• FeltovichFit - Bridging the Gap - Translating Science Into Athlete Recommendations

“Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad [1].”

In my lifetime, 44 years now, I’ve seen strength and conditioning coaches go from nonexistent to almost required, and their training and knowledge increase just as dramatically. When the Chicago Bears drafted my boyhood hero in 1975, Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton, the Chicago Bears “weight room” was a Sears Roebuck twelve-in-one exercise machine—which doubled as a coat rack [2]. To the extent that there were qualifications to be a strength and conditioning coach, they were: “big, strong, and ugly [3].”

Fortunately, times have changed. Starting in 2014, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) began to require that all strength and conditioning coaches have a nationally recognized certification [4], and hopefully, high schools will follow soon.

There’s still a lot of work to be done in educating strength and conditioning professionals, but even when they have the requisite knowledge, they often fall short in knowing how to apply it, how to translate theory into practice. The reason for that gap is that the principles of sound application come not from the disciplines that strength and conditioning professionals are hopefully versed in, such as kinesiology and nutrition, but from those that they might not be: economics, psychology, and management theory. The latter provides principles such as cost-benefit analysis, bounded rationality [5], and numerous behavioral and cognitive biases [6]. Those are the disciplines that the following principles for translating theory into practice are based on:

  • Finding root causes
  • Weighing upside vs. downside risk
  • Using the 80/20 principle

Find Root Causes

When troubleshooting a client’s, athlete’s, or team’s problems, it’s usually easy to come up with a long list—or a short book. Fortunately, many of those problems and issues have common root causes. For example, the average American’s diet, athlete and non-athlete alike, has several shortcomings: calorie-rich, nutrient deficient, hyperglycemic, and inflammatory. However, most of those maladies have a common root cause: an overabundance of processed foods, most notably refined sugars, starches, and fats. Taking a whole foods-first approach, eating foods that look closest to how they did when they were picked or killed, mitigates most of those problems at their source.

When cueing an athlete on proper exercise form, find one “keystone” cue instead of filling in the athlete’s head with a dozen different instructions—and doing so while he has a 500-pound barbell on his back. For example, “rip the floor apart” is much simpler and more effective than: “drive the outside edges of the feet into the ground, make sure the knees track the toes, engage the glutes, and pull the hips through.”

Weigh Upside vs. Downside Risk

Can you have too little body fat? Yes. Is that a problem that I need to worry about? Unfortunately, no. Do you need to worry about it? If you’re the average reader and you’re being honest with yourself, probably not. Other unfounded fears include too much sleep, too much protein, and too much water. For many questions in exercise and nutrition, the solution isn’t to find the “correct” amount—which even experts seldom agree on—but rather to find an empirically derived range, determine the upside or downside risks from overdoing or underdoing, and then err on the upside or downside accordingly.

Starting with the most unfounded worry, too much sleep, there is some statistical evidence that excess sleep is associated with elevated morbidity and mortality [7]. However, given the epidemic of chronic sleep deprivation, especially among students, parents, and working professionals [8], the risks of sleeping “too much” almost always skew towards the upside.

Protein is another great example. Just Google “protein is bad for…” and watch autofill populate the remainder of the query with: kidneys, heart, hair, and even dogs! Those who caution against “too much protein” almost invariably justify the recommendation with research involving patients with chronic kidney disease (CKD). People with CKD often must limit their protein intake, but the analogy of healthy people to CKD sufferers is as silly as saying that because people with sprained ankles shouldn’t walk, walking is bad for everyone. Antonio et al. fed healthy athletes obscene amounts of protein for one year, and the only side effect was improved body composition [9]. Granted, there were diminishing returns to increased protein intake, but again it’s better to err on the upside, as no patient has ever gone to his doctor complaining: “I’m not getting enough fats and carbs because of all this protein I’m consuming!”

Overhydration is a more justifiable worry, even though the cases that I’m familiar with mostly involved endurance athletes who drank at every station whether they needed to or not and fraternity hazing rituals that involved chugging water [10]. Given that half of professional basketball players—men who make millions of dollars to deliver their peak physical performance—start their games dehydrated [11], the average person under average circumstances has more to gain than lose by erring on the side of excess.

Using the 80/20 Principle

The 80/20 rule says that in any endeavor 80% of the results come from 20% of the effort [12], so similar to focusing on root causes, focus on those athlete or client behaviors that will yield the greatest return on effort. For example, Dr. Michael Ormsbee commented on the conventional wisdom that breakfast is the most important meal of the day: there is some marginal improvement in health and performance from eating breakfast, but if an athlete or client is going to fight you over skipping breakfast, is squandering your precious political capital persuading him otherwise the best use of your time? Is it worth the opportunity cost of trying to change other more malleable and effectual behaviors? Probably not [13]. Alas, conventional wisdom is sometimes just conventional. You can get everyone to do something, but you can’t get anyone to do everything, and the 80/20 rule says that even in a hypothetical world where you could, the cost isn’t worth the benefit.

  1. O’Driscoll, B. Brian O’Driscoll Quotes. 2003 [cited 2023 February 22]; Available from:
  2. Pearlman, J., Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton. 2011: Penguin Publishing Group.
  3. National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). 50 Mistakes Young Coaches Make That
    Keep Them from Getting the Position They Want. 2020; Available from:
  1. National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). Strength and Conditioning Coach Certification.
    11.1.4 2014; Available from: https://web3.ncaa.org/lsdbi/search/bylawView?id=113987.
  2. Augier, M., and J.G. March, Models of a Man: Essays in Memory of Herbert A. Simon. 2022: MIT
  3. Kahneman, D., Thinking, Fast and Slow. 2011: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  4. Cappuccio, F.P., et al., Sleep duration and all-cause mortality: a systematic review and meta-analysis of prospective studies. Sleep, 2010. 33(5): p. 585-92.
  5. Dement, W.C., The Promise of Sleep: A Pioneer in Sleep Medicine Explores the Vital Connection
    Between Health, Happiness, and a Good Night’s Sleep. 2000: Random House Publishing Group.
  6. Antonio, J., et al., A High Protein Diet Has No Harmful Effects: A One-Year Crossover Study in
    Resistance-Trained Males. J Nutr Metab, 2016. 2016: p. 9104792.
  7. Foderaro, L.W., Death in Underground Frat’s Hazing Ritual Shakes a SUNY Campus, in The New
    York Times. 2003.
  8. Osterberg, K.L., C.A. Horswill, and L.B. Baker, Pregame urine specific gravity and fluid intake by
    National Basketball Association players during competition. J Athl Train, 2009. 44(1): p. 53-7.
  9. Wikipedia contributors, Pareto Principle, in Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
  10. The Teaching Company LLC. Changing Body Composition through Diet and Exercise. 2016;
    Available from: https://www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/changing-body-composition-through-diet-and-exercise.