The Sport Science Myth Part 1, by John Weatherly

Editor’s Note: Gatorade and MusclePharm would like you to believe that American sport science exists. But when John Weatherly told us that American sport science was largely a myth, we were surprised. Consider the source – John helped with conditioning programs and research at the U.S. Olympic Training Center. But even former NSCA president Michael Stone argues that American sport science is a myth. If American sport science doesn’t exist, what exactly are the National Strength and Conditioning Association and American College of Sports Medicine doing?

In order to understand sport science it is necessary to provide background information and then define what sport science is. I will rely extensively on a presentation by former U.S. Olympic Committee Head of Sport Physiology, and former National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) President, Dr. Michael Stone. It is a subject Dr. Stone and I have great interest in and have discussed over a number of years. I thank Dr. Stone for allowing me to use and share material from his presentation. Throughout this article, I have referenced the specific slides in parentheses from Dr. Stone’s presentation that correspond to the material. In some instances, I have quoted the actual slides.

Dr. Stone is a former NSCA president who has received NSCA awards for sports science and lifetime achievement.

Former NSCA pres. Dr. Stone received NSCA awards for sport science and lifetime achievement.

We’ll start with a bang by quoting Dr. Stone on slide two:

From the outset it is essential to understand that most scientists believing that they are sport scientists are really not.

While interest in exercise, sport, and nutrition can be traced to ancient times (i.e. the Greeks), exercise science as a field of study began around 1900 and included areas such as exercise physiology, biomechanics, health, psychology, and what we now call sport science. It is important to note that other countries, particularly government-funded programs in the former Eastern Bloc (i.e. former USSR), started to study what we now call sport science at least partially as a political ploy to prove the superiority of Communism to the world. Much of Western sports training still uses concepts and is influenced by information from other countries such as the former USSR. For example see Yuri Verkoshansky’s website, or this EliteFTS article, Science of Lifting: Revisiting Matveyev.

Prior to approximately the last 15 years in the US, sport science was thought to be a part of exercise science (Slides 5-8). Exercise science and sport science are both formed off of the foundation of basic science and share some common aspects but there are very important differences between the two. Exercise science involves health and wellness, education, and research. While sport science also involves education and research, it does not include health & wellness. By health and wellness I’m referring to the fields and not keeping track of the health or wellness of athletes. Sport science involves monitoring and testing athletes as well as the strength and conditioning of athletes (Slide 9).

Testing grandmom on a treadmill may not prepare a scientist for helping a football team:

Testing grandmom on a treadmill may not prepare a scientist for helping a football team:

The Importance of Sports

Turn on your local evening news and it’s news, weather and sports not news, weather and wellness. And if you don’t want to watch the news or weather, you can watch ESPN SportsCenter. I haven’t seen an hour-long program called HealthCenter on every day yet. Have you?

Schools from junior high through college compete in sports. Of course, there are also many pro teams in the US. Teams have fans that follow and identify with sports teams(some go too far and live vicariously through them). Sports can be a source of local community or school pride. In an Olympic year, they can also be a source of national pride (Slide 13).

The Miracle on Ice:

The U.S. beat the Soviet Union in hockey a decade before it defeated the Soviet Union politically:

This was exemplified in the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, NY. Those who were alive in 1980 can recall the height of the Cold War and the sometimes stifling dominance of USSR athletes in the Olympics. The 1980 U.S. Olympic Ice Hockey Team upsetting the heavily favored Soviets in the Winter Games was a source of pride for Americans. This went way beyond sport! It was seen by many as good (Democracy) triumphing over evil (Communism).  Al Michaels’ dramatic call at the end of that game described it best: “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”

That’s the power of sports. It can galvanize a school, local community, and even a nation. As an interesting side note, I recently heard former USOC Head of Biomechanics and a colleague of Dr. Stone’s – Dr. Bill Sands – say in an interview the original reason he wanted to work in sport science and help Olympic athletes was to “beat the commies.”

Competitive sports have a winner and losers. It’s not for recreation. Winning is important. This is why sport science is important (Slides 20-21).

Perhaps the US needs to beat ISIS at the CrossFit Games before it beats it on the battlefield.

Perhaps the U.S. needs to beat ISIS in the sport of fitness, before it beats it on the battlefield.

What is Sport Science?

Science is an attempt to better understand and predict objective reality, not a debate. Science tries to quantify variables with statistics to understand evidence. This does not mean statistics replaces reason but rather that they should be used to enhance reason (Slide 25). Most of the general public, including coaches, are not equipped to understand scientific articles and information. Therefore, scientists must be detectives to synthesize information. They also must translate scientific material.

Exercise science is largely focused on the mechanisms behind biological responses or adaptations to exercise or training. At U.S. universities, exercise science is mainly focused on wellness, adult fitness, and cardiac rehab programs (Slides 29-30).

In contrast, sport science is to improve sport performance (and equipment) via the use of scientific methods (Slide 31). Sport scientists use biology to understand sport (Slide 45).

An exercise scientist will be interested in health, have knowledge of clinical/medical/lab practices and problems, have discussions with physicians and be willing to be involved with research programs.

The sport scientist is interested in sport and the development of elite athletic performance. Regular discussions with coaches, athletes and sport medicine personnel are important for the sport scientist. The sport scientist must develop or use monitoring and research programs to provide constant, quick feedback. Sport scientists also need to understand politics along with training for improved performance. If possible, the sport scientist should be willing to train as the athletes do and become a part of the sport. This helps break down social barriers. Challenging accepted practices in the culture of a specific sport must be navigated with great tact and diplomacy by the sport scientist (Slide 51). Funding and whether administrators and coaches allow the sport scientist access to athletes can hinge on politics. Many times it can be necessary for sport scientists to educate and “sell” sport science to administrators and coaches (Slide 52).

Sport scientists work with a sport performance enhancement group (SPEG). This is depicted in Slide 55:

The goal of the sport training process is to take the athlete as close to his or her genetic limits as possible. This is much different than recreational exercise for health and wellness (Slide 56).

The “Illusion” of Sport Science Programs

There are three slides from Dr. Stone’s presentation that I feel are particularly pertinent to the discussion on the myth of sport science in the US. I’d like to share them with all of you. The text on Slide 60 reads:

When Bill Sands and I worked together at the USOC we often discussed the remarkable abilities of world class athletes and how sad it was that students that were interested in sport science were often never exposed to high level performance or had the opportunity to test advanced athletes. It was not unusual to see astonishment on the faces of USOC interns the first time they saw a weightlifter squat 300 Kg or more, or a decathlete produce a 66 cm VJ from a force plate or an endurance athlete produce a maximum aerobic power of 80+ ml x kg x min with an RER of 1.3+.

It is quite clear, as a result of the right genetics and appropriate training, that advanced and elite athletes are psychologically and physiologically different from the average person and that these differences produce performances that are not normal and far beyond the capabilities of most athletes, much less the average population. Athletes that are committed, train, sometimes many hours per day for years, many use specialized diets, they do not participate in the usual social functions that lesser and non-athletes take part in and generally lead relatively regimented lives.

These observations dealing with the athlete environment highlight one of the problems with typical scientific studies that isolate or control subject environments. Studies must be carried out in which the complete environment of the athlete is taken into consideration. For example: observations of the effects of two different strength training protocols may produce very different results if one study was untrained subjects or even athletes but the training protocols were compared in isolation from other aspects of the athletes’ life (e.g. other aspects of training, practice etc.). Even a cursory look through the scientific literature clearly shows that there is very little comparative research on athletes while functioning in their complete environment.

No amount of treadmill testing will prepare you to coach an Olympian such as Chad Vaughn.

No amount of treadmill testing will prepare you to coach an Olympian such as Chad Vaughn.

So we can observe that sport science is an academic field distinct from exercise science. But do our universities adequately instruct students in the distinct field of sport science? Dr. Marco Cardinale noted:

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 a sport (at any level) and/or have never had a significant role in elite sport.

Dr. Michael Stone concurred with Cardinale’s observation and added, “No doubt this observation applies directly to our situation in the USA.”

Academics entice student with the illusion of sports science.

Academics lure students with the illusion of sport science.

Only One Complete Sport Science Program in the Country

Stone’s Slide 69 is “The Downfall of Sport Science – Coach Education in the USA (and other places).” It states that there is only,

… one university in the USA that is actually focused on sport science (and coach education) and that offers a complete course of study in sport science.

He’s talking about East Tennessee State University. As a consequence, there are only a “few sport scientists in USA (most are part time at best).”

Surprisingly there is very little money in American sport science. Stone notes that “Currently there is no direct source of funding solely for sport science,” but “there is for basic and exercise science (i.e. NIH, CDC, AHA, DARPA, NASA, etc. etc.).”

And scientists go where the funding is, so “most potential sport scientists become exercise scientists.” Sure, you may have heard of a “Sports Science Institute” or two, but these may not be what they claim to be. Resources and funding from sugary drink manufacturers, supplement retailers and other companies “almost always come with strings – sometimes real, sometimes perceived and the funding is usually relatively small (< $25K) and research is narrowly focused.” For more information on this topic read Dr. Stone’s article “The Downfall of Sports Science in the United States.”

Up Next: What’s Stopping Sport Science?

Again, thanks to Dr. Stone for allowing me to highlight parts of his important presentation. Now that we know what sport science is, in part 2 we will explore issues that hamper its use in the U.S. This includes the absurd lack of integration between academic and athletic departments (with one exception) at our universities, which suffocates sport science. In part three we will look more deeply into companies that sponsor organizations such as the NSCA and claim to have “sports science institutes.”

About the Author: John T. Weatherly has undergraduate and graduate degrees in exercise science. He was a research assistant to the former Head of Sports Physiology for the US Olympic Committee (USOC) and has helped with conditioning programs for athletes in Olympic sports as well as professional baseball, college football, and an NBA player. In the 90’s, John published and reviewed articles for the NSCA and was an NSCA media contact on the sport of baseball. He helped initiate the first study on a rotary inertia exercise device at the University of Southern California (USC) and has consulted with the exercise industry on various topics, including vibration.

One comment

  1. Pingback: The Sport Science Myth Part 2, by John Weatherly | THE RUSSELLS

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