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

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

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

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.