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The Disconnect Between Research and Current Coaching Practices

Judge, Lawrence W. PhD, CSCS; Craig, Bruce PhD, FNSCA

Strength & Conditioning Journal: February 2014 - Volume 36 - Issue 1 - p 46–51
doi: 10.1519/SSC.0000000000000027


1School of Physical Education, Sport and Exercise Science, and

2The Human Performance Laboratory, Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana

Conflicts of Interest and Source of Funding: The authors report no conflicts of interest and no source of funding.



Lawrence W. Judge is an associate professor and the coordinator of the graduate coaching program at Ball State University.



Bruce Craig is an emeritus professor in the School of Physical Education, Sport, and Exercise Science at Ball State University.

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Colleges and universities in the United States typically require a bachelor degree as a minimum educational requirement for any sport coach they hire. However, they do not require specific educational training, such as a major in physical education, coaching, or a closely related area like exercise physiology. Coaching certifications are often listed as a preferred qualification for many collegiate job postings but are not required (18). More often than not, the job goes to an applicant with playing experience in the sport. This may occur because job applicants with a background in participation, as opposed to substantial educational/certification training, are thought to be more competent to assume a coaching role and therefore are often the first choice.

Thirty-one men's National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division 1 college basketball coaches were fired during the 2009–2010 season, mainly for their team's lack of success on the court (10). The cause of the many disappointing collegiate basketball seasons can be attributed to key basketball-related injuries or subpar performance of technical, tactical, and physical aspects of the game in important contests. In a study by Dick et al. (9), 16 years of injury records were analyzed, and the results showed that the rate of injury in basketball games was 2 times higher than those occurring in practices (9.9 versus 4.3 injuries per 1,000 athlete exposures). The most common injuries reported were ankle ligament sprains and knee internal derangements and represent an area where conditioning and technical training can reduce their occurrence (9). Conditioning programs designed to strengthen these areas are accentual in training programs, but injuries can also be attributed to faulty techniques, such as sudden load progression, increased volume, or improper pre-activity warm-up and stretching routines (18). The most important step is identifying the contributing factors to injury and addressing changes to prevent injury (30). Therefore, if coaches and/or their strength and conditioning coaches had a greater understanding of how the human body reacts to different training stimuli, it could affect a coach's/team's performance and would justify the hiring of coaches with a stronger background in training techniques. A trend of increased injuries to the head and face was noted over the 16-year span of the study, which may be related to an observed increase in physical contact in men's basketball over the past 2 decades (9), emphasizes the importance of developing good training techniques. However, research suggests that previous coaching and playing experience (6,12,37), previous success (12), perceived skill and improvement by the athletes (6,12), and social support from other players (11), the organization (12), and the community (12) are the main sources that influence coaching effectiveness. So then how do education and certification programs for coaches, such as the National Strength and Conditioning Association's (NSCA's) Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) certification, figure into the formula for successful coaching? These programs are designed to give coaches both a scientific and practical basis for training. In addition, they introduce evidence-based training methods supported by current research. In theory, the application of evidence-based training methods should produce the best results in terms of preparing an athlete for competition. Unfortunately, not all certified coaches use current research-based recommendations when they establish training programs. Research conducted by the coauthors on pre- and post-stretching practices in a variety of sports (18–21) indicates that many strength and conditioning coaches fail to follow evidence-based recommendations after completing certification training. Why this occurs is not known, but this apparent disconnect between the training coaches receive via certification and the on-field practices they employ is a concern that needs to be addressed. The purpose of this article will be to discuss the extent to which certification actually affects coaching practices as it applies to pre- and post-stretching guidelines.

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Coaches recognize that intense training and exercising of any kind has certain inherent risks along with the desired benefits. Therefore, coaches must weigh the costs and benefits of training and exercise regimens to make informed decisions about the best approach for each athlete. The first consideration for any exercise session is to determine the most effective way to prepare the athlete for the activity. Warm-up and stretching routines are the preferred method for preparing an athlete, but each coach must make a choice on how they are structured. One way to do this is to follow scientifically supported pre-activity warm-up/stretching variations when preparing their athletes (3,24,27). Pre-activity routines are thought to reduce the incidence of injury through increased muscle temperature and compliance and improve performance through creating a more effective physiological response (32,34). Peer-reviewed research articles are considered a respected source of information for coaches in all sports (8) but do require the coach to stay up to date as new findings become available. The research-driven guidelines for pre- and post-activity stretching techniques have changed throughout the years as new and different techniques are frequently tested and evaluated (1,5,15,35). Current guidelines recommend that pre-activity stretching should be dynamic (4,29,32,35) and advise against the usage of static or ballistic forms of stretching, whereas static stretching (SS) is acceptable for post-activity stretching (27,36).

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Although some coaches are cognizant of current research trends in sport science and follow them, many outdated practices are still used by those coaches who do not read scientific literature or refuse to use research guidelines (8,22). Certification programs have been developed to train coaches in training techniques and promote evidence-based techniques supported by research. Therefore, it would seem likely that certified coaches would automatically follow and use the newest scientific findings in designing training programs. Previous studies from this research group have shown that certification does not guarantee that proper stretching techniques are followed in sports, such as basketball (20), football (21), tennis (17), and volleyball (19).

A study of pre- and post-activity stretching perceptions and practices in NCAA Division 1 volleyball programs revealed that even though SS and ballistic stretching (BS) should not normally be performed before activity, 42% of the coaches surveyed (n = 22) used a combination of these types of stretching protocols during pre-activity (19). In addition, there was no relationship between having some type of certification (i.e., sport coaching or CSCS) and the type of pre-activity stretching practice employed. In other words, coaches who were certified were no more likely to employ pre-activity stretching practices in line with current research than coaches without certification.

Many coaches, including those who are certified, hold incorrect beliefs about stretching practices (16). The majority of coaches in the recent study noted above (19) believed that pre-activity group stretching prevented injury (75%) and improved performance (69.6%) even though current research shows that there is little connection between stretching and typical sports injuries (14,30) or increased performance especially in an explosive sport, such as football (21). In a similar study (21), the pre- and post-activity stretching practices of Division I and Division III football players were evaluated, and the results indicated that only 3% of the coaches (n = 20) participating in the survey used dynamic stretching (DS) exclusively. The more experienced coaches operated against evidence-based practices and used a combination of SS, DS, and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) stretching before practice. Once again, no significant relationship between certification and type of pre-activity stretching practice was found. These studies were limited in that they only explored the issue with coaches in the Midwest and had low subject numbers, but results do show the need for further investigations into how certifications do or do not change a coach's personal attitudes toward training practices.

In a study examining pre-activity stretching of NCAA basketball coaches (20), 23 coaches (30.3%) reported using DS as their pre-activity method. This is consistent with the research-recommended protocol. However, 56.5% of coaches reported using a combination of DS with SS, BS, or PNF stretching, and 11.6% used SS, BS, and PNF to describe their pre-activity stretching. This combination of stretching techniques may be limiting the explosive capabilities of basketball players and may have little or no effect on injury prevention (16,35). Most available data indicate that pre-activity SS can cause acute performance reduction relating to decreased tissue stiffness or alterations in nervous system components of the stretch-shortening cycle, such as the myotatic reflex (36,39). These alterations can result in decreased maximum strength and explosiveness and inferior performances on the basketball court. One of the most interesting findings in this particular study was that none of the coaches who responded to the survey possessed a certification from any strength and conditioning organization.

The impact of certification on the pre-activity stretching practices of tennis coaches was investigated in a recent study (17). The results demonstrate that even though 48.7% (n = 21) of the coaches who participated received their information from a strength and conditioning coach or athletic trainer, they still used SS in their pre-activity routines. The U.S. Tennis Association (USTA) high-performance certified program, however, did seem to influence coaches, as only 21.4% of the coaches with the certification failed to follow research recommendations, whereas 50% of non-USTA high-performance certified coaches did not comply. It can be inferred that the current research-recommended practices regarding pre-activity stretching are supported within this curriculum. Therefore, it would be of value for tennis coaches to partake in the advanced USTA high-performance certification course or the NSCA CSCS program that includes current research trends as a way to positively affect their coaching.

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The aforementioned stretching studies demonstrate that there is a disconnection between the knowledge gained with certification and practice but do not explain why it occurs. There is no definitive answer to this question, but there are multiple factors that could explain it (22). One of these factors is time. Coaching certification programs are designed to help coaches better understand the concepts of training theory and load progression, but they only deal with the most recent research-based studies that textbooks can provide. To stay truly, current coaches can read data-based journals, such as the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, that give them up-to-date evidence, but that takes time. The training schedule for college-level coaches starts with a preseason training program that provides the conditioning and strength training needed before the more intense demands that competition represents. Depending on the sport, competition can last for 3–6 months. Postseason activity rests on the success that was achieved during the season but can last another 1–4 weeks. Once the season is completed, the rest of the year revolves around recruiting, analysis of the season, and preparation for the upcoming season. This leaves very little free time to locate and read the large volume of research published each month; therefore, it is not surprising that coaches and/or their strength and conditioning personnel tend to rely more on lay publications.

Effective coaches and personal trainers need to be resourceful to keep up with new ideas and technology (26), and lay publications or online sources help them gather a great deal of information. Although these sources can provide excellent summaries of current scientific knowledge, coaches and trainers still need some science background to fully recognize fact from fiction. Coaches easily evaluate training issues, such as repetitions, workloads, and volume, but might have a more difficult time interpreting scientific results and may rely on these non–evidence-based sources to provide accurate applications of science. The scientific principles and background provided by most certification programs will help them but only if they apply them when they evaluate the materials they review. Staying current in the field is a difficult task regardless of your source of information because research studies on any topic can produce varied results. Therefore, coaches reading research articles or relying on summaries of scientific research must review them with a critical eye (25). There are 3 fundamental principles that define sound research: (a) the groups being compared must be the same except for the factor that is being studied, (b) the larger the “n” the more reliable the conclusions, and (c) the finding should be plausible. Applying these criteria may not insure valid results, but they may help coaches recognize problems.

A good example of conflicting findings would be in the area of periodization. It is well understood that periodization is an excellent method of training, but the most effective type of a program is often debated. When the concept of periodization was first introduced (3), it involved a training program that used high volume and low-intensity routines at the onset of training to improve conditioning and progressed to lower volume and greater intensity to improve performance. The change in volume and intensity was linear in nature and was coupled with a progressive increase in sport-related movements (3). This basic concept has been altered as researchers investigated the effectiveness of periodization and nonlinear or undulating forms of periodization evolved. The results from 2 studies published in 2011 demonstrate the dilemma that coaches might face. The first article was published by Apel et al. (2) and compared a linear model with a weekly undulating form of periodization. The results indicated that the linear model was more effective. The second study was published by Miranda et al. (31) and compared a linear model with a daily undulating periodization. Their results suggest that the daily variation of the undulating model was more effective than the linear model. Conflicting results are common in research and represent a problem to coaches with little time to test them. There are large gaps in our knowledge of periodization and in our ability to apply that knowledge to the training of athletes. Part of these gaps are because of the inherent limitations imposed by where the majority of the strength and conditioning research is being conducted (i.e., universities) and the reluctance of coaches and athletes to participate in interventional training studies (7). Therefore, review articles, such as a recent article by Turner (38) that provides a review of periodization, might be the best way to stay current. Another recent article by Kirby et al. (23) gives an overview of how a progressive periodization program can increase strength and improve speed and power. These articles are more applied, and the methods and statistical interpretations are easier to understand.

A final factor challenging some coaches might be their understanding of the research. The methodology, terminology, and scientific concepts used in data-based research can be confusing. Some coaches might think they are interpreting research correctly, but anyone can potentially get important terms confused (14). As stated earlier, certification programs do provide coaches with a basic scientific background but spend little time teaching them how to analyze data or recognize flaws in research techniques. The conflicting periodization articles cited earlier give an example of this type of problem. In one case, a control group was used (2), whereas in the second study, there was no control group. The absence of a control group does not make the research flawed per se, but a control group can strengthen the results. The utilization of trained athletes, as opposed to recreationally active cottage students, is another consideration when reviewing training studies. Again, the utilization of non-data based resources or lay information might be a better method of review. The final factor that might make it difficult to use research is the methodology employed in scientific studies. A good example of this can be found in articles that examine endocrine responses or muscle physiology (8,13). Some coaches reading lay literature in these areas could easily evaluate the training issues, such as repetitions, workloads, and volume, but some may have difficulty accurately evaluating the methods used to produce the results. Giving the difficulty of remaining up to date with the current research and/or understanding everything that has been published, coaches' reluctance to use new methods or rely on fellow coaches is understandable.

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Coaching education/certification and mentorships are the 2 means coaches can use to become more effective. National sport governing bodies have taken significant steps to educate coaches by conducting face-to-face training sessions, organizing seminars, preparing resource material, and providing other coaching education endeavors. Obviously, coaches have a multitude of professional development choices available to them. Each professional takes a different path toward developing the knowledge, skills, and characteristics required for effective coaching. According to Malete and Feltz (28), these courses have been shown to affect coaching efficacy levels positively in a relatively short amount of time. Certification programs exist to guide coaches through the wide variety of available knowledge to help them develop evidence-based practices, but questions remain as to what extent certification actually affects coaching practices.

Certification program standards set the bar for achievement and are developed by experts. These standards, often developed by an accrediting organization, articulate specific outcomes of knowledge, behavior, and dispositions needed for excellence in coaching. When a coach's certification program accepts accreditation status from a recognized accreditation organization, the organization agrees to uphold the quality standards set by the accreditation organization. The number of education/certification programs related to strength training for coaches has grown over the last few years, but unless accredited, they are not regulated and may lack a common set of curriculum guidelines. Therefore, when the U.S. Weightlifting (USAW) Association promoted the idea that more certified coaches schooled in the intricacies of explosive lifting (weightlifting) would identify promising athletic talent and, in the future, return the United States to a position of competitiveness on the international platform in the sport of weightlifting, certifications increased. Recent figures from USAW reflect more than 5,400 certified coaches among USAW's more than 8,700 members (33). However, despite the abundant numbers of certified coaches throughout the country, the US team's current international standings are lower than ever before (33). Therefore, certification per se is not necessarily the solution. However, to ensure evidence-based practices are being taught, it might be helpful to confirm the accreditation status of a particular certification.

Working with a mentor as an assistant coach or manager has been shown to increase the qualities necessary to become a high-performance coach (11). Mentors are typically elite-level coaches who can share their experience and knowledge and help younger or inexperienced coaches develop. Evidence-based certification programs, such as CSCS, provide this type of training in that they use experts in the field for the development of their curriculum. However, unless they can establish a face-to-face mentoring system as part of their education/certification process, it will be impossible to match the influence of working with a more experienced coach.

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There is a huge reliance on the collegiate system in the United States to develop future high-performance competitors in a variety of sports. As the popularity of collegiate sports increase, students, faculty, and alumni are united by the success of their athletic teams. There are certain qualities of an athlete that are created through the efforts and teachings of coaches. When developed the most effective way, these qualities can help an athlete perform at their maximum capacity. A well-qualified coach is defined as a competent coach and is the keystone of a quality program, that is, a person trained in a core body of knowledge and committed to implementing best practices in the sport setting. However, core knowledge and best practices are subject to interpretation and debate and vary from sport to sport. The large financial investment made by NCAA member universities to hire competent coaches should ensure knowledgeable professionals. One way to do this is to require coaches to be certified. However, certification does not guarantee that a coach will be successful or use current scientific guidelines designed to enhance performance. Steps have been taken through the program accreditation process to ensure that coaches are exposed to the necessary evidence-based knowledge, skills, and attributes needed to function in a wide variety of environments. However, compliance with accreditation standards is only one, albeit important, aspect of a quality coaching education program. Another important aspect is whether the program meets the perceived needs of targeted groups. Therefore, even though a coach may undergo certification, he/she may be hesitant to change an established methodology. The reasons for this disconnect between science and practice are unclear, but coaches are creatures of habit and often become entrenched in traditional dogmatic practices or are more reliant on advice from other coaches. The inability of even certified coaches to adhere to scientific recommendations represents a challenge to certification programs and the research community. This article reviewed the evidence that deals with stretching guidelines. The question is does this apply to all levels of training received in certification programs? It is an area of research that needs to be explored.

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certification; education; research

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