Coaches’ Perspectives of the Influence of Safe Sport-Related Education

Authors: Anthony Battaglia1, Ph.D., Gretchen Kerr2, Ph.D., and Stephanie Buono2, Ph.D.

Corresponding Author:

Anthony Battaglia, Ph.D., CMPC 

Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education 

University of Toronto 

55 Harbord Street, ON, Canada, M5S 2W6 

Email: anthony.battaglia@mail.utoronto.ca 

Anthony Battaglia, Ph.D., CMPC is a Postdoctoral Fellow and lecturer in the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education at the University of Toronto. His research interests focus on youth athletes’ sport experiences, relational dynamics in sport, athlete maltreatment, and strategies for advancing developmentally appropriate and safe sport.  

Gretchen Kerr, Ph.D. is a Full Professor and Dean of the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education at the University of Toronto. She is also a co-Director of E-Alliance, the Canadian Gender Equity in Sport Research Hub.

Stephanie Buono, Ph.D. is a research associate in the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education at the University of Toronto and an instructor in the Department of Applied Psychology & Human Development at the University of Toronto.

Coaches’ Perspectives of the Influence of Safe Sport-Related Education 

ABSTRACT

To combat growing concerns of sport being unsafe for athletes, compulsory safe sport education has been developed worldwide. Much of this education has focused on the role of the coach, largely due to their position of power, prevalence rates that highlight coaches as common perpetrators of harm, and their direct contact with athletes. However, there is a lack of research examining the impact of such education for coaching-related outcomes. The purpose of this study was to explore the influences of safe sport training on coaches’ knowledge and confidence, efficacy to support others, stress about athlete well-being, and stress related to safe sport issues. In an online survey, 1365 coaches reported completion of any of 12 possible safe sport training courses and their knowledge and confidence, efficacy to support others, stress about athlete well-being, and stress related to safe sport issues. Regression analyses indicated that completing any of the 12 safe sport-related training courses was related to perceived increased efficacy to support others. Completing a higher number of safe sport training courses was related to perceived increases in efficacy to support others and knowledge and confidence, but not stress related to safe sport or athlete well-being. All 12 courses were related to increased knowledge and confidence, and several courses were related to increased efficacy to support others and reduced safe sport stress, while one course was related to reduced stress about athlete-well-being. Future research is needed to examine whether improvements in coaching outcomes associated with safe sport training translate into practice.

Key Words: Safe Sport; Coaches; Education; Coaching Outcomes;

Over the last several years, numerous reports of concerning behaviors in sport, such as maltreatment have emerged worldwide (15, 25). Maltreatment, which refers to “volitional acts that result in or have the potential to result in physical injuries and/or psychological harm” (12, p. 3), which include psychological, sexual, physical abuse, and neglect, harassment, bullying, and discrimination. To combat such concerns, policies and educational initiatives have been developed and implemented under the term ‘safe sport’ (26). The term safe sport initially emerged in response to scandals involving sexual abuse but has since expanded to refer to participation in sport free from all forms of violence, abuse, discrimination, and harassment (21, 39). More recently, broader conceptualizations of safe sport have also considered issues of environmental and physical safety (e.g., dysfunctional equipment, performance enhancing drugs), and the optimization of the sport experience (i.e., inclusive, accessible, growth-enhancing, and rights-based participation for all) (18). To advance safe sport, compulsory education has been developed; examples of existing safe sport education programmes include Australia’s Play by the Rules, U.S. Center for SafeSport Training, and the UK’s Child Protection in Sport Unit (24, 26).

Although safe sport education is needed for all sport stakeholders, including athletes, coaches, parents, administrators, officials and support staff, to-date, education has focused largely on coach-athlete dynamics, addressing issues such as harmful coaching practices, power relations, and duty to report harm (24, 26). There is a strong rationale for safe sport training focused on coaches. Consistent across many bodies of research in sport is acknowledgement of the presence and effects of the position of power and authority held by coaches over stakeholders in the sport ecosystem, including subordinate coaches, parents, athletes, and administrators (23, 38). When used inappropriately, these positions of power leave others vulnerable to experiences of harm. For example, psychological abuse (or what some refer to as psychological violence), the most prevalent form of athlete maltreatment, is most often perpetrated by coaches (42, 45, 48). Given their direct contact with other coaches, support staff, athletes and/or teams daily, coaches also significantly impact the type of culture promoted (e.g., win-at-all-costs versus caring or athlete-centred) and the nature and quality of athletes’ experiences (32). Coaches who are provided professional development and educational opportunities regarding positive sport practices are more likely to create environments where athletes experience enjoyment, competence, meaningful relationships, learning, satisfaction, reduced anxiety, and sport maintenance (6, 16, 36).

Although growing awareness of athlete maltreatment and the role of the coach in preventing these experiences has resulted in the proliferation of safe sport education initiatives for coaches globally, little research exists on the impact of such education for coaching-related outcomes (24, 26). In 2013, McMahon (28) investigated how a narrative pedagogical approach (i.e., athletes’ stories) might help swim coaches from amateur and elite levels understand the welfare implications for athletes subjected to emotionally or physically abusive coaching practices. Findings revealed that coaches gained increased empathy and undertook a more athlete-centered approach to coaching post-education, however, dominant cultural ideologies (e.g., winning) persisted in the coaches’ thinking and practice. Likewise, in 2018, Nurse (30) examined child sexual abuse prevention training for adults who work with children in schools, churches, and athletic leagues; with regards to coaches specifically, the training improved coaches’ knowledge on the topic and increased their confidence in their ability to identify abuse. These preliminary findings highlight the potential benefits of training for coaches; however, it is important to note that the education programmes were restricted to specific populations, sports, forms of harm, small sample sizes, and the effects of long-term behavioral change remained unclear. Further research examining the impact of safe sport training for coaches is required.

In Canada, the country of interest in this study, safe sport educational modules (e.g., NCCP Make Ethical Decisions, Safe Sport Training) (7, 9) have been developed by the Coaching Association of Canada (CAC), which is responsible for certifying and educating coaches across Canada. The CAC has also promoted safe sport standards and expectations for organizations and its coaches, including the Responsible Coaching Movement- a pledge to learn and apply consistent safety principles. The pillars of the Responsible Coaching Movement include the Rule of Two, which attempts to ensure all interactions and communications are in open, observable, and justifiable settings; background screening; and ethics training (8). In the province of Ontario, the Coaches Association of Ontario- an independent, non-profit organization that supports coaches from community level to high performance across all sports in Ontario- has adopted similar safe sport efforts and developed resources, such as Safe Sport 101 and the Ontario Coaches Conference (10). The goals of such initiatives include but are not limited to improving the knowledge of coaches with respect to safe sport, increasing their confidence in enacting desirable coaching behaviors, creating positive sport climates, and facilitating the holistic development of athletes. To-date, the extent to which these educational initiatives meet these goals for Canadian coaches has not been examined.

While safe sport education for coaches has commonly focused on enhancing knowledge of harmful or prohibited conduct, enhancing confidence in using desired behaviors, and supporting stakeholders’ (e.g., athletes, coaches, support staff) development and well-being, there remains a lack of research examining the influence of safe sport training on coaching-related outcomes (24, 26). In this study, the constructs of knowledge, confidence, efficacy, and stress were of interest. Despite recognizing their influential role, many coaches admit inadequate knowledge to cultivate safe sport environments (25); as cultivating safe sport environments is also a collective effort, it remains important that coaches feel efficacious in their ability to support all participants (31). Given the prevalence of mental health challenges in sport, coaches have expressed stress related to supporting athletes’ mental well-being (1, 3). Further, in response to the public attention paid to cases of athlete maltreatment and the focus on coaches as perpetrators of harm, coaches have reportedly felt stress about potential false accusations; specifically, concerns of negative touch have been identified in research and practice, resulting in coaches and sport personnel being fearful and unsure of how to be around athletes with whom they interact (40).

The purpose of this study therefore to explore the influences of safe sport training on Ontario coaches’ knowledge and confidence, efficacy to support others, stress about athlete well-being, and stress related to safe sport issues. Specifically, the first objective was to examine whether safe sport training improved coaches’ knowledge and confidence, efficacy to support others, stress about athlete well-being, and stress related to safe sport issues. The second objective was to examine whether the effect of safe sport training on coaches increased with the number of safe sport training courses. The third objective was to examine whether certain courses were related to coaches’ knowledge and confidence, efficacy to support others, stress about athlete well-being, and stress related to safe sport issues.

Methods

Procedures

This study was conducted in partnership with the Coaches Association of Ontario (CAO). CAO is an independent, non-profit organization that supports coaches across all levels and sports in Ontario. Ontario has the largest population of all provinces in Ontario with over 15 million people and one in four Ontarians have coached in their lifetime (10). The CAO selected the safe sport-related courses of interest for evaluation (see Table 1). As such, within the context of the current study, a broad perspective of safe sport (i.e., from injuries to drug-free sport, planning appropriate practices, and maltreatment) was adopted. Upon receiving approval from the University of Toronto Health Sciences Research Ethics Board, coaches were contacted through the Coaches Association of Ontario (CAO) email listserv and social media posts (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter). Recruitment communication provided details about study eligibility/requirements, the purpose of the study, the voluntary nature of the study, confidentiality and anonymity, and the link to the online survey. The survey was administered with RED Cap electronic data capture. Participants were required to meet the following eligibility criteria to complete the online survey: 1) Ontario resident; 2) over the age of 16; and 3) had coached in the last two years. Following the confirmation of eligibility, participants were able to complete the survey, which took approximately 15-25 minutes (M=19.25) to complete.

Table 1. An overview of the Safe Sport Education modules evaluated in the current study.

CourseOverview
NCCP Emergency Action Planning https://coach.ca/nccp-emergency-action-planUpon completion of this module, coaches will be able to: describe the importance of having an EAP; identify when to activate the EAP; explain the responsibilities of the charge person and call person when the EAP is activated; and create a detailed EAP that includes all required information for responding to an emergency.
NCCP Planning a Practice https://coach.ca/nccp-planning-practiceUpon completion of this module, coaches will be able to: explain the importance of logistics in the development of a practice plan; establish an appropriate structure for a practice; and identify appropriate activities for each part of the practice. To receive full credit for this module, coaches must also complete NCCP Emergency Action Planning.
NCCP Making Head Way https://coach.ca/nccp-making-head-way-sportUpon completion of this module, coaches will understand how to: prevent concussions; recognize the signs and symptoms of a concussion; what to do when they suspect an athlete has a concussion; and ensure athletes return to play safely.
NCCP Leading Drug-Free Sport https://coach.ca/nccp-leading-drug-free-sportUpon completion of this module, coaches will be able to: understand and demonstrate their role in promoting drug free sport; assist athletes to recognize banned substances and the consequences as identified by the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport; reinforce the importance of fair play and the NCCP Code of Ethics; educate and provide support to athletes in drug testing protocols; and inform athletes on nutritional supplements.
NCCP Prevention and Recovery https://coach.ca/nccp-prevention-and-recoveryUpon completion of this module, coaches will be able to: identify common injuries in sport, prevention and recovery strategies; design and implement programs/activities to optimize athlete training, performance and recovery; and support athletes’ return to sport through awareness and proactive leadership.
Commit to Kids https://protectchildren.ca/en/get-involved/online-training/commit-to-kids-for-coaches/Upon completion of this module, coaches will be able to: understand and recognize child sexual abuse and the grooming process; ways in which to handle disclosures of sexual abuse; the implications of sexual abuse; how to create a child protection code of conduct; and ways in which to enhance child and youth safety in sport.
Standard First Aid and CPR https://www.redcross.ca/training-and-certification/course-descriptions/first-aid-at-home-courses/standard-first-aid-cprUpon completion of this module, coaches will be able to: understand and apply vital life-saving knowledge/skills essential for meeting a variety of workplace/professional requirements.
HeadStartPro https://headstartpro.com/coach-course/Upon completion of this module coaches will be able to: understand and develop a set of coaching tools to improve team performance and injury-prevention; and assist athletes and/or teams in achieving their full potential with performance-driven injury prevention training.
NCCP Making Ethical Decisions https://coach.ca/nccp-make-ethical-decisionsUpon completion of this module coaches will be to: analyze challenging situations and determine the moral, legal, or ethical implications; and apply the NCCP Ethical Decision-Making Model to respond in ways that are consistent with NCCP Code of Ethics.
NCCP Empower+ (Creating Positive Sport Environments) https://coach.ca/nccp-creating-positive-sport-environmentUpon completion of this module, coaches will be able to: describe the characteristics and benefits of participant-centered coaching; explain the types of harm that may occur when a coach misuses their power; respond to suspicions or knowledge of maltreatment; and implement positive coaching strategies to foster learning, performance, and create a safe sport environment.
CAC Safe Sport https://coach.ca/safe-sport-trainingUpon completion of this module, coaches will be able to: understand the critical role of all stakeholders in promoting safe sport, how the misuse of power leads to maltreatment, and principles of the Universal Code of Conduct; understand types of maltreatment and how to recognize signs and symptoms; and respond when maltreatment is suspected and create a safe sport culture for all participants.
Respect in Sport https://www.respectgroupinc.com/respect-in-sport/Upon completion of this module, coaches will be able to: recognize, understand, and respond to issues of bullying, abuse, harassment, and discrimination.

Note. For further detail on course descriptions and/or objectives see the corresponding webpages indicated in the table.

Participants

Participants were 1365 coaches from the Coaches Association of Ontario (CAO). Of the respondents, 61% identified as men (n=823), 38% identified as women (n=514; n=28 did not disclose), 86% identified as White (n=1087), while 4% (n=53) identified as Black, 4% (n=51) identified as East/Southeast Asian, 2% (n=31) identified as Indigenous, and less than 2% identified as Latinx (n=19), South Asian (n=18), Middle Eastern (n=16), or another race category (n=27). Coaches reported working in a variety of contexts including grassroots (e.g., recreational, community sport, house league, intramural; n=273, 22%), school sports (e.g., primary and secondary school; n=141, 11%), development (e.g. competitive, club, travel, city, all-star; n=600, 49%), post-secondary (e.g., Support, CCAA, OUA, Inter-university; n=74, 6%), provincial (e.g., Canada Games, National Championships, OHL; n=90, 7%), international (e.g., International Competitions, Worlds, Pan Am, Commonwealth, Olympics; n=36, 3%), and masters or professional (e.g., Senior, NHL, NBA, CEBL; n=20, 2%). Coaches’ tenure in their current position ranged from 1-10 years (n=804, 65%), 11-20 years (n=238, 19%), and more than 20 years (n=194, 16%). Training in safe sport was required for 78% of coaches (n=782) and provided free of cost for 51% of coaches (n=535).

Measures

Safe sport training was measured with a “yes” or “no” response from coaches to indicate whether they had taken each of the following courses: NCCP[1] Emergency Action Planning, NCCP Planning a Practice, NCCP Making Head Way, NCCP Leading Drug Free Sport, NCCP Prevention and Recovery of Injury, Commit to Kids, Standard First Aid and CPR, HeadStart, NCCP Make Ethical Decisions, NCCP Empower+ (Creating Positive Sport Environments), CAC Safe Sport Training, Respect in Sport.

Knowledge & confidence to create a safe sport environment was measured using a 3-item scale (a=.7), which asked coaches about their knowledge of safe sport concepts and their confidence in creating a safe sport environment. Example items included, “I am confident in my abilities to create a safe sport environment” and “I am familiar with the responsible coaching movement.” Coaches responded to each item on a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree).

Safe sport stress was measured using a 3-item scale (a=.68), which asked coaches about the stress they experience over creating a safe sport environment. An example item includes, “I often stress about being the subject of a harassment or abuse claims”. Coaches responded to each item on a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree).

Stress about athlete well-being was measured with 2 items (a=.59): “I often stress about my ability to manage athletes’ mental well-being”, and “I often stress about my ability to manage athletes’ physical well-being.” Coaches responded to each item on a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree).

Efficacy to support others was measured using a 5-item scale (a=.87), which asked coaches about how confident they feel in their ability to support athletes and other coaches. An example item includes “I am confident in my abilities to support my athletes with performance issues”. Coaches responded to each item on a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree).



[1] NCCP refers to the National Coaching Certification Program offered by the Coaching Association of Canada.

Safe sport stress was measured using a 3-item scale (a=.68), which asked coaches about the stress they experience over creating a safe sport environment. An example item includes, “I often stress about being the subject of a harassment or abuse claims”. Coaches responded to each item on a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree).

Stress about athlete well-being was measured with 2 items (a=.59): “I often stress about my ability to manage athletes’ mental well-being”, and “I often stress about my ability to manage athletes’ physical well-being.” Coaches responded to each item on a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree).

Efficacy to support others was measured using a 5-item scale (a=.87), which asked coaches about how confident they feel in their ability to support athletes and other coaches. An example item includes “I am confident in my abilities to support my athletes with performance issues”. Coaches responded to each item on a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree).

Data Analysis

To investigate the first research objective, an initial correlation analysis was conducted to examine whether having any safe sport training was related to increases in coaching outcomes. The safe sport training variable was transformed so that coaches who answered “yes” to completing any of the safe sport training courses were coded as 1 and coaches who had answered “no” to completing all the safe sport training courses were coded as 0 (i.e., no SS training=0, any SS training=1). This variable was included in a correlation analysis with all coaching outcomes: knowledge & confidence, safe sport stress, stress over athlete well-being, and efficacy to support others. To investigate the second research objective, four separate linear regression models were constructed with the sum of completed safe sport training courses (range =1-12) as the independent variable, and the following coaching outcomes as respective dependent variables: knowledge & confidence, safe sport stress, stress about athlete well-being, and efficacy to support others. In all four models, the coaching context, whether training was required (0=no, 1=yes), and whether training was free (0=no, 1=yes) were included as covariates. To address the third research objective, ANOVAs were conducted with individual safe sport courses as independent variables, and the following coaching outcomes as dependent variables: knowledge & confidence, efficacy to support others, safe sport stress, stress about athlete well-being and efficacy to support others. All analyses were conducted using IBM SPSS Statistics (Version 28) (20).

Results

Safe Sport Training & Coaching Outcomes

Range, mean, and standard deviation scores for all variables included in subsequent analyses are included in Table 2. Of the coaches in this sample, 65% (n=890) reported completing at least one of the education courses, while 35% (n=475) reported not having taken any of the education courses. Results of the correlation analysis (Table 3) demonstrate that having any safe sport training was significantly related to increases in efficacy to support others, but not knowledge and confidence, safe sport stress, or stress about athlete well-being.

Table 2. Descriptive statistics for all variables

RangeMeanSD
Coaching Context (0=Grassroots)0-71.811.37
Training Required (0=No)0-1.59.49
Training Free (0=No)0-1.49.50
Any Safe Sport Training0-1.6.13
Number of Safe Sport Training0-123.643.42
Knowledge & Confidence-4-201
Safe sport stress-4-201
Stress over athlete well-being-4-201
Efficacy to Support-4-201
n=1365   
Table 3. Correlations between any safe sport training and coaching outcomes
Any Safe Sport TrainingKnowledge ConfidenceSafe Sport StressAthlete WB StressEfficacy to Support
Any Safe Sport Training1.00.06*.04.002-.03
Knowledge Confidence.06*1.00-.02.00.29**
Safe Sport Stress.04-.021.00.34**-.09**
Athlete WB Stress.002.00.34**1.00-.20**
Efficacy to Support-.03.29**-.09**-.20**1.00
**. Correlation is significant at the 0.01 level
*. Correlation is significant at the 0.05 level

Number of Safe Sport Training & Coaching Outcomes

Figure 1 demonstrates the number of safe sport courses taken by coaches in this sample based on influential covariates such as coaching context, training requirement, and training accessibility (i.e., whether the training was provided free of cost). Significantly more safe sport courses were completed by coaches in Post-Secondary, Provincial, International, Masters and Professional contexts, and by coaches for whom training and education is required and free. 

Initial correlation analysis (Table 4) demonstrated being a coach at a high level of competition (e.g., provincial, international) was related to taking more safe sport courses, higher knowledge and confidence, and higher efficacy to support others. Having access to free training was related to taking more safe sport courses and higher knowledge and confidence. Finally, taking more safe sport training courses was related to higher knowledge and confidence and efficacy to support others. Safe sport stress and stress about athlete well-being were not related to any of the independent variables.

Table 4. Correlations between number of safe sport training courses, covariates and outcome variables
Coaching ContextTraining RequiredTraining FreeSafe Sport TrainingKnowledge ConfidenceSafe Sport StressAthlete WB StressEfficacy to Support
Coaching Context1.00-.04-.03.11**.07**.01.00.08**
Training Required-.041.00.11**-.02.08**.06.03-.05
Training Free-.03.11**1.00.09**.08*.00-.06.01
Safe Sport Training.11**-.02.09**1.00.26**.05.01.10**
Knowledge Confidence.07**.08**.08*.26**1.00-.02.00.29**
Safe Sport Stress.01.06.00.05-.021.00.34**-.09**
Athlete WB Stress.00.03-.06.01.00.34**1.00-.20**
Efficacy to Support.08**-.05.01.10**.29**-.09**-.20**1.00
**. Correlation is significant at the 0.01 level
*. Correlation is significant at the 0.05 level

The results of the first regression analysis (Table 5) demonstrated that the number of safe sport training courses coaches completed was related to increases in knowledge and confidence and efficacy to support others, when training requirements, access to training, and context of the sport environment were held constant. The number of safe sport training courses coaches took was not related to safe sport stress or athlete well-being stress.

Table 5. Linear Regression Analyses for General Coach Training
Knowledge & ConfidenceSafe Sport StressAthlete WB StressEfficacy to Support
BSEBSEBSEBSE
Coaching Context.03.02.01.02.00.02.08*.02
Training Required.09*.07.06.07.03.07.04.08
Training Free.08*.06.01.06.06.06.001.06
Safe Sport Training.31**.01.05.01.003.01.12**.01
  
Adj. R-Square.12.01.00.03 
n=1365
**Coefficient is significant at the 0.01 level
*Coefficient is significant at the 0.05 level

Individual Safe Sport Courses and Coaching Outcomes

The results of the final analysis demonstrated that all courses were significantly related to improved knowledge and confidence. NCCP Emergency Action Planning, NCCP Leading Drug Free Sport, Commit to Kids, HeadStartPRO, and NCCP Empower+ (Creating Positive Sport Environments) were significantly related to reduced safe sport stress. Commit to Kids was significantly related to reduced athlete well-being stress. Finally, NCCP Planning a Practice, NCCP Leading Drug-free Sport, NCCP Prevention and Recovery, Commit to Kids, HeadStartPRO, NCCP Empower+ (Creating Positive Sport Environments), and CAC Safe Sport were significantly related to efficacy to support others (Table 6).

Table 6. Effects of Individual Safe Sport Courses
Knowledge ConfidenceSafe Sport StressAthlete WB StressEfficacy to Support Others
FSig.FSig.FSig.FSig.
NCCP Emergency Action Planning60.97<.0015.67.0171.45.2293.75.053
NCCP Planning a Practice53.82<.001.13.722.44.5097.23.007
NCCP Making Head Way64.15<.001.10.754.08.772.35.557
NCCP Leading Drug-free Sport72.82<.0015.65.018.25.61822.49<.001
NCCP Prevention and Recovery47.18<.0013.29.070.08.77714.21<.001
Commit to Kids35.88<.0015.16.0238.91.00311.29<.001
Standard First Aid and CPR17.96<.001.31.580.69.4069.73.002
HeadStartPRO7.08.00810.31.002.06.8149.15.003
NCCP Making Ethical Decisions22.26<.001.17.680.01.931.01.91
NCCP Empower+ (Creating Positive Sport Environments)15.21<.0017.92.04.315.57516.42<.001
CAC Safe Sport89.17<.001.16.6903.91.5328.41.004
Respect in Sport32.62<.001.07.797.07.7973.64.056
n=1365

Discussion

The purpose of this study was to explore the influences of safe sport training on sport coaches’ knowledge and confidence, safe sport-related stress, efficacy to support others, and stress about athlete well-being. Specific focus was directed towards examining the relationship between the number of safe sport courses completed and the effects of specific safe sport courses for these coaching outcomes. The results of this study demonstrated that having any training or education was related to increased efficacy to support others. Having completed a higher number of safe sport training courses was related to increased efficacy to support others and knowledge and confidence, and all safe sport courses were related to increased knowledge and confidence.  

Although a plethora of safe sport education exists to-date, a prominent criticism has been the lack of empirical evaluations examining the impact or effectiveness of such training (24, 26). The findings of the current study help to address this knowledge gap by providing preliminary, empirical evidence regarding the influence of safe sport education. According to the results, coaches in more professional contexts took more safe sport training courses, which supports the notion that at elite levels of sport, coaches may have more access to professional development opportunities and/or devote more time improving their coaching skills (11, 27). Coaches who were provided access to free training in the current study also took more safe sport courses. These findings suggest that when provided the opportunity, coaches engage in professional development, however, as issues of cost and accessibility remain prevalent barriers, the advancement and development for many coaches remains limited (19, 43. Online modalities have been advocated as a cost-effective, time efficient, and readily accessible way to educate coaches (13, 14) yet, for many coaches, online professional development opportunities still present financial demands. For example, of the twelve courses examined in the current study, only three (e.g., NCCP Emergency Action Planning, CAC Safe Sport, NCCP Making Headway) are listed as online and free for coaches; in the current study, it was not known if affiliated organizations where coaches instruct reimbursed education/training and, if so, for which courses. Access or lack thereof to safe sport-related education may impact the extent to which safe, inclusive, and welcoming spaces are promoted by all coaches (22, 47). This is particularly important for coaching at the youth sport level where the delivery of sport programmes is highly dependent on volunteers who, despite recognizing their critical role for nurturing developmentally appropriate and safe environments, often lack the requisite knowledge to do so (2, 44, 46).

The completion of more safe sport training courses and all courses examined in the current study was related to enhanced coaches’ knowledge and confidence. Exposing coaches to diverse topics which include but are not limited to safety, positive development, harmful practices, and mental health, are critical to improving coaches’ awareness and ability to create safe sport environments (6, 28, 30). The coaches also reported increased knowledge of the Rule of Two and the Responsible Coaching Movement; these safe sport efforts provide additional safety principles for Ontario and Canadian coaches more broadly on background screening, appropriate interactions, and ethics training (8). Findings may be interpreted to suggest that not only does safe sport education positively influence coaches’ knowledge and confidence to create safe environments but also facilitates greater awareness of safe sport efforts in the Canadian sport context, thus providing coaches with a more comprehensive perspective on ways to stimulate safer sport.

Nurturing athletes’ holistic development is a key responsibility of coaches; however, coaches may not have the necessary education and training to adequately support their athletes (41). The current findings indicate that the completion of more safe sport education as well as specific courses (e.g., NCCP Empower+, CAC Safe Sport) may nurture coaches’ expertise and confidence to actively support their athletes with personal and performance challenges. The extent to which athletes report positive coach-athlete dynamics and feel supported in their relationships with coaches has been known to influence whether they experience learning, growth, and safe sport environments (32). Safe sport training also influenced coaches’ confidence to support coaching peers/support staff with personal and performance issues; these findings are particularly important as learning by doing, having a coach mentor, and observing others are important sources of knowledge and development for coaches (43). Collectively, the improvements in coaches’ efficacy to support others (athletes and coaches) suggests that safe sport training may serve as an effective mechanism through which knowledge dissemination and learning amongst stakeholders is achieved.

Many coaches (uninformed on the benefits of positive touch) have adopted a risk-averse perspective when interacting with athletes (i.e., “no touching”) to avoid being accused of misconduct or having their behaviors misconstrued as harmful (33, 34). In the current study, no significant relationship resulted between the number of safe sport training courses completed and coaches’ perceived safe sport stress (e.g., fear of maltreatment allegations). Specific courses were identified as decreasing safe sport stress, however, some of the courses (e.g., NCCP Emergency Action Planning, HeadStartPro, NCCP Leading Drug-free Sport) focus on physical injury prevention and/or drug-free sport and do not necessarily provide broader content on maltreatment that might warrant the reported lower coach stress regarding potential accusations of harm or safe sport issues. Although coaches have commonly reported concerns about touching in sport (33), there has also been growing awareness of psychological harm and toxic cultures in sport (38, 48). The lack of reported stress regarding safe sport concerns may be reflective of coaches being less fearful of false accusations related to psychological forms of harm as opposed to sexual harms. As the survey questions referred to coach stress in relation to abuse and harassment claims broadly, further research attention is needed to assess whether education may impact coaches’ safe sport stress differently depending on the form of harm (e.g., sexual versus psychological).

It is also interesting that while safe sport education was related to coaches’ improved efficacy to support athletes with personal and performance issues, the number of completed courses was not significantly related to stress about managing athlete physical and mental well-being. Only one course (Commit to Kids) reduced coaches’ perceived stress for managing athlete well-being. Commit to Kids focuses exclusively on providing education on sexual harms; while education on sexual harms is needed to advance safe sport, psychological harm and neglect are reported far more frequently by athletes (25, 48) and thus coaches’ perceptions of their ability to manage athletes’ well-being may be limited in scope.

            NCCP Empower+ (Creating Positive Sport Environments) was associated with enhanced knowledge and confidence, improved efficacy to support others, and lower safe sport stress, whereas CAC Safe Sport Training was linked to improved knowledge and confidence and efficacy to support others. Interestingly, Commit to Kids was the only course to positively impact all coaching outcomes, despite focusing exclusively on sexual harms. As sexual harm continues to receive the most media and research attention (4, 25), education on sexual harms may be interpreted by coaches and those in the sport community to be most relevant and important for creating safe sport. Further, in Ontario and Canada more broadly, sport organizations frequently identify course equivalents where coaches may complete different courses, including CAC Safe Sport Training, Respect in Sport, NCCP Empower+, and Commit to Kids but still satisfy the safe sport-related requirements needed to instruct. The lack of an integrated approach and the various safe sport education options available may expose coaches to different experiences and levels of learning, thus providing a plausible explanation for the reported influences on coaching outcomes in the current study. To advance safe sport,evidence-informed education for coaches and stakeholders more broadly is needed (5, 47).

Limitations and Future Directions

Although this study contributes to research and practice in safe sport by providing insights into the reported benefits of safe sport education for coaches, the findings must be interpreted within the context of the current study. Considering the CAO selected the safe sport-related courses of interest for evaluation, a broad perspective of safe sport (i.e., injuries, drug-free sport, planning appropriate practices, maltreatment) was required. The data were also collected from coaches in a specific geographic region (Ontario, Canada) and thus many of the safe sport courses evaluated were exclusive to this coaching sample. The courses evaluated in the current study should not be considered an exhaustive list of all safe-sport courses; for example, since the completion of the study, several courses (e.g., Support Through Sport, Safe Sport 101 Playbook) have been revised and/or developed. Additionally, as the sport domain has been referred to one that reinforces toxic cultures, there are several education courses in Ontario and Canada more broadly on creating positive culture and inclusive environments (e.g., NCCP Coaching Athletes with a Disability), that were not included and require future consideration regarding their impact on coaches and advancing safe sport. 

The study findings highlighted a relationship between safe sport education and improvements in coach knowledge and confidence and efficacy to support others, suggesting that practitioners should explore ways to make safe sport education free of cost and accessible. However, as this study did not assess knowledge translation, future research is needed to examine if coaches’ improved knowledge, confidence and efficacy from education contributes to behavior change and the use of more developmentally appropriate and safe coaching practices. Organizational influence also remains an area of interest; for example, it would be beneficial to explore how an organization’s cultural values, priorities (e.g., win-at-all-costs vs holistic development), and support (e.g., free training), may impact coach education uptake and subsequently the effectiveness of safe sport education on coaching outcomes. Future researchers may consider a case study approach to examine the impact of safe sport education for coaches within a specific organization; for example, Likert-scales may be used to assess attitudes, beliefs, and perceptions, semi-structured interviews may help to gain deeper insights on coaches’ interpretations regarding safe sport courses, and participant observation may shed light on issues of coach behavior change resulting from safe sport education.

Conclusion

Safe sport education for coaches has been consistently advocated as a recommendation for advancing safe, inclusive, and welcoming environments, however, the influence of safe sport education remains largely unknown (24, 26). The current study contributes to the sport literature by providing an examination of the influences of safe sport training for coaches. Findings revealed a relationship between the number of safe sport training courses coaches completed and increases in their knowledge and confidence and efficacy to support others. However, the number of safe sport training courses completed was not associated with stress related to safe sport matters or athlete well-being. All safe sport courses were reportedly associated with improved coach knowledge and confidence. Several training courses were also linked to improvements in coaches’ efficacy to support others and reductions in their safe sport stress, with only one course contributing to coaches’ reduced stress related to athlete-well-being. Although the findings suggest favorable influences of safe sport training for coaches, the current study did not assess behavioral change. Future research is needed to explore whether reported improvements (e.g., knowledge and confidence) associated with safe sport education translates to coaching practice.

Applications in Sport

Safe sport education in the current study was reportedly associated with enhanced coach knowledge and confidence to create safe environments and efficacy to support athletes and other coaches/support staff. Unfortunately, as a large portion of the sport sector is run by a volunteer workforce (e.g., volunteer coaches), sport organizations remain reluctant to enforce training requirements for fear of further burdening these coaches who frequently report stress and burnout (2, 35). However, the extent to which sport organizations and their leaders prioritize and support safe sport, has been shown to impact the effectiveness of safe sport efforts (17, 37, 49). In some cases, merely having safe sport education initiatives may have little impact on creating and sustaining safer environments and appear as superficial gestures towards change, further reproducing harms (29, 31). Sport and coaching organizations are confronted with the challenge of maintaining low time and cost demands for many volunteer coaches while also providing adequate education for volunteer (and paid) coaches (19, 46).

Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank the coaches who participated in this study along with Coaches Association of Ontario who contributed to the design and recruitment of this study.

Declaration of conflicting interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

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2024-06-20T12:01:59-05:00June 21st, 2024|General, Research, Sport Education, Sports Coaching, Sports Exercise Science|Comments Off on Coaches’ Perspectives of the Influence of Safe Sport-Related Education

Can there be two speeds in a clean peloton? Performance strategies in modern road cycling

Authors: Karsten Øvretveit1

1K.G. Jebsen Center for Genetic Epidemiology, Department of Public Health and Nursing,

Corresponding Author:

K.G. Jebsen Center for Genetic Epidemiology, Department of Public Health and Nursing, Norwegian University of Science and Technology,
Trondheim, Norway, PB 8905, N-7491 Trondheim, Norway
karsten.ovretveit@ntnu.no

Karsten Øvretveit, MSc3, is a physiologist and PhD candidate at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). His research areas include genetic disease risk, physical performance, motivational dynamics, and human nutrition.

Can there be two speeds in a clean peloton? Performance strategies in modern road cycling

ABSTRACT

In the history of professional cycling, riders have always sought competitive advantages. Throughout 20th century, many relied on performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) which gave rise to a phenomenon called “two-speed cycling”. Throughout its modern era, professional cycling has seen anti-doping efforts repeatedly intensify on the heels of several large doping scandals. Over the past decade, the sport appears to have transitioned away from large-scale systematic doping and towards novel, legal performance-enhancing strategies, facilitated by a close relationship with scientific, technological, and engineering communities. The tools and technologies available to assess the demands of the sport, the capabilities of the riders, and the role of environmental factors such as wind resistance, altitude, and heat are more refined and comprehensive than ever. Teams and riders are now able to leverage these to improve training, recovery, equipment, race tactics and more, often from a very early age. This review explores several key developments in road cycling and their implications for the modern professional peloton.


Key Words: professional cycling; performance-enhancing drugs; marginal gains; performance analysis

INTRODUCTION

The main pack of riders navigating the road in a cycling race, known as the peloton, comprises a wide range of physiological, anthropometrical, technical, and strategical attributes. The role of each rider in a given race is typically based on strengths, weaknesses, and objectives, and can be modified by injuries, fitness level, personal goals, and unexpected in-race developments. The concept of “cycling at two speeds”, cyclisme à deux vitesses, has historically been used to distinguish between chemically enhanced riders and those who ride clean (134). However, despite increasingly stringent doping controls in professional cycling along with a clear shift in doping culture, the concept of two-speed cycling remains.
Given the well-documented benefits of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs), there is an expectation that the intensification of anti-doping measures in professional cycling leads to more homogeneous performance levels in the peloton by reducing the number of artificially enhanced riders. Although this may be a reasonable assumption, it discounts the many substantial advances made in training, nutrition, technology, and strategy, as well as the growing talent pool of potential professionals and the early age at which they begin to seriously structure their training, racing, and recovery. These factors can differ greatly between teams and individual riders and thus help maintain the two-speed phenomenon. This review provides a brief history of the PED culture and use in professional cycling, followed by an examination of some of the key developments in the sport that has helped preserve the two-speed phenomenon in a peloton riding within an increasingly strict anti-doping framework.

The performance-enhanced past of the peloton

Drugs have been used to enhance athletic performance for millennia, stretching back to at least the ancient Olympic Games (16). Cycling as a profession emerged among working-class men who likened endurance sports to physically demanding jobs where the use of drugs to aid performance was considered the right thing to do (58). Indeed, doping has been pervasive in professional cycling for over 150 years, throughout most of which it was either legal or not subject to testing (34). For decades, riders doped to simply be able to do the job – faire le métier (33). Then, athlete health became a concern and a major driving force to regulate, if not outright ban the use of certain substances. Drug testing in the Tour de France (TdF), the most prestigious event on the race calendar, began in 1966. Despite this, amphetamines, cortisone, and steroids remained widespread in the professional peloton. It was also around this time that rumors about the use of blood transfusions in athletes began (60). The year after Raymond Poulidor underwent the first drug test in the TdF, Tom Simpson collapsed on the ascent of Mount Ventoux and later passed away due to an unfortunate combination of alcohol, amphetamines, intense heat, and extreme physical exertion. Although this event brought more attention to the use of stimulants and other drugs in cycling and in sports in general (69), doping would persist for decades to follow. Based on interviews with riders on a professional cycling team at the turn of the millennium, psychiatrist Jean-Christophe Seznec (115) asserted that professional cyclists are not only prone to develop an addiction to PEDs, but also recreational drugs, noting the importance of explicitly acknowledging this risk in order to mitigate it.

When professional cycling entered the 90s, the banned yet at that time undetectable erythropoiesis-stimulating agent (ESA) recombinant human erythropoietin (rHuEPO) arrived in the peloton (101), and performances hit a new level. Increasing circulating erythropoietin (EPO) by illegal means has been perceived by some riders and coaches to give an estimated performance boost, without the term “performance” being strictly defined, of 3% to 20% (31, 100, 134, 138). Interestingly, despite its popularity in the peloton, the research literature on the effects of ESAs such as rHuEPO on endurance performance is equivocal. Its effects on hematological values like hemoglobin concentration ([Hb]) and clinical measurements of power and maximal oxygen uptake (V̇O2max) are well-established, but the real-world benefits are not always clear (116, 123).

There are several aspects of professional cycling that are difficult to account for in experimental studies on exogenous EPO, such as the extremely high fitness level of a peaked professional cyclist and the physiological impact of training and racing on parameters such as Hb. A recent randomized controlled trial found no apparent benefit of EPO on relevant performance markers has sometimes been cited to shed doubt on the true effects of the drug (47). However, this study was done in cyclists with an average V̇O2max of 55.6 mL/kg/min, which is substantially lower than their professional counterparts (124). By his own account, former professional Michael Rasmussen saw his hematocrit (Hct) drop from 41% to 36% following the 2002 Giro d’Italia (98), illustrating how blood composition can be severely perturbed by training and racing. Similar values have been observed in other professionals following participation in Grand Tours (17, 89). Using Rasmussen as an example, using rHuEPO to bring this up to 49%, just below the old 50% limit, would represent a relative Hct increase of 36% and result in improved ability to maintain a much higher intensity in training and racing, and consequently greater exercise-induced adaptations.

Throughout the 90s, Grand Tour riders with supraphysiological Hct would traverse France, Italy, and Spain at impressive speeds until it all seemingly came to an end in 1998. Three days before the start of the 85th edition of the TdF, a Festina team car carrying various PEDs was stopped by customs agents at the French-Belgian border. This event marked the start of what later became known as the Festina affair, a major catalyst in cycling’s transition to a cleaner sport. The wake of this scandal saw an increasing number of calls to action against doping, including by the driver of the Festina car (132), with claims of the sport dying unless drastic action is taken. Subsequent large-scale doping cases such as Operación Puerto and the contents of the USADA’s Reasoned Decision Report (10) served as reminders that PEDs were still present in the peloton and strengthened the resolve of those fighting for a cleaner sport.
Although riders are often blamed for the pervasive drug use in cycling, most entered a sport with a lack of top-down anti-doping efforts, leaving them with the difficult choice of either conforming to the culture or competing on unequal terms. One of the most crucial steps towards a cleaner sport is a change in culture among teams and riders. Much, if not most, of the credit should go to the riders themselves, many of which have actively pushed against the use of PEDs for years (46, 50, 59, 85, 130). Today, most doping cases in cycling are among semi-professional riders, whereas the number of riders testing positive at the highest level is approaching zero (88).

Although absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, fewer doping cases at the highest level of cycling suggests that overt, systematic drug use is a thing of the past. Given professional cycling’s checkered history, it would be naïve to think that doping has been eliminated entirely, but the sport does appear to have evolved beyond doping being perceived as all but necessary to gain entry into the professional peloton. Generational shifts not only among riders, but also among governing bodies and team leadership have contributed to an overall firmer stance against doping, removing potentially significant contributors to anti-doping violations (6). There is also indications that the post-Armstrong generation, especially those who started their careers young, are less likely to use PEDs (5), although the evidence is equivocal (64). Additionally, anti-doping technology continues to improve, with recent advances such as gene expression analysis being able to extend the detection window of blood manipulations (28, 133).

Conceptual approaches to legal performance development

It could be argued that the extraordinary performances regularly being on display by the current generation of riders suggest that the dismantling of systematic doping practices has led to progression rather than regression of the sport of cycling. The transition away from prevalent PED use has forced teams and riders to seek out other areas of improvement, some with barely measurable effects, to keep up. Although seeking improvements in many areas is not a new phenomenon in professional cycling, it has received increasing attention over the past decade with the success of Team Sky, now INEOS Grenadiers, and team director, Dave Brailsford, who called this concept “marginal gains”. Brailsford and his team set out to win the TdF within five years with a clean British rider (29). To achieve this, he brought with him the approach he used as a performance director for British Cycling, which had led to considerable success in track cycling. Team Sky was established on the back of British dominance in the Laoshan velodrome during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where they took home seven gold medals. As he transitioned from the track to the road, Brailsford brought the idea that compiling enough marginal gains could provide a greater performance advantage than PEDs (87).

Although the marginal gain concept came to prominence with Team Sky during one of professional cycling’s most recent avowed shift from banned to legal performance-enhancing strategies, it has been practiced by cyclists since at least the mid-1900s. Italian Fausto Coppi, who rode to multiple victories in the TdF and Giro d’Italia, as well as in one-day classics throughout the 40s and early 50s, was an early adopter of novel diet and training approaches. After World War II, the sport of cycling was anything but advanced and Coppi set out to change that. He worked with Bianchi to develop bikes and other equipment; he adapted his diet to better fuel his riding – not only its contents, but also the timing and amount; and he explored strategies for how to best race as a team (37). Some of these developments would later influence other greats, such as Eddie Merckx, who, among other things, was obsessed with proper bike fit (38). Current director of the French national team, Cyrille Guimard, has also long been known for his application of cutting-edge technology and training methods. One of his former riders, Laurent Fignon, described him as being “right up-to-date. He had files for everything. He was interested in all the lates training methods. Where his protégés were concerned, he would look at the very last detail and even the slightest defect would be corrected. He knew how to ensure everyone had the very best equipment that was on the market: made-to-measure bikes, the newest gadgets.” (32, p. 56).

 The notion that modern riders can surpass past performances solely through legal performance strategies rests on the assumption that these strategies, particularly when combined, are highly effective. Furthermore, a larger pool of athletes and an earlier onset of structured athletic development might amplify these effects. The following section explores the degree of improvement that can be made in the areas of training, nutrition, and technology.

There is not a single anthropometric or physiological characteristic that is completely uniform across high-level cyclists (65, 111). Those with elite potential tend to have stand-out absolute measurements of aerobic fitness and power, but these are attributes that can also be found in cyclists of lower caliber. Elite riders also possess very high power-to-weigh ratios, typically expressed as watts per kilogram (W/kg). An emerging concept that may also distinguish riders of different caliber is durability, i.e., the point and degree of physiological decline during extended exercise (66, 79, 80). Laboratory measurements of key performance determinants such as power-to-weigh ratio, V̇O2max, cycling economy, critical power, and peak power output provide a detailed physiological profile of each individual rider but cannot accurately predict real-life performance.

Training Strategies

Aided by technology, experience, and insights from a growing body of research, training is more refined, structured, and supervised than before, with most, if not all, training sessions serving a specific purpose. Each rider typically follows an individualized training plan that is carried out under comprehensive monitoring of variables such as heart rate, power output, climate, and terrain. These data, along with laboratory measurements, race outcomes, and even psychological variables, are used to adjust volume, frequency, intensity, and/or modality throughout the season. This allows each rider to absorb as much recoverable training volume as possible to optimize physiological adaptations and peak repeatedly for competition while avoiding overtraining. Whereas virtually every single pedal stroke of the modern rider is quantified and analyzed to guide training, racing, and recovery, riders of the past relied more on “feel”, often opting for subjective rather than objective measurements of output. During the 1987 TdF, Laurent Fignon declared his legs to be “functioning again, more or less”, but did not see the value in monitoring his heart rate, explaining that “I lost my temper with those blasted pulse monitors: I handed mine back so that it wouldn’t tell me anything anymore” (32, p. 182).

Although W/kg is often favored as an indicator of riding capacity and a way to quantify cycling performances, a large V̇O2max has long been considered a basic requirement of entry into the professional peloton. Values reported for GC contenders are generally comparable between generations, with the lowest value found in the most dominant TdF rider of all time, albeit with an asterisk (table 1). There are a few caveats to these numbers, such as the validity of the actual measurement, most of which are not described in the research literature but rather in media. Moreover, oxygen uptake does not increase in proportion to body mass and scaling V̇O2max to whole body mass is thus not appropriate when comparing athletes of different body sizes (71). Although some of these values may be exacerbated by PED use, both the baseline level and plasticity of V̇O2max are under considerable genetic influence (15, 86, 135), and WorldTour levels can be reached without doping in those with sufficient genetic predisposition and appropriate stimulus.

Interestingly, there seems to be a physiological trade-off between efficiency and power, where adaptations towards the latter may attenuate the former (72, 113). This phenomenon was observed in Norwegian cyclist, Oskar Svendsen, who once had the highest V̇O2max ever recorded. Svendsen showed promise early by becoming junior time trial champion with less than three years of training and placing high in Tour de l’Avenir. However, despite an incredible V̇O2max of 96.7 ml/kg/min at 18 years of age, Svendsen never became a WorldTour rider. Although his early retirement at age 20 left his potential at the elite level largely unexplored, the reduction in cycling economy he experienced with increased training load could have been resolved as he matured as a rider, as cyclists appear to become more efficient over the span of their careers with little change in V̇O2max (112). If he remained active, Svendsen may eventually have been able to exploit his incredible baseline to reach the proverbial second speed in the modern peloton without chemical assistance. These insights into Svendsen’s physiological profile not only reveal some of the physiological complexities involved in high-level endurance performance, but also serve as an example of the scientific resources available to modern teams and riders that allows for a level of detail in the assessment and follow-up of athletes never seen before at that level of the sport.

Among the many training-related advances in the modern era is a more systematic approach to altitude training. Altitude-mediated erythropoiesis has long been recognized as an exposure that can produce adaptations that improves performance at sea level, as well as acclimatize athletes to sustain performance in hypobaric conditions. There are several ways to approach altitude training and care should be taken to avoid carrying the detrimental effects of prolonged hypoxic exposure, such as reduced cardiac output (Q̇) due to hypovolemia (117), into competition. Today, professional cycling teams rely on both experience as well as past and emerging research to use altitude as an important preparatory measure in various parts of the season. As the individual responses to hypoxic conditions can vary greatly (93), a large hematological response following real or simulated altitude exposure is an important attribute in modern riders. If done properly, altitude training can induce comparable hematological changes to rHuEPO use (table 2), making it a crucial performance-enhancing strategy in the modern peloton. Increasing [Hb] not only improves V̇O2max by improving the oxygen-carrying capacity of blood (43), it also enables sustained work at a higher fraction of maximal capacity (40) and faster V̇O2 kinetics (18), which can be hugely influential in a peloton with limited interindividual difference in V̇O2max.

A more recent strategy to legally induce hematological adaptations is heat acclimation. Prolonged exposure to heat is associated with both increased plasma volume, which can improve stroke volume and consequently Q̇ and V̇O2max, as well as an expansion of total hemoglobin mass (Hbmass) (91). In fact, light exercise in a heated environment five times per week has been shown to increase Hbmass by 3% – 11% in endurance athletes (90, 103, 107). Due to the logistical challenges and cost related to with altitude camp designs such as live high-train low, heat acclimation training may offer a more accessible strategy for riders and teams with less resources, or an additional stimulus to regular stays at altitude.
The mechanistic similarities between synthetic and natural causes of erythropoiesis makes it physiologically possible to harness the benefits of EPO without doping. Voet (132) recounts that pre-scandal Festina riders did not even bring EPO to altitude camps because it was going to be “useless”. Describing his first stay at altitude, formerly enhanced rider, Thomas Dekker, wrote that “[t]he altitude works its magic: the thin air jolts my body into producing extra red blood cells and the Swiss Tour is the first race in ages where I can stay with the pace on the climbs” (25, p. 135), expressing relief that he could hang with the peloton without PEDs. Michele Ferrari, Lance Armstrong’s coach during the height of his career, argues that the effects of EPO on hemoglobin concentration can be achieved through proper altitude training alone (31).

Every rider in the professional peloton possesses rare abilities as cyclists. Given that the sport selects for individuals with above average baseline values of [Hb] and Hct, it may not take much stimulus to maintain a high level. However, compared to simply administering rHuEPO, strategies such as altitude training and heat acclimation are more complex undertakings, partly because of potential drawbacks with that must be accounted for, such as transiently reduced Q̇ and altered dietary requirements. The financial cost associated with prolonged exposure to altitude and/or heat for a professional team is also a considerable barrier, as the finances of teams can differ greatly. In some cases, PED use might simply just be more practical than legal strategies, and not necessarily more powerful.

Improving oxygen delivery and utilization have been main training targets for cyclists throughout most of its history, while resistance training (RT) has been largely neglected. As the impact of both power output and oxygen consumption on cycling performance is intrinsically related to rider weight, maintaining a low body mass has been, and still is, imperative. However, RT with an emphasis on neural adaptations can substantially improve force-generating capacity and reduce the oxygen cost of exercise in athletes without adding unnecessary bulk (51-53, 140). It also helps maintain bone mineral density, which elite cyclists are prone to lose (48, 110). A recent study found that RT with traditional movements and individualized load improved bone mineral density and endurance performance in professional cyclists (126). Moreover, it appeared to improve strength, power, and body composition to a greater degree than short sprint training, a more traditional power training modality for cyclists, supporting the role of structured RT as a part of a professional cyclists overall training program. Indeed, evidence for the benefit of RT on cycling performance has been mounting over the past years (table 3) (62, 102, 104-106, 108, 109, 120, 131, 141). This has contributed to changing the way RT is perceived and applied in the.

An elite physiology is easier to perturb than improve. At the highest level of cycling, large adaptations to training are unlikely to occur in the short term. The full, natural potential of a rider can only be reached via the cumulative effects of proper training and recovery, both of which are highly dependent on proper fueling.
Nutrition, body composition, and supplementation

In Jørgen Leth’s classic documentary, “A Sunday in Hell”, Roger De Vlaeminck can be seen consuming a plate of meat with his team before setting out to defend his multiple Paris–Roubaix victories from the previous years in the 1976 edition, with the narrator explaining that “a rare steak is a good breakfast for what lies ahead” (67). This is in stark contrast to the low-residue diet often consumed by riders in the modern peloton (39). A low-residue diet is characterized by a very low fiber content, which can reduce rider weight and consequently improve race performance (36). This diet is usually combined with a very high carbohydrate intake throughout a race to ensure constant glucose availability, and the reduced satiety that can be associated with low-residue diets may even help a rider maintain energy intake during a race. The exact amount differs between riders, with numbers around 100 g of carbohydrate per hour being a rough estimate that may be exceeded considerably on hard days. The recognition of the added performance benefit of increased carbohydrate intake has given rise to the concept of gut training for athletes (56, 78). Racing hard for hours on end for multiple consecutive days with limited glucose availability is guaranteed to hamper performance compared to a well-fueled athlete; as red blood cells do not convert to adenosine triphosphate; blood doping cannot replace bioenergetic fuel.

There are some examples of riders that leveraged nutrition to increase their performance throughout history, such as Fausto Coppi (37), but in the modern era, all riders pay attention and have access to both nutritionists and chefs, both of which are roles that have become integral parts of professional teams. Riders also have access to more knowledge and tools, such as food apps powered by machine learning (121). The days of training hard during the day following by alcohol consumption in the evening and racing on the weekends are gone, but were reportedly common until fairly recently (25, 54). The culmination of evidence- and experience-based diets in professional cycling has led to better fueling strategies and lower body mass in the peloton and perhaps especially among the best riders.

Although described as “thin as rakes” (132, p. 63), the riders of the 90s were heavy by today’s standard. Laurent Fignon (32) explains that the importance of power-to-weight ratio did not become known among the riders before the mid-80s and that he, until that point, paid little attention to diet. Looking at the top 10 finishers of the TdF for the past four decades, starting with the latest edition, suggest that it is becoming more and more of a requirement for the overall GC placing (table 4). Notably, between 1992 and 2022, the average BMI of the top 10 decreased by 8.1%. This trend seems to generally hold across all Grand Tours for the past decades (118).

Supplements such as creatine and beta-alanine have been shown to improve endurance performance, including in cycling (7, 12, 21, 49, 127, 128). Creatine was introduced to the peloton in the mid-90s but was very expensive at the time. Riders who had access to it could consume up to 30 g the day before a long time trial or a mountain stage in hopes of a performance boost (132). Creatine and beta-alanine are now both affordable and widely used, alongside other supplements such as caffeine, electrolytes, nitrates, various vitamins, and minerals, as well as macronutrient supplements such as protein and carbohydrate.

In recent years, a lot of attention has been devoted to exogenous ketones. It is a contentious supplement that has been embraced some of the strongest teams while being recommended against by the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) and the Movement for Credible Cycling (MPCC). Ketones, or ketone bodies, are acetyl-CoA-derived metabolites that are produced by the liver under conditions with reduced glucose availability, such as low-carbohydrate diets, fasting, and during or after hard exercise. Ketone bodies such as β-hydroxybutyrate can spare glycogen by inhibiting glycolysis and acting as an alternative fuel in oxidative phosphorylation, which in turn can improve endurance (19). As with the research on other legal and illegal enhancement strategies, the degree to which exogenous ketones translates to improved exercise performance remains to be fully elucidated (24, 92, 94, 96, 125, 139). Although there may be potential drawbacks with isolated ketone supplementation (82), in conjunction with sodium bicarbonate, which is a weak base that has been used for some time in endurance sports (45), ketone supplementation has been shown to improve power output towards the end of a race simulation by 5% (95), although this effect may be unreliable and warrants further study (97).

Much of the hype surrounding some of the proposed effect of ketones as an energy substrate appears unwarranted, but emerging evidence suggest that it may have intriguing properties as a signaling molecule. A few years ago, it was shown that infusion of ketone bodies increased circulating EPO levels in healthy adults (63). The impact of ketones on EPO is supported by the observation that adherence to a ketogenic diet can increase [Hb] and Hct by ~3%, with the caveat this effect is within the biological variation of these markers (83). Recently, Evans et al. (30) found that ingestion of ketone monoester after cycling exercise increased serum EPO concentration, providing further evidence that it may be the signaling effects rather than nutritional value of ketone supplements confers the greatest performance benefit for professional cyclists.

Technology and equipment
Science tends to be reductionistic by necessity, whereas a cycling race is much more open-ended. There is, however, a certain cycling event that is performed in highly controlled conditions and relies heavily on technological advances that can serves as a good example of marginal gains in modern road cycling: the hour record. In 1972, Eddy Merckx, perhaps the greatest cyclist of all time, rode a distance of 49.431 km to set a new hour record for the first time since the 1950s. Twelve years later, Francesco Moser breached 50 km with an effort totaling 51.151 km, aided by disc wheels and a skin suit. The following years would see various innovative approaches by riders such as Graeme Obree and Chris Boardman, until the UCI decided to revise the rules in 1994 and again in 2014 (table 5). To set his records, Boardman worked closely with Brailsford’s predecessor in British Cycling, Peter Keen, and then later with Brailsford himself after his retirement, on what would be the beginning of British riders’ marginal gains on the track and later in the peloton (14).

From Voigt’s first attempt to Ganna’s latest, the modern hour record has been improved by over 11%. Although Ganna is a multiple World Time Trial champion and likely one of the most suitable riders to attempt the record, the last person to hold the record before him was Daniel Bigham, the only rider on the list that was never a WorldTour rider. Although an accomplished cyclist in his own right, Bigham’s record is a prime example of how far and fast you can get by maximizing the margins, with his record being set at an average power output approximately 100 watts less than Wiggins. Bigham himself puts his performance down to 50% physiology and 50% equipment (137). One of the main aspects Bigham exploited was aerodynamics; his coefficient of aerodynamic drag (CdA) was ~0.15, which is considerably below what is commonly seen in cyclists, including professionals (41).

Aerodynamics is not only relevant when riding fast around a velodrome for an hour, but also one of the most important things to consider when trying to ride fast on a bike in general. At a riding speed of about 54 km/h, close to the average on a flat TdF stage, approximately 90% of the total resistance is aerodynamic resistance (13, 44). Most of the resistance is caused by the rider himself, with common estimates ranging from 60-82% (74), and the rest by other factors such as equipment (22, 73, 77). The importance of minimizing CdA underlies much of the development of modern bike frames, wheels, handlebars, helmets, clothing, and more. In recent years, there has been less emphasis from manufacturers on getting their bikes down to the UCI weight limit of 6.8 kg in favor of more aerodynamic optimizations. This approach is supported by findings showing that simply opting for aerodynamic rather than light wheels will reduce climbing time on 3% – 6% grade hills (57). Steeper hills favor lighter wheels and WorldTour riders often make specific selections of wheelset, gear ratio, and even frameset based on race or stage profile. Some teams take it a step further, such as Jumbo-Visma, who use a portable aero sensor to measure exact wind conditions on race day and make equipment selections accordingly (81).

Since the inception of professional cycling there have been numerous technological advances and there is still a steady flow of innovations reaching the peloton. Some of these become widely adopted, such as aero-optimized gear; some are providing new alternatives without replacing old ones, such as tubeless tires (riders still use a variety of tubed, tubeless, and tubular tires); and others are replacing without immediately improving a function, such as disc brakes. Technology has also enabled more extensive monitoring of athletes, both on and more recently off the bike. For instance, several teams are now measuring body temperature and hydration status, and by analyzing the individual sodium composition sweat, can select the appropriate supplementary amount of sodium for each rider. During very hot days, riders are often seen wearing cooling gear to keep body temperature down. This can not only keep the riders comfortable, but may also benefit their performance in the race by lowering thermal strain (75).

Although professional cycling continues to benefit from science, technology, and engineering, the UCI have rules and regulations in place that ensures that cycling does not, for better or worse, stray too far away from its origins. Although these are subject to change based on new developments, they sometimes can become more restrictive, such as the recent ban on handlebars narrower than 350mm. Riders with the ability and resources to combine effective performance strategies from training, nutrition, recovery, and technology – perhaps especially strategies with small effects that are more likely to be ignored by others – may find themselves able to ride at a different speed than the rest of the peloton.

Merging the margins

Imagine a gifted and durable athlete with an exceptional ability to consume oxygen across all intensity domains, maintain a low body mass, effectively utilize lactate, absorb and recover from a high training load without injury or illness, handle training and race nutrition, thermoregulate in various climates, and respond well to altitude and heat exposure finding his or her way into cycling early in life. Suppose this young cyclist learns to maintain an aerodynamic position on the bike, pedal with an efficient cadence, move seamlessly through the peloton, avoid accidents, calmly handle the pressure of competition, and execute winning moves. Professional cycling selects for individuals with supraphysiological potential from environments that have allowed this potential to be expressed. Then, it awards those who have made it to the starting line and are able make as many performance determinants as possible come together on race day.

Increased professionalism at the highest level of the sport trickles down to the amateur and junior ranks, exposing up-and-coming cyclists to favorable conditions at an earlier age, leading to greater improvements in physiology, psychology, and race craft. Some riders may show incredible promise in some aspects of racing and struggle with others. Oskar Svendsen, V̇O2max world record holder, undoubtedly had one of the greatest physiological potentials ever seen in a rider. However, he admittedly also had technical and tactical challenges: “Cycling is a monotonous sport, yet so complex and driven by tactics that you won’t win races unless you deliver on all those qualities. I came into the sport with good physical qualities, but I struggled most with the tactics and patterns. I did learn a lot in my senior years on Team Joker though, even if I still had a long way to go. Descending down hills was also something I struggled a lot with, and it sapped much of my energy in races.” (99) Svendsen’s career serves as an example of how cycling is not only a physiological sport, but also technical, tactical, and psychological. Recently retired rider, Richie Porte, described former TdF GC winners Chris Froome and Tadej Pogačar as “psychological beasts” and noted that cycling has become increasingly scientific, which does not suit all riders (35). Modern riders are more methodical, data driven, and regimented than before. This reduces the human element of the sport, to the dismay of those claiming that this will increase predictability. Some researchers in the field have also warned against measuring just for the sake of measuring, and advise that rider data should serve a specific purpose (55).

The widely established routine of constant fueling during training and racing not only acutely increase work capacity but also improves subsequent recovery by preventing the rider from becoming completely depleted. This is in stark contrast to the days when reaching for your bottle during a hard training ride, even if it only contained water, was considered a weakness. Paul Köchli, former coach of riders such as Bernard Hinault and Greg Lemond, once said that the art of cycling is to do the right thing at the right moment (27). This is true not only in the context of a race, but indeed for the professional cyclist’s career as a whole. The effects of proper training, nutrition, and recovery accumulate not only throughout a season, but a whole career, benefitting those who consistently do the right things from early on.

Conclusion and future perspectives

In some ways, modern approaches to improving cycling performance represent a first principles approach to cycling and a fundamental challenge of conventions, within the rules and regulations of UCI. It seems to have restored some of the faith in the sport that was once lost with various doping scandals. Given the measurable impacts of legal performance-enhancing strategies, many of which were previously unknown or overlooked, it could be argued that combining these effects can bring a clean rider’s performance close to, or even surpass, that of an enhanced cyclist, assuming a gifted baseline and sufficient degree of adaptability.

Suggesting that it is possible to win at the highest level in cycling without the use of PEDs is not the same as claiming that the sport is completely clean. As others have pointed out, periods that have previously been perceived as clean have later been shown to be anything but (26). This paper covers some of the key legal advances in road cycling that has contributed to elite performances in the modern peloton, while at the same time acknowledging that illegal strategies may still be present.

Much of what was once considered “marginal gains” have now become common in all professional cycling teams. This represents a shift from a culture of doping to a culture of exhaustive continuous improvement, a lot of which is kept under wraps and some that may even be considered a grey area. Effective anti-doping measures contribute to a more level playing field, but not entirely level. The teams with the most resources often get the most talented riders, allowing them to combine the greatest potential with the best strategies. And even still, there are some who favor optimizing riders and their equipment for weight rather than aerodynamics, ignoring the latter to the extent that it becomes a considerable detriment. In an era of professional cycling where individual performances are influenced by a multitude of human and nonhuman factors, which in combination can have profound effects, the existence of two-speed cycling in a clean peloton is not only logical – it should be expected.

Acknowledgments

This work was supported by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). The author would like to thank Dr. Endre T. Nesse and Dr. Fabio G. Laginestra for their comments and feedback on the manuscript.

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2024-02-22T11:24:51-06:00February 23rd, 2024|Research, Sport Education, Sport Training, Sports Coaching, Sports Health & Fitness, Sports Medicine, Sports Nutrition|Comments Off on Can there be two speeds in a clean peloton? Performance strategies in modern road cycling

Coach experiences during a pandemic: Navigating change in a challenging environment

Authors: Todd Layne1, Kelly Simonton2, Jamie Brunsdon1, & Marko Pavlovic1

1College of Health Sciences, University of Memphis, Memphis, TN, USA
2Division of Kinesiology and Health, University of Wyoming, Laramie, WY, USA

Corresponding Author:

Todd Layne, PhD
495 Zach Curlin St.
Memphis, TN, 38152
telayne@memphis.edu
901-481-8081

Todd Layne, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Physical Education Teacher Education at the University of Memphis in Memphis, TN. His research program examines the use of the sport education model as well as coaching effectiveness.

Kelly Simonton, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Physical Education Teacher Education at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, WY. His research focus revolves around achievement motivation in physical education and physical activity, specifically as it relates to student and teacher emotions and their motivational effects.

Jamie Brunsdon, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Physical Education Teacher Education at the University of Memphis in Memphis, TN. Dr. Brunsdon’s research interests are largely focused on teacher/faculty socialization and applied ethics.

Coach experiences during a pandemic: Navigating change in a challenging environment

ABSTRACT

The purpose of this study was to understand coaches’ response via their day-to-day experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic from the lens of coaching during the COVID-19 national health pandemic. This study utilized qualitative analysis via two zoom-call recorded interviews. A total of nine current head coaches (middle and high school) of teams that participated in the 2021 spring season were involved. Data were analyzed using standard interpretive techniques. Final analysis resulted in general themes that reflected perceptions of the coaches. Themes included (a) new purpose, (b) extra preparation, (c) mixed emotions, (d) creating connections during isolation, and (e) finding relief in helping hands. Coaches are faced with challenges each season. With the recent COVID-19 pandemic, coaches experienced difficulties never seen before. Coaches learned to adapt and respond to situations with a goal of togetherness as a team and competing again. These experiences will prepare coaches for future unexpected changes that can occur within a typical sport season.

Key words: coach, emotion, COVID-19 pandemic

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2024-01-29T14:58:05-06:00November 10th, 2023|Research, Sport Education|Comments Off on Coach experiences during a pandemic: Navigating change in a challenging environment

The role of coach education in coaching philosophy development and implementation: A dual case study

Authors: Kim Ferner1, Lindsay Ross-Stewart2, and Drew Dueck2

1Department of Educational Psychology, University of North Texas

2Department of Applied Health, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville

Corresponding Author:

Kim Ferner, MS
1155 Union Circle #310769
Denton, TX 76203-5017
Kimberly.Ferner@unt.edu
843-331-2876

Kim Ferner, MS is currently faculty and a Psychosocial Aspects of Sport doctoral student at the University of North Texas in Denton, TX. Her research area includes coach education, coaching philosophy, and coach expectations of sport psychology services.


Lindsay Ross-Stewart, PhD, CMPC® is an Associate Professor in the Department of Applied Health at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville in Edwardsville, IL. Her research area includes a focus on sources of efficacy for athletes, including the impact of coaches on athlete development.


Drew Dueck, MS is a recent graduate from the Exercise and Sport Psychology graduate program at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. He is a track and field coach who is interested in coaching philosophy development, leadership, confidence, and motivation.

The role of coach education in coaching philosophy development and implementation: A dual case study

ABSTRACT

Developing a coaching philosophy (CP) is important due to the influence coaches have in creating positive sport environments for their athletes. Despite the numerous benefits identified in literature for developing a CP, limited research exists on whether coaches implement their philosophies, which has created a gap in the coaching literature. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to explore coaches’ perceptions of their coach education (CE) experiences and the influence this has had on their CP development and implementation. A secondary purpose was to understand athletes’ perceptions of their head coach’s CP through their experiences with their coach. A case study methodology, which is useful when exploring experiences and perceptions, was employed for this study. Two NCAA head coaches—one female and one male, along with two athletes from each coach’s team, were recruited for this study. The researcher conducted a semi-structured interview with each participant and examined the data with thematic analysis. The current study identified four themes: Comprehension of CP, Influences on CP, Communication of CP, and Coaching Goals. A discrepancy between CP theory and practice was observed via the disconnect in athlete and coach responses. Coaches’ reported experiences with CE were also found to impact their CP development and implementation. These findings indicate having a well-developed CP and positive CE experiences may lead to athletes having a better understanding of their coach, which may lead to a more positive sport experience. This study may be of use to coaches and coach educators interested in CPs and highlights the need for future research with larger, more inclusive samples.

Key Words: coach development, coach perceptions, athlete perceptions

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2023-08-09T11:13:25-05:00August 9th, 2023|Research, Sport Education|Comments Off on The role of coach education in coaching philosophy development and implementation: A dual case study

Strength and Conditioning Practices among NCAA Place-Kickers

Authors: Dr. James A. Reid1, Todd Schaneville2, and Trey Schaneville3

1Assistant Professor of Physical Education, Tuskegee University, Tuskegee, AL, USA
2Physical Educator and Coach, Brevard Public Schools, Viera, FL, USA
3Graduate Student-Athlete, Appalachian State University, Boone, NC, USA

Corresponding Author:

James A. Reid, DA, NSCA, CSCS and CPT
509 Greentree Ter
Auburn, Alabama 36832
jreid@tuskegee.edu
256-690-3581

University. Dr. Reid has been teaching exercise science and physical education in higher education since 2001. Dr. Reid was a place-kicker and punter at Tulane University and Auburn University. He played three years of semi-professional football as well. While serving as Assistant Professor in the Department of Health and Human Performance at the University of Tennessee at Martin, he served as a volunteer kicking coach for the football team. Dr. Reid also has worked as a kicking coach with Feely Kicking School in Tampa, Florida.

Strength and Conditioning Practices among NCAA Place-Kickers

ABSTRACT

The purpose of this study was to examine the strength and conditioning practices of NCAA Division I and II starting place-kickers. The hope is that this information will be valuable to football coaches and strength and conditioning professionals who oversee the offseason regiments of kickers. The researchers investigated the strength and conditioning practices over nine different categories of exercises. The instrumentation used was a survey, and the subjects were fifteen starting NCAA place-kickers at the Division I and II levels. The survey format was divided into nine sections, and respondents were asked to indicate any exercise from a list that the athlete performs regularly during off-season training. The findings from this research study show that there are a few exercise categories that seem to be used more frequently than others and that certain exercises provide greater benefits to a place-kicker’s performance. One hundred percent of respondents reported that they utilize the following exercise categories: core strength and endurance, assistance strength and endurance, power lifts, speed and agility, and flexibility. However, for place-kickers, flexibility and plyometric exercises seem to be the most beneficial for this specific type of athlete. This is most likely due to their need for explosive strength and power, as well as improved range of motion during kicking.

Key Words: flexibility, endurance, plyometrics, power, aerobic, strength, core

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2023-03-24T17:44:41-05:00March 24th, 2023|Research, Sport Education, Sport Training, Sports Exercise Science|Comments Off on Strength and Conditioning Practices among NCAA Place-Kickers
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