In this article we chat with Sports Scientist and Strength and Conditioning Coach, Lorena Torres (@lorenatorres07). Currently, she is working in the NBA as an Applied Sport Scientist, Research and Development Coordinator in San Antonio. Our discussion includes lessons from working across different sports, mixing applied practice with academia, challenges in implementing technology, and designing infographics.
Firstly Lorena can you tell us about your background…
First of all, thanks Sports Discovery and Jo for your interest in my profile and my work.
I got my Bachelor degree in Sport Science and Physical Education in Barcelona (2003). Straight after I completed my degree, I got my first job as a strength and conditioning coach in one of the Olympic Training Centers in Spain (Sant Cugat, Barcelona), with the tennis teams and collaborating with the Spanish Tennis Federation. I had no previous experience in tennis, but I was very lucky to have a great mentor as a boss and be surrounded by some of the best players in Spain that at that time were training there.
After that first season, I started working with my first professional athlete, a woman competing in the WTA Tour (top 100). A couple of years later she wanted to take a break, and I got the opportunity to work with golfers, in the same facilities, and I decided to give it a try. I worked with golfers for 6 years, amateurs (Catalonian Federation) and professionals (Challenge Tour, European Tour). During that period, I completed my first Masters and I decided to do my PhD. Once I finished it, my career turned a bit towards academia, giving lectures at the University, and starting to be more involved in research projects. Simultaneously, I left the golf environment and started to work at F.C. Barcelona with the basketball academy, where I worked for 4 seasons.
In 2012, after the Olympics in London (UK), the Spanish Swimming Federation contacted me to work with the synchronized swimmers for the World Championship in 2013, and potentially for the Olympics. This meant being able to work with one of the best synchronized swimmers in the history of this sport and one of the best athletes in my country, and I started to work with them. Three years ago (in 2015), I moved to the US, and since then, I’ve been working in basketball again, this time in an NBA organization, where my role is focussed on sport science, while still giving support to different performance areas (S&C, recovery, nutrition, technology implementation, research and development, etc.).
What have you learned from working in a variety of different sports?
I’ve certainly been working in very different sports! Most of the time with really good athletes, at a high level. I think it is very important to know the sport in which you work very well. Very important. I learned it at the very beginning of my career, when I started to work in tennis in which, again, I had zero previous experience (I was a synchronized swimmer as an athlete). I’ve always tried to learn as much as possible about every sport I’ve been involved in and not only by reading papers, but also being at the practice sessions, talking to the coaches, asking questions, feeling the culture of the sport, practicing the sport, taking classes etc. I think that if you have been an athlete/player in a particular sport and you end up working in it, it gives you certain advantages, you can become a super-specialist in a particular sport. There are some situations where it can help too, for example, if you have to talk to the athletes and/or coaches about certain topics, you could have more credibility a priori.
However, I also think that working in different sports gives you the opportunity to be more open-minded and to take the best things of every sport and create your own identity/program. For example, during my time with the golfers I learned a lot about mobility, injury prevention, postural work, and mental training, and I had to develop my skills in convincing them to take care of their body and fitness. From the synchronize swimming environment, I took a lot of values: the passion in what you do, the tenacity, the constancy, the effort and dedication, the scarify, the creativity process, the sense of beauty, and the striving for perfection. Also, I learned a lot about some injuries, as well as the potential of the water as a training resource, for recovery or return to play, for example. From my time in Spain involved in team sports I learned a methodology. I think in Spain we have outstanding and world class professionals in team sports, coaching, physiotherapy, S&C, etc. I had the opportunity to learn from different philosophies, systems and methodologies there.
The same applies when working with different professionals and specialists that follow different training philosophies or principles. For example, in Barcelona I learned a lot about inertial technology and tracking power during strength training, and from my PhD supervisor (Seville) I learned a lot about VBT (velocity based training) and tracking velocity during strength training. From some coaches and S&C coaches from Spain, I learned how the PLAYER’s needs drive the program and the sport-specificity determines the steps to follow, or the importance of the integration of S&C work on the field (integrative approach; some reference in this regard, https://bit.ly/2FivKON, https://bit.ly/1h06URT).
I’ve always been aware that the athletes/players are the most important piece of the puzzle when it comes to performance. No matter the sport in which you work. However, you have to keep it in mind even more when you work at the highest level with top level athletes. We (sport scientist, S&C, and coaches alike) are there to support them and the system (coaches, team, club, organization, etc.). The fancy metrics, the papers you write, the people you know, the sport you come from, etc., will not matter if you are not able to help them make informed decisions and be better at what they do.
As you described earlier, your experiences are a mixture of research and applied practice. What do you think practitioners can learn from being involved in academia?
Undergoing the full process of doing a PhD or a dissertation, gives you a system, in this case the scientific method: “an orderly series of procedures to observe the extension of our knowledge”. There are different models of the scientific method, but in a brief and simplistic way, this series of procedures involves asking a question, doing background research, constructing a hypothesis, testing the hypothesis with an experiment, analyzing the data, drawing conclusions, and communicating results. In this scenario, you have time; time to study, do the literature review, to collect the data, to process the information and analyze it, to write, time until the paper is accepted… You do not have that privilege in the applied world; or probably not as a part of your -urgent, daily duties. Further, the experimental conditions to conduct a proper research study are rarely possible in the applied world.
On the other hand, traditionally, many disciplines in science have been looking at things in a linear analytical fashion, in order to search for a cause-effect relationship from a mono-disciplinary approach and a reductionist point of view. This approach obviously has provided evolution in knowledge, but things are often more interdependent that independent, including the study of the human being and its performance. We have been seeing for some time now that scientific disciplines are collaborating and being inclusive to try to explain phenomena, moving from deconstruction of elements to analysis of interactions and dynamics. These two facts, be systematic and examine individual events, have positive aspects in the applied world, but it also can be negative if you are not open minded and flexible to adapt, and you only look at individual events, since most of the time the explanation of the reality is complex.
As we (professional teams, clubs, and federations alike) do not have time (priority duties), I think we could have a great advantage by building relationship with universities or other parties to evolve the knowledge of certain aspects of performance (mid and long-term responsibilities), and to try to bridge the gap between academia and the applied world, recognizing the need for transdisciplinary teams of expertise. Additionally, we work with a very exclusive percentage of the population: the elite, in a unique context. Trying to explain phenomena with a different population, in a different context, will not always give satisfactory answers to our questions. This is probably part of the reason why empiricism has been very present in the evolution of knowledge in sports. As for the athletes, they are case studies, and as for the groups (the team) they are ecosystems; thus, they should be understood as such.
You published a paper entitled “Critical Process for the Implementation of Technology in Sports Organizations”. What do you think are the greatest challenges facing sports practitioners in relation to technology?
Well, as we start in the paper; “the impact that technology has today and will have in the future in sports is unquestionable”. The use of the right technology, in the right way, can be a game changer and truly impact performance and success. Some organizations want to strive to be on the cutting-edge of new ideas and progress and be leaders in innovation and taking advantage of it, from the macro-structure (i.e. facilities) to the micro-structure point of view (e.g. tracking players’ fitness, readiness and fatigue using wearables and gadgets). Considering the way we adopt “new” technology nowadays (Figure. Technology Adaptation Curve), not only in sports, but in general, we are facing new challenges too. In the paper we try to share our opinion on some of them or at least some that we have experienced.
In my opinion, having a method to try to be systematic can help to be successful when implementing technology in your program. A road map that could be of help would be:
i. Recognizing needs; what happens sometimes is that, because we are in such a competitive environment, we see a successful organization using a certain technology so we incorporate it in our program only because of that reason, without a proper critical assessment of the technology from our end (influence vs interest). As a sport scientist, an important part of our job is analyzing key performance indicators, profiling and monitoring athletes/players, developing and/or optimizing performance, as well as giving support to others (performance and coaching staff) and provide information to make informed decisions. Technology can be a great resource in all of them but has to be the right one for OUR CONTEXT.
ii. Searching for potential solutions & iii) Identification of suitable innovations; I’d recommend doing a research process every time we want to address one question with the use of technology. For example, we want to track velocity during the strength sessions to be able to have an objective measure of the performance and/or to be able to provide real-time feedback; we should know all the options out there (e.g., Velocity Based Training devices, see figure below), compare technologies, analyze the accuracy (precision, resolution, reliability, etc.) and the quality of the data (evidence, effectiveness, etc.), the practicability (portable, permanent, etc.), potential buy-in from athletes and the staff, how accessible is the data (data management), cost:benefit ratio… It is time consuming, yes, but this analysis will give you stronger arguments to your final decision [iv) Proposing some for adoption].
Velocity Based Training Devices: What is currently in the market?
Slides I & II (from previous twits) pic.twitter.com/O3aM0OjgL6
— Lorena Torres (@lorenatorres07) 29 June 2018
Furthermore, we have to keep in mind that it will be the athletes who will be measured, so technology must be athlete/player friendly, and not overwhelming. Just because we can afford a lot of tools does not mean that we have to implement them if they are not adding value to our program or the performance; if they don’t want to use it, there will be no data to analyze. Likewise, I think it is key to make sure that they can have access to their data, because it is theirs, anytime they request it and in a way they can interpret and use, if we really want the technology to have an impact.
One of the greatest challenges is data management, data analysis and data delivery. Related with the validation of technology, we have to analyze the data we are getting from it (data quality); also, where are we going to store all that data, process it, and analyze it is key. With the amount of data that we can access now, and the shift to a more holistic approach from an analysis point of view (data mining), I think that the use of data management software and programming language software are becoming a critical piece of our daily work, whether it is used by us or by specialists who can support us. And finally, how we are going to communicate results, and for this step, develop and optimize visualization skills is something to consider too.
You have put together some infographics that have become very popular on social media, such as monitoring and profiling, supplements, and recovery methods and the timeline. What is your process for putting these together and why did you set out to create them?
Mainly because three reasons: first, because I want to organize certain information in a way that works for me, which usually is compacted in one or a few slides in a visual way (at least for me). Second, because I want to learn about a certain topic, I read a paper or I look for information and, again, I want to organize the information in a visual way where I can have it in a quick snapshot. And finally, because I want to share the information with others; a player, an athlete, a colleague…
Most of the time I do it in PowerPoint; it works for me and is easy and quick. Then, I try to keep in mind some “rules”: it has to be visual, clean, self-explanatory, keeping as much as possible the same style across them…
What are you personally interested in developing at the moment?
I’m currently working on internal research projects for my organization, mainly related to technology; from internal validation of “new” technologies and how is best to implement and integrate them in our program, to ways to analyze the data, for example, trying to answer questions like can we find better metrics to describe performance? Which are the best metric combinations to assess key performance indicators, a player’s fitness, readiness and/or fatigue?
Simultaneously, I’m personally interested in developing my analytical skills with a programming language software that I’m learning now. Finally, I’m also involved in a new project that is very exciting to me, and that I hope I can share soon!
Finally, what advice do you have for young practitioners trying to break into the field?
I would not call them “advice”, but these are things that might be worth it to keep in mind…
Do not rush the process. It will come, if it has to, but keep moving forward.
Look for mentors, people that inspires you. Learn from the best and create your own “You”.
Keep learning. Stay up to date. Read, and read things outside sport science-strength-conditioning-sport related field. I think there are some really interesting podcast, videos, etc., out there too.
Be open-minded and flexible.
Accept praise with respect and humility.
You can be humble and assertive at the same time.
Be prepared to adapt. To a different sport, environment, people, behaviors…
Travel when/if possible, to meet other colleagues, chat and share experiences and knowledge.
Life has an unfair side, count on it.
It is rewarding to collect the fruits of the seeds you have sown; but not always what is sown is collected.
When you lack motivation, rely on responsibility.
If things do not go as you expect, look for small motivations or set goals that motivate you, projects or personal challenges that can help you to be a better professional.
When ‘they’ don’t believe in you, keep believing in yourself.