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Keeping your Finger on the Pulse of Sports Science


There is no such thing as failure, only failure to try and try again. --Arnold Palmer, golfer

It's what you learn after you know it all that counts. --John Wooden, basketball coach

The man who has no imagination has no wings. --Muhammad Ali, boxer

These are some of the quotes that will welcome you on the English Institute of Sport (EIS) Web site. But if they have been chosen to reflect the mindset of elite athletes, they are also likely to ring a bell in the mind of many scientists. The drive to succeed, the ambition to push the limits of the possible, and the pressure to perform are all aspects of a career in sports, just as they are in research. Could it be, then, that science and sports are a perfect match?

Of course, there are other connections as well. The world of sports certainly seems keen to embrace scientific advances, be it to increase performance or prevent injuries. And, as nations turn towards exercise as a way of preventing "epidemics" such as obesity and heart disease, science and sport seem likely to converge even more. For sports and exercise scientists, this means "various job opportunities along that whole spectrum," says Greg Whyte, director of science and research at the EIS.

So what exactly is exercise and sports science? The Australian Association for Exercise and Sport Science ( AAESS) defines it this way: "Exercise and sports science is a multidisciplinary field concerned with the understanding and enhancement of human movement in the broadest sense, including ? fitness regimens and recreational sport as well as elite sports and ? performance enhancement. It includes [disciplines such as] exercise physiology, biomechanics, motor control, and motor development, exercise, and sport psychology."

It is a relatively new discipline that was born from a drive to incorporate more core science into physical education. "These changes were also a response to the increased community interest in the association between physical activity and health, the growth of the fitness industry, and the perceived demand for graduates trained in these areas," explains Tony Parker, vice president for sports science at the International Council of Sport Science and Physical Education ( ICSSPE) and professor at Queensland University of Technology ( QUT) in Australia.

The most obvious career option for sports scientists is to support elite athletes directly in their pursuit of sporting achievements. Thus sports scientists may assist them with conditioning, nutrition, training, coaching, recovery techniques, and injury prevention, as well as the psychological aspects of the preparation for competition. Scientists may be employed by individual professional athletes, sports institutes that will offer their expertise to athletes as part of a more comprehensive range of services, or even private coaching companies.

As an example, sports science has particularly benefited one category of elite competitors, the Paralympic athletes (or Olympic athletes with disabilities), allowing them to make "a remarkable impact in terms of improved performance in the last 2 decades," says Parker. Scientists may also be recruited to work with more junior athletes in specific training centres, colleges and universities with sports programmes, as well as semiprofessional and amateur sports teams.

Many opportunities also exist for sports scientists to help enhance human performance while remaining a little aside from the sports scene. Thus, within academic research they may investigate athletes' physiology or the biomechanics associated with the use of one piece of equipment such as a baseball bat. And within industry, they may look into developing new sporting equipment such as lighter footwear or new monitoring devices that will allow the analysis of athletes' performance in real time.

As for exercise scientists, their field, too, is expanding rapidly, as the benefits of sports science are being brought to the more general population. Thus, regular people aiming to raise their level of fitness may now turn to science more easily to enhance the effectiveness of their fitness regimens. But perhaps the group that stands to benefit most from exercise science is patients. Knowledge of the human body gathered from working with athletes can be translated to clinical settings, allowing exercise to be used as a form of treatment, rehabilitation, or even injury and disease prevention. Exercise physiologists are in increased demand to guide patients through exercise referral schemes or to help improve nations' health through dedicated programmes. This trend is certainly set to stay, with an ageing population and the emergence of lifestyle-related "epidemics" such as obesity, diabetes, asthma, and heart disease.

So if you decide exercise and sports science is for you, how do you get there? "It is a field that is multidisciplinary, so you can enter from different ways," says Parker. You may have a degree in sports science with a specialisation in one of the main disciplines such as nutrition, biomechanics, physiology, or psychology or have a strong background in one of the core scientific disciplines such as biology or physics. Of the two options, Whyte would recommend a sports science degree, as it will "give you a broader experience by tackling all the areas within sports science, whereas a general science degree will limit your possibilities" by forcing you to focus on one area, say biomechanics, if you're coming from a mechanics background.

In any case, it is probably a good bet to pursue your studies a little further. "In general, a postgraduate degree by research (master's or PhD) in sports science is a mandatory requirement to gain employment either overseas or within Australia with an academy or institute of sport, a professional sporting team, or a university," recommends the AAESS.

Parker encourages you to try and gain as much insight in the world of sport and possible science jobs as you can before and during your studies: "Go to the sports, talk to professional sports associations, athletes, coaches, sports scientists about what it is really like; it doesn't matter at which level." You should also actively seek practical experience by working in a sporting environment, as even though opportunities may be expanding it remains a competitive environment. "Because of the huge number of people [interested in breaking into this field], practical experience is key," emphasises Whyte.

But perhaps what you need most to make it in this field is "to have a love for sports yourself," says Parker. What you should also have is the "personality characteristics which enable you to work within a team environment; because it is a multidisciplinary field, this is very important," adds Parker.

Independence is another character trait that will help you through, along with dynamism and flexibility. "Expect to work odd hours; this is not a 9-to-5 job," says Whyte, "and you may not always be working within the same sports." He stresses that good communication skills are also essential: "[You have to be able to exchange] information at a very scientific level, as well as translate it into understandable information for the athletes."

If this may sound like a challenge, it is not the only one you will face in your career. To Parker, the biggest difficulty is that "you have to be able to relate your academic experience and knowledge to a practical situation and to people." This is a very demanding job, says Whyte, because "there are lots of factors which affect performance; you will need the knowledge and a high level of skills to deal with all of these," he explains. And as the boundaries of performance are pushed, so will be your abilities. As the athletes you work with improve, notes Whyte, you need to improve with them.

To the competitive mind, all this may add up to an ideal working environment. "This is a very exciting, very dynamic field," says Whyte. And there are many personal rewards to gain from a career in exercise and sports science. If you work at the elite level, "there is a degree of kudos and prominence to be in connection with that particular team or to get onto the international stage," says Parker. But perhaps the greatest reward of all, as he puts it, is "to be able to apply your skills and see someone improve their performance, [while] enabling them to be part of a working team that helps them to achieve, [whether it's] an athlete or a disabled child."

Like the athletes it serves, sports and exercise science moves fast and is keen to push its limits. One way of doing this is its movement into new parts of the world. "For health and social reasons, we want to enhance [the field] in developing countries," explains Parker. This is accomplished by creating collaboration schemes between major sports science centres and research groups in developing countries, as well as instituting scholarships that allow scientists from developing countries to attend international conferences such as this year's Pre-Olympic Congress held by the ICSSPE in Greece.

In keeping with a true sporting spirit, this takes a real team effort towards this goal. "A lot is being done around the world, but we need better links [among national and international sports and exercise associations], as well with groups like the UNESCO and the WHO," concludes Parker.

You may contact Professor Tony Parker for further information on careers in exercise and sports science. You may also want to get hold of the ICSSPE Directory of Sport Science 3rd Edition, which outlines 20 different sport science disciplines for its members. (Check the ICSSPE Web site to see if you are a member of one of ICSSPE's member organisations. Otherwise, the directory is available for purchase as a CD-ROM for US$20.)

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