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Research Basics: What is research and why is it important for leaders?

Coaches are frontline leaders, and I am a firm believer that nine times out of ten times science proves what coaching already discovered. While writing How to Improve at Fitness and Beat the Competition, I noticed a trend in research where areas gaining in popularity with coaches become the focus of research after the fact. Although the two worlds exist on opposite sides of the spectrum (practice and theory), it doesn’t hurt for coaches and other leaders to have a little background on what research and how it is conducted on a basic level. Even if it’s not the coach’s job to discover why something works or does not work, it is their responsibility to be able to systematically differentiate between effective and appropriate training methods and understand the research that makes it possible.

Research is “a systematic process of discovery and advancement of human knowledge (Graton & Jones, 2010).” Basically, it is a means of improvement. Research Methods and Design in Sport Management by Andrew, Pedersen, and McEvoy mention research can be classified according to five perspectives:

  1. The application of the research study (pure or applied research and basic research)

  2. The researcher’s objectives in undertaking the study (exploratory, descriptive, explanatory, or predictive)

  3. The type of information sought (qualitative, quantitative, or mixed-methods research)

  4. The presence of data (theoretical or empirical research)

  5. The data source analyzed (primary or secondary research)

When it comes to the application of the research study, there are two main focuses. Either the research is applied, which can also be referred to as pure research and is performed to solve a specific problem using more formal procedures and methods or the research is basic, which is conducted to gain a better understanding of a theoretical concept. Applied research is used for topics such as discovering why alcohol sales may be dropping at major league game events. The problem being a dip in alcohol sales and the research being conducted to solve that problem. Basic research could involve conducting a survey on what motivates students to attend their university sporting events. This is not necessarily a problem, but the research is still useful.

The researcher’s objectives in undertaking the study can be one of four methods, exploratory, descriptive, explanatory, or predictive. Exploratory is used to explore a topic and gain basic knowledge on it. Exploratory is used to help identify a hypothesis rather than solve one. An example is conducting a focus group to identify what fitness club members enjoy most about their experience at the fitness club. Descriptive research objectives focus on what is happening rather than why it is happening. Descriptive research could be conducted by providing surveys or interviews to determine if the fitness club members mentioned earlier, chose classes as their most enjoyable experience at the fitness club. Descriptive research would take it a step further and conduct a study to determine what classes. Explanatory research is the next progression. Explanatory research hopes to answer why something is occurring. With our fitness club member example, this may involve conducting interviews asking why people prefer certain classes? What is it that the classes they enjoy provide that the other classes do not. Finally, there is predictive research which is conducted when people are interested in predicting the future outcome of an event. This may be predicting what new classes to add to a fitness studio class schedule. The four methods all provide value, it just depends what type of information is being sought.

The type of information sought depends on the purpose of the study, how variables are measured, and how information is analyzed. There are three labels for information sought: qualitative, quantitative, and mixed-methods research. Qualitative information attempts to describe a problem abstractly. An example would be developing a historical analysis of events that lead to the popularity of baseball in America. Quantitative research involves strict instrumental-based methods and questions as well as measuring tools. Quantitative research may be interested in quantifying the relationship between variables such as early morning exercise and exercise program adherence. Mixed-methods research is exactly as it sounds. Involving both abstract and strictly measured data that results in a conclusion involving both qualitative and quantitative data. Examples of mixed-method research would involve linking two variables such as, “are morning exercisers who as a result adhere to fitness programs for more than six months more or less likely to be happier when with their families?” Exercising in the mornings for six months is quantitative and happiness with their family is qualitative because you can place a numerical number on exercise frequency, but you cannot place a numerical value on happiness.

The presentation of data can be given in one of two ways. Theoretical which involves gathering and analyzing past research to come to new conclusions such as my paper on Gamification in Adventure and Wilderness Sports: A literature review of game-based mechanic’s ability to increase attraction, engagement, and retention in outdoor sports. The research was a review of literature from multiple disciplines that allowed me to come to novel conclusions on the topic. Empirical research on the other hand collects new data to form new ideas and theories. An example of empirical research is hosting interviews asking questions regarding sports participation and stress to determine which sports help reduce stress most and why.

Finally, the data source analyzed is a significant perspective of research. Data can either be primary or secondary. Primary research collects original data where secondary research does

not collect original data but rather infers from past data. For instance, primary research is conducting a survey on satisfaction at a gym and secondary research would be analyzing existing research on sports motivation to determine which motivation methods work best for high school athletes.

In the end, all five perspectives of research mentioned in the book are equally important to research. A choice must be made by the researcher on how to use each perspective. With that said, there is no right answer since every adjustment to the research provides new ideas and theories.

Research design is vital to a successful outcome of a research project. If care is not given to initial research design, it can be very difficult to salvage an accurate and meaningful research project down the road. Knowing this, it is important to follow the steps of conducting research. Although these steps are presented in a specific order, they can be moved around or bounced back and forth. These researching steps are,

  1. Select a problem of interest

  2. Conduct a thorough literature review on that problem

  3. Create a theoretical or conceptual framework aligned with the research problem

  4. Identify research questions uncovered from the prior steps to address weaknesses in literature review

  5. Identify new variables based upon these discoveries

  6. Establish a hypothesis

If researchers follow these steps as they are further outlined in detail below, they will enter their research with a strong hypothesis.

When it comes to selecting a problem of interest, there are numerous sources ranging from reading existing literature, social concerns, popular issues, personal characteristics, brainstorming, professors, and practitioners. By reading existing literature in the field that interest you, it exposes you to new ideas and topics or ideas you did not fully understands value. Existing literature is a great way to expand your knowledge on a subject while searching for holes that show problems for research. Social concerns are difficult because there is little research on them. With that said, there is also plenty of room for new theories and ideas. Although social concerns may involve more deep thought to create novel theories, they can open new areas for research that you could be on the forefront. Popular ideas are like social concerns. Most popular ideas are popular because they are receiving new attention on social concerns that people are expressing interest. Popular ideas can gain the researcher a lot of attention in a field. Personal characteristics are important because they consider your personal interest. If a researcher is going to spend months to years on a project, it should be something of interest. I never take on a project if it is not going to provide me long term pleasure.

When thinking about a research problem, think about what topics will keep you engaged for months to years. Brainstorming is a good way to branch from what is known into the unknown and discover problems that otherwise may never have been discovered. There is power in numbers and sharing concerns and interest about a topic can unearth important problems that otherwise may never have been discovered. Aristotle observed the world then looked for ways to explain it, what’s what we still do today. What we don’t do enough of is walk while talking. Aristotle’s school was called the Peripatetic, meaning “walking” because he enjoyed walking while teaching as well as nature. It was much more informal than Plato’s Academy. It was an evolution in teaching, so why don’t we use it now? Next time the opportunity arises, call or email a professor and ask them if they have twenty minutes to grab a cup of coffee and go for a walk.

Professors are a great source for identifying problems because professors are familiar with the research process. Although they may not know about your specific topic of interest, they understand the process of conducting research better than anyone else. Finally, practitioners. Even though practitioners may not have the research background of professors, they are the best applied subject matter experts. By asking them questions, a lot can be discovered regarding a topic. Exploring some if not all of these sources of finding a problem of interest allows researchers to investigate potential topics from multiple angles until they find a problem that interest them most.

Once a problem of interest is selected, a thorough research review must be conducted to determine what is already known on the subject. A literature review ensures the problem has not already been solved. If that is the case, the problem can be modified to make it novel. For instance, if the original problem was, “what is the best way to motivate high school soccer players?” But that problem has already been asked, the problem can be changed to, “what is the best way to motivate college soccer players?” By doing this, you are providing new insight to a topic that has already shown interest. During this stage, information is gathered to later identify weaknesses and variables and connect those variables to form novel relationship between data.

After conducting a thorough research review, a theoretical or conceptual framework must be developed. Theoretical frameworks are based upon ideas previously established in literature, whereas a conceptual framework entails creating original ideas by linking concepts from the literature. Knowing this, it is important to remember the two terms are often incorrectly used interchangeably. A conceptual framework is composed of five steps to review literature. These steps are:

  1. Identify the relevant concepts in the study.

  2. Relevant concepts must be defined.

  3. Variables must be operationalized (i.e. the researcher needs to clearly define how variables will be measured).

  4. Identify moderating and mediating variables in the study (Moderating variables change the relationship between two variables and mediating variables explain the relationship between two other variables).

  5. Identify the proposed relationship between each of the variables.

Once all the variables have been identified, it is a good time to identify a possible research question. Research questions are generally composed of two types of variables. The first being independent variables which are the variables manipulated in the research, and the other being dependent variables which are the ones that are changed because of the independent variables manipulation. Dependent variables are the answers we are attempting to find when we combine two knowns to discover the unknown. When determining which question will provide the most value and is worth conducting months if not years of research, the researcher should consider the following concerns:

  • Does it address gaps or weakness?

  • Is the question clear and concise?

  • Is it too broad or too narrow?

  • Can the question be answered logistically, in a reasonable manner?

  • Can I access the subjects or information necessary to answer the research question?

  • Are the potential answers to the question interesting and important?

Asking these questions is valuable to the researcher to ensure they are conducting valuable research.

Upon determining the best question to answer, it is time to develop a hypothesis. A hypothesis is a relationship between concepts based upon prior research. Graton and Jones (2004) note four characteristics of a good hypothesis:

  1. It must be able to explain findings and relationships that arise from data collection.

  2. Admit empirical testing by means of data analysis.

  3. It should require very few assumptions and be valid under numerous circumstances.

  4. A good hypothesis presents better explanatory power than alternatives.

If the hypothesis possesses all four of these characteristics, it is worthy of further


Although your endeavors as a leader may never involve formal research, possessing a minimal understanding of the process fosters scientific thought. Until the mind 16thcentury, people looked towards their ancestry for answers feeling the knowledge of the past holds the answers to our current problems. Fortunately, this all changed with the gross acceptance of the scientific method in the 17thcentury. The same method that is outlined above was made famous by Sir Francis Bacon. Although it can vary slightly, its principle remains the same, question everything. Without this mindset, intellectual growth would slow to a sloth’s pace and the greatest discoveries and inventions of our time would never have manifested. Knowing this, it is invaluable that you take this basic understanding of the scientific method forward with you on your journey towards improvement.

Always improve,


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