Notes From: Kitman Labs 2018 European Performance Summit

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Notes From: Kitman Labs 2018 European Performance Summit

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This Notes From article is brought to you by Jake Schuster (@CoolHandJakeGS). Jake is the Strength and Speed Coach for Florida State University Track and Field. Jake also hosts the Voyager Sport podcast, which you can find here and on iTunes.  


Kitman Labs (@KitmanLabs) hosted their 2018 European Performance Summit at Tobacco Docks in London on February 27th with the theme of Redefining Performance.


Darren Burgess (@darrenburgess25)

Darren Burgess kicked the event off with Lessons Learned From Developing High Performance Programs Around The Globe. Burgo shared themes and keys to success from his work with the Socceroos, Liverpool, Port Adelaide and Arsenal. He did a great job of bridging together a rapid-fire series of points with telling a concise story of his learnings from an incredible career to this point. Much was made of our role and how much we can and should control, evolving from the ‘best-practice’ or ‘optimal’ scenario to realistic and feasible solutions. This I believe is a major theme at the moment as many either are bulldogs seeking the optimal or jaded sitting back and surrendering to situational constraints. Burgo has taken the tough middle ground and found huge success.


Two stories from the talk stood out to me: First was of his first week at Liverpool when Spanish athletes changed the dinner time, not caring for the ‘optimal’ time to eat but rather what fit their culture, and how pivoting this led to a more positive culture especially when on the road. Secondly, an athlete during hamstring return to play exceeding his safe intended load by halftime of a first game back, with the choice being made to not risk wrath of the team manager in demanding that the player be substituted off resulting in a re-injury. For me, the story itself was less important than the knowledge that even the very best deal with the exact same challenges and tough in-the-heat-of-the-moment decisions that we all do!!


Major takeaways:

— Fitness can’t win you championships but it can lose them

— Fascicle lengths matter. Athletes with very long fascicles do not get HSI. Stay out of the quadrant of doom!

— Zone six (>90% vMax) running often a false flag/strawman for injury prevention arguments but two different three-year datasets in two different sports indicate more zone six running took place in weeks preceding wins than weeks preceding losses!

— Field sport athletes are neither sprinters nor bodybuilders. We should not train towards goals reflected by such measurements. Adding #s on a squat is only adding #s on a squat! Training sprinting mechanics is NOT more valuable than training sport skills!

— Our job is to deliver maximum possible sport skill training availability/opportunity

— Be specific to the sport!!

— Check out Cirque de Soleil for human strength. Strength applications are specific. Fernando Torres rarely lifted weights historically but aced strength tests!


Dan Hodges (@DanielHodges29)

Head of Sports Science at AFC Bournemouth, Dan Hodges recalled the fascinating story of the rise of his club from lower level leagues with minimal funding and staff to genuinely relevant Premier League team with new facilities and expanded staff during his time there. He remarked that for all the excitement of new facilities, things like proper (and multiple) pitches to train on and control of meals via a chef and canteen area made some of the most significant impacts on performance. My personal takeaway from this presentation was to put aside frustration at the current status of a program’s systems/ culture/ infrastructure and embrace the journey and development of it all! I have observed similar rapid development when visiting RB Leipzig at how success in the rapid changes there was aided by round-table decision making from the staff… people who knew what the athletes needed were empowered to influence decisions.

Nick Winkelman (@NickWinkelman)

Nick Winkelman of Ireland Rugby brought the house down with his engaging, interactive presentation, Decision Making Under Uncertainty: How Behavioral Economics Can Make You A Better Coach. Building from concepts detailed in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, Coach Winkelman explained how differently people can view the same thing and why we must manage our “System One” and “System Two” together to de-bias decision making. With the System One serving as our subconscious, innate ‘gut’ and System Two more or less being the rational mind, Nick showed how humans process information, with the brain often answering an easier question than the one actually asked. He made the important points that mood often mediates perception, and that the easier something is to remember, the more likely we are to value it’s content. A major takeaway was that we must use System Two to inform our System One, because the former cannot be turned off so we may as well arm ourselves as best as possible for the countless daily decisions we make. This can be done by gathering information in deliberate ways, pushing aside bias, and sifting through layers of pseudo-logic—Nick gave the example of a coach who has had athletes injure hamstrings during high speed running avoiding high speed running with the pseudo-logic that performing high speed running will just cause hamstring injuries (ignoring the benefits). Another example was if you are on a date, did you really have butterflies (therefore informing that there is a connection and a second date should occur) or was it just food poisoning?!


Common biases

One of the most interesting parts of this presentation was detailing of common biases affecting human decision making:


Similarity Bias occurs when we see something as similar to a past example and assume causation or make incorrect predictions


Availability Bias is like Similarity, what memories are easily recalled are likely to color our thoughts most


Zombie Biases consist of Confirmation Bias, Attribution Error and Cognitive Dissonance. Most are familiar with the first and third there, but I hadn’t heard of Attribution Error and it fascinated me. It’s a real pet peeve when people say, “that’s just how that person is”. A real sticking point in the application of Stoicism seems to be balancing letting go of that which cannot be controlled, without accidentally becoming jaded and basically refusing to try to change situations. One frustration occurs when one avoids Attribution Error but others in an environment fall into it; if the people around you say and feel that a person or situation is unchangeable, you are then attempting to change both the original situation and somebody else’s approach to it! I asked Coach Winkelman about this, and he suggested to always ask Why?, citing the Socratic Questioning Technique ( as a way to affect behavior in a non-threatening way. On the flip side of this dynamic, Nick emphasized that to be successful with such approaches, we must embrace potentially and frequently being wrong!



Coach Winkelman’s concluding thoughts:

1) Don’t leave the truth to chance! Practice-based evidence must be balanced with evidence-based practice. Information guides everything, use it deliberately and wisely.

2) Build systems on sound principles with distinct components which will always be subject to evolution.

3) One of these systems must be that of feedback, with self-reflection and regular, relevant and feasible data collection to answer specific questions.

4) This was my favorite: Be the architect of your own environment within which you make many decisions and actions, as we are responsible for it! Use checklists, routines and dashboards to ensure consistency and efficiency of thought, decision and action.

Excellent book suggestions from Coach Winkelman’s presentation:

How Emotions are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett

The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis

Misbehaving by Richard Thaler

Heuristics and Biases by Thomas Gilovich


Gut Feeling

Risk Savvy



Alex Thomas (@AlexThomasTheFA)

“Don’t aim to be the smartest person in the room, be the person that empowers other people to do their job.” Alex Thomas, Data Scientist at the FA, explained the unwieldy task of managing over a dozen different techology/equipment partnerships and the data systems and dashboards and challenges which come along with each. He noted the paradox that a dedicated data scientist whose education has focused on that skillset is necessary for most teams, yet that person (or at least someone!) also has to manage a bevy of relationships in order to keep the operation smoothly and ensure that headaches are minimized with tech integration. This is an issue in many setups and relates to a topic discussed quite a bit at the moment: Should strength coaches be learning coding/programming and advanced data skillsets, or should dedicated members of staff with little to no interaction with coaches and staff be retained?


Stephen Smith (@stephensmith_ie)

Kitman Labs CEO Stephen Smith was next up to speak on the day’s overarching theme of Redefining Performance: Breakthroughs in Analytical Methods to Accurately Quantify Injury Risk and Technology to Power a High Performance Environment. Stephen encouraged folks first and foremost to seek insights rather than simply data, emphasizing that performance is not binary. Personally, this jived with the notion I’ve been working on that information is not good, bad, red, blue, left, or right, it’s simply information and getting myself and the folks I work with into that mindset is a game-changer for operations. Some great content was shared around real performance analysis, as one of the ways in which Kitman Labs are driving our field forward is by bridging what we traditionally think of as “Sports Science” with the actual sport . This is a real elephant in the room of what we do, and the sooner analysis of our sports is married to analysis of physical performance, the better off our field will be. Drawing simple concepts such as, correlation between lost balls in rugby to winning, therefore asking what physical changes we can make to avoid that action, really shone through as these are analyses we can quite feasibly do in our own daily practices, it is just currently quite rare!! Stephen then finished by introducing Kitman’s new feature Risk Advisor, in which load can be planned based on injury risk. I am extremely excited to integrate this feature in our own work! Kitman’s constant innovation is a huge reason they are industry leaders.



Ross Tucker (@Scienceofsport)

Stephen then interviewed Ross Tucker on The Evolution of Sports Science: Fact vs Fiction. Ross is phenomenally well-spoken, and while his long-form pieces on doping, world records, and concussions have had huge impacts on our field, hearing him speak more casually on key topics was simply outstanding. One of the first and biggest points he made was around ‘traditional’ coaches who ‘reject’ sports science, stating that those people do science every day in their decision making and coaching (citing match substitutions as an example), they have simply rejected the version of sports science presented to them by the practitioners they’ve worked with!! We are responsible for the version of sports science which we bring to our jobs and present to coaching staff to be accepted or rejected. Ross advised that we convince coaches that they are doing science and that we are ‘in it together’ in our mission to win. This really struck home, as we often create silos without meaning to, lamenting that physical performance could dovetail more closely with sport performance, yet positioning our work as separate off the bat without meaning to!


With our daily practices and operations, Ross suggested we constantly ask, “when does this work/apply to the current context/environment, when is it ‘true’ or not?” In most cases, he commented, the coach has already decided what he wants to do, so we must navigate reflection. So long as our process leads to their solution, trust is always possible. Each human has their model for how the world works, and we are responsible for testing the coaches model of how the world works, and perhaps shepherding it in instances where it conflicts with models of physical preparation. Ross gave the unforgettable example of how we must transition the difference between being a plumber who attends to a shit smell vs being an engineer who constructs the system which does not break and become smelly!!

Next, Stephen asked Ross about ‘marginal gains’, which he said don’t really exist, there is just common sense! I completely agree: bringing your own pillow on a roadtrip isn’t space-age cutting edge, it’s just simple and sensible if you want to sleep well!! In decision making around these matters, especially in sporting setups where everyone wishes to control as much as possible, Ross advised to determine cost-benefits of different items and then ACT or else someone else will.


When asked what good and bad changes have occurred in sports science over the past decade, Ross commented that effective sports science eliminates noise. The theme of treating athletes as assets vs commodities was raised, as they are the ultimate stakeholders in sporting success. Not for the first time on the day, RPE was questioned, saying that current measures used to analyze load are fairly crude and searching too hard for answers. The comment was made that if the ‘next’ load-monitoring tool takes ten years to fully fruit the way GPS did, it’ll be negative for our industry. Ross challenged the audience to own our expertise and be outspoken as a way to advocate for our industry such as writing books, remarking that we should not be outsourcing representations of our expertise to the public. He asked where the incentives exist to improve as a field. This reminded me of Neil DeGrasse-Tyson’s remarks that humans will not return to interstellar space travel until there is another cultural incentive (like the Cold War the first time around), and our field often laments its challenges but does little to address them. Finally, Stephen and Ross discussed LTAD, from which my major takeaway was to examine the “ghosts” who made it through level 1 of talent ID but wash out soon afterwards.


Performance Panel

The day concluded with a round-table Multi-Sport Perspective On Some Of The Most Pressing Industry Questions About Performance Today. Paul Bunce of Bristol Rugby, Jack Nayler ( ) of Celtic FC, and Jamie Heaslip () of Ireland Rugby were interviewed together and they were remarkably candid and actionable in their advice for the audience. Jamie discussed his focus on the process and how this can affect a coach’s viewpoint, citing how he was the athlete who tried everything within reason to be the best he could be, sleeping in an oxygen tent at some point. He mentioned that repeatable performance is what separates good from great, and that winning and losing is learning to stick to processes, and coaches must convey messages effectively to make that athletes feel like a part of it! Athlete buy-in makes coaches buy-in. Coaches must show willingness to break dogma and try new things in order to win athletes trust, while balancing that with conviction of methods once they are established. Again, the theme of athletes as assets vs commodities was raised, with Jamie emphasizing that athletes be informed of processes in order to instigate buy in. This is a point often forgotten and it was great to hear it discussed.


Jack Nayler advised that high performance really is a constant mission to be the best personally, that it is not just about rabidly chasing ‘cutting edge methods’ but also being the best version of ourselves. That point struck home! He said that coaches must do better when justifying purchases or desired purchases, telling the story of demo’ed Watt Bikes at Real Madrid which were not purchased in the end because he had failed to properly justify their use. Across the board, these speakers emphasized the value of needs analyses and endlessly pursuing buy-in, putting across simple messages. The important point was made to respect—not fear, but respect—the pressure put on the sport coaches and be conscientious of what comes across their desk every day. We must boil down our message and be prepared to state our cases concisely and convincingly with an awareness and empathy around what the coach is dealing with in the moments we interact with them!


Paul Bunce shared some really interesting pieces from his time working at the very pinnacle of club rugby, advising to treat wins as harshly as losses, because when everyone is in a good mood after wins, the opportunity to analyze and improve is perhaps greater than after losses. This jived with Jack Nayler’s advice to stay on the forefront without changing for the sake of change, using subset groups to trial or pilot new methods rather than over-tinkering with a main group. All three speakers emphasized importance of the relationship with a team captain, as human leadership drives everything. Keeping data coherent and providing feedback (with live data as motivation being mentioned several times) is key, as again the athlete is the key stakeholder in sports. Finally, the point was made that for coaches and athletes alike, avoiding repeated spikes in load/stress is key, with cross-training and proper deliberate off-season rest being items which are spoken about yet usually ignored.



Jake Schuster

If you are attending a Sports Performance event and would like to write a Notes From feature, please get in touch with Sports Discovery via Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn!


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2 Comments so far:

  1. Thanks for sharing. Interesting to read about the new ‘Risk advisor’ feature that helps planning loads based on injury risk, as users are enjoying a similar feature since a couple years now.

    • Its very different than the product you have described as it combines analysis of all data collected and links it back in a mutivariate modelling technique to all of your injuries.
      This is the first time any company has built a product that doesn’t use opinionated algorithms and actually turns your database into a living breathing research tool!

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