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Why? The Science of Athletics

F[rederick] A[nnesley] M[ichael] Webster. “Why? The Science of Athletics”, 1936.

The author:

F.A.M. Webster is one of the most important names in the history of athletics in the 20th century in Britain.  His significance does not lie merely in the fact that he wrote more than thirty books on athletics, the Olympic Games, and related topics, nor in the Amateur Field Events Association, and the Loughborough Summer School, both of which he created, nor because he wrote about, taught, and generally championed the field-events in Britain at a time when others didn’t, but because he is an enduring example of how one person, by the power of their own enthusiasm, energy, commitment and persistence, and in the face of the indifference and even hostility of 'official' bodies, can inform, motivate and inspire others, and so leave behind a legacy that lasts long after their own day.

A full biography of FAM Webster, written by his grandson Michael, can be found here.


The place of Webster's WHY? THE SCIENCE OF ATHLETICS in the history of Athletics literature:

Webster’s confidence in his knowledge, and his pride in his children’s performances (particularly, Dick’s), shines through almost every page of this book.  This is classic Webster.  Written in 1936 but before the Olympic Games were held in August of that year, FAM Webster covers all the then up-to-date ideas that would be examined in the Berlin Olympic arena shortly after he wrote.  So confident was he of his text that, when he reissued it as a “revised” text 12 years later, he didn’t think it necessary to change very much at all.  This is a very useful text that allows us into the minds of those on the brink of the 1936 Olympic Games, but we need to remind ourselves that many of the opinions expressed were not so much “his” as the accepted wisdom of the age in which he lived.  Some of it has become much more controversial than it was when he wrote it - for example, his discussion of the “supremacy of the white man”, and the distinct falling off in negro ability” beyond the jumps and short sprints.  The statement “The dark races have produced but few outstanding quarter milers”, makes for very uncomfortable reading in 2017, 81 years after it was written.  Nevertheless, this text helps us to better understand the world in which Hitler’s ideas were being developed and to see, for example, the famous battle between Jesse Owens and Lutz Long, through a 1936 lens. At the end of the book, however, he has had time to reconsider his earlier views and concludes that “the tide of colour is rising in athletics.”

When reading this book, one is struck by its sense of optimism and confidence.  Webster had spent years scouring the world for the latest ideas on how to coach athletes, and he gathered them all together, confident that he had the authoritative, and final, word on how it should be done.  Webster was impressed by his gallery of experts and the findings of his scientists; and believed that in gathering all this information together he would change the landscape of coaching in Britain. He had a very optimistic view of athletes too, and spends several pages telling us that, “to be a good athlete a man must have a good brain,” and explaining that great athletes are “extremely clever people”.  Am I too cynical in thinking that no-one would make that statement in the 21st century?   Webster had a very positive and optimistic view of the sport of athletics too; “it improves growth in young adults” he wrote (Chapter I), improves appetite, improves the circulatory system, increases chances of surviving an attack of pneumonia, corrects postural deformities, improves muscle-tone and control, and stimulates the activity of the internal organs, and athletics should provide “health-giving fun.”  But not, he wrote, if you train too hard, too soon, or if you take it all too seriously, so that your training becomes “sheer drudgery” with “no recreation in it.”

Why? The Science of Athletics”, cost 10/6 (10 shillings and six pence) and so was quite an expensive book; this is equivalent in purchasing power to £32.74 in 2016.


The text:

It seems that Webster timed the writing and publication of his book to capitalise on the public interest generated by the Olympic Games of 1936, and he wrote his text before the Games began in August, but delayed publication long enough to include some details of the Games themselves.  It came out and was reviewed just after the middle of October 1936.

Webster covers an enormous amount of ground in this book.  In asking the question “Why?” he poses himself the problem of trawling the whole of science to find answers to almost everything he could think of.  To Webster, everything that the teacher or coach did in athletics must have a scientific justification.  It was, of course, not a new idea; in 1912, Sutherland had written “Scientific Athletics”, and, before he died in 1914, Mike Murphy had developed his reputation as a “scientific” coach.  Neither of these men were scientists, however, though Murphy got the closest,taking a two-year course in medicine and surgery at the University of Pennsylvania, when he was coach there, to increase his knowledge of the human body and how it worked.  FAM Webster wasn’t a scientist either, so he had to take the findings of the scientists at face value.  Sensibly, Webster stuck to the best known, but one is aware that he is collecting other people’s research and findings here, and attempting to make them his own.  Often it works, sometimes it doesn’t, and much of the text now seems rather like a series of theoretical lectures, only obliquely related to the business of coaching athletes; such as his section (Chapter I) on the nerves in a dead frog, the medulla oblongata, suprarenal gland, and much more.

As part of this review, I started to list the scientists he quotes, but the list became too long and I gave up the attempt; but it was obvious that FAM Webster had spent an enormous amount of time in the 1920s and before, and up to 1936, collecting this information.  He also repeatedly refers to his own books. 

However, many of the opinions given are not scientific at all, but are given with the apparent authority of one or more big names.  The advice on sleep (Chapter II, p. 27-34), for example, is given by quoting athletes, coaches, and doctors - Dr Adolphe Abrahams, Harold Abrahams, Douglas Lowe, Dr Arthur Porritt, Earl Thomson, Harry Edwards, Ernie Hjertberg, and Sir Maurice Craig; but none has anything evenly remotely connected to science to support their opinions. 

The science of facial expressions (Chapter III) did not survive Webster’s day either, and was based on Tait McKenzie’s 1900 work, so was old and out of date in 1936, but it is illuminating to see how many techniques that we now consider “modern” were, more or less, in place 80 years ago.  Take the usefulness of moving images of the athlete -

“By the use of a Pathé baby cine we were able to take pictures of the students themselves in action. The films were
processed and returned from the Pathé works at Cricklewood within four-and-twenty hours, and the students
found endless amusement in studying the performances of themselves and their friends.”

“Within four-and-twenty hours,” may sound like a long time to the iPhone generation, but in the 1930s this was truly revolutionary and so advanced that very few athletes over the next 25 years would experience anything like it.  Webster and Pathé were at least a generation ahead of the game!  Webster also advocates the use of one coaching aid that has since been lost to the modern athlete and coach.  On cinder tracks, long-jump approaches, and high-jump fans, athletes left marks on the surface on every stride - marks that could be analysed, stride-lengths measured and recorded; details that were extremely valuable to the coach.  Webster even used such data to coach athletes that he did not see (Chapter XV).

To say that FAM Webster had an inquiring mind would be to be guilty of a vast understatement.  Webster thought about an extraordinary range of topics, and thought deeply.  He plotted, and graphed, read and studied everything that came his way, and he pioneered a seriousness of attitude towards athletes, and believed that athletic performance was worthy of the most detailed of scholarly analysis.  It is for this attitude towards athletic scholarship that we owe Webster so much, just as much as for any specific detail he described.  We might now quibble at some of his conclusions, but it is very unlikely that we could have done as well as he did with the evidence that was then available.

It had twenty-two chapters and covers an enormous amount of ground, and was accompanied by a Frontispiece (of his son, F.R. Webster, to whom the book is also dedicated) and 32 other pages of illustrations, plus many line drawings.  Many of the pages of illustrations contained multiple images. 

The Science of Athletics (i.e., the revised edition of “Why? The Science of Athletics”), 1948.


The text:

On its title page, “The Science of Athletics” is described as the “Revised Edition”, but not what it is the revised edition of, though the dust jacket stated that it was “based” on “Why? The Science of Athletics”, which had been “revised and brought up to date”.  This slight title change has confused some authorities; for example, the World Catalogue (WorldCat) continues to list them as entirely separate works, and the British Library catalogue does not make it clear either.  Messrs McNab, Lovesey and Huxtable, however, record the matter correctly in their Athletics Compendium.

Just as its predecessor was published in October 1936 to coincide with the Olympic Games in Berlin, so this revised edition was published in August 1948 to coincide with the Olympic Games in London.  It was sold for 15/- (fifteen shillings - equivalent in purchasing power to £25 in 2016) and was first reviewed on 20 August 1948.  The Games were held between 29 July and 14 August.  It had a larger print-run than its predecessor and copies of the 1948 edition are now more easily found.  It was entirely re-set, resulting in 50 less pages, but the 22 chapter headings remained exactly the same, as did almost all of its content.

Almost, but not all; in 1948 Webster omitted some figures that had not worked well in the original (e.g. Figs. 7-11), and he revised all the tables and lists of records to bring them up to date.  He must have been in a hurry, though, because he failed to similarly bring the text up to date, which must have resulted in some confusion.  For example, on p. 136 (1936), he wrote, “Quite recently, there was a team in Europe from the other side of the Atlantic,” and went on to describe an issue between a middle-distance runner and his coach.  On p. 108 (1948), that section is repeated unchanged, but “recently” was by then at least twelve years earlier, and so not so recently.  There are many examples of this; on p. 32 (1936) he wrote about “the late Sir Maurice Craig, who once told me that during the war he found himself able to sleep through the very worst of air-raids.”  In 1948 (p. 29) Webster repeats this story but, by 1948, any reader would take “during the war” to mean during WWII, whereas Webster was still referring to WWI.  The story was more than 25 years out of date. 

There are times when this failure to update the text changes its meaning too.  In Chapter XI (1936, p. 180; 1948, p. 157) he wrote -

“It is probably true to say that up to the end of the pre-war period the main factors in record breaking were those suggested
by Mr. Meade; but the post-war period has witnessed the first real application of science to athletics.”

This is very misleading, for if the post-war period had witnessed the first real application of science to athletics, as Webster seemed to claim, why were no studies from that period included?  The problem here, of course, is that Webster was still referring to WWI.  There are no references in “The Science of Athletics” to any scientific study after 1936. 

Incidentally, “Mr Meade” (above) was George Peterkin Meade, who had written an article about athletic records in the New York Herald Tribune in July 1926 - an article that expanded an earlier one by him (An Analytical Study of Athletic Records) that appeared in The Scientific Monthly in June 1916.  He also wrote on cane-sugar manufacture, and his 1916 paper was written when he was in Cuba.

Had Webster had the time or inclination to revise his 1936 text more extensively he would have been able to remove these strangely confusing sections but, more importantly, he would have been able to add more recent research.  For example, he would have been able to revisit his reference to the “brace test”, that he clearly did not understand (1936 p 159; 1948, 138), and make reference to D.K. Brace’s 1946 study,Studies in Motor Learning of Gross Bodily Motor Skills, Research Quarterly, December 1946; add a reference to the work of the Harvard Fatigue Laboratory during WWII, (e.g., Eleanor Metheny, L. Brouha, R. E. Johnson, and W. H. Forbes, Some Physiological Responses of Women and Men to Moderate and Strenuous Exercise: A Comparative Study, American Journal of Physiology, September 1942); and many more; and discuss the important study by Thomas L. Delorme, Restoration of Muscle Power by Heavy- Resistance Exercises, The Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery, October 1945.  The last named would transform strength-training after 1942, and is a foundational work on which much of modern strength-conditioning is still based.  It is an example of how WWII was a stimulus for research, and not an impediment to it.  Delorme’s work was a response to the sheer number of soldiers suffering muscular injury and a need to devise rehabilitation programmes for them.  The 3-set,10-rep-max, training system that all those in a fitness programme for the next half century experienced, began with him, but there is no mention of it in Webster’s 1948 text.  The Harvard Fatigue Laboratorys work was also re-directed because of WWII, not discontinued, but there is no mention of any of it.  It closed in 1947.

Webster’s failure to update any of the science after 1936 is a very serious failure of his 1948, “The Science of Athletics”, and we can only guess at the reasons.  Was the decision to “revise” his 1936 book made too late?  Did he think it not necessary? Was he influenced by others to publish when he knew it should not have been?  Was he not well?  FAM Webster died eight months after its publication.

Sadly, this is the least successful of Webster’s athletics books.  It was shoddily “revised” from the 1936 volume, and was seriously out of date when it was published.  If you have a chance to buy, or work with, either the 1936 or 1948 volume, you should choose the 1936 one.  This is one time when “revised” does not mean “improved”.  Nevertheless the shortcomings of the 1948 edition, should not cast any shadow on the 1936 one, Why? The Science of Athletics, which is an ambitious and outstanding work. 


Peter Radford / 2017

Bibliographic details:

Title: Why? The Science of Athletics
Extract Details:
Publisher: John F. Shaw & Co. Ltd.
Place of Publication: London
Date of Publication: 1936
Date(s) of Re-Publication:
BL Catalogue: General Reference Collection 7915.r.16.
"An Athletics Compendium" Reference: E77, p.101