Sports Science Quarterly – Q3 2023

Every quarter we take a deep dive into the latest research in sports science. In this edition we look at the latest research on future directions in sports science, lessons from Formula One, strengths-based approach, culture change in sport, and much more.

As always, the full Sports Science Quarterly is available exclusively to HMMR Plus Members. You can browse the past topics on our archive page. The first topic below is free to everyone, but sign up now to read about all the latest research. To get an idea of what Sports Science Quarterly is all about, the April 2016 edition is available in its entirety for free.

This Month’s Topics

Current issues and future directions in sport science

Quick Summary – Sports science is ever-evolving, bringing in new areas of knowledge and developing existing ones. Some of the key challenges affecting the field in the coming years include the rapid advances in technology and data collection, and understanding how changes within a training program influence performance outcomes.

Science is an interesting construct. Whilst we tend to assume that science “has” all the answers, the reality is somewhat different; whilst we may know certain things, they are often context dependent, and require further research and exploration to confirm and develop individual theories. This is often a stick used to beat science—and especially sports science—with, and it’s often seen as a key weakness, with what was once seen as scientific “fact” being replaced by a new theory. I take a different approach; instead of viewing science as the process of having all the answers—and complaining about it when it doesn’t—I view it as an overall method of getting closer to the answer, whilst understanding that the one, true answer, likely doesn’t exist. In sports science, for example, this would involve a process; what is the currently best accepted theory for this problem I’m trying to solve? What are the competing theories or unanswered questions? What is the context that the athlete and coach are working in? Where can I add value? Getting off my soapbox, the main message I want to highlight here is that science, and especially sports science, is a process, and we should treat it as such.

This leads us nicely to the first article this quarter, published in the Strength and Conditioning Journal. It’s a write-up of a roundtable of experts, who were asked questions around the current issues in, and future directions for, sports science. The contributors for the roundtable were some big hitters from the sports science research and practice field, including Tim Gabbett, Paul Comfort, Sophia Nimphius, and Michael Stone. Let’s take a look at some of the key issues discussed:

Today’s biggest issues

  • Rapid advances in technology, which can be both positive (opening up new avenues for athlete development), but also negative (lack of validity and reliability leading to poorly informed decisions; a large amount of data that requires analysis). In addition, the greater the number of technology systems in use, the greater the training and skill development required by the support team—potentially taking them away from time supporting athlete and coach.
  • Large support teams. Again, this is good – we get more in-depth and expert support around athletes and coaches, but also comes at the cost of having the balance the input of multiple people around coach/athlete—who may not possess the ability to critically analyse the advice of these people. A skill for the performance support practitioner is to be able to take complex topics and make them usable to athlete and coach, in their own unique context.
  • Data. We now have the ability to collect so much data, it can lead to overwhelm and “busy work” – time spent looking busy (i.e., collecting and analysing data), but with minimal impact on athlete and coach. In addition, our capacity to collect data has outpaced the current legislation around data governance and ethics; once these catch up, the burden of collecting data may become increasingly large.

Areas for future research

  • How training programs influence performance. This is the main aim of every sports practitioner, but research is starting to highlight that individuals respond to the same training program differently. The next step is knowing how to harness this knowledge, as well as to effectively understand the relationships between what happens in training and what happens in competition.
  • Interdisciplinary research. There are clear disciplines and sub-disciplines within sports science, with more being added over time. The key to moving the field forward, especially with more complex and messy problems, is to have disciplines work together. This increases the applicability to athlete and coach, but also stops people solving problems with the tools they have (e.g., if you’re a physiologist, do all problems appear physiological in nature?).
  • The ability to accurately assess changes—and link this to performance outcomes. At present, we’re able to collect a lot of data; the next step is to be able to utilise this data to understand what changes have occurred, either acutely (e.g., after a session or within a competition), or more chronically (e.g., across the training year). Once we can assess changes effectively, we need to link it to performance; does a change in variable X lead to any given performance improvement?

The impact of technology

  • Opportunities from the growth of technology in sports science include the ability to collect more data, from more areas, more accurately and quicker than ever.
  • The dangers here come from practitioners perhaps not having the skills required to manage and analyse large data sets, as well as many of the data collection tools not being valid and reliable.

Gaps and areas of untapped growth

  • “The people we have yet to get in the field” – the ability to increase the diversity of knowledge and experience within sport represents an important next step.
  • The need to integrate applied research within the high performance sports organisation, with embedded practitioners. This approach should allow for more relevant research studies to be carried out.

Based on the above comments from the experts, it’s clear to see that, whilst sports science is a useful field, there are directions it can go in to further enhance its impact, especially where it matters most – with athlete and coach.

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