Sports Science degrees and Sports Science in elite sport: a case of dislocated expectations?

I have been recently reading an interesting article written by the authors of the (excellent) Sports Scientists Blog on the myopia of Sports Science and decided that it was about time I wrote something about sports science degrees, sports science in academia and sports science in elite sport based upon numerous discussions I have with colleagues around the World on this issues.

What I aim to do with this article is to stimulate a discussion and also try to learn more about the situation in various countries and generally speaking how people feel about it.

Before going into the “meat” of the article, I would like to explain few things first which hopefully will clarify and explain (and possibly help to justify) what I will write next.

I have been fortunate, and allow me to say also wise enough, in my career to be “exposed” to 3 diverse educational systems (I obtained degrees in Italy, USA and Hungary) and 4 main career pathways: academic research, sports science jobs with elite athletes, applied research in elite sports settings, research for commercial entities. So, I think I am pretty much a coach that wears a lab coat or a scientist that wears a track suit…..up to you to decide.

Sports Science is a relatively new profession, evolved from old faculties of Physical Education which aimed at educating individuals to move into physical education and coaching-type jobs. In many countries (mainly in the European eastern block), sports science degrees still allow progression up to PhD level in sports specific qualifications (Ph.D. in sports specific projects) with an emphasis on coaching and coaching-related research. In most “western” countries, sports science degrees are offered with a variety of options, mainly focusing on physiology, biomechanics, biochemistry and in general, human biology-based programmes.

Sports Science Education

In many Eastern European Countries (and in Italy when I was a student), access to the sports science degree was based on an entry “selection” characterised by a series of physical tests and competitions (vertical jumps, shot put, sprinting etc.), a full medical screening and some generic “educational” tests. The aim of such approach was to select only students fit enough to endure the gruelling series of practical activities performed and also students with a strong sporting background which were then able to become coaches in their respective sport. So the selection, was pretty much disallowing “non-athletes” to become sports scientists. Coursework was a combination of “practical” courses (i.e. Track and Field, Swimming, Ball games, Gymnastics etc.) together with the “theoretical pillars” (i.e. Anatomy, Physiology, Biomechanics etc.). In my view, what such approach determined was a serial production of possibly good coaches and good physical education teachers, with very few opportunities to foster a research-based (or evidence-based shall we say?) mentality.

On the contrary, I have been working in the British system where there is absolutely no practical aspect in sports and all coursework is geared towards training young human physiology students. Not to mention the total absence of a selection process looking at physical abilities of the students. This system is for sure pretty good in forming good scientists and/or individuals able to understand human physiology and how humans respond to various forms of exercise, however what I come across every day is the absolute inability for such students to prescribe any form of exercise in a structured and meaningful form not only for elite athletes but also for the general populations. As a matter of fact, very few universities (if any at all) in the UK actually run a full course and examine exercise prescription. So, while many institutions are keen to advertise “sports science” programmes to attract students, very few actually prepare students for the “real world”.

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The “real world” in sports science terms is in need to sports scientists able to have a good understanding of science and able to provide applied, practical and meaningful solutions to the coaching staff. In my view, sports scientists should be actually able to drive the coaching programme being more than just a “support role”. As stated by my colleagues in the Sports Scientists blog,for a sports scientist to be able to make a real impact is not about doing a VO2 max tests and few lactate samples in the lab. More techniques are becoming more and more available to be taken to the field and technology is changing our job enormously, however what we need to still keep in mind is that a sound scientific approach needs to be used in order to develop “evidence-based” coaching. Bioengineering is also emerging and sports scientists need to be aware of advantages and limitations of various technologies as well as be able to design and develop customised solutions for coaches and athletes in terms of hardware and software. Last but not least, a solid knowledge of statistics and the ability to use less conventional statistical approaches to understand single subjects observations and forecasting performance is going to be what is needed to really make an impact out there.


Academia and Sports Science

I strongly believe that many universities create in students the illusion that they can actually work in elite sport one day after completing an undergraduate and a postgraduate degree. This is not the case unfortunately, because in too many institutions students are not “exposed” to relevant topics, relevant practical experience and also relevant individuals with practical experience in such settings. In too many UK institutions offering sports science degrees, students are lectured by individuals that never worked in sport (at any level) and/or have never had a significant role in elite sport. Furthermore, most of the topics, the literature and the practical courses proposed to UK students prepare them for a lot of things, but not for elite sport. Last but not least, most of the research activities conducted in various institutions are of no use to sports scientists working at the elite level. So, in my view, I find inappropriate that many UK institutions use the term sports science in their degree titles as the appropriate terminology should be exercise science.

A similar situation has already been highlighted in the USA by my colleagues and friends Prof. Mike Stone, Bill Sands and Meg Stone. In their article, entitled “The Downfall of Sports Science in the United States”, they described the same issues I have been presenting here.

A certain degree of academic snobbery also exists when it comes to sports science research.

Sports scientists working in academia are driven by the need for publishing their studies in high impact factor journals and nowadays are also forced to seek funding for large sums to be able to progress in their careers. This, in my view, has driven some very good minds away from making a meaningful impact in sport and has in some way diverted the attention of research projects towards studies designed to be publishable in a good journal rather then research work able to help coaches and athletes.

On the other side, Sports Scientists working in elite sport are not driven by the need for publishing their research findings (most of what is done at very high level is covered by confidentiality agreements and needs to be “secret” to protect potential competitive advantages) and are purely judged by the impact they make in a sport.

This difference in approach has determined a superiority complex in certain academics which see the sports scientists working in the field as “non-scientists” simply because they don’t publish on high impact factor journals and/or don’t show interest in basic type of research.

On the other hand, and this is possibly even worse, some sports scientists working in the field have developed an inferiority complex towards some academics thinking that whatever they do is not as good as the scientific work published in well-respected journals.

Unfortunately, sports science students are the ones losing together with athletes and coaches. Academic institutions willing to provide education for sports scientists should make use of academic minds working together with elite practitioners providing a wide range of research activities and educational opportunities. Furthermore, sports should try to engage with a variety of experts, provided that they can add value.


So, where is the solution? I believe that Sports Scientists working in elite sport should be educated by industry-based postgraduate courses. Ph.Ds funded by sports bodies in partnership with academic institutions with the students based in a sport setting. The model is pretty similar to what the Australian Institute of Sport has been proposing in the last few years. This would allow a student to be exposed to academic guidance and rigor while working in an applied setting, developing scientific work to help a coach and/or a sport.

Sports scientists not working in sport-related research should be termed “exercise scientists or exercise physiologists” and the should lose the term “sport” in their job description.

Elite athletes and coaches could benefit a lot from a variety of experts in various areas providing advice, but most of all, they could benefit from individuals that can add value to what they do on a daily basis trying to minimise the empirical approach to training and develop an “evidence-based” approach.

Scientific journals should be more opened to “applied” studies and to case studies on elite performers.

There is limited funding for elite sport research. However, many granting agencies offer funds to try to answer specific research questions to benefit the general population. Many topics or research areas funded by charities, funding agencies and commercial entities are very relevant to elite athletes and could use athletes as subjects for the studies. The mode I propose is similar to space research. Many discoveries generated by research work related to the space programme have been very useful for the general population.


Finally, too many commercial entities producing goods for the sport industry provide limited funding for research that could benefit their products. Only the big shoes and apparel manufacturers seem to dedicate funds and personnel to research activities also conducted with elite athletes with the aim not only to “validate” the effectiveness of their products, but also to develop better products for the average consumer. This approach is commendable and unfortunately not followed by companies producing fitness equipment and/or nutritional supplements which seem to be more interested in maximising gains from advertisement and unsubstantiated claims rather then investment in research. Last but not least, real food companies, when are they going to invest in research showing the benefits of real food on exercise and eventually on performance?

9 thoughts on “Sports Science degrees and Sports Science in elite sport: a case of dislocated expectations?”

  1. I believe that companies that invest in worthwhile sport-science studies do it because they can afford it. Companies that target smaller market segments probably cannot afford it.Giovanni Ciriani

  2. I don’t think this is true, costs of research depends on what the research project is all about.Of course, biochemistry based projects tend to be more expensive than biomechanics, however it surprises me that sometimes companies (even the ones that target smaller markets) are keen to put a product on the market without before publishing a simple validation and reliability study which does not need enormous resources.

  3. One of the key problems in this area is that sports scientists have not fully convinced athletes and coaches of the value of science within the athletes training regime and, as a result of this, there continues to be a gap between sport scientists and practitioners. Suspicion of science in sport may also be conceived from the belief that scientists are simply interested in generating knowledge for personal advancement, with little interest in the potential benefits/needs of such information. Hanin (1999), describes this type of approach as the “science first!” model, and highlights that a coach’s attitude to sport science can be tainted forever after such an experience. Such suspicions may also be rooted in the conflicting opinions of the scientific literature, an issue which may be rationalised by the scientist but which can breed a view of no confidence from the coach.Furthermore, as Mel Siff noted some years ago on Supertraining “science depends on performing experiments with large numbers of similar subjects doing some standard set of carefully administered things to ensure accuracy, reproducibility and precision. The results are subjected to painstaking statistical analysis to ascertain how the ‘average’ or ‘mean’ subject behaves under those precise conditions.Now this is hardly what happens in sport, where reproducibility of results, environmental conditions, standard actions and so forth occur predicably and simply. Average subjects never stand on the winner’s podium, never break world records or fill the top teams, so the non-scientist quite rightly questions the relevance of it all.”Generally a PHd knows everything about nothing.

  4. Regarding the selection process to entry to sport science courses it must be noted that, generally, funding is dependent on the numbers of students that universities enrol. If a course is not able to attract enough students, it will lose its’ funding; the popularity of sport and exercise science ensures that funding is available. Lecturers are encouraged to ‘sell courses’ which may involve the enrolment of candidates who are not entirely suited for the course or have the relevant qualifications. Creating an illusion of job prospects is an easy means of attracting students. This may result in adequate numbers for the course but lecturers may struggle to provide seminars / lectures suitable for all students from wide ranging backgrounds, particularly since time is of a premium. Lecturers may be inclined to award students’ higher grades than they would normally give. For example, Sykes, Rector of Imperial College, warns that there is a ‘tendency, even here, to give more firsts simply because it pushes you up the league table’ (30 minutes, 2004). Employers have noted that the standards of students coming from all courses have declined and that having these qualifications no longer gives the employee the advantage (30 minutes, 2004). It is easy to find a teacher or lecturer today who thinks there has been a drop of standards. Far too much effort seems to be expended on ‘jazzing up’ courses, new technology, new certifications and new complexities rather than refining and advancing what already exists. At the outset the aforementioned may appear exciting and relevant but in reality the internal mechanisms may struggle to cope. Indeed, according to Randle and Brady (1997) incorporation has lead to ‘organisational dysfunction in the day-to-day delivery of the service’ within further education. As a consequence, of incorporation several conflicting paradigms have arisen between the lecturers and the managers, for example, the lecturers prioritise student learning and the teaching process, conversely managers consider the students as customers, as a means of generating income; the products of labour are worshipped and basic requirements of the workforce are ignored (Raeper, and Smith, 1991). For the managers, like any well-run business, prioritisation concerns time and motion efficiency – minimum effort for maximum results. Practical assessments take up a lot more resources than a multiple choice exam – send it the the scanner to be marked! Traditional criteria for evaluating achievement and retention are associated with quantitative research methods. Quantitative research views reality as objective and emphasises the significance of an unbiased and distanced researcher. In today’s educational system, with the introduction of league tables the process model, although of optimum importance has been neglected as the product model (customer orientated) takes precedence, as a direct consequence of ‘managerialism.’

  5. Jamie,first of all thanks for your contribution.While I agree with you that some "distance" exists between sports scientists and practitioners I don't agree with your final statement that someone with a PhD knows everything about nothing. It is in fact the opposite, all PhD programmes are to know everything about 1 or 2 main topics. Then it is the ability and the willingness to expand knowledge in other areas that makes some sports scientists unique. Finally, someone with a PhD is somebody trained to understand science and its limitations and possibly someone capable of designing expertiments, collecting data and analysing the results understanding some outcomes. With this in mind, while I agree that experiments need groups (possibly large ones), single subject studies are also possible in particular when an elite athletes is the subject. Some interesting notes on the issue of single subjects design is available here:,M1

  6. Very similar to the solutions you noted.*A stronger emphasis on developing coaches.*Middle women and men who bridge the gap between science and practice. Translators? *Stress the applied nature of sports research and to maintain close coordination between scholars and scientists*Greater `cross fertilisation’ of information between academic institutions and sport clubs / institutes / medical profession. Currently an ivory tower culture is spreading through the discipline, ensuring that the latest scientific development are kept for only the privilege of so called “elite” players. *To further `shift the tide’ – target key areas such as education andrecognition. Greater emphasis on marketing.*Streamline the ethical procedures/approvals.

  7. Just found your blog and excellent stuff here! I have linked it to my blog. Excellent blog post and I have to second your thoughts “Middle women and men who bridge the gap between science and practice. Translators?” It seems (in the US) there is a gap between the two that is growing larger.Keep up the great work!Rock onMike T Nelson

  8. Similar observations in France.20 years ago, the director of my sport department told me we are not here to educate coaches. However, my diploma was named "sport training"…Sport training was just used to attract students and redirect part of them not exactly to sport science, but to the scientific publications of teachers that want to make money and carrier with science.Now, I am one of these teachers… And I am afraid that your remarks perfectly match the situation. In my university case, I had like to point out the incompetence of a whole part of my colleagues. It is so simple to read an "handbook of" compare to search, understand and explain problems from the real word. But how to reproach to colleagues their inabilities: part of them has been recruited because of their incompetences to ensure carriers of some previously recruited teachers (not so good too!).So, don't forget the organizational and social constraints and the personal goals that could either create the best or the worst depending on the system regulation. There are currently none social pressure to build good sport training courses.To resume, it is too far from performance and too far from academic carrier, and furthermore it is too complex.

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