by Eric McMahon, MEd, CSCS, RSCC*D and Carmen Colomer, MSc
Coaching Podcast August 2021
Carmen Colomer, Director of Sport Science for the Philadelphia 76ers National Basketball Association (NBA) team, talks to the NSCA Coaching and Sport ...
Carmen Colomer, Director of Sport Science for the Philadelphia 76ers National Basketball Association (NBA) team, talks to the NSCA Coaching and Sport Science Program Manager, Eric McMahon, about translating numbers into actions. Topics under discussion include periodizing athlete’s recovery in the NBA and how learning to code can help with data analysis and application. Find Carmen on Twitter: @CarmenColomer1 | Find Eric on Instagram: @ericmcmahoncscs or Twitter: @ericmcmahoncscs
Carmen Colomer, Director of Sport Science for the Philadelphia 76ers National Basketball Association (NBA) team, talks to the NSCA Coaching and Sport Science Program Manager, Eric McMahon, about translating numbers into actions. Topics under discussion include periodizing athlete’s recovery in the NBA and how learning to code can help with data analysis and application.
“So I collect a lot of the data. I analyze it and then interpret it. So there's always the terms of inferences, like am I appropriately analyzing the data instead of understanding if there has been a meaningful change there as well? So I think that's where sports science comes in. Rather than just looking at, say, a percentage change, we can actually look at a few more high level statistics and understand when a change has occurred.” 5:20
“I think broadly speaking, with my role, it's translating the numbers into the actions. So it's sort of asking yourself, OK, well, what can this coach do with this information? So I think how you can get certain messages across probably becomes one of the most important parts of the job.” 7:27
“I think the last point is that in most sports or most of the literature you'd hear them talking about having 72 hours to recover post games, but unfortunately, we don't have that luxury. So I think we just sort of capitalize on, I guess, finely tuning things. If there's any low-hanging fruit, that's where we migrate towards first.” 12:00
“And there's no point of doing that and just collecting data for the sake of collecting data. And I think, in any organization, when you first come in, you need to be careful that you're not just trying 100 things at once. It's typically an iterative process. Implement one thing and maybe fine tune that for a little while before implementing more.” 20:27
“I don't think anyone in sports science is ever right. I think you just become less wrong.” 22:42
[00:00:00.00] [MUSIC PLAYING]
[00:00:00.69] Welcome to the NSCA Coaching Podcast, episode 107.
[00:00:05.01] I think, broadly speaking, with my role, it's translating the numbers into action. So it's sort of asking yourself, OK, well, what can this coach do with this information? So I think how you can get certain messages across probably becomes one of the most important parts of the job.
[00:00:26.29] This is the NSCA's Coaching Podcast, where we talk to strength and conditioning coaches about what you really need to know but probably didn't learn in school. There's strength and conditioning, and then there's everything else.
[00:00:37.21] Welcome to the NSCA Coaching Podcast. I'm Eric McMahon, and today we're joined by Carmen Colomer, the director of sports science for the Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA. Carmen, welcome.
[00:00:49.91] Thanks so much for having me, Eric. Really appreciate it.
[00:00:53.00] Excited to have you on today. Learned a little bit about the NBA. You guys are off to a great start to the season. We are connecting right around the time of the All-Star break. So I definitely want to ask some questions related to sports science in the NBA, some of the things you're doing with your players. But before we get too far in, lead us up to where we're at today with your background, how did you get started in this field?
[00:01:18.93] Yeah, sure. So I started my bachelor's degree back in 2011, so quite a while ago now. That was at Victoria University, which is in Melbourne, Australia. And so my time there, I was doing a bachelor in sports science and sport coaching. I sort of took all the physiology subjects, decided I really liked that area. During my time there, I also did a study abroad program in Germany, at the German Sport University, which was also a pretty amazing experience at the time.
[00:01:54.20] After that, I-- and during that time as well, I also did an internship at the Victorian Institute of Sport, as a physiologist there. And after that, I started my masters of high performance sport, which was at Australian Catholic University. And then during that, I did a research component, which I ended up doing with the Melbourne Rebels, which is a rugby union team that play in the Super Rugby competition, which is a southern hemisphere competition.
[00:02:25.28] Then after that, I was lucky enough to get a position as a postgraduate scholar in physiology at the Australian Institute of Sport. So I did that for a year, which was just amazing. And I felt so lucky to be there, at such a well-renowned institution. And then straight off the back of that, I was also, again, very lucky to get a PhD, so an embedded PhD, which means I was full time with the ACT Brumbies. So I stayed in Canberra for that with one of my amazing supervisors, Spencer Pell, who was the high performance manager at the time.
[00:03:05.66] And did about-- did that for about 2 and 1/2 years until I got headhunted a little bit, for a job at the Brisbane Broncos, in the rugby league. So I switched cards there and did that for a year. And then the 76ers sort of came out. So like you were saying, we're at the top of the conference. But I feel like a bit of a blister. I've shown up after all the hard work was done. I've only started about five weeks ago. So it's all quite new to me.
[00:03:37.39] Well, that's cool. You've had a lot of different experiences, really. And this is sort of a theme we hear, whenever we are interviewing coaches and researchers coming from Australia, is that embedded PhD route, where you're getting a lot of hands-on experience. Let's dive into the NBA a little bit. I want to ask you, it's your first five weeks, what's your initial impression? And what's the outlook for the role in things you're looking forward to?
[00:04:08.09] Yeah, it's completely different to anything I've experienced before. I mean, look, everyone talks about the travel and the playing schedule, the, obviously, the congested nature of it all. So that's taken some getting used to and that. It really makes you think about the theoretical versus the applied side. So in theory, a lot of things might be great to implement, but in practicality-wise, they just won't work, or perhaps an athlete won't want to do something that you might suggest.
[00:04:41.60] In terms of my day-to-day role, so I think, like in the broader sense, I feel like I provide objective data for the subjective decision making. So I think sometimes it can be a sort of two ends of the spectrum with sports science. Some people, you think, that there's one number that answers all the questions and other people who potentially don't believe in it. And I sort of try and be, as much as I can, in the middle and just sort of say, well, here are the numbers, and it's up to you now, what you'd like to do with it.
[00:05:13.73] I think, obviously, that involves a lot of tech. So I collect a lot of the data. I analyze it and then interpret it. So there's always the terms of inferences, like am I appropriately analyzing the data instead of understanding if there has been a meaningful change there as well? So I think that's where sports science comes in. Rather than just looking at, say, a percentage change, we can actually look at a few more high level statistics and understand when a change has occurred.
[00:05:49.32] Yeah, obviously we use GPS or of the like, so LPS, local positioning systems, and so that, obviously, plays-- wear that during training. Unfortunately, and a lot of them wear them in games. However, we do still get data from time-motion analysis. And I think that's really important from, say, profiling the game but more importantly probably, profiling the individual.
[00:06:16.10] So it might be that a player plays amazingly, but their numbers might not be that great. But that just might be their style of play or so on. But of course, you always need to understand that a player does need to hit certain numbers or else be able to maintain certain numbers throughout a game. So I guess those-- that data helps us guide that programming.
[00:06:40.58] And then, yeah, we use force plates, so that's for more of, potentially, a monitoring perspective. So we have a few different force plates, some athletes probably more periodic than others, just depending on a few things, so whether they have certain qualities that we're trying to improve or if there are discrepancies and so on in lower limbs. But it's also a really good way to just see how an athlete is responding.
[00:07:07.62] So we can talk all we want about external load, but I think actually understanding how the athlete responds to certain internal load measures, that's where we get a lot of really valuable information in that sense. And so I feel like it's a longer answer to a very short question, but-- That's
[00:07:27.85] I think I-- I think broadly speaking, with my role, it's translating the numbers into the actions. So it's sort of asking yourself, OK, well, what can this coach do with this information? So I think how you can get certain messages across probably becomes one of the most important parts of the job.
[00:07:50.07] So people talk about load monitoring and so on, and I think that's-- of course, it's extremely important. But I probably see that more of a roadmap on how then to progress, or potentially regress, if there's been periods, say COVID, where there's been a shut down and so on, and how to, say, progress, after there's been a period of no training whatsoever.
[00:08:18.35] It's interesting, and I mentioned that we're right around the All-Star break now. I know that's a time of the season when players are-- they're typically excited for the break and just to get a little bit of recovery. And that's something I want to ask you about, is recovery is a term that gets thrown around, but during a professional season you're always doing something. You're always practicing. You're always playing. You're traveling and with multiple games a week.
[00:08:47.81] How is recovery accomplished and monitored? And what's your approach, or an approach within the NBA, to manage athletes at that level, and just some of the key elements of that?
[00:09:03.41] Yeah, look, exactly what you said, it becomes the most important part of it all. I think in a lot of other sports you can sort of periodize recovery. And you can, of course, do that in the NBA as well. But I feel in other sports it's always been more of an adaptation period or those periods where you can allow for adaptation and so on. Whereas, obviously, you can have recovery without adaptation, so then that's probably where the focus relies more, is how can we actually just recover acutely?
[00:09:39.95] So our schedule is every second day. And, I think, in the first two weeks of the second half of the schedule we have three back-to-backs in less than two weeks. But usually it would be game on, game off, so essentially, it becomes play, recover, play, recover, play, recover. I think the travel element adds in a whole different layer of what you need to consider when it comes to recovery.
[00:10:06.50] So you think about, we're playing a back-to-back and we finish the game at 10 o'clock or 10:30 at night, and then we need to get to the airport. We need to get on the plane. We need to fly to the new location. We've potentially crossed a time zone or two. And then we need to still get to the hotel and so on, and then wind down after that. And then you've got the next day, and you're playing that following night.
[00:10:31.43] So I think it just becomes about fine tuning certain areas. Like everybody knows how to sleep, but of course, there's sleep hygiene elements which can be optimized. So we look at a few of those areas. You think about, when you're on a plane there's the dry, recycled air, which is causing, potentially, a little bit more dehydration. So we think of, OK, what are some hydration strategies we can include here?
[00:11:02.42] Obviously, considering the time zone changes and which direction we're traveling, if you're traveling eastward, then you've got that having to go to bed a bit earlier, which tends to be more challenging for the body. Whereas if you're traveling westward, then you just have to stay up a little bit later, which seems to be a little bit easier.
[00:11:26.37] So I think-- and then, obviously, disrupting the sleep routine, so typically you've got a circadian rhythm, where you are in bed by a certain time every night and your body naturally wakes at a certain time every morning. But if that's getting disrupted every two days or three days, that can add a whole different element. So I think travel fatigue and jet lag are two completely different things. And when you've got that combination of both together, it just becomes just a huge consideration.
[00:11:59.21] I think the last point is that in most sports or most of the literature you'd hear them talking about having 72 hours to recover post games, but unfortunately, we don't have that luxury. So I think we just sort of capitalize on, I guess, finely tuning things. If there's any low-hanging fruit, that's where we migrate towards first. We always look at the cost to benefit ratio. And if this doesn't seem to be much of a cost or any downsides to what we want to implement, then we typically at least just give it a go. Yeah.
[00:12:36.11] No, you spoke to the technology and how that is involved in the sports science process, and you spoke to the value of just a dedicated role of being a sports scientist as part of a NBA team, as part of a sport performance staff. Here in the US, I think we see this evolution towards interdisciplinary communication and just the role of, everybody has their area of expertise. But everybody needs to work together to optimize performance and create best practices for an organization. Where does sports science and your role fit in that interdisciplinary conversation?
[00:13:25.60] Yeah, that's a really good question. I think, within the department, I feel like all the areas really need to be aligned. And I feel like sports science is a really quite holistic view, because it can-- some people ask me what sports science is. And I say, well, it's a really specific vocation, but it's also not a vocation at all because it can sit across quite a few different areas.
[00:13:54.23] And I think it's always going to vary on the department that you're in and the sport that you're in. I'm thoroughly convinced that it always comes back to what the coach's goal is, so really understanding what the coach's goal is, what-- the end he has in mind, and then how can I best provide the information to the respective departments, and that we're all on board and this all aligns with our own goals, but ultimately, for the coach's goal as well.
[00:14:28.08] So I like to, for example, after a game, I might send the reports to the whole athletic department, and I'll provide certain recommendations based on, say, its recovery or what the next steps should be, or potentially how the athlete might be feeling, and so on. And each respective department can take that information and implement it, so for example, whether they need to do a little bit less in the gym that day, or whether they need to do a little bit more recovery, or they're going to get treatment from this person or that person. And I think that comes back to the common goal of, well, what's the coach's common goal? If it's to make sure that all the athletes, they feel fresh, for example, then I feel like that contributes to it all.
[00:15:14.55] That's awesome. I want to go back to the beginning for you a little bit and just ask, who have been some of the biggest influences in your career that have led you down this path or given you great advice along the way?
[00:15:30.42] How did I-- I've thought about why I've worked with such amazing people. And I thought, oh God, I've been so lucky. But then I thought, maybe sport attracts good people. But then I thought, perhaps only the good people survive. I can't figure out which one it is.
[00:15:48.43] But genuinely, when I was at Melbourne Rebels, I was under the Bryce Cavanagh, albeit not a very short time, but he's outstanding. And then even at the VIS Rodney Siegel was great. And then moving on to, obviously, the AIS, where David Pond, who's still currently my supervisor for my PhD, who is just a powerhouse in the, well, pracademic, let's call it, field, so practitioner and academic.
[00:16:26.53] And of course, I mentioned Ben Serpell before, who is just probably one of the most well-rounded high performance managers I've been lucky enough to work underneath and to know, because he not only has a PhD himself, but he also continues to research and has quite a few PhD students under him, really has a very holistic view of performance and so always challenged my assumptions. And even to this day, we text three four times a week and still keep in contact a lot.
[00:17:05.29] And then going to the Brisbane Broncos, and I worked with Paul Devlin and then Andrew Croll, who has now just taken the reins, who I think is going to do amazing things. And I feel like, again, I've been so lucky. And they're just good people. And everyone has their own strengths, whether it's Andrew Croll and his personality and his energy that he brings every day or it's Ben Serpell, with his inquisitiveness, and are just-- yeah, there's so many. There are genuinely so many. Grant Duffy, he's outstanding as well. So yeah, I could go on forever.
[00:17:46.87] That's awesome. And just on that, we have a lot of young strength and conditioning coaches, but as the NSCA expands into the world of sports science, we have a number of people, young and aspiring sports scientists, listening to this podcast as well. Just from your experience, what makes a sports scientist or high performance manager successful?
[00:18:10.89] I'll go back to what I was just saying, you've got to be a good person. I think people always say that in life and in work you only really need attitude and the aptitude, so those two things. So you've got to make sure that you turn up every day with a good attitude. And then how quickly can you learn? And how quickly can you apply those learnings into something, so I guess the application of knowledge.
[00:18:36.60] That's great advice. And how we apply our knowledge is vital. I like how you used the term pracademic. I'd never heard that before. But sports science is such a scientifically driven area that continues to expand. Now speaking to the process of how we apply scientific information, what role does technology play in the process?
[00:19:03.55] There's so many ways to do things. So I'm not going to say that the way I do things is the best and the only way to do it. There might be certain teams that don't use any technology whatsoever. I think everything has its place, so long as it's used appropriately. I've definitely heard of places, not necessarily the NBA, where they have a lot of technology that they bought initially but now doesn't get used, and I think they need to ask themselves, OK, well, what was the problem that I was trying to solve? And what was the outcome I was trying to empower by purchasing this technology?
[00:19:38.18] So I think if you can sort of join the dots and look backwards there and understand, OK, well the problem was x, and the technology has the power to potentially help this outcome here, and then, do we have the right person, or do we have the right processes in place in order to get that information and make those inferences and so on? Because I have heard of a lot of places that don't use hundreds and thousands dollars worth of equipment.
[00:20:15.46] I think another-- we definitely use a lot of ours, but I think there's probably a lot of other technology that we could get as well. We don't want to throw spaghetti at the wall, though. And there's no point of doing that and just collecting data for the sake of collecting data. And I think, in any organization, when you first come in, you need to be careful that you're not just trying 100 things at once. It's typically an iterative process. Implement one thing and maybe fine tune that for a little while before implementing more.
[00:20:47.77] I guess another consideration, and this is for any sport, is that you need to get the athlete buy-in. If you're asking an athlete to wear something, whether it's a device to look at heart rate variability, or to look at how they're sleeping, or both, that's a commitment on their behalf, too. And you need to build that trust first.
[00:21:10.25] So that's probably where the attitude stuff comes in, in the soft skills, and really explaining to them, well, this is why I think you should wear it. And this is how it could potentially make you better. Or this is how we'll use this information, always with the goal of making the athlete better, or feel better, or so on. So that then becomes, initially, a bit of a limitation, until you can develop those relationships and actually ascertain whether the athletes will be willing to wear certain devices.
[00:21:46.87] Yeah, I think that's great perspective, that you have to remember at the professional level, that the athletes are key stakeholders that are-- they're experts in their craft. And they can-- and they're trying to make the best decision for their performance. And that's a-- athlete buy-in is extremely valuable, arguably the most important thing that you need to accomplish.
[00:22:16.78] I want to ask you, I think as you navigate your early part of your career here, what are some areas that your perspective towards sports science and your craft has changed since you first started down this path?
[00:22:36.23] Oh gosh, I would say it's a constant evolution. I don't think I'm ever right. I don't think anyone in sports science is ever right. I think you just become less wrong. I think I've stolen that term from someone else. But I completely agree with that. I read, oh gee, sometimes five papers a day on-- if something new has come out. I'm on Twitter every day, and that's a way of me to keep my finger on the pulse, and what's the latest research, and what are people doing in other sports that they're sharing, and so on.
[00:23:12.26] And so I think my views are consistently changing, especially as new technology comes out, or potentially some areas now suddenly becoming more and more important, whether it is about recovery or so on. I would-- yeah, I think if you ever-- I think I've always got pretty solid principles, but I've never been sold on one method of doing something because-- and I would never resign myself to the fact that I've only got one way of operating. I think I let my principles guide me and then constantly iterate.
[00:23:51.83] That's a great perspective. And I think to be a great professional, you have to have systems, and processes, and principles that you fall back on. And we're essentially building those processes and systems in where we work and in our roles. But it is very valuable, especially with the constant growth within the sports science areas, that we keep that open mind to just things that are coming. And it's-- yeah, that's a great perspective. I really-- I liked how you answered that. I think it's really cool.
[00:24:35.31] I want to ask a little projection question. I think about the future a lot. I remember early in my career I thought about the landscape of coaching and where it was going. And that's something I encourage young coaches to do, is trying to find a niche in the field, where the field is headed, and try to really be deliberate and thoughtful towards the direction and momentum of the field. And what does the next 5, 10 years of sports science look like? You can speak from your time in Australia, the way things are headed in terms of research, even what you're seeing here. What's the-- what momentum do you see, and where is that going to take us?
[00:25:24.56] Things are changing so quickly. And obviously, COVID threw a huge spanner in the works. So whether that, rather than hindered some progress might have even accelerated it in certain ways, now that we know, so say for example, people can have-- this isn't, obviously, to do with sport-- but people can have doctor's appointments online. It's now sort of allowed a lot of meetings or so on. Or whether it's appointments to happen online, I think that that's potentially started to make its way into sports science as well, just in certain areas. So I think that could actually help accelerate things as technology and big data becomes even bigger.
[00:26:12.17] I think in Australia, there seems to be-- so coding seems to be a huge part of sports science. So I wouldn't say I'm an amazing coder, but I'm pretty proficient in Python. And whereas I've noticed, potentially, in the States, those-- probably those data scientists and then those sport scientists, I'd say, so whether that-- I feel like it could go either way, that sports scientists will have to know how to code or whether they'll separate a little bit more and clubs will start to hire full-time data scientists and then have the sports scientists separate to that. So I'm not sure if that really answers your question that way.
[00:26:55.90] No, that's good. That's a really great perspective because I think here in the States and anywhere, there's going to be high resource programs that have multiple staff and a lot of technology to put in play. And then there's going to be lower resource programs where that sports scientist, or even the strength and conditioning coach, might be stepping into that role or doing some of the-- creating some of the data visualizations or whatever that is, in that context.
[00:27:25.36] And so it brings to light an area of the field that is gaining a lot of attention, of coding and coding languages as a essential sport science skills. It's something we don't really talk about a lot. What advice do you have for aspiring coaches and sports scientists to learn those skills?
[00:27:46.69] So that's a lot of the stuff that I get in a lot of the tutorials I watch. So on whether I'm just up-skilling in certain packages on Python and stuff or whether I want to learn about a new topic, it often comes from Twitter, which leads to YouTube, of course. And so I would say that-- [LAUGHS] I'd say there's a million and one different places you could subscribe to, whether it's on YouTube or whether it's on a blog or so on.
[00:28:21.90] And just follow along at home, I'd say. You really have to learn to work with data and learn to analyze it properly, so ensuring that you understand basic principles, such as the typical error in a measurement, the smallest worthwhile change, typical error expressed as a percentage to the coefficient of variation, and understand those terms as a starting point, and then-- so you can start to make those inferences.
[00:28:51.93] But also then understanding, what is the practical application of this, so of course, if there are inspiring sport scientists out there, dip a toe in. Go and try and do your best to get an internship. I know that's easier said than done, especially in sport. But get out there and start to understand, well, what do the coaches really want to know? And then, if you can get a hold of some data, start playing with that and start seeing if there's a way you can interpret that data and try and answer some of those questions that the coaches or even some of the other practitioners have.
[00:29:31.94] That's great. No, I appreciate that. And I think it's-- it's definitely the first time that I've heard Twitter and YouTube referred to as a reputable-- scientific content for aspiring sports scientists. But it does-- it speaks to our time, and it speaks to-- I mean, I'll be honest, I do the same thing every day I think, having your ear to the ground and just knowing the pulse of the field and the momentum of who's communicating and who's doing what out there.
[00:30:05.03] I listen to, or I follow Adam Virgil, and he's always putting out his infographics in some of his tutorials. And I think there's so many great practitioners out there. And we can pick on social media a little bit, but I would be lying if I said I don't find some great stuff there that-- it helps me. And I think it is a-- yeah, it's something we have to think about and maintain our level of professionalism and responsibility towards staying productive at times. But it can be very valuable.
[00:30:40.38] So Carmen, for our listeners today, what's the best way they can get in touch, if they have questions?
[00:30:47.91] Yeah, probably on Twitter. I'm not, despite being on a lot, I actually don't post all that much. But if I get any private messages, I'll respond to those. So that's just carmencolomer1 on Twitter. And I'm sorry, I should've said before, when I was talking about different areas that experienced sports scientists can learn some more, of course I should have plugged the school science textbook.
[00:31:14.52] Appreciate that. Yeah, we're excited. Duncan French and Lorena Torres Ronda did a great job as co-editors on that book, and just so many impactful voices from the sports science community around the globe on that, so really excited. So for any listeners who haven't got their hands on that textbook yet, Essentials of Sports Science, NSCAs new textbook. And I think it'll be definitely worth your time for a read. So thanks for the plug there. Really appreciate it.
[00:31:49.05] [LAUGHS] No worries at all.
[00:31:52.50] And thank you, Carmen Colomer, of the Philadelphia 76ers, and all of our listeners for being with us today. Also, a big thanks to Sorinex Exercise Equipment. We appreciate their support.
[00:32:06.41] From the NSCA, thank you for listening to the NSCA Coaching Podcast. We serve you, the coaching community, so follow us, subscribe, and download for future episodes. We look forward to connecting with you again soon and hope you'll join us at an upcoming NSCA event or in one of our special interest groups. For more information, go to NSCA.com.
[00:32:29.05] This was the NSCAs Coaching Podcast. The National Strength and Conditioning Association was founded in 1978 by strength and conditioning coaches to share information, resources, and help advance the profession. Serving coaches for over 40 years, the NSCA is the trusted source for strength and conditioning professionals. Be sure to join us next time.
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