Sport Research: Tips for Reading and Interpreting Studies

Sport research is designed to explain the underlying mechanisms about how athletes function. It gives coaches and athletes a way to gain solid information and apply it to sport performance. It helps coaches form beliefs about how to develop programs and coaching techniques.

Researchers and coaches operate in two very different worlds. Where researchers operate within very rigid standards. They study specific aspects of sport performance from within a very narrow scope.

Coaches must use their best judgment to make things happen on the field to win championships. Coaches and athletes are often willing to accept what they've heard about scientific research as the absolute truth, usually from others. Or they may rely on popular magazines rather than an original scientific journal articles.

The fact is, many athletes and coaches do not go to the primary source to understand what studies really say and mean. And if they do, understanding some of the terminology can be challenging. It's just easier to read the bottom line.

The result is that studies are often taken out of context, misinterpreted, or misapplied in the real world of human performance. Understanding how to read and interpret studies makes for better applications to sport and exercise, which could mean a boost to performance. The purpose of this section is help coaches and athletes with research basics.


Sport Research is not Flawless

Many coaches and athletes think that research studies "prove" the truth. Researchers, however, understand that no study is flawless even under the best of conditions.

Here's why: One of the first concerns researchers have is accuracy--that the study really measures what they want it to (called internal validity). This is hard to do, especially when humans are involved.

To make it more difficult, some natural threats to the accuracy of the study are built in. For example, participants in studies often improve after the initial pre-test simply from having had the testing experience, rather than because of the method of training. This is especially true about fitness and skill testing.

How well the findings apply to other groups or in other situations (external validity) is important for coaches and athletes to know. For example, if a study is conducted on elite adult male throwers, to what extent do results apply to novice female high school throwers?

Here's another example:

How well do isokinetic tests (same speed) conducted on a single-joint machine in a lab apply to accelerating/decelerating, concentric/eccentric multi-joint actions used in sports? It's hard to say for sure, but it's quite a leap from the lab condition to the athletic arena.

Researchers make lots of assumptions. For example, they assume that every participant gave their best efforts and provided truthful information. These things may or may not be true.

The point is that information provided by research is not the absolute truth, and contrary to popular belief, it doesn't "prove" anything.

Understanding what research says, and what it doesn't say can make a huge difference in how coaches apply results in the sports arena. This section provides basic information to help you read, interpret, and apply sport research to improve your athlete's performance. For more tips go to:

Scientific Method Research and Limitations in Human Performance

Research Basics

Common Research Methods in the Sport Sciences

Formal Research Template

Psychological Constructs in Research: What Coaches Should Know

Research Terminology

Tips for Reading Research Articles

What are Variables?

Top of Sport Research Tips

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