With the evolution of sport science, there is seemingly becoming increasing confusion to what sport science actually is. With a lot of individuals and organizations doing sport science “stuff”. As such, I think it is important to revisit some key principles of sport science that can (hopefully) be used to better define the role of scientific delivery in sporting environments. Within this post, I think it is important to try and create a general definition of sport science and introduce a conceptual framework that can set up further discussions specific to the role a “sport scientist” plays in sport.
WHAT IS SPORT SCIENCE?
I toyed around with different ideas, a couple of searches and revisiting conversations with other colleagues from the field. But a simple definition could be:
‘The Science in Sport'
But that would be too easy right. But perhaps it is that simple in some ways…
The way I think of sport science is as the core of the sport world (as depicted below). The various disciplines in sport science are the vehicles in which individuals investigate, navigate and arrive at their personal destination within sport. The destination (buildings in this case) is what delineates each role (community) within the sport world (where you live and belong in sport). Per the example below, sport science is the underpinnings of the community and various vehicles may be taken to arrive at one’s destination. For example, an S&C coach may study biomechanics at University, while also educating on principles of training for a specific sport. Alternatively another S&C coach may strictly study physiology and nutrition. Another may do a non-traditional pathway and study leadership, but then attain certifications in strength and conditioning. Conceptually though, each role within the sport setting is built on the foundations of sport science principles, in some way shape or form and that is why sport science exists.
In the above example, day and night highlight the principles of working fast and slow discussed by Aaron Coutts (2016) and adapted from concepts of Daniel Kahneman’s book; Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011). The “fast” approach I felt pertinent to the daytime, whereby decisions need to be made within that day typically (<24h) common to the applied practitioner / coach. The nighttime seemed more fitting to have the principles of “slow”, given that information and decisions may take days, weeks or months to occur (such as those common to a research process). Though certain buildings that represent the various roles that are found in sport are in the day or night side, this should not be confused that these roles strictly only apply to the principle of fast or slow thinking (though I did try to bias possible roles that may be more inclined to one side or the other). Though Aaron Coutts discussed these principles in relation to an embedded sport science research process and specific to the sport scientist, conceptually each role can have a blend of both days and nights (Fast and Slow principles). This is also not to say that every role is a “sport scientist”, but to recognize that sport science is at the core of many of these roles.
SO WHERE IS THE CONFUSION?
I think the primary confusion that comes with sport science is that sport science is often seen as the person or persons who carry the title sport scientist (or some variation thereof). Though these people do perform duties related to principles of sport science, my argument here is that sport science and sport scientist are not interchangeable terms. A sport scientist performs duties related to principles of sport science. So yes they do “sport science”. But an S&C coach’s knowledge of motion and forces within an exercise comes from the understanding of principles of sport science (or at least you’d like to assume so). So they do sport science too. The list could go on. The important thing to remember is that it is what they deliver in their role that is different, yet the scientific underpinnings are likely from the study of different sport science disciplines. Therefore perhaps our definition of sport science can be expanded to;
‘The study and understanding of the principles of science within specified disciplines that impact sport.’
Given that this definition is actually applicable to other roles beyond the sport scientist, I think it’s a good general definition to understand sport science and build from conceptually. It also creates less confusion as sport science moves more away from being specific to a role and actually provides context for others. So when you say you do sport science, I would hope it falls somewhat into this definition.
... BUT WHAT ABOUT THE SPORT SCIENTIST?
As stated earlier I believe there are a few common misconceptions that contribute to the confusion within the specific nature of the sport science, namely due to sport scientist being created as a role. But also the thoughts that sport science works slower and is more reserved for academic research processes that are “behind” current sporting applied practices. How many times have you heard someone say “these studies of science are not related to the actual ongoing events you see in real world sport”. Therefore for some individuals, sport science may be seen as academic in nature and not applicable to the “real world”. Meaning adoption of “sport science” thinking may not be readily accepted in every environment.
In a way to address this more “applied” sport science roles have arisen to aid in the fast thinking/working approach. Per the model introduced by Aaron Coutts, these practitioner positions serve to complement these more academic slower research processes in high performance sport research models. Such positions make investigation in the real world more accessible and given the rise in technology and data collection in sport, may help in informing decision making processes for athletes, coaches and others. However, I also think that these applied roles have now also somewhat confused the general thoughts of sport science. In as far as that now sport science is commonly seen by others as dashboard creation and analytics, which are necessitated out of the need to create fast paced decision making processes and feedback loops. Whilst these processes may enable these fast decisions to be made, they shouldn’t necessarily be confused with scientific investigation and analysis. Additionally a further confusing factor is now with greater access to data visualization tools, these data visualization processes are now being donned data science. Which is of itself a part to a different whole.
However, this also leads me into another confused aspect of these applied sport science roles is that “sport science” then gets coveted as the person who is in charge of technology related to data collection and the creation of these dashboards within their environment. As previously mentioned there are various vehicles in sport science, although technology and data collection are important in advancing our understanding of these disciplines, we still have to remember that each is built from important processes of the underlying core principles of sport science. This is not to say that an applied sport scientist shouldn’t act as a gatekeeper for data collection, using technology in sport. But it also shouldn’t be perceived as that is it with the role. Particularly in the cases where data collection is made with technology without the principle understanding of the science that it should be informing it.
My main point here is that sport science processes that delineate the role of the sport scientist are slowly getting further from what sport science actually is (the study and understanding of the principles of science within specific disciplines in sport).
SO WHAT IS APPLIED SPORT SCIENCE IN TERMS OF THE SPORT SCIENTIST?
More often than not the sport scientist is a generalist, with at least a minimal understanding of all the disciplines within sport science. Within the earlier depiction of the sport world with sport science at its core, the sport scientist has likely rode a few different vehicles (i.e. been exposed to different disciplines on their journey) and may co-exist in both applied and research sport science communities. The sport scientist could also ride other vehicles in the sense of independent research whereby they explore a new discipline (like riding a taxi in this case) that brings them to see a different destination (let’s say, injury return to play processes, that may be pertinent to the physical therapy community). This in turn builds a knowledge base across various disciplines and allows the sport scientist to exist in the sport world community.
I was exposed to the thinking of the applied sport scientist working many hats, thanks to one of my mentors Barry Drust (the ideas that follow are my interpretation of what Barry once said to me). We can think of the (applied) sport scientist as a person who may have to wear many hats when they leave their house. With this being dependent on the needs of the organization. Per our example earlier, the sport scientist may be tasked with a primary role of data collection processes and feedback such as using GPS or training load monitoring, in which this falls into the combination of physiology, biomechanics and data science understanding. However, this same person may also be tasked with delivering warm ups and recovery modality recommendations. Though these responsibilities may be shared with others such as a strength and conditioning coach and athletic trainer. This type of applied sport scientist may be typically donned a “hybrid” role in which this person may wear the hats of analyst, researcher and coach each day.
In a perfect world (one in which upper management has a clear understanding of what sport science is – perhaps show them the definitions contained in this article) the applied sport scientist would be used to supplement organizational needs and serve to fill the gaps in which other support staff may lack areas of expertise, experience or time to commit to further investigation in completing the role. For example the organization may have two or more excellent members of staff who have a depth of knowledge in physiology, biomechanics and injury rehabilitation (S&C Coach & Physiotherapist/PT). However, the team may have a specific question of how to better monitor athletes during a return to play process (a process they deem pretty effective already, but are ready to add the next layer in data collection and analysis). The applied sport scientist with their knowledge in research processes can begin to apply a research framework to this question in an attempt to identify what needs to be done to shed light on a potential answer. In this case it may be creating standardization within the testing process and creating a system to which minimal worthwhile changes can be detected in the test to enhance criteria based testing decisions to be made. In turn enhancing the decision making process and athletes progress within the rehab continuum timeline. In this case this applied sport scientist may need to wear the hat of researcher and analyst, while having a fundamental standing of the underlying physiology and anatomy related to the specific injury.
The above example is one in which the sport scientist can utilize an embedded research framework to help investigate and answer the question asked by their fellow colleagues. The sport scientist in this case can investigate the current process in relation to pre-existing knowledge that may be in the form of scientific peer reviewed research or practically known knowledge. The sport scientist can then put the specific thing they are measuring through various steps in this process to determine its usefulness in the process. They can then perform a formal analysis, and create a feedback process in to which decisions can be made and more performance questions be asked. Repeating the cycle of the process. By breaking down this research framework we can also use this to further add to our sport science definition earlier, and make it more specific to define applied sport science;
‘The study and understanding of the principles of science within specified disciplines that impact sport, that are enhanced by utilizing research based processes within practical delivery, in an attempt to answer sport performance based questions.’
This then provides a basis of determining the definition of the applied sport science role. It is one that attempts to answer performance based questions using the research process of sport science, which is underpinned by the knowledge in that specific discipline area. This again shifts the attention from sport science being just a GPS analyst who creates feedback reports. To one that is more of a utility role within the organization. Used where needed. In this case it would be important for sport departments to perform some form of analysis of their departments’ needs, to identify areas in which the applied sport scientist role can complement areas of opportunity, target and weakness. To which the applied sport scientist can then apply the research based framework in an attempt to enhance the informed decision making process.
It is my opinion that this would better delineate the specific skill set needed for the applied sport scientist. Per the example earlier for some environments they may already have good knowledge in physiology, therefore it may be more worthwhile to hire a sport scientist with more knowledge in data science, to help provide more robust statistical analysis to data being collected. For other environments, there may be a good performance analysis department, therefore the sport scientist may be better equipped having more knowledge in biomechanics to help provide a bridge of making sense of skills and movement in relation to the performance data being generated. As you can probably tell from these examples, my main point here is there likely isn’t that much thought put into how a sport science position is created.
Instead, it is more commonplace that sport scientists are a need due to the rising technology and data collection in sport which has created a need for person(s) to make sense of the data. It’s a little bit of a backwards approach in my opinion. Creating the need to try to remain relevant and competitive in an attempt to out “science” the opposition by buying the tech and generating data (the new currency in sport). It should be that sport scientists are embedded due to the need of various questions that require investigation. Which in turn drives the need for the data collection methods (which lead to the necessity of technology). Therefore I think it is important to recognize that as a sport scientist you should be driving these conversations, asking key stakeholders what their questions are and setting to work on determining the best model and process to begin to answer them.
SO WHAT NEXT?
In terms of sport science I hope the general definitions clear up some confusion in terms of what sport science actually is.
By changing the perspective to what sport science actually is and what an applied sport scientist actually does, I hope we can begin to move towards a model to which the success of sport science delivery is measured in relation to the performance questions being investigated and processes created. With this being done in an attempt to shed light on answers specific to the sporting environment (much to the same sense that academic achievements are measured relative to their impact on the research field). In such a way an organization can then begin to measure the impact of its sport science area.
I also hope within reading this post you recognize that sport science is more than just a role. But an applied sport science research process being a means to investigate success in other roles that are also underpinned by sport science principles. By this the applied sport scientist can help further enlighten other roles around them by bringing a means to measure process and impact using a research framework.
For those that read this far, I appreciate your audience and would love to generate more discussions on this topic. Of course this article is my opinion and more specifics could be investigated beyond this post. So any feedback is always welcomed with open arms. Feel free to comment or reach out.