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How to recognise improvement

Nigel Hetherington explains how to assess training and competition performance.

Both the assessment of progress in training and the measurement of competitive performance are two potentially difficult quantities to determine in a reliable and meaningful way. While on the surface it may appear obvious that someone who scores their highest innings, runs their quickest time, or lifts their greatest weight has performed to their best it may not necessarily be the case.

Are the results meaningful?

While there is a battery of test measurements most athletes and their coaches can undertake to measure or evaluate progress against set targets and while some sports offer specific performance measurements by the sport itself, how can we be sure that the measurement itself is meaningful and how do we know if the result represents an improvement? Let us look at an example to help us work through a few points:

  • Our athlete has been working on improving their hamstring flexibility
  • They are aiming to improve it by 5cm, as measured by the sit and reach test, over 6 weeks
  • Their initial measurement gave a reach of 25cm
  • After 6 weeks of performing a specific stretching program, their measurement is now 27cm.

Questions: Have they improved? Have they achieved their goal?

You probably answered 'yes' and 'no'. Less useful, but more accurate answers may be 'it depends' and 'maybe'

What factors may influence the results?

The following factors may have an impact on the results of a test (test reliability):

  • The ambient temperature, noise level, and humidity
  • The amount of sleep the athlete had before testing
  • The athlete's emotional state " Medication the athlete may be taking
  • The time of day
  • The athlete's caffeine intake
  • The time since the athlete's last meal
  • The test environment - surface (track, grass, road, gym)
  • The athlete's prior test knowledge/experience
  • The accuracy of measurements (times, distances, etc.)
  • Is the athlete applying maximum effort in maximal tests
  • Inappropriate warm-up
  • People present
  • The personality, knowledge, and skill of the tester

Unless we take control of most of these variables the actual measurement itself may not be valid, and we may never know where we are.

Accuracy and precision

We also need to consider or at least be aware of accuracy and precision when taking measurements and assessing their validity. Accuracy means it is the right answer - would we arrive at the same solution using a different but compatible measurement system? Precision means we can get the same or similar result every time - but, it may not necessarily be the right one!

For example, if I shoot three arrows at a target aiming for the centre, then I am accurate if I hit the centre but not accurate if I do not. If all of the arrows hit the centre then I am accurate and precise. If all of the arrows miss the centre, but land in a tight cluster, say, on an outer edge, then I have excellent precision but poor accuracy. If the arrows land all over the place, then my performance is neither accurate nor precise. If I do not have control of something, e.g. such as a variable wind, then I will probably lose accuracy and precision.

If I set my sights incorrectly, then I will probably be precise but not accurate. I have to get everything right and know what all these factors are to be accurate. Quite a challenge!

Finally …..

In constructing tests, it is important to make sure that they measure the factors required to be tested, and are thus objective rather than subjective.

In doing so all tests should, therefore, be specific (designed to assess an athlete's fitness for the activity in question), valid (test what they purpose to test), reliable (capable of consistent repetition), and objective (produce a consistent result irrespective of the tester).

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • HETHERINGTON, N. (2005) How to recognise improvement. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 26 / October), p. 10

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • HETHERINGTON, N. (2005) How to recognise improvement [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Nigel Hetherington was the Head Track & Field Coach at the internationally acclaimed Singapore Sports School. He is a former National Performance Development Manager for Scottish Athletics and National Sprints Coach for Wales. Qualified and highly active as a British Athletics level 4 performance coach in all events he has coached athletes to National and International honours in sprints, and hurdles as well as a World Record holder in the Paralympic shot. He has ten years of experience as a senior coach educator and assessor trainer on behalf of British Athletics. Nigel is also an experienced athlete in the sprint (World Masters Championship level) and endurance (3-hour marathon runner plus completed the 24-hour 'Bob Graham Round' ultra-endurance event up and down 42 mountain peaks in the English Lake District). He is a chartered chemist with 26 years of experience in scientific research and publishing.