Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Reflections on the Italian conference on track and field

I am on the plane back to London returning from Italy after having spoken at a conference organised by the Italian Track and Field Federation’s regional committee of Veneto and the regional branch of the Italian Olympic Committee. I spent interesting 2 days in Abano Terme for a variety of reasons, some of which I will write about here. I also had time to reflect about my career so far and where I started.
First of all, I have to say it is always a pleasure to get back to Italy. I left many years ago to study and further my education (my first “escape” was in 1996 [time goes fast!]). After the USA, Spain, Hungary and bits and bobs around the World, I arrived in the UK in 2001 (yes it is now 10 years) to pursue a career in sports science. First in academia and since 2005 with the British Olympic Association. When I left Italy, It was with a bitter taste, many things happened which helped me decide to “throw in the towel” and move on.
The main issues were: the lack of meritocracy, the lack of vision and thinking big, the lack of jobs and clear career paths, the inability to work in partnership and the constant bad influence on politics in every field. However bitterness was then transformed in pleasantness by the realisation that leaving Italy was not an exile like some Italians think, but in reality a great opportunity to be thankful for. In fact, since arriving in the UK, I have been blessed with continuous opportunities. I have met some fantastic people, I have had the opportunity to work and collaborate with World Class colleagues in many fields in academia and sport and I have the privilege to work towards the London Olympics for the biggest sporting event which will happen in my country of adoption at least for my generation.
Reflecting on the last 18 years since I started this journey, I realised how much I have learnt and and how much I have evolved as a professional thanks not only to my own hard work and sacrifice, but also thanks to the countless interactions I have had and still have with various people in many fields and thanks to the opportunities I have been presented with.
The conference was also an emotional moment. It was primarily organised to discuss athletics in Italy and around the World thanks to contributors coming from Germany and France. But the main aim of the conference was to remember the immense contribution from the greatest Sports Scientist Italy ever had (in my view): Professor Carmelo Bosco. Prof. Bosco was my PhD supervisor, and I enjoyed some years of hard work on the road with him not only working on various research projects but also working on applied projects with athletes and higher education.
(With Prof. Bosco on a trip)
Working with a genius is never easy. It takes effort, it is difficult, it is stressful and requires long hours of “deep” practice and a strong character as well as the willingness to accept criticism and work hard to learn. I feel so lucky of having been working with people like him, Atko Viru, Jozsef Tihanyi (to name a few), because these guys not only were great at what they did (and Josefz still is), but they were passionate about their jobs and were/are totally driven to learn more every day.
(1998, Tartu Estonia – picture credit Bill Laich)
Italy was a difficult place to work at the time. The faculty of Sports Science did not have a library. If you wanted to read scientific literature, you needed to book access to the School of Sport of CONI and you were allowed few hours only few days per month. So if you wanted to have knowledge you had to go and get it and it was not easy to do so (mind you there were no queues…so clearly few people were interested in reading!). Unlike now, knowledge is “on tap” [but so is crap], and there is really no excuse for not trying to learn something new every day. For the young readers, this was the pre-PDF era when you had to go to the library, find the journal, take notes or make photocopies. It was a time when a literature search required a week to be done. You needed to hand in at reception a floppy disk with a list of keywords and come back a week later to receive the files with the literature search outputs. We had an office to do literature search with 1 computer. There were brick walls everywhere. But, as Randy Pausch said in his last lecture, brick walls are there to separate the people that really want something from the ones not willing to overcome the obstacles.
At the conference, I spoke about how great it was to discuss about science and training methodology 24 hours per day for few years. Having strong debates, doing calculations, performing experiments, discussing and arguing with coaches and scientists filled my days at the time. That was proper “deep practice”. Everything was an opportunity for growth and such environment was what made Italian sport successful and innovative in those years. It was great, and I treasure every minute of that time.
imageYury Verkchoschanski, Carmelo Bosco and Atko Viru discussing data. A normal day at the office in Rome in the 90s being in the same place working with these guys was brilliant. 
In Abano I also met an old friend and had the pleasure of translating his lecture. The old friend is Professor Paavo Komi. Prof. Komi was another inspiring figure in my career. I went to “study” him in 1997 in Denver at the ACSM when I was a student in the USA for my Master. I had read all his papers and books and wanted to see/hear his keynote lecture as well as understand how somebody can prepare a scientific presentation about his data and showcase his work in front of hundreds of people without panicking. I quietly entered the empty auditorium while he was aligning his slides (for the youngsters, at that time PowerPoint was not really an option) and asked politely if I could see him preparing the talk. He was a bit puzzled at first, but then he allowed me to stay. That day I learnt how meticulous preparation has to be in every field and I was inspired to try to reach his levels of knowledge and positive influence on the strength and conditioning and scientific community.
In Italy I was asked to translate his presentation and I loved every moment of it, as the work he has done with numerous collaborators around the world has been truly amazing as well as being totally relevant to strength and conditioning. I also had lunch with Paavo and we chatted about past times as well the origins of the European College of Sports Science and how things have changed in this profession so quickly (for the good) in the last 15 years. We should be thankful to this group of guys. They had a vision and not much money (actually they had none...) and they created a great organisation to foster collaboration, innovation and education as well as a job market for our profession. It is amazing what people can do if their noses are pointing in the same direction.
Few lessons here. People and ideas drive innovation and change and help athletes reaching new heights. Facilities and gadgets help and support people and ideas. Not the other way around. Likeminded people willing to park the ego at the door for bigger achievements than personal self promotion can do amazing things. Lessons from the past are good. Experience helps in framing the path to the future.
There is a tendency these days to discard what happened in the past in every field. As well as a tendency to forget about the people which were there before and got their t-shirts. I guess it is a sign of the times. Old school is perceived to be not relevant anymore. I like old school. In particular if old school means application of basic, sound concepts with attention to detail.
I think we should make sure we know and understand well what happened in the past to learn and we should seek wisdom from the people who were trying to do what we do now years ago so we don’t re-invent the wheel. In our field we have still the same unanswered questions. We still don’t have 100% knowledge on how to individualise and maximise training programmes, we haven’t cracked the code on overtraining and fatigue and we still don’t understand fully what it takes to transform successful young athletes in winning performers.
So, if you are a young sports scientist, make sure you listen to the people teaching and mentoring you. They may sound old school, sometimes pedantic, sometimes a bit hard to deal with. Listen to them, there is a lot to learn and you will thank them ten years from now. Also, make sure you also read scientific papers published many years ago. Not all the recent literature is “recent”, lots of things have been done before and they are “sold” as new.
If you are looking for examples, go and read the work from Professor Angelo Mosso and look at his ergograph developed in 1890. You will find out that the use of dynamometry to measure fatigue is not a new idea after all.


D Ball on 11 November 2011 at 07:26 said...

Marco, nice reflective commentary. I wonder whether the people that really influence realise the impact they make on us. It's very rare that we get the opportunity to thank them.

Dr. Marco Cardinale on 11 November 2011 at 13:23 said...

Thanks Derek. I agree we rarely thank them, this is why I wrote it. We should say "thank you" more times. I think the people that influence us don't understand how much good they do. It is up to us to remind everyone.

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