Interview: Dr Craig Duncan

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Interview: Dr Craig Duncan

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For our latest Sports Discovery interview I am delighted to be able to share the thoughts of the 2014 ESSA (Exercise and Sport Science Australia) Sport Scientist of Year, Dr Craig Duncan. Our discussion includes recovery, sleep, monitoring, accreditation, managing stress and advice for aspiring Sport Scientists. Firstly, a bit of background:

In 2014 alone, Dr Duncan led the sport science team that directly contributed to the drought-breaking winning performance of the NSW State of Origin team, the history-making performance of the Western Sydney Wanderers FC winning the Asian Champions League as well as making the grand final of the A-League. Currently, Dr Craig Duncan is the Head of Sport Science for Football Federation Australia (FFA) which involves leading the sport science team monitoring the Socceroos preparing for the Asian Cup 2015.

In the academic arena, Dr Craig Duncan successfully developed and implemented a new postgraduate degree (Master of High Performance Sport) at the Australian Catholic University. All of these achievements were formally recognised when Dr Craig Duncan was awarded ESSA 2014 Sports Scientist of the year.

Firstly Dr Duncan congratulations on your recent achievements and particularly for being named ESSA’s Sport Scientist of the Year for 2014.  What do you think has been the key to this success?

Thanks Jo – I think in recent times I have been very fortunate, as many times throughout my career I have worked with sound evidence based principles and the teams I am involved with have NOT succeeded. However, I do believe that what we do now has advanced and much of this is by reflecting daily on the work that we complete.  However, results are not always related to the performance of the sports science team and this is evident throughout the world. I have seen teams with very poor sports science be very successful in respect to results and great sports science teams not be rewarded on the ladder.

You have spoken widely about the importance of monitoring sleep with the Australian National soccer/football team, “the Socceroos”, particularly during the Asian Cup success, can you tell us a bit about that?

Sleep and nutrition are the “big rocks” in respect to recovery and I still think we do not devote enough of our work to the key area of sleep. Too often we are looking outside the box at recovery methods that have a limited evidence base when sleep is the #1. I am an advocate of sleep monitoring BUT it is imperative not to only monitor but then educate to advance the “sleep performance” of your athletes. The monitoring is only the first step – the question is what are you doing with that data?

In respect to camp situations and tournaments, players require education on basic sleep hygiene and when they fully understand the importance of good sleep habits then improvements can be made.

Clearly you are an advocate of monitoring technologies but also of ‘keeping the message simple’, how can we find the balance between these two?

It all starts with your philosophy and having a system you can manage. If you are not using the data or the data you are collecting is NOT impacting training than you have to reflect on WHY you are collecting it. I have a basic rule of 5 which means I strive to have a maximum of 5 variables I look at and report to the coaching staff in a manner that works for them.

I think too often the discussion with those you are reporting to has taken place and we (the Sport Scientists) go off on our own tangent. I speak to the coaches about how they want the data presented and what decisions they want to make from the data.

You have worked in both the club setup for instance with Sydney FC, West Sydney Wanderers and Crystal Palace FC, but also in the national setup as Head of Sport Science for the FFA.  How do the demands and the support services you provide differ between the club and country environment?

Working day to day in club situations is very intense and you must learn to deal with the stress. However, you get a good amount of time to make a real difference with you athletes re education etc. In national teams there are intense bursts during camps and it is more about the management of fatigue. This can only be done by collecting data remotely throughout the season from your athletes so when they do come into camp you know what is “normal” for them.

Why are you such a strong supporter for accreditation in Sport Science?

It is a MUST otherwise we will never advance our vocation. Too often anyone can call themselves a Sports Scientist or Strength and Conditioning Coach without proper education or accreditation and it is the PLAYERS who suffer. Players have a limited lifespan and too many times this is further limited by inappropriate training methods. It needs to start with national bodies providing an accreditation scheme and these national bodies working together.

You have been very open about your experience of suffering from heart attacks – how did these change your approach to work?

I often talk about managing stress BUT in my last full time club position I had a number of heart attacks after suffering a spontaneous coronary artery dissection – I’m very lucky to be alive. I now say it was the best thing that happened to me as you realise that there is much more to life than work and to appreciate how lucky we are to work in sport. Furthermore, I now focus on the performance of my staff rather than the results of our team as that is out of our control. Our job is to maximise the physiological performance of our athletes and if we are working towards that than we are doing our job. As a colleague said to me on the bench in the Asian Cup Final with 3 minutes to go “Craig, the result is already written” and I believe that. In fact in the next 30 seconds Korea scored to equalise and send the game into extra time. So my advice is to appreciate what we do and understand when you are on your death bed you won’t be thinking about the coach that never listened to you.

As the Course Coordinator on the new Masters in High Performance Sport at the Australian Catholic University (ACU) what advice do you give to these students and others around the world aspiring to work in High Performance?

Leave the EGO at the door. That is step 1 and everything else will flow from that. My work these days is much more about communicating the message so it is vital you work on these “Soft Skills” BUT you must be strong in the “Hard Skills” and know your data. I also think its imperative to make decisions based on sound scientific evidence rather than what “Johnny Smith” is doing at the club up the road. Furthermore, if you can get an internship with a great mentor that is priceless.,_institutes_and_centres/health_sciences/about_the_faculty/news_and_events/news/dr_craig_duncan_awarded_sport_scientist_of_the_year_award


Thanks to Dr Duncan for the interview. You can find him here on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Craig has also been involved in the publication of this recent paper: ‘GPS and Injury Prevention in Professional Soccer’  This paper was also mentioned in a previously Sports Discovery Post: FIFA Finally Permit the Use of GPS in Competitive Football: What is the Way Forward?


Jo Clubb


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