of points. First, the athletes that are dominating the events historically are genetic freaks and, by definition, there are not many of them. Genetics is still extremely important for performance at the most elite levels. Second, many training studies are being done on university college students. University college students are not as highly trained as elite athletes. University college students will make gains in performance, but elite athletes are so close to their genetic potential that they may not see similar gains from a training program or sport science.

I’m going to quote from the article here (this is from page 14): “The primary finding from the above analysis is that despite a massive injection of funding and research, the use of sport science methods and techniques have not resulted in significant performance improvements in the majority of events examined over the past 30 years.”

So what is to be done? The author recommends focusing on talent identification (i.e. children) and the application of sport science methods, techniques, and technologies to identify those youth that have the genetic gifts for elite performance.

Another view on this can be found on this really interesting Ted talk: https://www.ted.com/talks/david_epstein_are_athletes_really_getting_faster_better_stronger

Wilson, G. (2013). Is sport science improving elite performance? An analysis of 40 years of athletic and weightlifting results. Journal of Australian Strength and Conditioning, 21(1), 4-14.