The Science of Diminishing Returns

There is a common expression: "too much of a good thing" (thanks Shakespeare), implying that excess of something that is beneficial, may actually end up having a negative effect.  I'm sure you've coached someone who doubled the dosage or weight or number of reps, and when asked why, replied that if 10 will make me stronger, then surely 20 will make me twice as strong!

There are many many examples in sports.  Strength Training is great - but too much can reduce your ability to compete in your sport.  Jump training can help you jump higher, but too much can damage your joints.  Full contact tackling in practice can help teach technique, but too much can increase the chances of injury.  Preventative exercises before training can reduce injury risk, but if you only have 2 hours of training and spend 1 hour preventing injury, you don't have much time to get better.

Measuring things is important and useful.  I was recently at a presentation by a multiple gold medal winning coach who said that one of the challenges of coaching is that coaches need to understand the athlete, and the athlete needs to understand the coach.  He said that if sports science can help the coach understand the athlete then it is worthwhile.  This is a great point, but is measuring something in too much detail a good thing?  Measuring a variety of things is important and useful, but is measuring too many things too much of a good thing?

The number of things that can be measured in sport is (largely), infinite, and increasing all the time!  And the analysis that can be done of the things that can be measured is (largely), infinite.  But time is not.  The amount of time a coach has to make his/her athletes good enough to win whatever competition they are aiming to win is finite.  Measuring doesn't make anyone better - it is a tool to help achieve that goal.

One of the biggest challenges for a coach in today's environment is working out what to measure and what not to, when to measure it and when not to, how to measure it and how not to.  The best way to do this is to look at it in terms of a cost-benefit analysis.  In this situation it isn't just the financial cost but the time cost.

A simple example is, a developing athlete who is strong.  She lifts 4 times per week and trains 4 times per week.  She gets to a point where her strength is 'enough' to compete and to execute all the skills required.  The problem is that her skills require a lot of improvement.  Should she keep up her lifting for ever diminishing returns in terms of strength/power increased to help her compete, or drop to 2 times lifting per week for maintenance and increase skills sessions to 6?

The Science of Diminishing returns keeps in mind that there is a finite amount of time, and so the return (improvement of the athlete) for any portion of that time needs to continually be managed.  The time/effort spent to collect and analyse data needs to be constantly reflected on.  There may well be a time when you no longer need to measure it because, as a coach, you have an understanding of the athlete which gives you all the information you need.

As a coach I used to work with once said, you can put a microscope up an elephant's arse looking for answers.  You see a gnat, so you look up the gnat's arse.  Eventually you need to realise, you're looking up a gnat's arse.

(Photo Credit)


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