Sports coaches are always on the look out for new ideas to improve their players’ performance and it’s understandable that insights from psychology and neuroscience hold particular appeal. However, as with other applied fields, it’s not easy to translate neuroscience findings into useful sports interventions. There are also a lot of charlatans who use the mystique of the brain to sell quack sports products and programmes. Without specialist neuroscience training, coaches might struggle to distinguish genuine brain insights from neuro-based flimflam.
It’s in this context that a group of researchers, led by Richard Bailey at the International Council of Sport Science and Physical Education in Berlin, thought it would be useful to see which scientifically challenged practices sports coaches use, and whether they are able to identify brain facts from myths. Previous work has identified widespread belief in neuromyths among several other groups, including psychology students, music teachers and neuroscience graduates, but this is the first time sports coaches have been tested.
Reporting their results in Frontiers in Psychology, Bailey and his colleagues found that sports coaches endorsed, on average, just over 40 per cent of the six brain myths presented to them. “The figure is substantial enough to warrant concern,” according to Bailey and his colleagues “because it is likely that these beliefs will shape coaching philosophy and practice.”
The findings are based on a survey of nearly 550 coaches in the UK and Ireland who took part by responding to adverts on social media. They coached a range of sports including football, rugby, swimming and cricket.
The coaches reported using the scientifically unsupported concept of “learning styles” frequently and this also happened to be the neuromyth that they endorsed most strongly (over 62 per cent of the coaches said they agreed with the concept). Around half also endorsed the idea that short bursts of coordination exercises can improve the integration of left and right-hemishphere brain function, which chimes with the fact they said they made frequent use of the pseudoscientific Brain Gym programme that espouses this idea.
On a positive note, the coaches reported only infrequent use of the empirically challenged approaches of NLP, the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory and Action Types Approach, while they made frequent use of the more scientifically legitimate techniques/approaches of direct instruction, guided discovery, demonstrations and growth mindset.
Turning to the other myths on the list, 43 percent and 55 per cent of the coaches said they believed in the left-brain, right-brain myth and the myth that children are less attentive after consuming sugar, respectively. In contrast, their endorsement was much lower for the 10 per cent brain myth and the myth that there are critical periods in childhood after which things can no longer be learned (22.6 and 16.6 per cent of them endorsed these myths, respectively, on average).
The researchers also presented the coaches with six “general assertions” about the brain that are scientifically supported, including that vigorous exercise can improve mental function. On average, the coaches agreed with 56.6 per cent of these more evidence-based statements, although fewer than 10 per cent realised that boys have bigger brains than girls and fewer than 20 per cent realised that the two brain hemispheres always work together.
Previous research on misbeliefs about the brain has found that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing – for instance, belief in brain myths was previously found to be higher among teachers with more general knowledge about the brain. This pattern was replicated here among sports coaches – those with superior brain knowledge, and those who thought neuroscience was more likely to be helpful for their work, also tended to believe more in the neuromyths.
Bailey and his colleagues end with a number of recommendations to combat neuro-bunk in sports coaching, including increasing contact between coaches and scientists and establishing an independent advisory body for sports governing bodies, akin to the UK’s National Institute for Health Care Excellence that provides evidence-based guidelines to health professionals. More generally, “coach education should be strengthened by encouraging the cultivation of a healthy scepticism,” they concluded. “As the first of its kind with sports coaches, this study can be understood as a contribution to these endeavours”, they concluded.