What precisely is the role of the Sports Scientist?

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What precisely is the role of the Sports Scientist?

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I got prompted to write up a blog post based on an article I read earlier this month (11th May 2016) about Sports Scientists turning players soft. I’d be really keen to hear the views of our readers on this topic, so please read on and respond with your views through our comments section, facebook page or twitter…

The article in question, from itv.com, centred around ex-Man Utd & England defender Rio Ferdinand expressing his concern that the present and coming generations of footballers are being robbed of their “robustness” through the influence of sports science on training and a culture of over-protection.


Man United legend Rio Ferdinand worried sports science is robbing footballers of their ‘robustness’

(ITV.com Headline 11th May 2016.)


Extracts from the article include:

“The sports science guy comes up and says ‘I don’t think you should train today, you’re at that level, if you teeter over the edge you won’t be fit for Saturday; have a rest day’.

“All of a sudden you starting drilling someone in training, and a sports science bloke pops over: ‘Woah, woah, woah, he’s in the red’.

“That’s what you’re meant to be. I grew up in the red a lot of the time in training, and feeling sick, and when you get to a game you’re conditioned, ready, and I just think that this new generation, sometimes with computers, are taking away that robustness.”

This isn’t the first time football players have questioned the need for the Applied Sports Science Community. Back in August 2011, David James wrote an article in the Guardian suggesting an over-reliance on data in the game and not enough common sense. Then, of course, the 2015/16 season has also seen a very public fallout between Jose Mourinho and his medical staff where he accused them of not “understanding the game”.


“Somewhere between the magic sponge and sports science lies common sense.” 

(Guardian Headline 27th August 2011.)


In contrast, in the same week as the ITV article, we also read how Louis Van Gaal sought the advice of what he calls his “fatigue specialist” with regards his mid-week selection for the critical game against West Ham United. Clearly LVG recognises there’s a value in this type of service as it helps him make important decisions with added insight and chooses to seek some evidence to support the choices he needs to make. Maybe this is what prompted Ferdinand’s outburst though? Here’s a link to the LVG article as posted by fourfourtwo.com


Van Gaal to Consult ‘Fatigue Specialist’ before West Ham Trip

(fourfourtwo.com 10th May 2016.)


A manager who has always been very supportive of the role of Sports Science has been Sam Allardyce. Often applauded in the media for how he managed his limited resources at Bolton Wanderers, “Big Sam” seems to have continued his commitment to data and sports science services, announcing recently that he himself is using transcendental meditation as a way of managing stress. Then, of course, how could I not mention Leicester City this season, who have created a very effective bond between football staff and backroom staff. In whatever way they’ve developed their services, they’ve developed an environment where the manager can always play his strongest team and the players have bought in. There’s no secrets either, Leicester have warmly welcomed the media in on a number of occasions to provide insights into behind the scenes provided in April 2014 and May 2016 as well as this popular Youtube video:



I’ve always considered that we (sports scientists) have a very important role to play in a professional backroom team. As professionals, we are good people with a great array of skills, knowledge, abilities and tools that we can all use to offer valued services. I think it would be fair to say that what the guys are doing at Leicester isn’t necessarily that different to what the guys at any other club are doing, but is there something in how it is being done, or how it is being received that’s proving to be really effective? It would be great to hear your views.


In terms of service delivery, I’m not always sure that it’s completed clear to coaches, in many different sports, what exactly the responsibility of the sports scientist is. Do you agree? As the years role on and as players become managers etc, has the perception of sports science services become more contorted and do we feel that players & managers completely understand the services we can offer? Does this perception change from person to person based on their knowledge and their past experiences? Do they fully understand the services we can provide and perhaps, more importantly, where do the service lines begin and end? Does the service provision change from club to club, provider to provider or sport to sport? What’s the coach’s expectations and where do they perceive to be the value?


I’ve spoken to practitioners who have been “caught out” with coaches who, after agreeing what they’ll come in to do, have gone on to, in embarrassment, over-inflate their importance to their players as some sort of saviour because “they do sports science” and “they have a degree”, perhaps to make themselves as coaches look innovative. Once a service has been mis-sold to 25 people, it can be a tough challenge to salvage credibility, so the service provider aims to over-deliver to try and fulfil expectations, often with great difficulty. Despite making things clear to the coach in preliminary discussions, what’s maybe not accounted for is their past experiences (or inexperiences) and what their perceptions of sports science services. Do we perhaps take a few too many things for granted sometimes and do we need to be more careful about how we ‘contract’ our services, being very clear on our deliverables?


Ok, so here’s where it’s back over to you guys for your views. Where does a sport science service begin and end? Are we data managers? Are we risk managers? What level of responsibility do we take for fatigue and injuries? How are we made accountable? Are we required just to provide datasets to answer questions or inform decisions? Do we need to go beyond the data and review, interpret & offer our professional recommendations? Is there a line we mustn’t cross? Who is our client? Is it the player, the coach or is it the other staff members? When is it appropriate and when is it inappropriate to speak up and intervene?


All of us at SD would love to hear your views on how best to implement our services. What are your past experiences, both good and bad? What are your views on how sports scientists are being perceived?


I’m really looking forward to hearing the views of our readers on this one. Is it clear cut, or are there blurred lines?





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2 Comments so far:

  1. I think the integration of the Sport Scientist within the management team is vital. There needs to be clearly defined channels in terms of what information the Sport Scientist provides and how that information is utilised. From personal experiences that information (sometimes vital to the performance of the team) is understood, yet overlooked. Leicester City have managed to get this “formula” right in the way the management team, in its entirety, have bought into the information they are provided. This is credit to Claudio Ranieri and his faith within the backroom staff. However, few managers have the same faith within their own support staff and too often rely on their own playing experiences to justify the training methods and outcomes. Although I do feel that many Sport Scientists lack “real world” experience and treat players like they are made of glass (forgetting they are adaptive machines that will not break when placed in the “red zone”), I do feel that the application of the information Coachs receive is what seperates “innovative” managers from their “old school” counterparts.

  2. […] already been mentioned on Sports Discovery. Previously Jonny discussed this in his post entitled ‘What precisely is the role of the Sports Scientist?’, in response to suggestions in the media that Sports Science is turning athletes ‘soft’. The […]

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