Saturday, 4 July 2015

Money making conferences and speaking invitations

I am getting increasingly annoyed by some invitations I received to speak at conferences. Over the years I have been fortunate enough to be invited in more than 20 countries to talk about my research/my experience/my work in a variety of settings. I gave talks in scientific conferences of big organisations like the American College of Sports Medicine or the European College of Sports Science. I spoke at coaching clinics organised by Olympic Committees, National Federations, Coaching organisations. Finally I spoke at industry events, or educational events for coaches/sports scientists. For me receiving an invite is a great honour and a big responsibility. I feel proud of the recognition and some time apprehensive about the task. However I tend to accept most of the requests provided I have also an opportunity to learn something and/or matches the requirements of my employer. Every time I have been somewhere to speak, I have always learnt something new and/or made new connections/friends and these have always led to some exchange of information/experiences/ideas which is great. Thanks to this, I have been in so many places I would have never been to, met some amazing people, learnt great things, tried new food and drinks, discovered new cultures/ways of living, seen incredible facilities and sceneries.

(This is me speaking in Campinas in Brazil few years ago. 
Great conference, met so many great people and had a brilliant experience)

However recently I keep getting invites from organisations/companies organising conferences to make money. Organisations which charge a fortune to attendees. And they first send an invite to be a keynote speaker and then they pretend I should pay for the pleasure of speaking at their conference.
I am sure I am not alone in this. Recently, speaking to other colleagues this seems to be happening more and more to many. This has to stop, and the only way to do it is for people to say: "No, I am not coming. If you want me to speak at your event/conference you will have to pay for the costs (travel/accommodation/etc)".

Let me make this clear. I am not talking about invitations to speak at a conference of respected scientific societies of which many of us are members. In such events you go to share latest findings or discuss your research between peers (albeit I still think even in such cases travel grants should be provided). I am talking about clinics and conferences which charge attendees large sums. In that case you are going there to educate the attendees and teach (hopefully) something or share your knowledge and experience. Travelling costs money and time. So anybody invited to speak at a conference should have at least their costs covered.

But I am pushing it a bit more. Preparing a lecture or a workshop requires time and effort, travelling to and from the conference requires time and effort, acquiring knowledge requires time and effort, delivering the content requires time and effort. Why such time and effort should not be rewarded?

Former athletes/celebrities/CEOs/politicians charge very large sums for a dinner speech. Speeches which are an account of their experiences and accomplishments. A way to transmit knowledge and experience. I have been in many of these speeches, some exciting and well prepared-rehearsed with great material to show, some absolutely plain boring with not a single picture/video/presentation in sight. All well rewarded and for sure, with the travel costs covered. All well deserved.

But if this is the case, why sports scientists should accept to be invited to speak at an event, make the event (you can't sell a conference without speakers...can you?) and be asked to pay for the pleasure, while the organiser makes cash? A recent invite came form a conference charging participants  somewhere around 1000 USD each. Apparently typical numbers are around the 200 mark. So, once the organisers have paid the conference venue and few coffees and biscuits, how much are they making? You do the math. It would be great to have some views on this. I think that people's time is precious and should always be rewarded and it's up to each individual to decide if they want to "donate" their time to any cause (speaking to conferences included as I have done many times). Preparing a talk requires time and effort. It's a job, so to me it should be considered work.

This issue seems to be typical in other fields as well (see a great blog here).

So that's it, you know it now. If you want me to talk at your event, make sure you can cover at least the travel costs. If not, don't bother to email me, as from now on the replies will not be polite.

Monday, 25 May 2015

Reconnecting with classical work

I love travelling because it allows me to spend time reading and thinking. Long flights are perfect as you cannot receive calls/emails, your desk cannot be hijacked by colleagues and you have time to chill, think, reflect and most of all read in peace. I landed last night in San Diego to attend the ACSM conference and to speak about technology in sport in a symposium. While I was looking for material, I came across this fantastic book thanks to a link provided by my dear friend (and sprint coach) Hakan Andersson:

Health by exercise. What exercises to take and how to take them, to remove special physical weakness. Embracing an account of the Swedish methods, and a summary of the principles of hygiene
by Taylor, Geo. H. (George Herbert), 1821-1896
Published in 1880

I started reading it, and it is an amazing book. I have a small collection of "ancient" exercise physiology books at home in Italy as I am always interested in history and a bit of archeology and to me reading the past serves the purposes of reminding us to be humble and be inspired to continue the journey of discovery. As I have already written on this blog, many times in the sporting industry people try to sell old ideas as new. They rebrand things already well known, package them with fancy terminology and cool campaigns and as of sudden, before we know it, may athletes/coaches/sports scientists are suddenly hooked. The new generation suffers form what I call the "PDF" syndrome. This is a syndrome caused by the fact that very few people these days spend time in a library. In the old days (I am old school after all you know...) you had to spend a lot of time to find information in print in shelves. 

And sometimes while looking for a specific paper you stumbled across a book or a paper or a collection of journals you had never heard about before and you started reading and taking notes. One of my favourite/saddest places when I go in Italy is the library of the Olympic training centre in Formia. Nobody uses the library anymore. Somebody years ago wanted to throw away the collection of articles and books because they said it was pointless to keep them. There are some amazing books and collections of papers form the 50s and 60s there as well as photogrammetric analysis of athletic performances done by a coach in the 60s (This is pre-dartfish era for the newbies, Nicola Placanica's photogrammetric analyses are still fascinating to see). Many things are still relevant today. But clearly nobody reads these days. Or better, nobody reads meaningful things. In this day and age, coaches (and strength and conditioning, personal trainers specialists, physicians, sport scientists not working in academia, physiotherapists, nutritionists) don't need to visit a library. All they need is a wi-fi and a device to connect to the Internet and as of sudden they can come across tons of information. Pubmed is easily accessible as well and it is easy to look for papers. However, despite all this, many only read "recent papers" thinking that recently published work is all new and relevant and unfortunately many don't put much effort in finding papers they cannot access in PDF form. So knowledge suddenly becomes biased by availability rather than quality and accessibility. We also "consume" a lot of crap information about the latest training fad/equipment/nutritional advice and are always sold old things as new. The example from the book I read this morning is a great one. I came across a picture and a description of what is known as "the nordic hamstring" exercise and decided to put it on twitter.

"New" exercises for the hamstrings from 1880 @RodWhiteley ��
25/05/2015 18:39

In the same book, there are also numerous examples of exercises nowadays sold as "new" approaches to train "core stability" whatever that is (maybe a topic for another blog). 
Then I also looked at this one which I dowloaded few weeks ago:

which contains a lot of interesting concepts which are still used today.

Finally, I also liked the following ones, I am amazed how many things are still valid today, but also how much our understanding of the human body has improved.

1860, Longmans, Green, and Co.
Athletic and gymnastic exercises
in English

So, sometimes when the new "craze" comes out, make sure you read some old stuff, maybe the training method you are sold as new is not that new after all.
In the next few days I will be listening to the talk on the Basic Science of Exercise fatigue, remembering one of the most fascinating books I have ever read :

La fatigue intellectuelle et physique: intellectuelle et physique 

by Angelo Mosso (1908)
Available here.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Athletics Coaches Survey

This survey was designed to collect data on how Italian Athletics coaches see various aspects of coaching as well as how they find information/learn and develop their knowledge. The data collection in Italy was completed last year. I would like to experiment the survey with coaches around the World and want to make sure everyone can see the outcomes as data come in. For this reasons, I have designed a simple dashboard with Tableau which is linked to the google spreadsheet and updates itself as soon as somebody fills in the questionnaire.

The questionnaire is available here. If you are a coach in Athletics, make sure you fill it in and if you have colleagues/friends interested, pass them the link.
You can also fill it in from this page

In the meantime, some data are available here:

Sunday, 10 May 2015

New Article Published

This paper was the result of a collaboration with the University of South Wales and part of Dr. Brian Cunniffe's PhD work. A unique study looking elite rugby players in the real world of competitive sport. Just like every study some limitations but a good chance to look at what happens away from the laboratories.

‘Home Vs Away’ Competition: Effect on Psychophysiological Variables in Elite Rugby Union 

Section: Original Investigation
Authors: Brian Cunniffe1,2, Kevin A Morgan3, Julien S Baker, Marco Cardinale1,5, and Bruce Davies 3
Affiliations: 1Institute of Sport Exercise and Health, University College London, UK. 2English Institute of Sport, Bisham Abbey National Sports Centre, Marlow, UK. 3Dept. Sport, Health and Exercise Science, University of South Wales, Pontypridd, Wales, UK. 4Division, Sport and Exercise Science, University of the West of Scotland, Hamilton, Scotland, UK. 5Aspire Academy, Doha, Qatar.
Acceptance Date: April 28, 2015
This study evaluated the effect of game venue and starting status on pre-competitive psychophysiological measures in elite rugby union. Saliva samples were taken from  players (starting XV, n = 15  + non-starters; n = 9) on a control day and 90 min prior to 4 games played consecutively at home and away venues against local rivals (LR) and league-leaders (LL). Pre-competition psychological states were assessed using the Competitive State Anxiety Inventory-2. The squad recorded two wins (home) and two losses (away) over the study period. Calculated effect sizes (ES) showed higher pregame cortisol (C) and testosterone (T) difference values before all games compared to a baseline control day (ES: 0.7 to 1.5). Similar findings were observed for cognitive and somatic anxiety. Small between venue C differences were observed in starting XV players (ES: 0.2 to 0.25). Conversely, lower ‘home’ T (ES: 0.95) and higher ‘away’ C (ES: 0.6) difference values were observed in non-starters. Lower T difference values were apparent in non-starters (vs. starting XV) before ‘home’ games providing evidence of a between group effect (ES: 0.92). Findings show an anticipatory rise in psychophysiological variables prior to competition. Knowledge of starting-status appears a moderating factor in the magnitude of player endocrine response between home and away game venues.
Keywords: Home advantage; hormones; psychophysiological; cortisol; testosterone; rugby.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Functional nonsense. The new "F" word.

The new buzzword in the sporting domain seems to be "Functional". Everything these days is has this F word attached to it. I have read and known of Functional Nutritionists, Functional Strength and Conditioning, Functional Medicine, Functional Biomechanics, Functional Psychology etc. etc. (If you don't believe me, search all of the above terms on google and see how many hits you get for each discipline preceded by the F word).

I am a bit old school you know, when I see this word in front of a scientific discipline or I hear about functional training I get a sudden increase in blood pressure. This makes no sense. To all the young practitioners out there, please do not fall into this nonsensical trap. You don't need to separate functional training from training. Training is training and is made to improve someone's performance in the sport of choice.

Let's first of all understand what the word "Functional" means. Functional is an adjective and it means "designed to have a practical use" or "working properly" according to the Merrian-Webster dictionary. The wiktionary link is here. 

So, if you are a strength training coach working in any sport, you should design training which improves performance in that sport. By definition your training should have a practical use and should translate into improvements on the field. So there is no need to add the word functional to everything you do as if it isn't you should not be there. Functional strength training is no different from strength training. The only difference is in the ability of the coach to design an appropriate training programme to improve performance in the specific activity performed by the athlete/client. However marketeers of course have an interest in making sure it is perceived to be "different". There is a whole market to books, courses, DVDs, tools, T-shirts to sell. And perception in young coaches is now that if you use Olympic Lifts you are not "functional". Nonsense.

Every training programme should be tailored to the need of individual athletes and their abilities/shortcomings. It does not need the functional adjective, because by proxy it should be functional. It's the same with nutrition, isn't it about getting people healthier/slimmer/bigger? So it is functional per se. What is the difference between a functional nutritionist and a nutritionist? Aren't they all try to design diets which have a practical use? What about a functional biomechanist? How different is from a biomechanist? And a Psychologist or a Physician? Isn't medicine supposed to be about having a practical outcome (health)? So why Functional Medicine? Do you know of anybody trying to do non-functional medicine (I might say I could write a thing or two about dysfunctional medicine...)?

The supporters of so called functional training claim that this is the ONLY way to improve sports specific movements. However when I see videos like the ones below, I lose it. Can this really be considered a training session? How many of the exercises/activities could be done in other ways? Is this intensity/activity really going to improve performance?
(Just to make it clear, I am not criticising the manufacturers of the equipment used, I am just trying to understand what the training prescription is supposed to do.)

Strength training is about improving strength. In order to do this, you do require to lift/push/pull relatively heavy loads (see generic recommendations by various organisations on different groups ACSM, NSCA) in a progressive manner. Performing few sets of 30 repetitions of pulling or shaking a rope will not improve your maximal strength unless you are completely untrained. Also, if I try to use the functionalist approach,can somebody explain me how shaking a rope is "functional"? functional to what exactly  (tug of war has not been in the olympics since 1920)? 

So let's not get polarised between the so called "functional" and the so called "conventional". There is  nothing to be polarised about. Strength training should be designed using appropriate exercise modalities with appropriate loading with appropriate movement patterns to make sure that the athlete improves in the tasks he/she needs to perform and also reduces the chances of injuries. With that in mind, it is clear that in a well designed programme there is space for various things which might involve free weights, barbells, dumbbells, maybe some isoinertial devices etc etc. What the S&C coach needs to know is what loading each exercise is likely to apply to the body and by assessing progression of the athlete the coach needs to understand if the programme has been effective. Too many times I hear coaches and S&C coaches say "my programme works" but sometimes the evidence (data) is not there.

Anytime a so called "functional" exercise is proposed, it would be worthwhile discussing aspects like:
- What is the loading (force/power/speed of movement)?
- Which muscles are used?
- Can the activity cause injury?
- How does each exercise prescribed fit in the training plan and in trying to accomplish the right outcomes?
- After a period of training did the athlete improve? In what? And how does that affect his/her performance in the chosen sport?

Only after the last question has been answered we will be able to find out if the training prescription has been functional or dysfunctional.

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