The news that England rugby had appointed Matt Parker as head of athletic performance has led to a great deal of scepticism in some quarters. “How does science help players not butcher a scoring pass?” was asked by one flat worlder. Well, not to get too technical about this – it all depends.
Science may not be able to do too much to reform a tunnel visionary in the first minute of the match, although even then there are perhaps some space perception exercises that may help. But it can certainly help a player who butchers an overlap in the 75th minute of a match.
There is no doubt that the quality of decision making deteriorates as athletes get increasingly tired. I once saw Darren Clarke butcher a round at the Masters, when in contention, because wet weather had forced him to play an unusual amount of holes in a day.
Clarke’s lack of fitness told against him (just as superb fitness always gave Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods an edge over the hills of Augusta) although he only admitted it subsequently. Golf is not the most physically tiring sport, but it does require a very high level of mental acuity for very precise short spells. Weary golfers make bad decisions, or have to second guess themselves when their caddies try to talk them out of it.
Parker is the former director of marginal gains for British Cycling and his appointment is aimed at improving both England’s athletic performance and their mental performance. This is the man who changed Bradley Wiggins’s body shape from an also-pedalled into the athlete who came fourth at the 2009 Tour de France.
This is the man who helped British Cycling sweep so many golds at the Olympics through attention to small detail. The athletes are reported to have consumed fish oil and montmorency cherries because anti oxidants help muscles recover quicker. It sounds like sorcery to me, but only because I am ignorant of bio chemistry.
Parker said: “A unique thing about the 2012 Olympics, we noticed a year ago there was an hour between the semi-finals and finals [in the pursuit] so one of the projects has been: how do we maximise recovery in that time? And if you look at all the teams’ data, we’re the only ones that went faster in the final of the women’s team pursuit than in the semi-finals."
There were a number of details that went into that improvement, including heated shorts to prevent the cyclists’ muscles from cooling. Maybe England’s rugby players will wear heated shorts at half-time. They looked as if they could have done with them after shipping two tries to the All Blacks straight after the break.
Indeed New Zealand powered past many nations in the second half of matches this season and much of that performance edge was induced by science. Indeed it still amazes me that no one In Britain has approached Ken Quarrie, the statistical guru who has had a considerable influence on both New Zealand’s and the Chiefs’ success.
But maybe it’s all still fish oil to some people. There is much to be said for some of the traditional methods as I can attest after throwing up 200 bales of hay the other day. But science can give teams an edge. The recent World Cup winners have each found that 1% point of difference. It is only right that Stuart Lancaster, like any good coach, should want to do the same.