To introduce myself, the website and the blog, I felt that a reflective first post on my sport science journey would be a means of providing not only some background on myself but also a means of sharing some important knowledge I have gained along the way.
My first introduction to sport science was in my final year of high school (for reference, in the UK this is at the age of 16). While trying to determine my next steps after leaving high school, I had an interesting discussion with one of my science teachers, Dr. Scott. He was a man who claimed to have worked for NASA (to this day I don’t know if it was true) but spent his career teaching high school science in Oldham, my hometown. Despite the NASA mystery, one conversation stayed with me. When he asked, “What do you want to do after high school?” I replied, “sport, of course.” I loved football (soccer to the USA people reading this) growing up and was determined to work in the sport I loved as a lifelong career. Dr Scott, being the typical logical scientist, explained to me that the likelihood of that happening would be challenging at best (in reference to becoming an elite level sport coach). Being the ambitious teenager that I was, I shrugged off his comment. What does this guy know? He supposedly went from NASA to a high school in Oldham! However, what he said next was quite intriguing: “Craig, you’re a pretty good science student, so why waste your potential trying to coach? Have you ever considered the science behind sport?” Having only learnt about chemistry, biology, physics and other far less intriguing fields of science at the time, I was both surprised and intrigued. “What do you mean by the science behind sport, Dr. Scott?” Not really having a comprehensive definition of sport science to throw at me, he replied “Well, you know how David Beckham takes those free-kicks? There is a science behind that, his movement, the interaction with the ball, the angle of execution and the result. All of it can be explained through science.” Again, at the time I thought science couldn’t explain David Beckham’s talent and his knack for scoring a crucial free-kick when his team needed it most. But nevertheless, Dr. Scott’s conversation got me thinking.
Having completed high school, I decided to apply to college (not to be confused with University, where us UK people typically go between the ages of 16-18, although you can attend at any age). I opted for a program that would land me a BTEC National Diploma in sport. I was still determined to go the coaching route and continued to gather as much experience as I could to make this dream a reality. The program had a number of different modules: coaching, leadership, sport and health, nutrition, massage, fitness testing and training, to name just a few. Those two years flew by, and I quite honestly had no idea what I was going to do at the program’s completion. Having worked numerous, very different part-time jobs up to this point, varying from working the bread line to bartending to retail, while also coaching football voluntarily, I didn’t have a clear idea of my next steps. While attending college, I was encouraged to apply to University (this is what the USA folk call college – confusing right). I had little if any idea of what I could do in University to land me that dream coaching job in football. So what did I do? I typed ‘Football’ & ‘University’ into a google search and began my research of what courses to take and which direction to head in. There were some surprising hits- I remember a ‘Professional Football Coaching degree’ caught my eye, but I was confused why one wouldn’t just go through the FA coaching pathway (that was another option I had considered – could I do both?). Another degree popped up titled ‘Science & Football’- this one also caught my eye. Not only did it contain the word Football, but it reminded me of that conversation with Dr. Scott dating back two whole years. Could this be the science in sport nonsense that Dr. Scott spoke to me about way back when? – I took the leap and applied to Liverpool John Moores (LJMU).
I remember at that time being told not to pigeonhole myself to one sport, and to pick a more diverse degree of study. This caused me to search a little more thoroughly into sport science degrees. As a result, I applied to a couple of other universities (Loughborough and Leeds Beckett). It was a close decision between LJMU and Loughborough, but I decided to choose my own path, deflect the warnings of pigeonholing, and embarked on the journey of obtaining my Science and Football BSc. at LJMU. Reflecting back, as much as the degree itself was titled Science and Football, it was never just learning about the football, and was most definitely about the science. This is an important point for others considering sport science- don’t be scared to pigeonhole – use the skills you learn throughout a program and the knowledge gained can always be applied to broader topics. There are plenty of books, research papers, articles, podcasts and videos to learn just about anything these days. Reflecting back to my first ever Biomechanics lecture, my BTEC in college prepared me for a lot, but nothing prepared for biomechanics (and statistics HA!). I remember picking up this huge textbook from the library and embarking on my first coursework project – force plate countermovement jumps. We had to write a report based on the data produced from a laboratory practical session. I wish I had that file to re-read and the piece I produced, but what I do remember is I got a 69% (that grade may have stuck with me for the wrong reasons). But, I was 1% away from a 1st grade (1%, come on, why wouldn’t they round that up?). The reason I didn’t get a 70% was that I had completely messed up the x, y, z axis coordinates of the force plate. Despite all my textbook reading, I had missed the simplest of details. Which leads me to my next important reflection- when it comes to sport science, the devil is in the detail. It’s one thing to read a book or a research paper, but to absorb the information and think critically about the details is another thing entirely.
My first year at LJMU, I almost dropped out. I think back on this and laugh. I thought there wasn’t enough Football content delivered with the science. If anything, a BTEC National Diploma in Sport probably didn’t set me up with the greatest prerequisites and these science courses were the much needed prerequisites to successfully embark on year two of the program. The course leaders promised that it would become more specific in years two and three. This is when I started to gain an affinity for exercise physiology and had my first exposure to real work experience within professional football. It was great to be able to blend academia with the real world, and the beauty of this particular degree at this particular University was the relationships the University had in regards to outside the classroom learning and application. Which, leads me to the next important reflection- it’s all good and well being super academically smart, but with no real world application it becomes fruitless as you have all the tools, but no idea how to execute the task out in the real world. I remember performing lifting sessions with U15 center of excellence players, thinking my programs and knowledge in exercise physiology were amazing. However, I came to realize they were pretty basic at best. Nevertheless, I was able to gain the experience, make the mistakes and learn from it all. The most important part of my BSc. was my dissertation. This proved to be the next eye opening step in my journey: conducting my first research project. Specifically, my dissertation looked at glycogen depleting exercise at night followed by different nutrition strategies (carbohydrate+protein, protein and placebo [flavored water]) to observe the effects on morning steady state exercise and beta-oxidation. This was performed in a blind-randomized crossover design. The research proved challenging- finding participants to recruit, getting participants to come back, keeping the participants from breaking their overnight fast, encouraging them not to go out the night before (they university students after all), equipment availability in the laboratory, calibrating equipment, just to name a few. However, despite all the obstacles I faced I was really proud of the dissertation I produced as well as the group I had conducted it all with.
The supervisor of this was Dr. (now Prof.) James Morton. I was intrigued by James, both working as an academic and a nutritionist at Liverpool FC. It was interesting to see how the worlds of academia and sport could really operate seamlessly together. This really got me thinking: could I do research in the real-world? Another Professor, Barry Drust (who also worked at LJMU, Liverpool FC and England at that time) presented me with the opportunity to work in collaboration with Nike. I was lucky to get my first full-time role in sport science and strength and conditioning, while also working towards a research degree (MPhil and PhD). Barry, a mentee of the great Prof. Tom Reilly (a pioneer in science in football), had been an outstanding mentor for me throughout my PhD journey, and continues to be a source of information and support to this day. A person who can write only a “?” next to a piece of work and yet you instantly engage in a deeper level of reflection around the content and know what to do, is one who supports and successfully guides, enabling problem solving and discovery without doing all the work for you. It’s those moments that have really enhanced my critical thinking skills. Why? Because I had to think for myself; I had to identify the meaning behind the “?” without being told. This has been a pivotal step in my sport science journey.
When I first began my PhD, I envisioned performing research in the applied world and making a difference. That’s what I thought a PhD was. While in part a truth, the main aspect of a PhD is research training- It’s not just about the thesis and the research outcomes, it is about the process. This is an important distinction to make and one I reflect on often. Conducting a PhD gave me more than a diploma – it gave me research skills that I could apply in the real world – it gave me a critical mindset when approaching my own research as well as the research of others. It’s important to note that not all research is good research, even if it is published. It is also important to note that not all research transfers to the real world. During my time at LJMU, I would often have research reviews sent my way. As an early career researcher, I enjoyed the process of reviewing papers as it gave me exposure to thinking and being on the other side of publishing research (I was also trying to publish my own work at the same time). Again, this added another string to my bow- I could take the critical appraisal skills I had garnered during my own research and apply them elsewhere, while simultaneously attempting to help improve the research of others. This was also an important distinction, as I typically avoided falling into the stereotype of “reviewer 2”. For those who don’t know, typically reviewer 2 is seen as the one who tears the research apart, but can oftentimes miss on providing the author(s) with guidance on how to improve. This is particularly frustrating when being on the receiving end of such a review. Nonetheless, an important reflection was that for me to improve, I must also think on how to improve others- not just highlight the limitations, but provide feedback that can help them go away and improve it.
While working through my PhD, Nike offered a great place to develop my applied skills. Think of it as a sport science utopia- all the technology and funding available to produce data in a football academy. While it was great to have many research tools at our disposal, this was a place I learnt a valuable lesson: death by data. We spent so much time collecting the data that only a small amount of time in the day was left to analyze it. These were the years that GPS units became popular in football, in addition to polar heart rate monitoring, Omegawave and Firstbeat, AMS software to help with data collection and management, Optojump, Forcedecks, Zeo Sleep Monitors, the list goes on. Our athletes were very rarely not being monitored in one way or another (after all, my embedded PhD was in sleep). At the time, I had all the gear but very few ideas (in regards to how to utilize all of it in the real world and manage all the data collected). Again, you can read all the scientific literature and have a good understanding of the principles, yet the application may be left wanting. This was a good lesson to learn early in my career. Another lesson learned during this time was that less is more in applied sport science- do a couple of things effectively, and create a system and process before adding more technology and methods of data collection. The more stuff we used at Nike, the more stuff ended up in the cupboard gathering dust.
As part of this journey, another important moment was realizing the only data worth collecting is the data that actually impacts decision making. This means talking to coaches, scouts, front office and other people first, listening to their wants and questions, and then deciding how to go about data collection. Sometimes as a sport scientist I was attempting to answer a question that no one was asking, spending hours perfecting training reports and templates that, quite frankly, didn’t really impact anything related to decisions made in training. They were useful to have handy from time to time (typically in a crisis situation like an athlete getting injured), but for the most part it became a redundant process. As a support staff member, it’s important to know where you can support and in what form its needed and helpful. I’m sure many talented sport scientists can relate to the “coach who doesn’t listen” narrative, but did that person first listen to the coach? This again has been an important reflection for me- sometimes coaches may not have anything specific for you to fix, or have any questions that you can answer. That doesn’t mean you don’t do any work, but perhaps your process changes, or first you can help answer a question from another department or colleague. For me, this is what applied sport science is: attempting to provide scientific processes that can help shine light on sport performance questions.
This takes me to my next step in my journey moving to the USA and having the opportunity to work at NC State University in a sport science and strength & conditioning role. Here, I had the pleasure of working with Nate Brookreson, the Director of Strength and Conditioning for Olympic Sports. He brought me on-board to enhance the sport science delivery at the school. Having known very little about college sports in the USA, this was an interesting career move for me- I went from the extreme of Nike (with all this tech and people wanting to do projects) to the college level, which was essentially a blank slate. Having learnt from my experience at Nike, in my first semester I didn’t suggest implementing anything new or adding any technology. Why? Because we didn’t really need it – we hadn’t really thought about the questions we wanted to answer, and didn’t really have a solid sport science foundation. I wanted to understand the processes before suggesting changes, additions or questions of my own. Could we use what we already had effectively? Could we think more in depth about the process before adding data streams, which would require more time and personnel (the most premium resource)? For the teams I worked with, it was a simple start – begin to add physical performance surrogate measures (field based testing with timing gates and introducing the 30:15 IFT). This became a part of the macro strategy – assessing the seasonal variation of these measures at different timepoints in the semester. For most, this will seem pretty rudimentary and simple. But what’s wrong with just doing the basics? It informed the coaches on the physical capabilities of their athletes, provided areas to target for us as S&C, and it didn’t overly complicate what the athletes had to do while most importantly, avoiding death by data.
After that first semester, Nate asked me, “what is the next thing we should look at? – Why don’t we start answering S&C questions before answering the questions of others.” We had some Pasco force plates in the cupboard (gathering dust at that time). It was time to integrate those into our process. We started with what we wanted to monitor – jump performance and isometric strength tests – to assess the force capabilities of our athletes. Having an abundance of experience with force plates from my time at Nike, I was ready to help get this going. However, Pasco’s (in my opinion) are a little impractical to jump on. So, we needed something more reliable and more durable. Vald had just recently merged Forcedecks over, so it was time to get some FDlites. We used the Pasco’s strictly for isometric testing and the FDlites became our main jump platform using Vald’s software. Slowly, more data streams were being built. This is how sport science processes should be. Start with the question, identify the solution and begin slowly integrating it into the process. There is no need to throw everything plus the kitchen sink into data collection- only collect what you need and then more questions will likely develop. Additionally, don’t make a purchase until you have trialed it first (or unless you have sufficient experience with the company already).
My two years at NC State were great, we were really just getting started with a sport science model doing some interesting projects. But, along came a new opportunity I couldn’t refuse. I had the opportunity to work in the NBA for the Philadelphia 76ers. Recall earlier about pigeonholing in sport science, having completed a science and football degree. Well, that pathway allowed me to work in a sport in which I had interest, but minimal hands on experience. This shows the power of needs analysis, amongst other skills learnt along the way on my sport science journey. I was thankful for my opportunity with the 76ers. I entered yet another environment with an abundance of opportunity. However, this career shift proved to be a little too chaotic at times to do pure sport performance science (i.e. irregular schedule, tons of travel etc…). Something Barry Drust often spoke about during my PhD is minimizing the “touch points” within applied sport science. This was a valuable lesson, one that can often be mistook for not doing enough. Remember: death by data is real. Because of this, a minimalistic approach is important, with the most important aspect (at least in my opinion) being creating the process first. In this case, the S&C training process was my primary focus for my role, and where I saw the most impact could be made. This actually meant once again scaling back some approaches to really focus on what could have the most impact while minimizing touch points. Again, an important reflection- less can be more if it is done effectively.
Notice, I titled this post a sport science journey, but throughout my career I have served in what is often coined a “hybrid” role- fulfilling the tasks of an applied sport scientist while also delivering strength and conditioning coaching. To some applied sport scientists, this would be pretty typical. So, is it really a hybrid role or is this just what sport science is (applying scientific thinking and methods to your process of answering performance questions)? I haven’t mentioned much about spreadsheets, tables, or GPS reports yet. Those have featured in my journey, but I often feel as though sport science is misunderstood as these processes alone. The sport scientist only does load monitoring, the sport scientist only does data, they create reports and stare at a laptop all day. A misconception, yet oftentimes a reality to those in a sport science role. Again, there is nothing wrong with that if your role is defined as those things. It is always interesting to me how those perceptions develop though, especially when in Football (soccer) early applied sport science was delivered in the form of a fitness coach (which by modern definition would be a strength & conditioning coach now, right?). Could it be that these founders of applied sport science approaches were all hybrid coaches? Or have we just lost sight of what sport science is? There are plenty of developed roles and titles these days, from simple sport scientist, to director of performance solution engineering sport science design monitoring spreadsheet wizard (okay i made that one up but).
Regardless of title, my concluding reflection is this; remember what sport science is when defining your role- not everybody with the title “sport scientist” is doing sport science. Reflect on your process, ask yourself: are you answering the most important questions for your environment, and are you making an impact. If the answer to either of these is no, then it’s time to review and adapt. Most importantly, recognize that sport science is more than just a discipline; it is also a journey.