Ancient History of Sport Science
For as long as there has been sport, there has been the search to gain a competitive edge on performance. Therefore, it can be argued that the field of ‘Sport Science’ extends back to the formation of the Olympic Games in Ancient Greece. Later in the second century, the Roman physician Galen could be labelled as a revolutionary Sport Scientist due to his works in anatomy and physiology, findings that include the distinction between venous and arterial blood. The intensifying of sporting competition during the Cold War saw both the Western world and the Soviet Bloc turn to the science behind performance. For example, the first text on periodization, ‘Fundamentals of Sports Training’, was published by the Russian L. Matveyev in 1977.
In the last few decades there has been an upsurge in the prominence of sport science. Long gone are the days of a few pints of beer in the bar after a professional football match! In today’s world it is rare to see a professional athlete or team travel anywhere without the backup of sport science staff, comprising of physiologists, nutritionists and psychologists to name only a few. A quick search of ‘sport science’ on the UCAS website shows a selection of 989 courses provided across 169 institutions in the UK alone.
This increase in eminence of sport science support has come hand in hand with an increase in media scrutiny. There is interest in or sometimes confusing about how people in white coats can aid our sport stars, resulting in both positive and negative comment.
For every article that acknowledges sport science for its benefits, there are those that question our input. This is exemplified by an article in the wake of England Cricket’s Ashes disaster that claimed ‘the Aussies did not let a psychologist anywhere near the locker room’, despite the easily available Australian article on the importance of their team psychologist in the lead up to the campaign:
It is understandable that in the high stakes world of elite sport all staff are held accountable, especially those tasked specifically with optimising performance. Add to that the generations of ex-players and coaches who achieved their success without the aid of scientific support and so may need winning over.
So where do we fit into this world?
I am not a footballer, a coach, a doctor or a physiotherapist and I do not try to be. I believe my job is to use research and technology to help all of these specialists do their jobs. I cannot treat a knee injury but I can report on the progressive load during rehabilitation using GPS. I cannot comment on a player’s ability to carry out tactical information but I can prepare them physically to carry out these duties. I can present data that, at times, has a powerful effect on an athlete’s mentality.
To carry out these roles a certain set of skills is required, skills that we cannot necessarily gain from our University degrees. These are the soft skills such as communication and people skills that will enable you to work well with athletes and staff, collaborate to find the areas to improve performance and share the information in an effective manner.
Next, an understanding of the environment you are working in is essential. Generally, we come from an Academic world of textbooks, references and laboratory work. We must adapt and start our work on the pitch/track/court, learn what determines performance and work backward from there.
In my (yes obviously biased!) opinion there is an earned place for well researched, well communicated science in the elite world of sport, working alongside all the specialists in the backroom staff to add one more piece to the puzzle of elite performance.