“I mean, I think anybody who’s in the business of working directly with athletes, probably one of the most challenging things to do is to become more scientific in the way that you work and to be a bit more data-driven. And yeah, I mean, early on in my career, it was a real challenge. I grew up as an athlete myself and then moved to the Olympic Training Center here. And I was right away exposed to an incredible amount of sports science. We have this legend in Canada, a guy named Dr. David Smith, I call him Doc.
He’s now probably in his early 70s. But Doc, I mean, you’ve got these pictures of Doc at the Seri Abel Olympics in 1984 with his mass spectrometer, that he’s brought into the athlete village. He was taking blood samples and doing all kinds of stuff that really for me was like my beacon for saying how do you do good sports science and how do you do that in a way that has impact?”
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JESSE: Welcome to the Smart Athlete Podcast. I’m your host, Jesse Funk.
My guest today has his Ph.D. in Medical Science, his Masters in Exercise Physiology. He’s consulted and coached over 30 World and Olympic Medalists. Currently, he’s the Director of Sports Science at the Canadian Sport Institute in Calgary. He does online education for strength coaches and sports scientists. He’s also an adjunct professor currently doing research or actively in research. Welcome to the show, Dr. Matt Jordan.
MATT: Thanks for having me. Appreciate the opportunity.
JESSE: Yeah, thanks for coming on. It’s always nice to speak with people that are in it, doing it both academically and in an applied sense. I guess I’ll just jump right in. I think I’d read one of your blog posts talking about early on, you had difficulty trying to merge the stuff from the lab and the research side to your athletes. So, I guess I’m gonna ask, how’s that methodology kind of evolved over time and how do you do that?
MATT: I mean, I think anybody who’s in the business of working directly with athletes, probably one of the most challenging things to do is to become more scientific in the way that you work and to be a bit more data-driven. And yeah, I mean, early on in my career, it was a real challenge. I grew up as an athlete myself and then moved to the Olympic Training Center here.
And I was right away exposed to an incredible amount of sports science. We have this legend in Canada, a guy named Dr. David Smith, I call him Doc. He’s now probably in his early 70s. But Doc, I mean, you’ve got these pictures of Doc at the Seri Abel Olympics in 1984 with his mass spectrometer, that he’s brought into the athlete village. He was taking blood samples and doing all kinds of stuff that really for me was like my beacon for saying how do you do good sports science, and how do you do that in a way that has impact?
And I’ll have to be honest, it was a struggle. As a strength and power coach, it really took me a while to navigate those waters. And really a couple of keys to unlocking the potential is number one, we have to learn to think like a scientist. And that’s something that I’ve written a lot about in my blog posts is a scientific mind. And it doesn’t mean that you’re trying to do research studies when we train because that’s not feasible.
But you’ve got to have that scientific mind, you’ve got to understand the basics of measurement because that would be the biggest problem I would have had starting off in my career was my measurements, were just not accurate enough. So, I’m trying to see these small changes in my athletes, and meanwhile, the noise is like three times bigger than that small change that I’m looking for. And so the downside of that is that you never really pick up what you care about.
And then I’ll see the third thing that was really a good key for unlocking the potential for me was getting just kind of a little bit of experience in working with data. Because for where I started using Excel and hand balm and graphs or trying to create stories, it was just like– Honestly, you’d collect data for an hour and you’d spend the next half a day trying to make something out of it. And so a little bit of skills, I got a little bit of skills. It’s actually free. You can download this off the internet.
It’s a program called R and literally the letter R. For anybody who’s in sort of data science or statistics they’ll know what R is. If you’ve never been into it, you’re like, what there’s something called R, like literally R? And reality is it’s a super-powerful programming language. And if you can– what I did, basically taught myself is how to code and how to work with data. And yeah, long story short is those three things really unlocked my ability to, as a coach, start using data more efficiently. And man, it’s been a big part of what I do, and it’s a massive part of our work at the institute these days is a data-driven approach.
JESSE: I feel like whenever I speak with, I’ll say sports scientists as an umbrella, everybody has their own little kind of specialization; it always seems to be a struggle to get all of the data you want. And like you said, filter out that noise. I think particularly a few weeks ago, I spoke with a guest who is at basically the Olympic Training Center in Australia and she’s studying swimmers.
So, it’s notoriously difficult to try to get power data on them and all these kinds of things since they’re in the water. It’s not a nice kind of medium to work in to try to get that information. So, it seems like more than half the battle almost is just collecting the data accurately to begin with.
MATT: Oh, I mean, yeah, it’s huge. I mean, one of the things that I think through our institute, but a lot of through my Ph.D. work is we really brought to the community of high-performance training, strength and power coaches, sports science, and sort of that elite environment, we’re one of the groups, not the only group to really start to develop this dual force plate system. And so you have a force plate underneath each foot, and you have people do jumping, and squatting and all this other stuff.
And what you can do is, you can tease out these asymmetries, these force-time asymmetries that allow you– Especially around injuries, which is actually where I spend the bulk of my time these days is dealing with athletes with ACL injury and sort of helping them get back to it, back to sport, back to performance.
And it’s amazing because you can use this system and you can quantify these asymmetries. But I always say to people that I’m working on this because I’ll teach courses on using them or be brought into sort of help groups kind of implement it. And I’m saying the most important decision you’re ever going to make is input around an athlete’s health and safety as they’re coming back.
And imagine you had a force plate that all of a sudden started to lose accuracy. And so now all of a sudden, ‘cause you got two force plates now, so you’ve doubled your error. And imagine now you’re in a situation where the athlete’s true between limb asymmetry is 20%. But for some reason one of the plates is broken. And you register an asymmetry of 5%.
And now you’re going to go back and make a recommendation to your head of performance or a coach or whatever to say to this athlete’s ready to go and you’ve actually made a mistake because your equipment wasn’t working. And I just come back to this as a cornerstone as if you’re going to be using a data-driven approach, it is so essential to make sure you understand the accuracy of your instruments.
And obviously, there’s situations there where our force plates, we use a brand called AMTI, which is a real well-known brand of force plate. We calibrate our plates once a month. And we’re within basically less than a percent difference in terms of the true load versus our measured load with our system.
And there might be situations like with wearables, because I actually work with a wearable company called Plantinga out of Vancouver puts an IMU in an insole and uses machine learning to measure insights in your movement and health and whatnot from basically the smart shoe or the smart insole. But there’s a bit of a trade-off, right. Because it’s a wearable so the accuracy goes down.
And it’s not that, you know, I think it’s more about for anybody doing this is you got to know how to evaluate accuracy, how to monitor it, so if your systems are changing, and then you have to know like how to contextualize accuracy or measurement error in the context of being able to use a data-driven approach. And I would agree it’s not easy. It takes a little bit of skill and if you skip over the step, it can make it really hard to understand where it all fits. So, yeah, it’s a key piece.
JESSE: And I think in that same post I was reading it was, you’re mentioning like, part of the difficulty [??? 10:16] now is like the inaccuracy of the plates you were using. So, was it simply a matter of time waiting for the right company to come out with the right thing? Or did you like take an active approach and say, to whoever’s place you were using like hey, these are not accurate enough, like could we do this or that?
MATT: Yeah, I mean, what it was honestly, Jesse, it was early days for me. And if I can rewind back to that time in my life and in my career, I had just wrapped up my Master’s in Exercise Physiology. But the real focus was more muscle physiology. I was actually looking at the effects of vibration on neuromuscular function.
So, I had a vibration plate and I was doing EMG and nerve stimulation and looking at basically voluntary activation of the quadriceps. It was kind of a cool little study. But anybody who’s done graduate work, you’ll know, like you get it grilled into your head about how to make sure you’re calibrating and checking your equipment.
And then you get out and you’re like, ah, I’m done, right, so to speak. And it wasn’t that the plates had no accuracy. What happened was we got these plates that were cost-effective, cheap, basically, right, by a company called Pascoe. And they are these little foot plates that are about a foot by a foot in terms of their dimensions. And the challenge with them is they were built for doing like high school physics education classes.
So, they’re not meant for I would say, lots of wear and tear like we would put them through in our environment. And what had happened was one of our athletes had been jumping on the plate and had done a really hard landing on one of the corners and basically it tapped out the load cell and at that point, it starts to drift and it’s broken, basically. I missed it.
So, what had happened is I’ve been collecting data and I’d gone through the process of calibrating and making sure that everything was good when I got these plates right at the beginning. And I remember one day bringing this one athlete in, her name was Shannon Rempel. She was a speed skater. And I looked at that force reading and I’m like what?
She’s saying she weighs about– Well, in this case would have been about 30 kilos. And at the time, she’s probably let’s say at arms 60 kilos, let’s say she was. But there was a really clear discrepancy at that point that I observed, and I was like, oh, shoot my plates aren’t working. And so I hadn’t been checking it. It was I touched the hot stove and burned my hand so to say. As a kind of general rule, you should always be checking your equipment.
But yeah, I mean, it was just the reality, Jesse was like the plates were great actually. There’s been papers published on them. I always just say that they’re not overly durable. But where we are today, I mean, I run a research lab out of the Canadian Sport Institute Calgary, which as you mentioned in the lead, and it’s one of Canada’s four Olympic Training Centers. And I’ve got a really nice lab space now and I’ve got graduate students who are doing research. And we put them through a cool internship program and give them a scholarship and they get their degrees and whatnot.
But now that we’re in this lab, and I’m actually directing students, and we’ve got a wireless EMG system and an IMU system and force plates and force handles and a really cool dynamometer to measure rate of force development and quad ham and hip strength and a leg press, like all this stuff that we can use for testing, it’s actually we have to be very vigilant to make sure like all people should if you’re using a data-driven approach, make sure your stuff is working when you collect data. Because yeah, I’ve made that mistake and there’s nothing more frustrating than that.
JESSE: I guess maybe that’s the key to most things, though, like if you have a large enough budget, you can probably find the most accurate equipment, but it doesn’t always work that way in the real world where yeah, it’s like, where you work with what you got. And then you just have to make errors, but it makes sense why now you kind of preach the make sure you check your equipment, make sure [crosstalk] you know that it’ll work. It’s accurate.
MATT: Yeah, totally. I mean, it’s funny. So, I did my Ph.D. under a guy named Walter Hertzog. And if there’s anybody on the call, or listening to the podcast, who has ever heard his name, he’s a world-renowned biomechanist. And he’s basically essentially at the coalface trying to understand how skeletal muscle works. It’s a really basic science.
But he brings this guy in named Jerry Pollack, who is a researcher from the US and he’s kind of in the final part of his academic and research career. So, he’s had a long history of work, and he talks about this story where he had this extremely sophisticated equipment set up at his lab that would measure the crystalline structure of muscle.
So, he could actually look at– imagine you go from a muscle fiber and from a muscle fiber, you go down to these myofibrils that have actin and myosin and they’re interacting to produce for us and he could visualize them. And he talks about the day that he had to move lab space from one lab to another lab on his campus. And there was something to do with the vibration in the building.
And after that point in time, he could never get the accuracy and precision back, and they basically stopped his research because he couldn’t ever find the accuracy and precision to make the measurements that he was making. And it’s funny when you hear stories like that, and then you think about our world where a lot of times you’re like oh well, you’re just testing athletes, right?
But you really need this stuff because if a number changes you need to know that it was real and you need to be able to contextualize like, is that change that we saw, you know, so the dot goes from here to here, is that change meaningful? And another guy who has written a lot about that is Will Hopkins and there’s lots of people who’ve talked about how to contextualize change and whatnot. But yeah, certainly, it’s a big part of it, right? And you got to just drill that into everybody’s minds when they’re students and stuff because it’s a skill. If you take it forward with you, really helps down the road.
JESSE: One, it’s like, not even just from the performance aspect, but [??? 16:38] think about whenever I talk with people doing research, the number one problem is getting enough participants for a study in the first place, right? So, then your N number is already low. So, it’s like even if you find something statistically significant, it’s like, well, how applicable is that to a large group? And then compound with where your instrument’s accurate, which could produce a false positive or false negative, and you end up with this like cascading effect of actually accomplishing anything?
MATT: Well, heck and, you know what, you asked me the question at the beginning, like I think you– How did you phrase it there? So, I wrote about how to become a bit more scientific as a coach and my struggles with it, you asked me for some tips, and I gave three things. But maybe the fourth thing I should have said and put it to the top of the list is, as a coach, you’re not doing population science. You’re not trying to look at the effects of does baking cause cancer.
That’s not the type of inquiry that you and I care about, right? What we care about is we’ve got this concept of a general population or a distribution and that person that we’re pulling off as an elite is potentially an outlier. Like they probably don’t respond like the average, and we’ve got this single person over time. And what we care about is being able to measure, quantify, track and evaluate how that single person, that N equals one case study, how’s that person tracking over time?
And really, ultimately, it’s a whole, like I always say, it’s like we’re stealing things from science so we can do that type of inquiry, which is oftentimes these small groups or one person. And it’s kind of a funny thing, right? Like when you think about it, I like to think about the world sometimes as a big bucket of blue chips and red chips.
And you can imagine something like, let’s say bacon and cancer. Bacon increases your risk of cancer, let’s say by 50%. But let’s say it’s a very rare form of cancer. So, you got 1,000 chips in a bucket, there’s one red chip, a 50% increase is alarming when you read it on a headline, but really, that’s adding an extra half a chip in this big bucket. And a lot of people would be like, well, that’s not really– I’d still reach in there and run the risk of pulling a red chip just enjoy a little bit of bacon now and then.
But yeah, in a very similar way, I think when we’re talking about athletes is we care about things that are our big effects. And one way to think about it in my mind is like how many… Goes that your point like, how many subjects do you need to have to show statistically that moms are bigger than their babies? So, you don’t need 1,000 moms and 1,000 babies to show that there’s a difference there because the effect is huge, and the variation is very small. And if you actually do a power calculation, you need about three or four moms and babies actually in each group to show that effect.
And so, yeah, I would agree, right? Like what we care about are things that are big effects. We don’t want these little itty bitty things where we’re talking about this little minute effect that might have this little thing possibly that we care about training athletes are the big rocks in the bucket. Because that at the end of the day, it’s what usually makes the difference, right?
So, yeah, it’s a tough world, right? Gotta steal from science, but we gotta remember we’re in that business of working with athletes or coaches first. We gotta connect with people, we gotta be able to create, buy-in all those things are so much– they’re also so valuable and so important at the end of the day.
JESSE: So, basically kind of wondering, since you are actively engaged in research, how do you choose what you’re focusing on? Are you thinking predominantly about these are my athletes? These are the problems they’ve run into, let’s look into that? Or is it more of a I’m [??? 20:45] say mentally interested in this thing for no other reason that I find it interesting?
MATT: I mean, I think that the best, the best scientists, I’ve come across are able to string together a line of thinking and a line of inquiry over their careers, that really kind of advances a topic and advances an understanding around an area. And I would just say as well that in addition to that, we’ve also got the flip side because I work at the Olympic Training Center. And we are constantly trying to find innovations and new ways of doing things to help our sports win medals.
So, in that ladder band, when you’re really sitting down with a coach, and you’re looking at a sport and you’re trying to figure out where can you squeeze a percent of performance out, sometimes these are very targeted projects. Where it’s like, hey, if we could design a bob slay that look like this. Or if we could teach a speed skater to skate like that. Or we could use this training in like–
We would be sort of like adding for this very specific example, a little bit of bandwidth to hopefully improve performance. And no doubt those are projects that we do all the time. But where my research is today is what I’m interested in at a whole body level are all the factors, basic factors that affect how muscles make force, and what I [??? 22:26] and what we’re primarily looking at, is developing better testament testing methodologies for athletes who are coming back after ACL injury.
That’s been the big focus. So, knee injuries and particularly what we’re doing is surgeons do their great work and then you’ve got the physiotherapist doing their great work. And at some point, this person is nine or 10 months post surgery, they get back to sport.
But what’s really interesting, for example, in one sport that I work really closely with it’s alpine ski racing. And it’s funny that it’s going to be like 18, 19, 20 months, 24 months after surgery where they actually hurt themselves again, that’s where the window is typically. So, there’s this window way after you’ve had your surgery and you’re back in sport where you actually have to be really working with somebody to get them back to performance.
And what we find is many athletes don’t get back to performance, they get back to functioning. They look okay. But there’s a gap there. So, to answer your question specifically about research is we develop better testing methodologies, we’re developing ways to forecast recovery after injury so that we can make better decisions.
And ultimately, we’re looking to develop better training methodologies and nutritional methodologies to help ensure athletes get back to the level of physical preparedness that they need to be at in order to get that sport. So, that’s the real focus. I’m a strength coach first so I care about strength, power, rate of force development, I care about how athletes take these capacities, but then express them importantly in their sport.
Because it’s not all about making somebody like a bodybuilder or a powerlifter, or an Olympic lifter. Like we need to take them and allow them to develop capacity so they can express this in whatever environment they’re in. So, it’s a cool thing that we got going on, for sure, but that’s the main theme of our research.
JESSE: See, and I had read about you mentioning that that kind of elongated timeline for re-injury with your skiers. And I’m glad that you have some data about that because I know… So, I do another show, so to speak, where I talk about running on the YouTube channel and on some of the injury related ones I’ve mentioned. Or given the advice that when you’re rehabbing something, even a minor injury, it could be six months of continuing with it even after you feel perfectly fine. And that comes from my own just experience being injured. I don’t know how many times over the last 20 years and just knowing like, those things just take a long time.
I don’t have any– I’m my own case study, right? So, it’s like I don’t have– I haven’t been collecting data and being diligent about doing like a daily workout journal. So, I don’t have that information. But it’s like I know, just from experience that I,– For instance, my senior year in college, I pulled my left hamstring pretty bad. And basically, I missed out on qualifying in the national championship because of it. And that injury still bothered me. I could every once in a while for years on, a couple of years on. And it’s like it, theoretically, everything’s fine, should be fine. But I found that pattern to be consistent regardless of what the injury was and sometimes, even if it wasn’t severe. So, just from a personal sigh of relief, I’m glad somebody has some data that says that’s something you need to look at.
MATT: Yeah, totally. And I mean, I can tell you that injuries especially big ones; people who’ve had ACL injuries and people who’ve had big leg fractures or whatever, whatever that might be, big hamstring strains. You definitely see a long– Well, not in all cases, but you definitely see a long term impact on basically how you self-organize.
And this has been an area of inquiry for me that has been both sort of academically, philosophically, and also, from a coach standpoint, been of great interest. But there’s a body of science called dynamical systems theory which is talking about how do dynamic systems which we would be a dynamical system, right? We’re responsive, we’re adaptable; how do patterns emerge? How is it that things happen?
And the way they’ve always kind of visualized them in these more fundamental papers and books, they’ve sort of talked about this idea of an energy well. You’ve got this energy well, and it’s stable. And so the stability that you get into after an injury, whether it’s a limp, or a way of moving or a reduced bandwidth or degrees of freedom in terms of your ability to solve problems, it becomes a stable solution space.
And so even after you’ve kind of come back and you’ve given it time, some people just get stuck in this space and it becomes extremely difficult to get them out. And so what we sort of like hinge our work on is that I always say it’s like kind of coming back to your line of scientific inquiry for the coach.
You’ve got deductive reasoning, kind of start with the literature and you have a hypothesis, you gather data and you analyze, synthesize and arrive at sort of an understanding or a conclusion. But an inductive approach where you’re making observations and you’re looking and then you’re arriving by observing towards a hypothesis or a hunch, to explain what is what has been observed.
It’s oftentimes how we’re working, right? Like if you have an injured athlete, I say, it’s like, guys, you’re like Sherlock Holmes. You’re coming to the scene of the crime, you got your magnifying glass, you got your DNA kit, you got your fingerprint kit, and you’re going to go and look for clues because you’re going to try to arrive at a plausible explanation for who killed the butcher.
In this case, it’s not who killed the butcher but it’s why is Jesse continually moving in such a way or expressing things like this consequent to this hamstring injury that he sustained? I’m going back hypothetically, back in your former days. But that’s the idea, right? And what we need to be able to do is we need to be able to understand to the best of our ability like what are the constraints that are causing the movement to be shaped a certain way?
And then how, what leavers can we pull to get the person out of that energy well, and into a place where they’ve got those more normal patterns restored? And that’s tricky, but I think it’s at the end of the day with these more complex questions about how do you get the person back, especially when they’re stuck after an injury? It really takes a team and it takes a multi-view approach to function.
JESSE: So, if we’re looking at those athletes, the skiers that have that high, I’ll call it recidivism but it’s really just [??? 29:56] injury at that, like what do we call it? 18 to 20 month mark, was that accurate?
MATT: Yeah. Yeah.
JESSE: Is it simply a matter of saying, okay, the tests that okay, that athlete to get back to performing, we need to do those same tests until 24 months? Or is there a different protocol or have you developed any ideas or systems to put in place to help that, like prevent that reinjury?
MATT: Yeah. Well, I mean, so it’s funny because the emerging data that we have on the kind– And I’ll use an example of an ACL injury. The standard of practice these days is to use these functional tests that are easy to do in a clinic environment, right? So, single-leg hop [??? 30:48] distance, triple hop, crossover, hop, whatever. And you measure with a stopwatch or a measuring tape on the ground performance. The challenge there is kind of twofold.
Number one, you’re measuring this person at a single time point, nine or 10 months, and then oftentimes people don’t do it again. And number two is that if you need to jump to the same distance on both sides, most athletes can hide their deficits, compensate and achieve the performance benchmark while masking the real problems that they have.
So, they pass the criteria, but they actually are just hiding what it is that’s holding them back. And so I think you’re right, it’s kind of a two-fold thing there. And it’s funny like the other day, I was listening to the radio and Farmers Almanacs are coming out right now and they’re starting to do their predictions for whether it’s going to be a cold winter or warm winter.
And it’s funny, like you listen to this kind of forecast, they go well. We’re expecting it to be a very cold winter this year for a variety of factors. But the real reality is like forecasting the weather, it gets pretty good a couple of days out but as you go further out, 10 days, 14 days, three months it just gets more and more variable.
And to your point is that when you’re looking at monitoring athletes after injury, it sure is a limitation to be able to just bring them into a lab once or twice over their recovery and to hinge all of their recovery on these single time point discrete assessments. And so it’s absolutely something we need to get better at. And that’s part of the work I’m doing with this insole company in Vancouver, Canada, called Plantinga.
It’s actually amazing because with machine learning and I mean, to start off, you’ve got a smart insole now you can basically collect data every time you run, every time you bike, every time you walk, every time you jump. You can throw them in your shoes when you’re on hikes, when you’re playing open activities.
And the machine learning algorithms are starting to be able to learn when you’re walking, when you’re running, when you’re jumping, when your foot is on and off the ground. It can give you biomechanical measures from that. And importantly, it can start to predict that your patterns are starting to look like somebody who’s injured or somebody who’s not. And so that becomes extremely powerful. And I think it’s going to be the future, Jesse.
I think we’re gonna see that probably as the next few years emerge, that these wearables are going to allow us to, your point, to capture people when they’re at their highest risk and to do it more ubiquitously. And so that’s exciting, I think an exciting prospect for anybody who’s either an avid runner, endurance athlete, weekend warrior, Olympian, whatever your badge is that you wear in your chest. I think there’s going to be great advances in that field.
JESSE: I always feel like we’ve come back to data, right? I feel like and maybe this is just me being an optimist, but I feel like as humans, we can figure many of these things out, even these highly complex systems, our bodies, the weather, if only we can have enough data about enough things, figuring out what data is important, what’s not. And like you said, if you only have the ability to test an athlete one or two times, there’s obviously the mental aspect where they can psych themselves up to meet the criteria, because they know hey, I want to get back to training and all I have to do is just get through this one little thing and like, Dr. Jordan’s gonna let me go, and it’s gonna be fine.
But like with [??? 34:48] I definitely wanted to ask you about Plantinga as well because that’s giving you data all the time. And you know that as much as high-performance athletes are on and in the zone day to day, there’s always going to be points when they’re not. Like nobody is 100% in the zone all the time, always going to be able to compensate for things. And I feel like if you can just have that, essentially, non-stop clock of data collection, like you’re gonna start to see patterns emerge that tell you those things.
MATT: Yeah, I know. I mean, I think that’s it, right. And I think that the reality, Jesse with these things is they are complex. It’s like the weather, right? Like what is influencing the weather? Well, there are let’s just say internal factors related to weather systems that are probably occurring via how these systems are self-organizing and things are occurring. There’s probably some human involvement I think, right?
Global warming, climate change is certainly 100% something that we are contributing ourselves and obviously affecting our climate. But it’s all this stuff, right? So, it’s hard to study this stuff when you’ve got incomplete data or when you’ve got, I don’t know, I brought you into the weight room, and I measured your strength on your left side and your right side, and I use that as my sole part of the equation.
But I would argue that we are going to have to start treating a lot of this stuff with the complexity involved in order to get there. But, I still come back to the idea is that if I am not looking for it, I’m not measuring it, I can’t change it. I’ve just got an athlete of mine that’s coming back after an ACL injury. I have them do a single eight jump test. I measure that they’ve got a 20% different side to side.
Hey, whether or not that’s predictive of an injury or whatever, you know what I think? Hey, you’ve got one limb, that’s at a deficit, I can prescribe training that can actually make you have better strength on that side that’s deficient. And if I do that maybe– opens up bandwidth. You’re gonna perform better, now you’ve got two legs that are capable of doing the same things.
And I always say like we get hung up on injury prediction, but just if you put your coach hat on, there is value in finding things that could make an athlete better, help them perform. So, I still always say that there’s value in some of the stuff that we do. There’s tons of value; routine screening, routine testing, even though it’s not maybe going to be giving us the best predictive model for injury.
But at the end of the day, I don’t know if we really want to just predict injuries. I think what we care about are finding the things that are being kept from us as coaches so that we can give people the right type of training that’s more individualized, more specialized to help them get better in their sport. And if we prevent a couple injuries along the way, fantastic. Yeah, so it’s a big area, though.
JESSE: Kind of along those lines, it’s like when I’m doing research, I don’t typically have very pointed questions. But one of the things I did want to ask you, and it sounds like you’ve kind of already answered it is because your focus is both on performance and you’re looking at like ACL injuries and the effects on training and all those kind of things.
And because you’re at the Canadian Sport Institute, obviously, trying to get medals, if– I basically want to know, is injury the biggest limiter to increasing group performance? So, as a cohort, Olympians, if we could run reduce the rate of injury by 50%, would we see world records being broken or a larger cohort approaching those times, or measured, I guess I should say, because it’s not always times. Does that make sense?
MATT: Yeah. No, it does. Yeah. I mean, and I think what– I mean, I don’t know the answer to that. I mean, it’s a tough question.
JESSE: It’s a highly speculative question.
MATT: Yeah. But what I can tell you is, it’s kind of interesting that a good friend of mine, Dr. Dustin Nabhan, he’s a great guy. He’s the VP of Research Innovation Sport Medicine at the US Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. Awesome guy. Well researched doing his own work. And it’s funny, they’ve got some interesting statistics from Olympic performance, and it’s funny, you’d think it was in– Well, I mean, I care about injuries and I obviously spent a lot of time there and certainly they’re a problem.
But what really kind of hits hard with those programs are illnesses, right? Like flus and colds and stomach flus that run through and all that stuff. And they’re far, far, far more, at least based on Dustin’s data, far more negatively impacting of performance. And I think that that’s maybe where that question could potentially have an answer.
But I would also say that collectively and I know this from sports being in alpine ski racing like we don’t have 30 skiers behind the top skiers to be able to fill a gap if somebody is injured. It’s not like NHL hockey in Canada is massive. We’ve got tons of great hockey players. But a lot of times in these sports we’ve got a small group and we’ve invested years into these athletes, years of expertise in training and development. And so I think at the end of the day with this stuff is that injuries happen.
They happen frequently enough that it is important that we do something about it. And certainly your odds of success in sports that are very competitive and also, in which we have very thin pipelines, they are 110% strengthened by having a robust plan around mitigating injuries, getting athletes on the field of play, physically prepared, mentally prepared, so they can handle the stressors of sport. We call it the healthy baseline; fit to train, fit to compete assessments, super key.
And again, where my work comes in now is okay, but we’re still going to get injuries because you’re not going to fix them all without those strategies. Although, I think you can do a great job of bringing them down. But when you do get hurt, how do you manage that person to help them get back at the right time and with the right strength and the right capacities to be able to meet the demands. So, you need a strategy. And I think I’ll go on a limb and say Jesse and answer your question is that I think collectively, for a group, it is absolutely imperative for there to be strategies.
I’ll just maybe round out your question with one more. I had a really interesting… I was presenting down at the Vale Sports Injury Conference a couple months ago, and they had Dr. [??? 42:29], who’s a professor and a sport medicine physician in Norway. And he was presenting on what they’re doing, Norway is absolutely just dominating on the winter side. It’s amazing. A small country punching way above their weight.
And he just talked about the 2006 Olympics. He said, we went to the games, and we got destroyed. And they didn’t get destroyed because they weren’t physically ready to go, they got destroyed because people got sick and people got hurt. And that’s what their data shows. And they had a strategy after the 06 games, so 2007 they aimed to fix it. And so they put injury surveillance in place strategies in place. And they’ve got a system. And you know what? Their system has made a massive difference.
He actually showed some of the data from 06 to 2010 to 2014 to 2018; dramatic improvement in injuries and illness at the games. And the correlate there obviously, is that massive amount of success in terms of performance. So, their hand in hand. You got to be healthy if you’re gonna perform at the highest level in my opinion.
JESSE: It goes along with something I preach all the time on the running show that I do. Which is like, consistency is key. You have to be patient and you have to be consistent. And the thing that knocks you off from consistency the most is injury and illness. So, that’s how I think about if it were possible, which is not to just say nobody’s ever getting injured or Ill ever again, I feel like we would see like a massive shift forward in how fast all fields are going regardless of sport.
Because then you have continuous growth towards maximum genetic potential in all of your athletes versus being set back by external events, or I think in one of your blog posts, I think it was the kind of weather predicted one you’re talking about, not being able to compensate for all factors. Like a wet field or icy conditions or something that’s outside of our control.
So, it’s like if you can eliminate all those things, and allow the entire cohort of humanity, I guess we’ll say, or it could just be Olympians to propel towards their genetic potential without those externalities. It seems like you would see that big increase. And maybe the [??? 44:55] team is, at least I’ll call it case study because it’s a small group. Maybe that’s evidence pointing that direction.
MATT: Yeah, I think it is. And I just know that when it comes to burden of injury and burden of illness, whether you’re talking about a professional team, you’re talking about an Olympic team, military groups, firefighters, police force all these physically demanding jobs and professions and endeavors. Yeah, managing health and readiness are important. And I don’t know of any organization that’s not pushing hard on this. The challenge that I see is I don’t know how much all of our efforts have actually moved the needle towards making it better. Like think about the NFL.
I mean, I don’t know a Canadian guy, you probably heard his name Derek Hansen, who he’s a speed coach from Vancouver, but he keeps this tally that he starts every beginning of every year with NFL the tick box for ACL injuries in his post a couple weeks, here we go, here we go gang, and just showing boom, boom, boom, boom, the number of athletes blowing out their knees. And it’s already starting.
And if you have to ask the question, we’ve never spent more money on sports science, sport medicine, testing all these things. It’s never been more at the front of our minds. Yet, it sure seems statistically, like injuries have stayed relatively stable. And so I think when you look at the studies, what you realize is it’s probably not complicated stuff, right. Like number one, injury prevention training programs have been shown at least in youth athletes and in a number of different, more sort of like lower level of competition examples to be highly effective for reducing MSK injuries, you know, training loads. I always say like we know this anecdotally if you’ve trained is that when you come back and you go back too fast, too hard or you go too long without recovery, your body begins to break down. The cycle of being able to adapt to load and recover becomes imbalanced. And your recovery potential diminishes, and your adaptive potential diminishes.
And I know I have touched that hot stove as a former triathlete, I grew up in my teens and early 20s competing and triathlon and then switched into kind of an avid strength coach who lifted lots and did martial arts and all kinds of stuff. And all I can tell you is that I have made mistakes, purely based on training load errors. Like doing too much too quick, ramping up too quick, or too long without recovery, and not just listening to my body. And I think in some ways we forget that there’s a lot of simple things there.
And I always use the example like imagine you’re going to take your investment, every month you take $2,000 and you put it into your savings plan for your future. In Canada, we call them Registered Retirement Savings plans, for you guys it’s the 401K. Imagine you’ve met a financial advisor, and he’s like, I’ll take your money every month, two grand, no problem.
And you ask for a report back to see how your money is doing. And he’s like, yeah, I don’t keep a report. I don’t track that stuff. I just take your money. And I just invested in, hey in 30 years hopefully you’ve got enough to retire. But if you don’t, that’s your problem. And in some ways, when I think about training, I think about us prescribing exercise and training, it’s the most important thing we do.
Yet, the majority of us have no number on what that is. And I’m not saying it’s easy because I’ll be honest, I don’t have numbers for every athlete that I’ve ever coached in my life. And I still believe I’ve had the opportunity to have some positive impact there, but I still come back to it. I’m like, okay, so if it’s the most important thing you do, is it all just art? It’s all just wing it and hope it works?
Or is there something to how we progress load and monitor athletes, and ensure that they are recovering and adapting? And I think there’s a lot of questions there that need to be answered still. But certainly, those are key elements, if we’re looking at ways to kind of mitigate injuries, a couple of really simple ways to do it. Right? I don’t think it has to be a crazy solution.
JESSE: You actually touched on something I wanted to ask you about. You mentioned touching the hot stuff too many times by not listening to your own body. Excuse me. There was a guest I had, Claire Zai. She’s a competitive powerlifter and she is also a strength coach for athletes in kind of her domain. And much like me, we like to preach rate of perceived exertion, RPE.
And I wanted to know if RPE plays a role for you at all in your athletes because I think about it in the aspect of we’re these highly dynamic systems, right? And our brain is the computer running them all. So, it’s getting feedback that I guess I think about that feedback in terms of different signals. It could be emotional signals, we’re depressed or we’re anxious.
As a good example, early on in my triathlon career, I was swimming way too much for how developed my upper body was. And I got very anxious about going to the pool. I didn’t want to go, I didn’t want to get in, I didn’t want to be there. And it was a symptom of overtraining. I would get in the pool, I would get it done. My times weren’t necessarily suffering, but I wasn’t really progressing.
And as soon as I backed off my load, that anxiety went away. So, that’s what I’m wondering if RPE has a place for you, and like Claire’s trying to develop a system with RPE with her athletes, and trying to use that as a data point to get around this difficulty of us being able to collect enough data to figure out what should the load be, what is going on?
MATT: Yeah, I mean Jesse, absolutely. I think that what I realized, and again, this comes back to your original question, what are the things that, you know, if you’re a coach out there and you want to become a bit more scientific, like where do you start? And 110% and I was after I– kind of went back into my journey a little bit after being the triathlete. I got into training all kinds of combative athletes.
So, I had some MMA athletes, a couple guys who went to the UFC, I trained a lot of boxers. And I would go down to the boxing gym sort of more in the past decade just to train myself and I’m awful by the way. I’m not trying to pretend like I’m a street fighter or something [??? 52:27] by any stretch.
But I remember Doug [??? 52:31], a great coach and he would be everything whether you’re a beginner or one of his pros, was all about mastering what he’d say the jab, right. Because the job sets your distance, it sets your timing, it sets up your other punches. It allows you to have defense when you’re being attacked. And I always am like, yeah, master the jab.
Like you don’t need to be doing the crazy combinations. What you need is you need to have a crisp jab that sets things up because that’s the starting point. And in a very similar way, when you ask the question about RPE and getting these subjective measures from athletes, it is mastering the jab. And the value in that is that if you sit down every week, you have what you planned as a coach to do, right.
So, I wrote you a bunch of training, gave it to you. There’s what I planned and then there’s what you incurred. And because what you incurred is so dependent on all those factors that you talked about, right? Like how are you adapting? I always say working with ski racers, we will go to the bottom of the downhill course and it’s amazing. You watch the top 30 athletes come down, whew, they’re exhausted, they’re tired, they’ve had a tough two-minute run.
And then you get into the 40s and the 50s and the 60s in terms of the rest of the athletes coming down and invariably, your last five or six athletes are young skiers, this is their first downhill run ever in their life. And they come down and typically they burst into tears because it is terrifying to throw yourself off a mountain at 130 or 40 kilometers an hour and risk your life, basically. And they’re petrified.
So, if they did two minutes, they both see the same run, I can guarantee you that the physiological and psychological load for athlete number 60, that’s their first run and they’re bursting into tears because they’re so scared, I can guarantee you the load on them is entirely different than the load on that person who came down third.
Because it’s a completely different stressor on the system. And one of the best ways to capture that is using the RPE method. And Carl Foster who, he’s an American from Milwaukee, he was a professor in exercise science. And he used to work with the US speedskating team and he’s got a great paper, 1998 where he sort of validates the sessional RPE method.
And I’ll tell you, in today’s day and age going back from what Carl put out there in 1998 to today, where you can make a Google Form, zero dollars, you can have your athletes every single day fill out, you know, I did a run, it was 60 minutes long. It was a five on 10 effort, and they give you a couple of notes.
It is so valuable to go back to those simple anchor points when you’ve started to amass data. And one sport that I’ve been working with for a long time, as I mentioned was ski racing. And when I was working with the women’s team from 2010 to about 2018, I’ve got probably 10,000 rows of data in my Google Sheet from all of the entry points of these athletes over that time.
And it’s a bit crude. I get it. Sessional RPE, it’s a subjective record. But it turns out is you’re a pretty good barometer of how hard that was. I don’t need to have a fancy piece of equipment. If I asked you every day, how was that, you’re actually pretty good, pretty good at estimating that load on yourself.
And if I asked you questions about your anxiety, your stress, your adaptation, your energy levels, your soreness, I can start to see when you’re like, you know, I’m not doing great. How are you sleeping? How many hours are you sleeping? We can start to see these trends.
And I just got done with one of our Canadian Alpine skiers who had a real bad injury, had a full knee dislocation. And this athlete was just a crazy healer, a great, great guy to work with, I really came to like him as I got to know him over his journey. But when we’ve got his data for the 14 weeks that he’s coming back on snow in the winter, and we’ve got– we can manage those increases in load, and we can track his knee pain scale, and we can look at how he’s adapting.
All of that is driven by the sessional RPE method. It’s a great tool, and it’s so available. It’s easy, right? How long, how hard, what was it? I always ask an energy level question too. So, give me your energy scale from one to 10, 10’s best ever you felt amazing, one is the worst ever energy. And it’s really interesting.
And you’ll know this too as a triathlete that very often what ends up happening when people are mal adapting to training, stress is the easy workouts start to feel really, really hard. So, you’re doing these recovery sessions, you’re like, oh, my God, that was supposed to be like, a nice, easy 90 minutes zone, one ride on my bike, but man, that felt like the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
And when you start to see these easy workouts become really difficult and energy levels are starting to decline and sleep starting to go down; they give you just enough nuggets as a coach to be able to be like, “Hey, I think we got an athlete who’s not adapting to the stress as well as I planned.”
And what are you going to do with that? You’re gonna take that information, you’re going to give them a call, you’re going to have a phone call, you’re going to have a chat, you’re going to make an adjustment, you’re going to tweak because that’s the whole thing is we’re trying to make these micro-adjustments to the plan, which you plan so that you can optimize adaptation. And yeah, certainly, I’m a big proponent of the sessional RPE method just because I think it’s accessible, it’s easy, it’s been validated.
And yes, there’s limitations, but simple things done well. Like that’s simple things done well, get your jab down. And then if your jab’s not working for you anymore, maybe learn another punch. But right now, a jab will probably do a lot of us just, well, just fine to start this process off. So, great question, and couldn’t agree more.
JESSE: Thanks. It’s just something I used and preached for over a decade now. So, I always like to see how it comes into play for people like you who are especially, I’ll say hard data focus, not the subjective measures. Because I find value in it. And in the, I’ll say, artistry of pacing, and all of these things, where it’s like, it’s internal measures, it’s how you feel and all these things.
But because I’m again, just a case study of one, I’m just myself. I can’t live inside of anybody else. I don’t know how that all applies. So, anyway, as we’re starting to run short on time, there’s a question I’m asking everybody this season because it transcends sports and disciplines. So, I’d like to ask you what you think the purpose of sport is?
MATT: Oh, yeah. I mean, I can answer this question as a parent. I’ve got three boys. And I think that physical activity is the fountain of youth. And I think it’s a lot of what ails us in our society, especially North America, comes down to a lack of physical activity. And from my perspective, sport is the gateway to physical activity. And so, sport first and foremost, fundamentally, first and foremost is allowing kids, and I believe you may maintain the ability to learn skills well into your 20s and 30s and 40s and beyond.
Sport is a gateway for developing physical skills, physical literacy that opens up the doors to being able to have physical activity. And there’s nothing that makes me prouder than to watch a Canadian athlete stand on top of a podium getting their Olympic gold medal and tears and all that stuff. Like it’s an exhilarating moment once every four years. And our country goes bananas, and I know Americans go bananas for their athletes.
But let’s be honest, what do I want for my kids? I want my kids to grow up so that when they’re in their 30s, their bodies feel good, they’re healthy, and they can do whatever they want. They can play basketball, they can play hockey, they can play tennis, you know, they’re not afraid to go pick something new up because they’ve got the physical skills and the physical literacy to be physically active.
And I think sports is a great gateway for that. And I expose my kids to sports because I want them to have the literacy down the road to be able to do things that they want to do. And whether they make the NHL or Olympic level sport, I could care less. It’s not on my radar. So, that’s what sport is for me. I think it’s a key part of our society and I think it’s undervalued.
And then I don’t know about the US, but in Canada, we’ve had this sort of like, I guess, in some ways that the focus on performance has gotten very, very big, winning medals. And I like that, that’s my job. I mean, let’s help athletes get to the podium, healthy and safe. But I think that we’ve become, we’ve sort of lost the sense of why we do this.
And I’ll go back to Norway, because I mentioned them earlier. It’s funny that their whole mission, vision, values purpose as an organization, this is the Norwegian Olympic Committee, and I’m going to probably get the exact wording wrong. But the reason they exist is to uplift lives of Norwegians through sport. That is why they exist.
So, that’s why kids are out when they’re young and cross country skiing, and they’re physically active because their goal isn’t to just win medals, it’s to uplift. And I think that sport for me has always been that vehicle. And I see it being that vehicle for people who are either marginalized or overlooked in society. And I see it being tremendously beneficial for people who need to get fit and physically active for their health. Yeah, it’s a great vehicle. We gotta keep making sure that we’re doing it for the right reasons and teaching others the value of it. Good question.
JESSE: That was a good answer. I don’t think I’ve had anybody answer quite in that fashion yet. So, that’s why I love the question because it’s so open-ended. Matt, if people want to see what you’re up to, kind of follow along with your career, your research, all that kind of stuff; where can they find you?
MATT: Yep. You can follow me on Twitter, my Twitter handle and my Instagram handle is @JordanStrength, J-O-R-D-A-N strength. You can go to my website, www.JordanStrength.com, you can sign up to my mailing list. I do have, like I don’t bombard people. Like I put out maybe every three, two to three months, I’ll usually put out something that’s going on. Either stuff that I’m doing, courses that I’m running because I do a lot of courses for coaches and sports scientists, or something that might be of interest.
So, it’s not just being driven out there constantly. So, for people who don’t like lots of emails, I get it. And then on Twitter, it’s kind of the same. Any research that we’re doing publications that are coming out, stuff that we’re working on that are kind of new innovations; it goes up there and it also goes on Instagram. So, yeah, please if you do want to get in touch or follow, that’s the best way to do it.
JESSE: Sounds good. Thanks for hanging out with me today, Matt.
MATT: Appreciate it. Thank you very much.