Cargo Cult Coaching

Cargo Cult Coaching

Imitation may be the greatest form of flattery but is it best practice for coaching?

In the digital age we are able to gain an ever increasing volume and closer insight in to elite sport performance and coaching but are we seeing the full picture?

Too often coaches glimpse the use of a piece of technology, tactic or methodology and try to implement it themselves using the logic that “If its good enough for an elite team then it must be good for us!” only to find the magic bullet does nothing for the performance of their athletes at best and at worst actually causes a deterioration.

Richard Feynman gave an excellent address to the students graduating from the California Institute of Technology in 1974 (click here for the full speech) in which he coined the term “Cargo Cult Science” to describe practices that have the semblance of being scientific but which do not actually follow the scientific method.

His analogy was based on the cults and religions which had formed among indigenous tribes on Islands in the Pacific Ocean following the Second World War.

Allied and Japanese forces had used the Islands as staging posts for supplying their war efforts and installed various airstrips and bases which brought in cargo loads of vehicles, food, clothing and all manner of goods which many of the troops shared with the tribes. When the war was over the bases and airstrips were dismantled and the cargo drops ceased.

The tribes believed that the airplanes were angels sent by deities and mimicking the behaviour and lifestyle of the troops would summon the angels to bring more cargo to them. The tribes built replica planes, air traffic control towers, even headphones from bamboo whilst performing parade ground drills, lighting fires and waving landing signals.


Feynman explains:

They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.

I think this applies equally to coaching. I have witnessed various coaches mimicking behaviours of elite teams and athletes with no attempt at critical thinking or evaluating the relevance to their situation.

I have seen a coach trying to use a strike move because they saw England score a try from it the previous weekend in the Six Nations despite the fact their team played at an amateur level and could not accurately pass over 10 yards let alone the 20 yards at full speed that the move required!

Pre-season is especially littered with coaches blindly trying to run strongman circuits, shuttle runs, conditioned games and ladder drills purely because they saw a professional team using it on YouTube. Unsurprisingly the athletes are often unable to complete the sessions and are lying in a heap at the end but is it improving their performance?

This is not limited to the lower levels of sport. Fergus Connolly talks of a European professional football club that he recommended stop using GPS as they were not using the information properly, they were merely following other clubs lead. Liverpool FC scaled back their readiness monitoring program when they realised the Head Coach was not using the information to select players (i.e. selecting players despite the monitoring telling him they were fatigued).

This isn’t to say coaches should not be looking at the methods used by others just that they must adapt them to suit their own situation. Are the exercises suitable to the phase of training you are in (General or Specific Preparation)? Are the sets, reps and rest periods appropriate? Are your athletes capable of working at that intensity level? And so on and so on. All ultimately leading to the question of whether the method or gadget will have a positive impact on the team or athlete’s performance?

These coaches are in an excellent position to evaluate the current strength and weaknesses of their own teams and athletes, the demands of the sport at their level (and the level above if that is their aim) and how best to achieve their aims. If they took even 10 minutes to ask the right questions of a tactic, gadget or methodology they could save themselves and their athlete much wasted time, money and effort.

Former National Coach Kelvin Giles has a good way of summing this up

Kelvin Giles


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