“Is a sport scientist really a scientist??”

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“Sports science”.

“Sports scientist”.

Two phrases that to this day are still very misunderstood, both by people who are not involved in either conducting or learning about sport science, and, more worryingly, those who are. There are a few reasons for this; first of all, sport science is a very young discipline. Whilst it has its roots in the study of human physiology in general, it has only been a standalone area of research (in Britain at least) for about 60 years, and has only been a viable profession for the past 25 years. Secondly, because many people watch sport or take part in exercise, there’s a tendency for people to think that it’s not a real science, as ‘anyone can do it’.

Of course, this kind of thinking can’t really be affected by us, much in the same way that lay people who don’t believe in climate change can’t really be affected by climate scientists. Besides, the aim of this blog post is to discuss whether or not people working in sports and exercise are ‘scientists’, and what this term actually means anyway.

Sport Science

Now I, like many others before me and since, decided to study the sport sciences at undergraduate level because I like playing sport and I enjoyed learning about the topic at A Level. I knew that it could be split into the general categories of anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, nutrition, psychology, training methods, etc., but I didn’t really have an appreciation for what the ‘sciences’ bit of the phrase actually meant. I thought, “well, it’s got some biology in there, a bit of chemistry, erm….so it must be a science!”. It took me a loooooong time to fully appreciate that science is actually a method employed to better understand nature through the use of controlled experiments to collect data which either supports or degrades assumptions about a particular phenomena:

  • “How do muscles get stronger?” Well, let’s set up an experiment with two different groups doing different types of training and measure their strength changes over time.
  • “Does loud music before a race make people run faster?” Let’s have the same people run a race twice, once without music, once with music and measure the differences.

Whilst these are very basic examples, they give the gist of scientific thinking.

Over the decades, sport science has become ever more complex, with many different roles and sub-disciplines, each one built on a foundation of ever expanding knowledge and research findings. Each of these findings has been developed, solidified and confirmed using the scientific method.  When studying any of the sub-disciplines of sport science, it becomes clear quite quickly that to truly understand your chosen topic requires a detailed knowledge of areas that don’t immediately seem related to sport:

  • If you want to have an effective knowledge of how muscles work, then you first need to be able to explain the histological makeup of human muscle, and that’s before you get onto any discussion of action or graded potentials.
  • Want to measure and interpret Vo2max changes in runners, then you first need to get to grips with Dalton’s Law and the Haldane transformation.
  • Want to improve someone’s bowling action in cricket? Better get that physics text book and read up on Newton’s Laws of angular momentum.
  • And speaking of physics and chemistry, who would have thought that in order to be an effective dietician/nutritionist you’d need to be able to discuss how covalent and ionic bonds are used to form compounds or what Avogadro’s number is?

And these are just four very quick examples from a never ending list of topics and ideas that a sport scientist must have a basic understanding of to do their job! And it doesn’t end there, either. Once that pile of text books has been read and absorbed, it’s time to dive into the galaxy of journal articles that are published every single day that pry deeper and deeper into the finer details of everything you’ve just read in the aforementioned text books. And that’s every day!

Which brings me onto my next point – understanding the scientific journals in the first place. Maths in the form of statistics is the language of science. If you cannot ‘speak’ statistics, you cannot perform or understand science. Many people reading this will have heard terms such as ‘t test’, or the famed ‘p value’ and most will have a understanding of what a ‘correlation’ is. But are you able to fully explain what each of these are to a point that you can tell if someone’s done it wrong? Or are you able to choose the correct type of t test for the correct type of experiment? What about knowing the limitations and pitfalls of p values? What about being able to read a regression line or interpret Bayes factors? Better get back into those text books, because without this knowledge, you might not be able to effectively use the journal articles you’re reading.

In the tiniest of nutshells, this deep understanding of scientific principles and foundational research is the prerequisite to be a sport scientist. They are no different to those required of physicists, chemists, medical practitioners or workers in any of the other hard sciences.

“Yeah, but I’m not going to do science, I’m going to be a coach/trainer/nutritionist”

Fans of the popular (and many years past its best) sitcom The Big Bang Theory will know that the character Howard Wolowitz is routinely mocked by his fellow characters for “only being an engineer” and “not really being a scientist”, because he doesn’t have a PhD or work directly in physics with the rest of them. However, throughout the series Wolowitz will occasionally demonstrate to them that his understanding of scientific principles and theories is just as detailed and as high level as theirs. The only difference is that he is an APPLIED scientist. He applies his detailed understanding of his field into the real world.

If you are (or are planning to be) a technical coach, an S&C coach, a dietician, a nutritionist, a personal trainer, etc., then guess what: YOU ARE AN APPLIED SCIENTIST! You are Howard Wolowitz!

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You should have just as detailed an understanding of each area of sport science as the theoretical or experimental people ferreting away in the lab or studying for Phd’s and MSc’s. Why? Because how can you possibly hope to bring about your client’s desired physiological or performance changes if you do not understand the science behind what you’re doing? Without detailed scientific knowledge, Howard could not design equipment for the International Space Station. Without detailed scientific knowledge, you won’t be able to help your clients improve. So, just like the more theoretical based members of the sports fraternity, you need to continuously get your head in the text books and journals and be a scientist.

So in response to the question posed in the title of this blog post:

Yes, a sport scientist IS a real scientist. BUT, are you really a sport scientist? Only you can answer the second part of that!

Until next time, good luck, and have fun!



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