Dr Dave Cook, former Senior Lecturer and Course Director, BSc in Sport and Exercise ScienceDr Dave Cook’s elite sport experiences as an academic at LSBU are feeding directly into his new role as head coach of the Norwegian taekwondo team
“Whenever I’m presented with an idea or a theory or a piece of work, one of the first things I ask myself is, ‘What’s the point?’,” says Dr Dave Cook. “For me, the whole purpose of science and research is to find answers that are going to have a real impact on people’s lives.”
It’s a theme that runs throughout Dave’s academic career, right from his undergraduate days studying Sport and Exercise Science at Liverpool John Moores University. “I realised fairly early on that the stuff I was looking at – the mechanics of how people walk and run, and how the brain and the body interact – didn’t just apply to sport. There was a lot of overlap, for example, with clinical areas such as the effects of stroke and Parkinson’s Disease. That was fascinating to me.”
After completing his PhD at the University of Roehampton, Dave took on first a part-time and then a full-time role as a lecturer at LSBU. It was here that he encountered Dr John Seeley, who was to prove a major influence on his work and his thinking. “He was the one who coined the phrase ‘Cookian questions,” Dave laughs, “because I was always asking my students ‘Why?’ ‘How?’ and ‘So what?’. For me, as an academic and a teacher, it was always about practice, not only theory.”
It’s an approach exemplified by the partnership he formed while at LSBU with Dr Darren James. Their research in barefoot mechanics and gait was to lead to a highly successful commercial spin-off: the FitFlop™. “The idea was based on the concept of the body as a stimulus-driven system,” Dave explains. “In normal footwear, you’ve got a barrier between the ground, the source of the stimulus, and the sole of the foot, the receptor. To preserve the link between the two we came up with the idea of incorporating an unstable section into the sole of the FitFlop™ – what we termed a questioning zone – that forces the muscles to actively engage with the stimulus in order to restabilise the body.”
Insights into taekwondo
At the same time, Dave was beginning to explore the relevance of this research to his own new-found sporting passion – taekwondo. “I’d taken up taekwondo when I was working on my doctorate,” he says, “and I did much of my training barefoot.”
I was really interested in finding out more about how factors like small changes in distance or subtle variations in the speed of movement affect performance. It’s easy to spot when someone makes a bad decision in a fight – but it’s not so easy to figure out why. For me, that meant understanding the whole range of stimuli the taekwondo player is experiencing; and how those stimuli are affecting decision-making and action.
Dr Dave Cook
The next logical step was to start sharing these insights with others. Dave has fond memories of working with a number of outstanding LSBU athletes, including Daniel Walters, who went on to become a British and Commonwealth taekwondo medallist, and now runs his own taekwondo school in south London. Daniel has described Dave as “the most inspirational coach I’ve ever met.”
“What we were focusing on was getting the athletes to that point where they actually own their sport and can take responsibility for their own development,” says Dave. “That can be scary. It means taking some big risks in a competitive environment though I’d rather think in terms of reward. Are you going to put what you’ve learned in training into practice, and take the rewards you deserve?”
International elite sport
In 2013, Dave left LSBU to take up a role as coach of the Norwegian taekwondo team, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to apply the insights gained through his research and his own taekwondo practice within elite sport at international level. “The team had never had a full-time system before,” says Dave. “So it was a brilliant opportunity for me to get in right at the start, and design the system the way myself, my colleagues and of course the athletes wanted it to be.”
Working alongside assistant coach Mikael Oguz – who also acted as interpreter and cultural guide for Dave during his early days in Norway – Dave has transformed the fortunes of the young team, with one athlete qualifying for Rio 2016 and two others coming very close. Now, the focus is on preparing the team for the next Olympics in Tokyo in 2020. “We’re in a much better position now in terms of ranking than we were before Rio,” he says. “It’s looking very positive.”
A lasting link with LSBU
He also maintains strong links with LSBU. Dave recently returned to the campus to deliver the traditional annual lecture to students on the Sport and Exercise Science and Sport Coaching and Analysis degrees, focusing on biomechanics and his experiences of coaching at elite level. A joint research paper Dave published in 2015 with colleagues from the Sport and Exercise Science Research Centre in the reputable Clinical Biomechanics journal explored how FitFlops™ affect the gait. Dave is also co-supervisor – along with John Seeley and Darren James – for LSBU PhD student Bruno Striotto, whose thesis uses taekwondo as the starting point for a study of functional variability in combat sports.
It is clear, too, that the time Dave spent at LSBU continues to exert a strong influence on his thinking. “My experiences as a lecturer, supervisor and researcher are absolutely integral to my development as a coach,” he says.
It’s about helping individuals to realise their potential. I’ve always thought of myself as a facilitator rather than an educator. I was never interested in standing up there acting as if I knew it all. My aim has always been to get people thinking for themselves, whether that’s in the classroom or in the sporting arena. Sure, they might head off in another direction for a while. But sometimes it’s only by doing that that you really learn the right way to go.
Dr Dave Cook
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