Canada has nature on its side when it comes to winter sports such as hockey and speed skating. Whether it's the minor leagues or the upcoming 2010 Winter Olympics Games in Vancouver, Canadians take their sports seriously. It's no wonder then that the science of sport is getting a lot of ice time with early career scientists.
Specialized science degrees in areas related to sports are becoming more common at universities. Athletic performance, safety, and coaching are the three main focus areas in sports science at the moment; career entry points range from health sciences to exercise science and even engineering. Regardless of the entry point, the goal is the same: helping athletes achieve the safest and best athletic performance. But despite this unity of purpose, the underlying science is highly multidisciplinary with individual sciences working in unison.
"You're only as strong as the weakest link in your chain," says Sean Maw, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Calgary and director of engineering research at the Calgary Olympic Oval. "Each link in the chain is equally important in an athlete's success, and if any of those disciplines are weak, it doesn't matter how strong the others are."
An Ever Deeper Understanding of Athletic Performance
The nature of sports science is fundamentally different from that of other branches of science in that sports scientists rarely make discoveries such as vaccines in medicine or string theory in cosmology. Sports science is a discipline that strives to attain an ever deeper understanding of athletic performance by linking together constant refinements in training, equipment, biomechanics, exercise physiology, sports psychology, biochemistry, nutrition, and other related fields.
Canadians are becoming increasingly health conscious and concerned about fitness. With growing interest there has been a concurrent growth in universities offering programs in the physiology and mechanics of the human body. Known as kinesiology or exercise physiology, this is becoming a popular pathway into sports science in Canada. Universities such as McGill, Waterloo, McMaster, University of Calgary (U of C), and the University of British Columbia provide training and research programs.
The number of kinesiology graduate students at U of C has more than doubled since 1994, from 26 in 1994 to 56 in 2003, with 18 students currently in the Ph.D. program. Former U of C kinesiology students have gone on to find career opportunities in the fitness, exercise, and health industries, with many using kinesiology as a steppingstone to careers in sports medicine and even sports engineering.
One of the most successful and productive interdisciplinary fields emerging in recent years in sports science is a branch of kinesiology known as sports biomechanics. Pulling together a wide range of sciences including physics, engineering, and physiology, biomechanics focuses on understanding athletic motion by means of simulation, modeling, and measurements. Today's sports industry relies on biomechanical engineers for designing equipment used in both amateur and professional competitions, making biomechanics a strong prospective career niche. Biomechanical engineers also set testing and safety standards for equipment such as hockey helmets, crash pads, and running shoes.
Calgary's Maw never expected to end up working in biomechanics. While studying Systems Design Engineering at Waterloo he took up long track speed skating. Later on while continuing his studies at the University of Alberta he started coaching the Edmonton club and became immersed in the sport. "They needed help with their speed-skating club, so I started doing long track as an athlete, coach, and an administrator to the point where I was the manager and head coach while I was still doing my Ph.D. in neuromuscular physiology," explains Maw.
Maw has combined his loves for speed skating, engineering, and science into a thriving career in biomechanics, where he specializes in improving safety and performance for competitive sports. He divides his time between teaching kinesiology courses at U of C and working with Canada's top athletes in speed skating, hockey, and cycling. Maw counts himself fortunate to have world-class sporting facilities--a legacy of the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics--close at hand.
In the Canadian biomechanics field there are many instances of crossover in research between sports. Many sports share similar needs, such as timing and cushioning impacts. For the past few years Maw's studies have focused on developing crash pad technologies for high-performance speed skating, which have now have drawn interest from the rock-climbing community.
Engineers thinking of coming into this field need to know a lot about both sports and science. Successful sports science programs may have engineers working hand in hand with scientists, technicians, athletes, and coaches. In this respect, Maw feels that his deep interest in sports gives him a natural advantage. "An engineer who doesn't know anything about the sport is not going to develop something that's particularly effective without [first] immersing himself in that sport," says Maw. "I understand the sport from a coach and skater point of view, but I'm also a scientist and an engineer, so I can bridge that gap."
What makes for a successful career in this field? Maw believes the secret lies in building a solid foundation of top-notch technical work backed up by a good understanding of science and engineering. Being a good communicator is also important. "You're going to have to attract interest and enthusiasm in your work, and you need to know how to attract money and write grants," states Maw. "Obviously you need to do good technical work, but that's not all of it."
Funding: Not Always Easy to Obtain
Funding is a key to any successful research career, and it's easier to come by in some areas than others. Although most Canadian research and development has concentrated on improving athletic performance, it remains the most difficult area for scientists to get funding. Maw suggests that young researchers should consider instead looking into coaching--which has its own R&D effort--and safety, where opportunities abound for research that crosses over into athletic performance.
With the upcoming 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, many exciting possibilities for corporate research spinoffs are expected for Canada, the western region in particular. Maw thinks that more funding for sports science will follow the games as well but warns that early-career scientists should not fall into the trap of following the money. Getting started in sports research can be fairly easy, but staying in the game for the long haul and doing good, stimulating, and rewarding work can be a challenge.
Sports are a multibillion-dollar business in North America--"It's already like an arms race," warns Maw--and sports-equipment manufacturers are keen to develop new technologies that improve athletic performance. That means that corporate money is often available to sports-science researchers, but, like much corporate funding for research, corporate money may come with publishing restrictions. Secretive funding arrangements with corporations are generally avoided in academic sports science, according to Maw. Yet researchers should be aware that industry partnerships might involve publishing embargos lasting up to 2 years.
Such restrictions can be bad for your career by inhibiting your apparent productivity, which has negative implications for tenure, funding, and other evaluations and also interferes with finding mentors and building alliances with other researchers. "Don't try initially to get into a line of research where you're going to be restricted in publishing, because that's going to create long-term funding problems," states Maw. By publishing even small results, young researchers can bootstrap into national government funding agencies such as the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and then later spread their wings to corporations that may involve more restrictive work.
"It's kind of like the athletes: You're only as strong as your weakest link," says Maw.
Andrew Fazekas is Canadian Editor at Next Wave and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org