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Tarred with the same brush: what do sports scientists do?

Sports scientists have taken something of a media beating over the past week following revelations of alleged widespread illegal doping across Australian professional sporting codes. While this may be…

Since claims of systematic doping in Australian sport emerged last week, the role of sports scientists has been called into question. marc falardeau

Sports scientists have taken something of a media beating over the past week following revelations of alleged widespread illegal doping across Australian professional sporting codes. While this may be appropriate in some instances, it has also highlighted the lack of awareness about the number of differently skilled sports scientists being tarred with the same brush.

In my world, while we all answer to the generic term “sports scientist”, we are a group of diverse specialists that have developed specific knowledge and skill in one area of science. If we consider the team of sports scientists within a high-performance sport setting, such as the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) or an AFL club, the diversity of expertise is a defining feature.

Much of the media focus in the last week has been on a chemist and a strength and conditioning coach. In my career, for what it’s worth, I’ve never met a “sports chemist”.

But I’ve worked with many expert nutritionists, such as Professor Louise Bourke of the AIS. Professor Bourke is internationally renowned for her work in assisting athletes to maximise their food and hydration strategies to enhance training and performance.

She and her colleagues' contributions, as with many of the other specialists, are based on years of systematic scientific enquiry – not quick fixes but step-by-step, methodological progress well within the parameters of what’s safe and legal.


Closely related to nutrition is physiology, which is perhaps the discipline most identifiable by the public as the group considered to epitomise “sports science”. These specialists are experts in the conditioning or fitness development of athletes.

This group of experts has delivered many benefits to athletes from the cutting-edge ice vest used at the 1996 Olympic Games to the more routine but critical monitoring and interpretation of athlete performance through techniques such as GPS, heart rate and lactate measures.

One of the fathers of sports science, Professor Allan Hahn, is a physiologist famous for pioneering physiological talent identification in rowing.

Not surprisingly, Dr David Buttifant, who has been the head of sports science at Collingwood Football Club for the last 13 years, uses Professor Hahn as a mentor and is equally well-respected within our industry for his contribution to the science of football.

Recovery and movement

The other discipline that could be labelled under the physical conditioning sports sciences is that of recovery. This has emerged in the last decade as a discipline in its own right. Perhaps most famously, it has introduced concepts such as ice baths, compression techniques and better sleeping habits to high-performance athletes. 

Over the corridor are the movement scientists – a grouping that includes biomechanists, who measure the technical skill of athletes. Without this group, inefficient and/or injurious techniques can infiltrate a sport; they are critical to providing objective evidence to support the coach’s eye.

The AIS has dedicated significant resources to being at the ‘cutting edge’ of sports science. AAP/Australian Sports Commission

Professor Bruce Elliott’s work in cricket fast bowling and tennis is internationally renowned and has been critical in improving our understanding of these skills so that they can be developed in a developmentally-appropriate fashion to withstand high-performance workloads.

Skill and performance

Another group of movement scientists are the skill-acquisition specialists. This group, of which I’m one, work closely with the coaches to provide evidence-based advice about the most effective methods to practice and develop the key skills of a game.

This discipline has introduced concepts such as simulation training approaches which may be more sci-fi than many of the traditionalists would like, but they are motivated by evidence demonstrating that players’ decision making skills can be improved outside of typical training or game situations.

Performance analysts are probably the second most recognisable group in the world of professional sport where they collect and analyse the metrics and patterns that define a game. It is this group of experts the AFL has relied upon to provide objective statistics on the speed of the game.

This group of experts – including David Rath at Hawthorn Football Club – is responsible for highly sophisticated analyses that occur in most clubs to drill much deeper into the factors and patterns that determine a win and loss than the simple parameters often presented in the media, which is often focused on who had the most kicks. 

All of these sports scientists may have started their careers in a relatively common manner completing a degree in Human Movement, Physical Education or Applied Science. In most cases they then completed an Honours or Masters degree typically followed by a PhD specialising in a particular facet of their discipline. Such training takes some seven to nine years to complete.

While people may enter the high-performance sports industry at various times during this education process and hence bring differing amounts of expertise and experience, they are typically mentored by a more experienced colleague responsible for immersing them in a unique culture of scientific enquiry and performance.

They publish their work in scientific journals and at conferences subject to international peer review (which is often more grilling than any media report!).

Some of the strategies thought to be a real performance advantage are not published in the short-term but surface after the group has established a competitive advantage. Take, for instance, David Buttifant’s altitude program at Collingwood Football Club.

Only recently has a scientific paper emerged about this work and – importantly – the fact that it has emerged illustrates one of the natural processes that good scientists follow.

Team approach

In most high-performance settings, the sports science team work collaboratively to provide a coaching panel with evidence-based approaches to athlete development and performance. For instance, the coach presents the group with a question such as Player X has a problem kicking goals in Australian rules football.

Sports science has had a big impact on the training and preparation of elite sporting clubs. AAP/Julian Smith

A biomechanist, skill acquisition specialist, psychologist and performance analyst may work collaboratively to compile the objective information required to diagnose whether this is really true, and if so in what context, and provide the coaches with a plan of attack to improve that skill.

Similarly, the physiologist, recovery specialist, nutritionist, psychologist, physiotherapist and doctor may all collaborate on issues to do with a player’s health. Working as a collaborative team is one of the facets most sports scientists really value and provides the best method of providing the immediate peer review required to ensure any recommendation made to the coaches is principled in science, safe and legal.

While we might all be AFL club supporters, I wouldn’t want this to imply I barrack for Collingwood! Similarly, we are all sports scientists, yet our skills are as diverse as our taste in AFL teams – so let’s be careful how we pass the brush when tarring. 

Join the conversation

12 Comments sorted by

  1. Jason Mazanov

    Senior Lecturer, School of Business, UNSW-Canberra at UNSW Australia

    Prof Farrow:

    Thank you for an intriguing piece.

    On Saturday I presented to the SMA-ACT 2013 conference on the relationship between therapy and enhancement in sports medicine. Part of the paper focused on the level of responsibility we all bear.

    To my mind, sports science has a noble purpose that extends from its role preventing injury and illness in sport. For example, looking at how alcohol abuse influences sporting performance is one science can help sport. That noble purpose gets…

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    1. Glenn McLaren

      Philosopher/Lecturer at Swinburne University of Technology

      In reply to Jason Mazanov

      I really need to get back to my own work. I can see how this online stuff can be addictive. Good points though Jason. Damien's article reveals a typical modern university department divided up into its separate components. A group of fragmented fields and scientists with their heads down and bums up obsessivlely working on issues of extreme particularity. Where though is the big picture?

      I know Victoria University used to have some philosophers of sport. They weren't very good but I wonder if the sports scientists collaborate with them and take their work seriously or explore deeper and broader philosophical and societal issues.

      From Damien's article it seems they're not but as you say, they should, because it is their responsibility not just as scientists but as human beings who are oart of wholes greater than themselves.

  2. Trevor Kerr


    Damien, this supplies a wealth of information that the wider community should appreciate.
    It also raises a number of questions, I'll have one, for now.
    Take the Buttifant paper, that implies subjects had blood & muscle biopsies taken for testing. If the trial had been to test a dietary supplement, would the subjects have been supplied with full information on the contents of the supplement, would they receive the results of all tests done on their samples, and would the trial have been published if the results were inconclusive or, even, negative?
    Maybe parents of EFC players will be able to come up with more questions.

  3. Bruce Esplin

    logged in via Facebook


    A timely and, unfortunately necessary article. It is grossly unfair to 'tar all sports scientists with the same brush',and for 'sports scientist'to almost become a perjorative term.

    My experience of sports science occurred as a person occupying a stressful and high pressure job, and also wanting to perform to the best of my abilities in my chosen endurance sport, triathlon. My first experince involved exercise physiology - full assessment of my heart rate and lactate measures at Victoria…

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  4. Paul White

    Senior lecturer, Pharmaceutical Biology, Monash

    Thanks for the article Damien, very informative. An omission in the discussion, here and elsewhere, is the discipline at the centre of this controversy: pharmacology. A real problem here is that sports scientists, nutritionists and physiologists appear to be delving into an issue they know little about, and to be conducting poor quality clinical trials "in house". GHRP, GH itself, IGF-I and other potential performance enhancers have a range of beneficial and adverse effects when administered exogenously, and these are not always predictable even when we understand the roles of the endogenous agonists themselves. Personally, I'd rather that sportspeople stopped at Gatorade when looking to perform at their peak. However, if professional clubs are determined to go this way they need some pharmacologists to advise them on the risks and on the right way to evaluate their programs. Cheers, Paul

  5. william hollingsworth

    student flinders university

    Surely lost in all the hysteria about doping and sport is the professional vs amateur argument.
    Our values have become so skewed towards money and winning in sport that its original aims of fun for everyone through mass participation has been replaced by a herd of couch potatoes witnessing the antics of a bunch of overpaid celebrities.The moment the Olympics lost its amateur status it changed from promoting sport to promoting business.

  6. Patrick Boyle

    Consultant and Visiting Fellow

    Nicely written Damian. I'm pleased someone (you) did this. Hopefully more media outlets will take up some points so that wider and better public understandings can be achieved. Played squash with BE at UWA many moons ago.

  7. Sean Manning


    I think that sports scientists are being used as scape goats for a industry that has too much money and a win at all (any) cost attitude. Unfortunately, many will swallow this completely and the term sports scientist will become a pejorative amongst laypeople. Sadly, this will only add to the mistrust that general science already has to deal with.

    Thanks sport. I will continue being apathetic towards you.

  8. Russell Warman

    Masters Candidate

    Interesting and eye opening. I suspect many people still imagine an athlete working long hours exercising and a solitary coach with a towel around their neck giving pep talks and tips from 'my day'. The reality described here points to a world in which the psychology, physiology and biochemistry of elite athletes is managed with a level of scientific technological input that would be the envy of many corporate R and D units and university research schools and labs. In this context the moral hysteria…

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  9. George Fink

    Professorial Research Fellow

    One is left to wonder as to how Roger Bannister (who ran the sub-4 min mile) having completed his morning rounds as a Junior Doctor at St Mary's London, and John Landy succeeded in breaking the 4 min mile barrier without a team of "Sport Scientists". Similarly Edmund Hillary had no need for a "sport scientist". Bannister and Landy still live, and Hillary died at the age of 89. All three amateurs have had excellent careers who were great and respected leaders in their sports. Perhaps, given the mischief that some Sport Scientists get up to they are not only redundant but positively dangerous.

  10. Caroline Finch

    Emeritus Prof Robert HT Smith Professor and Personal Chair in Sports Safety at Federation University Australia

    A very good article - but it only mentions sports science in the context of 1-1 or 1- small group interactions. Sports scientists can also have a broader population focus, with many working as epidemiologists or health promotion experts. These scientists encourage and monitor the transfer of sports science/sports safety principles to active sports participation in the general community, to ensure its associated health benefits.