Australian sport science at the cross-roads. How did we get here and where to next?
Updated: May 16, 2019
Praxis Performance Group
Take Home Messages
1. Sport science in Australia is now perceived to have lost much of it's competitive advantage.
2. The Australian sporting industry suffers from an oversupply of graduating sport scientists.
3. Understanding the difference between delivering outcomes and outputs is critical for sport science delivery, complementary outputs and outcomes are delivered by the best.
4. Understanding complexity, design thinking and user-centred approaches need to be harnessed by sport scientists to increase their impact.
5. As the sport science knowledge bank continues to grow the art of making the complicated simple is a critical skill.
6. Technical skills and knowledge from areas such as artificial intelligence, coupled with high-quality interpersonal skills and multi-disciplinary teamwork need to feature in the training of sport scientists.
There are many fine sport scientists in Australia who do great work and make a great impact in sport and academia. However, given the country’s leading employer of sport scientists - the Australian Institute of Sport – has recently dismantled its sport science workforce, it's fair to say Australian sport science has hit the cross-roads. Its extraordinary, given only 20 years ago Australia was about to reach a pinnacle of its sporting success at the Olympics, Rugby, Cricket and others. Back then sport science and the AIS were regarded as the world benchmark for supporting elite and developing coaches and athletes.
So, what’s happened?
One of the big drivers is the perception that sport science no longer holds the competitive advantage it once did, more countries are investing in the area and the playing field is a lot more crowded and competitive. Given Australia has been one of the pioneers of professional sport science over the last 40 years this has provided a lot more opportunities for well-credentialed Australian sport scientists to work in the USA, UK, Europe and Asia. There is no doubt Australian sport science, and high performance sport generally, has needed to evolve, adapt and innovate. It has in some areas (e.g. the adoption of virtual reality, artificial intelligence techniques and embracing concepts such as design thinking and systems thinking to drive solution development), but it’s been largely on the fringes and hasn’t seen the industry wide shift or impact that sporting leaders wanted. The decline of our international sporting successes at the Olympics since 2004 and many other sports supports the perception.
As a result, in 2018, sport science at the Australian Institute of Sport was largely decentralised (following AIS coaches and AIS athletes a few years earlier). Many former AIS sport scientists are now employed by the sports themselves, state institutes, or not at all. These system wide changes tend to go in cycles and the pendulum has shifted a long way over the last few years. While there are pros and cons to decentralisation, which are beyond the scope of this article, a big loss for Australian sport is the lack of a critical mass multi-disciplinary hub, where sport scientists, athletes and coaches rub shoulders daily, constantly challenging each other, co-delivering ground-breaking innovations. When the AIS was at its peak, this vibrant ecosystem was also ably supported by and in collaboration with experts in Academia and Industry.
Historically the AIS has delivered many world firsts in elite sport such as ice-vests in rowing, EPO blood testing protocols, development of the Superbike, world best athlete recovery practices, leading mental health initiatives and illegal bowling biomechanics law changes in cricket, just to name a few. It’s unclear now how Australia will keep delivering similar world leading innovations for its sports teams, coaches and athletes with this gaping hole in the Australian sporting ecosystem. Undoubtedly there will be isolated pockets of excellence here and there (there are still great sport scientists working with sports), but it’s difficult to see this being a system wide impact with the decentralised approach. For now, its wait and see, perhaps after the 2020 Tokyo Olympics we may see a change in government approach to elite sport, and the sport sciences, in Australia.
Supply and demand
Another fundamental dynamic in the industry across Australia is the large over-supply of sport scientists. According to ESSA figures in 2013, Australian universities graduate approximately 7,000 sport and exercise graduates per year, yet there are less than 500 sport science jobs in Australian sport. This leads to a lot of disappointed graduate ‘sport scientists’ who pursue other fields, a mass of ‘free’ trainee sport scientists looking for experience and research data, and sporting bodies and state institutes not needing to pay commensurate salaries.
Of course, most aspirants don’t pursue sport science to drive Ferrari’s and live at Point Piper with Malcolm and Lucy, but there is an economic reality to living in Australia, cost of living is not cheap. Recently a state institute, based in a state capital city, advertised for a PhD qualified sport science position at ~60K per year. According to the Bureau of statistics the average annual full-time salary in Australia in 2018 was ~82k, in the Professional, Scientific and Technical sector it was ~97k. No wonder many of our best sport scientists head to Academia, other industries or professional sports overseas, where their value is fairly compensated.
To address this requires big change. Sport Science is an attractive offering to people seeking to carve out a new career, but the education of sport scientists needs to re-calibrate to meet industry needs. Australia needs lots more educated professionals helping the country to overcome its obesity epidemic and drive community health and fitness initiatives (in many ways that’s far more important for the nation!), but not more sport scientists for elite sport. Central to this is universities developing a deeper understanding of professional and Olympic sport, its challenges and opportunities.
Along with smaller sport science intakes, degrees will need to evolve to match industry needs and to some extent there will need to be a blurring of the lines about what a sport science degree is. Artificial intelligence, data analytics and other evolving computer sciences need to feature in the training of the modern sport scientist. However high performance sport is a volatile hotbed of values, agendas, goals, aspirations, commitment, opinions, criticisms and conflict. Technical skills need to be coupled with high level inter-personal skills to empathise and explore creative solutions, build healthy productive working relationships, convey complex information simply, deal with conflict and work collaboratively. Easier said than done.
Delivering outputs versus outcomes
From a practitioner’s perspective this one can be a career killer. And its an issue for a lot of industries, not just sport scientists. It’s a cliché in the modern sporting context, but sport science needs to deliver impact and value for the coach, athlete, team and sporting organisation. Call this an outcome. Some sort of positive impact in the sporting environment (training, coaching, competition) that changes behaviour and approaches to a performance (e.g. making better decisions or getting faster) or a problem (e.g. anxiety or a chronic injury). And Australian sport science has delivered outcomes by the truck load over the last 40 years (some mentioned above).
Where practitioners can get caught out, particularly in the early stages of their career, is delivering outputs. Think of these as the reports, the presentations, the data, the media exposure and the real killer - the journal publication. All these outputs are important for career and professional development, but if they come at the expense of outcomes, it creates problems for all concerned, especially the coach and athlete, and ultimately the sport scientist. The best sport scientists can deliver outcomes and outputs in a complementary fashion. When outputs compromise outcomes, it usually doesn’t turn out so well. It’s a tricky balance and hard work but thinking creatively and being acutely aware of your ‘customer’ and delivering them the outcomes they need, rather than the outputs you want to achieve, is paramount for ongoing success. Leading sport scientists have started adopting design thinking and user centred approaches from the creative solutions industry which focuses on a deeper understanding of customers needs, assumptions and behaviours (for an introduction see: https://www.ideou.com/pages/design-thinking). Adopting aspects of these techniques will help sport scientists deliver better athlete centred solutions and outcomes for coaches and Australian sport.
Strength turns to weakness
Relative to other industries such as medicine, engineering and economics, sport science is a baby. But relative to sport science in many other countries, Australian sport science is mature. Naturally this has delivered Australia a competitive advantage on the sporting fields of the world through more scientific approaches to physical preparation, decision making training, skill development, well-being monitoring and injury rehabilitation. We now have a raft of world class Australian sport science experts dotted around the world and a vast ‘knowledge bank’ of the science underpinning athletic endeavour.
The problem is as knowledge and know-how evolves it becomes more esoteric, relying on the specialist to understand the nuances, assumptions and pitfalls. It becomes complicated and difficult for those without the exquisite knowledge to easily grasp or understand. When patients undergo treatment or surgery from a medical specialist, chances are many don’t fully understand the pathophysiology of their problem and the treatment they receive, but they trust that their specialist does (or at least knows more!) and can help. In some cases, their life depends on it. Athletes, coaches and administrators don’t have the same life-threatening investment in sport scientists that a patient has with their medical practitioner. So when things seem too complicated or too esoteric in the sport sciences, it’s easy just to go without. Has what was the sport sciences undoubted strength, now become its’ weakness? Perhaps. Regardless, it’s now critical that sport scientists endeavour to learn the art of making the complicated simple. It’s not easy and can be dangerous if taken too literally, in that you can lose the essence of the solution or data or the customer need. To quote Albert Einstein – “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler”.
A case approach
This one too has become a cliché, but that’s because it works and has stood the test of time. Case management is the multi-disciplinary approach to patient care, originating in the health care industry more than a hundred years ago. Its defined by the coordinated approach of complex-fragmented services to meet the demands of the client, while controlling the costs of services (Kersbergen, 1996). Think of the athlete as the patient, with their range of performance challenges and opportunities. The coaches, medical practitioners, fitness staff and sport scientists are the case management team. They each contribute to the co-development of the athlete support services, identify and agree the priorities and co-deliver the support in a prioritised coordinated fashion. Members of the support team (e.g. S&C coaches, biomechanists, physiotherapists, dietitians) have a different specialist perspective towards solutions and these should be shared, critiqued, debated and solutions agreed for each athlete. For example, the S&C coach needs to understand any dietary challenges the athlete has before embarking on an intense strength training block, the coach needs to be aware of injury risk from the medical staff before embarking on a focussed skill development emphasis, and the whole support team need to understand the goals and aspirations of the athlete and coach for the short, medium and long term. Elite teams often employ this method through case management style meetings where the athlete list is the agenda. There are also numerous software athlete management platforms that can facilitate the sharing of this information. When sport scientists are part of a case focused multi-disciplinary team they often deliver their most value and greatest impacts (outcomes).
So, as an industry sport science has its challenges. There’s no shortage of willing candidates seeking a career, there are not many jobs and the industry’s largest employer has dismantled its workforce. However, it’s not all doom and gloom. There’s still a role for high quality sport scientists in elite and sub-elite sport. Now is the time for the training and conduct of sport scientists to make a shift to evolve the way it goes about its business. Education needs to re-calibrate to better meet demand, incorporate creative solution based approaches, high quality inter-personal skills and technical developments such as artificial intelligence. Sport scientists need to remain acutely aware of delivering interdisciplinary outcomes and the impact of only delivering outputs. This can be done by taking a user-centred approach, whether the user is the athlete, coach or sporting organisation itself.
This article was originally published in Exercise and Sport Science Australia's April 2019 edition of 'Move' Magazine as "Does Sport Science have a PR Problem? What can we do about it?".