Athletes, both professional and amateur, as well as the general public are convinced that human growth hormone (HGH) , Erythropoietin (EPO) and anabolic-androgenic steroids (AAS) are all artificial and controversial paths to improved performance in sports. The recent headlines that have included Barry Bonds, Marion Jones, Floyd Landis, Dwayne Chambers, Jose Canseco, Jason Giambi, Roger Clemens and many lesser known names (see the amazingly long list of doping cases in sport ) have referred to these three substances interchangeably leaving the public confused about who took what from whom. With so many athletes willing to gamble with their futures, they must be confident that they will see significant short-term results. So, is it worth the risk? Two very interesting recent studies provide some answers on at least one of the substances, HGH.
A team at the Stanford University School of Medicine, led by Hau Liu MD , recently reviewed 27 historical studies on the effects of HGH on athletic performance, dating back to 1966 (see reference below). They wanted to see if there were any definitive links between HGH use and improved results. In some of the studies, test volunteers who received HGH did develop more lean body mass, but also developed more lactate during aerobic testing which inhibited rather than helped performance. While their muscle mass increased, other markers of athletic fitness, such as VO2max remained unchanged. The key takeaway is that we dont have any good scientific evidence that growth hormone improves athletic performance, said senior author Andrew Hoffman, MD , professor of endocrinology, gerontology and metabolism.
Both Liu and Hoffman cautioned that the amounts of HGH given to these test subjects may be much lower than the the purported levels claimed to be taken by professional athletes. They also pointed out that at a professional level, a very slight improvement might be all that is necessary to get an edge of your opponent. Hoffman also added an insightful comment, So much of athletic performance at the professional level is psychological. If an athlete takes HGH, sees some muscle mass growth and isn't 100% sure of its performance capabilities, might he assume he now has other "Superman" powers?
That is exactly the premise that a research team from Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney, Australia used to find out if HGH users simply relied on a placebo effect. Sixty-four participants, young adult recreational athletes, were divided into two groups of 32 and tested for a baseline of athletic ability in endurance, strength, power and sprinting. One group received growth hormone and the other group received a simple placebo. It was a "double-blind" study in that neither the participants nor the researchers knew during the testing which substance each group received.
At the end of the 8 week treatment, the athletes were asked if they thought they were in the HGH group or the placebo group. Half of the group that had received the placebo incorrectly guessed that they were on HGH. Not too surprisingly, the majority of the "incorrect guessers" were men. Here's where it gets interesting. The incorrect guessers also thought that their athletic abilities had improved over the 8 week period. The team retested all of the placebo group and actually did find improvement across all of the tests, but only significantly in the high-jump test. Jennifer Hansen, a nurse researcher and Dr. Ken Ho, head of the pituitary research unit at Garvan have not released the data on the group that did receive the HGH, but they will in their final report coming soon.
So, let's recap. On the one hand, we have a research review that claims there is not yet any scientific evidence that HGH actually improves sports performance. Yet, we have hundreds, if not thousands, of athletes illegally using HGH for performance gain. Showing the effect of the "if its good enough for them, its good enough for me" beliefs of the public regarding professional athlete use of HGH, we now have research that shows even those who received a placebo, but believed they were taking HGH not only thought they were improving but actually did improve a little. Once again, we see the power of our own natural, non-supplemented brain to convince (or fool) ourselves to perform at higher levels than we thought possible.
Visit any youth soccer field, baseball diamond, basketball court or football field and you will likely see them: parents behaving badly. Take a look at this Good Morning America report:
These are the extremes, but at most games, you can find at least one adult making comments at the referee, shouting at their child, or having a verbal exchange with another parent. Thankfully, these parents represent only a small percentage of those attending the game. Does that mean the others don't become upset at something during the game? Usually not, as there are lots of opportunities to dispute a bad call or observe rough play or react to one of these loud parents. The difference is in our basic personality psyche, according to Jay Goldstein, a kinesiology doctoral student at the University of Maryland School of Public Health . His thesis, recently published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology (see reference below), hypothesized that a parent with "control-oriented" personality would react to events at a game more than a parent with an "autonomy-oriented" personality.
According to Goldstein, defending our ego is what usually gets us in trouble when we feel insulted or take something personally. At youth sports games, we transfer this pride to our kids, so if someone threatens their success on the field, we often take it personally. The control-oriented parent is more likely to react with a verbal or sometimes physical response, while an autonomy-oriented parent is better able to internalize and maintain their emotions. This "control" vs. "autonomy" comparison has also been seen in research on "road rage", when drivers react violently to another driver's actions. Goldstein and his team focused their research on suburban Washington soccer parents back in 2004. They designed a survey for parents to fill out prior to watching a youth soccer game that would help categorize them as control or autonomy-oriented. Immediately after the game ended, another survey was given to the parents that asked about any incidents during the game that made them angry on a scale of 1, slightly angry, to 7, furious. They were also asked what action they took when they were angry. Choices included "did nothing" to more aggressive acts like walking towards the field and/or yelling or confronting either the referee, their own child, or another player/parent. 53% of the 340 parents surveyed reported getting angry at something during the game, while about 40% reported doing something about their anger. There was a direct and significant correlation between control-oriented parents, as identified in the pre-game survey, and the level of angry actions they took during the game. Autonomy-oriented parents still got mad, but reported less aggressive reactions. As Goldstein notes, Regardless of their personality type, all parents were susceptible to becoming more aggressive as a result of viewing actions on the field as affronts to them or their kids. However, that being said, it took autonomy-oriented parents longer to get there as compared to the control-oriented parents. So, now that we know the rather obvious conclusion that parents who yell at other motorists are also likely to yell at referees, what can we do about it? Goldstein sees this study as a first step. He hopes to study a wider cross-section of sports and socio-economic populations. Many youth sports organizations require parents to sign a pre-season "reminder" code of conduct, but those are often forgotten in the heat of the battle on the field. Maybe by offering the same type of personality survey prior to the season, the "control-oriented" parents can be offered resources to help them manage their tempers and reactions during a game. Since referees were the number one source of frustration reported by parents, two solutions are being explored by many organizations; more thorough referee training and quality control while also better training of parents on the rules of the game which often cause the confusion. Sports contests will always be emotional, from kids' games all the way up to professionals. Keeping the games in perspective and our reactions positive are tough things to do but when it comes to our kids, it is required.
Goldstein, J.D., Iso-Ahola, S.E. (2008). Determinants of Parents' Sideline-Rage Emotions and Behaviors at Youth Soccer Games. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 38(6), 1442-1462. DOI: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.2008.00355.x</span>
!http://bp1.blogger.com/_3b3RMRFwqU0/SHow_OmdEqI/AAAAAAAAAXU/0QZneKnbrAQ/s320-R/beane.jpg|style=border: 0pt none ;|src=http://bp1.blogger.com/_3b3RMRFwqU0/SHow_OmdEqI/AAAAAAAAAXU/0QZneKnbrAQ/s320-R/beane.jpg!Most baseball general managers live in obscurity most of their careers. Its their first hire, the manager, that usually gets the red hot spotlight, after every win and loss, second-guessed by reporters with recorders and then later by fans. The GM puts the players on the field and lets the manager and his coaches take it from there. Billy Beane , Oakland A's general manager, could have also been an unknown, albeit interesting, name to the baseball audience if it were not for author Michael Lewis' 2003 book, Moneyball . Moneyball was a runaway hit (even today, 5 years later, it is #19 on Amazon's list of baseball books). It has morphed into a full-fledged catchphrase philosophy used by everyone from Wall Street (where Beane borrowed the concept) to business consulting. The general theme is to find undervalued assets (ballplayers) by focusing on statistics that your competition is ignoring. Of course, you have to believe in your metrics and their predictive value for success (why has everyone else ignored these stats?) The source of most of Beane's buried treasure of stats was Bill James and his Sabrmetrics. Like picking undervalued stocks of soon to explode companies, Beane looked for the diamond in the dust (pun intended) and sign the player while no one was looking. Constrained by his "small-market" team revenues, or maybe by his owners' crowbar-proof wallets, he needed to make the most from every dollar.
The combination of a GM's shrewd player selection and a manager who can develop that talent should reward the owner with the best of both worlds: an inexpensive team that wins. This salary vs. performance metric is captured perfectly in this "real-time" graphic at BenFry.com . It connects the updated win-loss record for each MLB team with its payroll to show the "bang for the buck" that the GMs/managers are getting from their players. Compare the steep negative relationship for the Mets, Yankees, Tigers and Mariners with the amazing results of the Rays, Twins and Beane's own A's. While the critics of Moneyball tactics would rightly point to the A's lack of a World Series win or even appearance, the "wins to wages" ratio has not only kept Beane in a job but given him part ownership in the A's and now the newly resurrected San Jose Earthquakes of soccer's MLS. Beane believes the same search for meaningful and undiscovered metrics in soccer can give the Quakes the same arbitrage advantage. In fact, there are rumours that he will focus full-time on conquering soccer as he knows there are much bigger opportunities worldwide if he can prove his methods within MLS.
In baseball, Beane relied on the uber-stat guru, Bill James, for creative and more relevant statistical slices of the game. In soccer, he is working with some top clubs including his new favorite, Tottenham-Hotspur, of the English Premier League. While he respects the history and tradition of the game, he is confident that his search for a competitive advantage will uncover hidden talents. Analytical tools from companies such as Opta in Europe and Match Analysis in the U.S. have combined video with detailed stat breakdowns of every touch of the ball for every player in each game. Finding the right pattern and determinant of success has become the key, according to Match Analysis president Mark Brunkhart as quoted earlier this year , "You don't need statistics to spot the real great players or the really bad ones. The trick is to take the players between those two extremes and identify which are the best ones. If all you do is buy the players that everyone else wants to buy then you will end up paying top dollar. But if you take Beane's approach - to use a disciplined statistical process to influence the selection of players who will bring the most value - then you are giving yourself the best chance of success. Who would not want to do that?"
Not to feel left out (or safe from scrutiny), the NBA now has its own sport-specific zealots. The [Association for Professional Basketball Research (APBR) | http://apbr.org/] devotes its members time and research to finding the same type of meaningful stats that have been ignored by players, coaches and fans. They, too, have their own Moneyball-bible, "The Wages of Wins " by David Berri, Martin Schmidt, and Stacey Brook. David Berri's [WoW journal/blog | http://dberri.wordpress.com/] regularly posts updates and stories related to the current NBA season and some very intriguing analysis of its players and the value of their contributions. None other than Malcolm Gladwell, of Tipping Point and Blink fame, provided the [review of Wages of Wins for the New Yorker | http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2006/05/29/060529crbo_books1]. One of the main stats used is something called a player's "Win Score" which attempts to measure the complete player, not just points, rebounds and assists.
WS is then adjusted for minutes played with the stat, WS48. Of course, different player positions will have different responsibilities, so to compare players of different positions the Position Adjusted Win Score per 48 minutes or PAWS48 is calculated as: WS48 Average WS48 at primary position played. This allows an apples to apples comparison between players at a position, and a reasonable comparison of players' values across positions. Berri's latest article looks at the fascination with Michael Beasley and some early comparisons in the Orlando Summer League.
Will these statistics-based approaches to player evaluation be accepted by the "establishment"? Judging by the growing number of young, MBA-educated GMs in sports, there is a movement towards more efficient and objective selection criteria. Just as we saw in previous evidence-based coaching articles , the evidence-based general manager is here to stay.
"The baseball looked like a beach ball up there today"
On a bad day:
"The hole was as small as a thimble"
"I don't know, it looked like he was throwing marbles"
The baseball and the golf hole are the same size every day, so are these comments meaningless or do we really perceive these objects differently depending on the day's performance? And, does our performance influence our perception or does our perception help our performance?
Fast forward to July, 2008 and Witt and her team have just released a very similar study focused on golf, "[Putting to a bigger hole: Golf performance relates to perceived size | http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/psocpubs/pbr/2008/00000015/00000003/art00013]". Using the same experiment format, players who had just finished a round of golf were asked to pick out the perceived size of the hole from a collection of holes that varied in diameter by a few centimeters. Once again, the players who had scored well that day picked the larger holes and vice versa for that day's hackers. So, the team came to the same conclusion that there is some relationship between perception and performance, but could not figure out the direction of the effect. Ideally, a player could "imagine" a larger hole and then play better because of that visual cue.
Researchers at Vanderbilt University may have the answer. In a study, "[The Functional Impact of Mental Imagery on Conscious Perception | http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2008.05.048]", the team led by Joel Pearson, wanted to see what influence our "Mind's Eye" has on our actual perception. In their experiment, they asked volunteers to imagine simple patterns of vertical or horizontal stripes. Then, they showed each person a pattern of green horizontal stripes in one eye and red vertical stripes in the other eye. This would induce what is known as the "binocular rivalry" condition where each image would fight for control of perception and would appear to alternate from one to the other. In this experiment, however, the subjects reported seeing the image they had first imagined more often. So, if they had imagined vertical stripes originally, they would report seeing the red vertical stripes predominantly.
The team concluded that mental imagery does have an influence over what is later seen. They also believe that the brain actually processes imagined mental images the same way it handles actual scenes. "More recently, with advances in human brain imaging, we now know that when you imagine something parts of the visual brain do light up and you see activity there," Pearson says. "So there's more and more evidence suggesting that there is a huge overlap between mental imagery and seeing the same thing. Our work shows that not only are imagery and vision related, but imagery directly influences what we see."
So, back to our sports example, if we were able to imagine a large golf hole or a huge baseball, this might affect our actual perception of the real thing and increase our performance. This link has not been tested, but its a step in the right direction. Another open question is the effect that our emotions and confidence have on our perceived task. That hole may look like the Grand Canyon, but the sand trap might look like the Sahara Desert!
A Look Inside the Mind of the Athlete - You can find a mix of sport science, cognitive science, coaching and performance stories here as I focus on the "thinking" side of sports. My "home" is at http://blog.80percentmental.com. Thanks for stopping by!