If there's one thing that unites athletes and scientists, it's passion for their craft. A few scientists have managed to combine both of those passions into one career. At a press conference at the Science Media Centre in London last month, I had the opportunity to chat with an engineer, a physiologist, and a sports psychology researcher who have incorporated their passion for sports into their careers.
Do you have to be a sports fan to work in sports engineering? "It certainly helps," says Andy Harland of Loughborough University in the United Kingdom. "The meetings we have with industry, the conversation will always start on sport. The expectation is, we're here because we all love sport."
There's something Andy Harland would like you to know: He is not solely responsible for the controversial World Cup football -- soccer ball for Americans -- which some footballers have criticized as behaving unpredictably in the air. If you've read certain media reports, "you might believe that I invented the ball, designed the ball, developed the ball," he says. "I did none of those." Still, Harland, 34, was part of a team at the sports technology department at Loughborough University in the United Kingdom that worked with a prototype of the Adidas Jabulani, developing and testing different designs for the ball and studying how surface features, such as seams and grooves, affect the ball's aerodynamics.
After earning a bachelor's degree in engineering, science, and technology, Harland did a Ph.D. at Loughborough, studying optical engineering methods for measuring sound in water. Then, toward the end of his doctorate, he was in the right place at the right time: "I knew socially the professor of sports technology, and he was interested in somebody who is fundamentally a sports fan who had a credible engineering background. That was the first I had ever really considered sports technology as a career." He started in 2001 as a lecturer in Loughborough's sports technology department, where he's now a senior lecturer.
Administratively, Loughborough's sports technology department, and the affiliated Sports Technology Institute, fall under mechanical and manufacturing engineering, but its scope goes well beyond a traditional engineering department. "Sports engineering is not a discipline in its own right," Harland says. "We sit halfway between a sports science department and an engineering department." He and his colleagues tend to do work that's centered on products: tennis balls, tennis rackets, footwear, clothing, and so on. Their current projects include computer modeling of fabrics for clothing, measuring sports-ball spin, studying the interaction between sports equipment and its user, and physical testing of sports equipment. A "substantial percentage" of the department's research money comes from sports product companies, Harland says.
The Sports Technology Institute is the largest of its kind in the United Kingdom, Harland says, with eight academic staff members, about 30 researchers, and five administrative staff members. Beyond the academic centers, there are jobs for sports engineers in industry. Harland says his two most recent Ph.D. students now work on the Adidas innovation team. Other graduates have gone on to work in R&D at Callaway Golf, Speedo, Head Tennis, and Nike.
Do you have to be a sports fan to work in this area? "It certainly helps," says Harland, who describes himself as a general sports fan and has played football and cricket. "The meetings we have with industry, the conversation will always start on sport. The expectation is, we're here because we all love sport."
Physiology and performance
"Most of the sports scientists in the English Institute of Sport (EIS) are failed athletes of sorts," jokes Steve Ingham, head of physiology at the institute. Ingham includes himself in that description, saying, "I was a reasonably poor sprinter."
Ingham didn't let his lack of sprinting success stop him from pursuing sports. He did an undergraduate degree in sport science at the University of Brighton, followed by a Ph.D. at the University of Surrey, where he studied oxygen uptake. When you sprint or run for a bus, Ingham explains, your oxygen uptake doesn't increase instantly; it increases on a curve before reaching a plateau. "That speed of the switch-on can distinguish and determine performance," he says. Since graduate school, Ingham has worked for the English Sports Council (now called Sport England) sports performance center and the British Olympic Medical Institute, where he worked as the acclimatization manager for the Athens Olympics.
Ingham, who has been at EIS since 2005, and his colleagues work primarily with elite athletes to maximize their performance. EIS, which has regional centers throughout England, employs 250 people with a background in sports science or medicine with specialties in everything from sports psychology and nutrition to biomechanics and performance analysis.
Although he focused on oxygen uptake for his Ph.D. research, he has to be much more of a generalist when working with athletes. "We can sit down with an athlete and we might have a hit list of 20 different things that we need to address," Ingham says. "An athlete may not be recovering properly, they might not be eating enough, they might not be working at the right training intensity. We have to be able to introduce and/or troubleshoot different areas of their preparation and performance."
Ingham's area, physiology, centers on "appreciating how the biology of the human body works and using those principles to help an athlete train and perform to higher standards," he says. Ingham used to work with the British rowing team and other Olympic athletes; he still works with a couple of athletes, but now his primary responsibility is to look after EIS's team of physiologists. "Most of our work on a day-to-day basis is ensuring that information from a broad funnel of academic research gets translated down to athletes and coaches," he says.
Most recently, Ingham has been in the press for his expertise on the effects of altitude on performance. Seven of the 10 World Cup venues are at an altitude of 1300 meters or higher; the other three are at sea level. The World Cup players will experience an 8% to 15% decrease in maximum oxygen consumption at altitude, Ingham says. Although this won't affect the players' sprinting ability, it will affect their endurance. "It's the recovery of your expenditure that will be the important factor in managing energy expenditure over a 90-minute exercise," Ingham says. "One-off sprints are improved, but the recovery and endurance component will feel a pinch."
Greg Wood may still be a Ph.D. student, but last week his research was published in nearly every national newspaper in England. Why? Wood, 31, shared with a room full of U.K. reporters his research on the association between anxiety and penalty kicks; as it happens, the England team has one of the worst success records in penalty shootouts. The research made for great headlines in the week leading up to the World Cup, though he readily admits he doesn't know if the England team has read his paper and taken to heart its implicit recommendations.
Wood's interest in sports psychology started with a love of sports. "I wanted to be a footballer," he says. "I never made it. So, I thought, how can I be around football?" He did so in part by getting a bachelor's degree in 2003 in sport, coaching, and exercise science followed by a master's degree in sport psychology, both at Manchester Metropolitan University.
He's now a Ph.D. student at the University of Exeter in the School of Sport and Health Sciences, where his research focuses on visual attention and performance. One of his studies involved putting eye-tracking technology on 18 university football players to track their gaze while they took penalty kicks under different stress situations. The researchers set up a contest with prize money and bragging rights on the line for the stress variable, which they measured by asking players to rate their anxiety on a scale of 0 to 10 before their penalty shots. "When [the players] were anxious, they were more likely to look at the goalkeeper, focusing on him instead of looking where they should be hitting," Wood says.
The next step was to look at how goalkeepers can use this information. Can they distract their opponents to the point that they affect a kicker's performance? He found that the kickers were less successful at taking their penalty kicks when a goalkeeper intentionally distracted them. "We found we could successfully train the kickers to ignore the goalkeeper and instead just focus on the relevant information, which is where they want to hit the ball," Wood says. That study -- which made headlines around the world last month -- is in press at the Journal of Sports Sciences.
Wood has used eye-tracking technology in the medical arena as well. He and his supervisor, Mark Wilson, have done studies using eye-tracking devices to compare how experts and novice radiologists and emergency medics interpret ECGs and x
-rays. They've found that the methods experts teach novices are different from the technique they actually use. "We're looking at how we can develop expertise quicker in novice emergency medics and emergency radiologists," Wood says.
Now in the final stages of writing up his thesis, Wood hopes to land a job in academic research. He'd like to stay in a sports-related field but concedes that he may have to look more broadly. "The way things are going with ... research and grant funding, there's much more funding available out there for medical research than for football and sports research. I'll think I'll always be sports-orientated, but it might not be up to me."
Interested in learning more about sports-related science careers?
- Check out departments such as Loughborough University's School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences and the Centre for Sports and Exercise Medicine at Queen Mary's School of Medicine and Dentistry,
- Peruse journals such as the Journal of Sports Sciences.
- Have a look at the program for the upcoming International Sports Science & Sports Medicine Conference or the recent European College of Sport Science Congress.
- Read some of the dozen or so articles in our 2004 special package, Careers in Exercise and Sports Science: From Athletic Performance to Disease Prevention
Photo (top): Rennett Stowe
Kate Travis is the contributing editor for North Europe and editor of CTSciNet, the Clinical and Translational Science Network.