Integrating the Parts of Sports Science

Sports science is interdisciplinary, applied research. Advances come at the intersection between disciplines, just like so much of the progress in the rest of science and technology. An advance like athlete tracking depends on advances in wireless sensor technologies, in data capture and analysis, in exercise science and in coaching strategy before it can gain widespread use.

When I attended the CHI research conference in Toronto, where the world’s researchers in human-computer interaction gather, I was telling people that sports science involves the same kinds of research they are doing in mobile health, especially work in what’s called quantified self, and in big data, which deals with the capture, analysis and presentation of huge volumes of data. These were easy conversations to have, and not because computing researchers are big into sports and science (some are), but because it is a community that is comfortable working across disciplines.

Sports science discussions aren’t always so fluid when it’s sports people talking about sports science. That’s a hurdle and it comes at a time when integrating disciplines is crucial for advancing and improving the practice of sports science in the U.S.

Derek Hansen and Art Horne, top coaches who have advanced from strength to performance instruction, have an excellent rundown on the state of sports science integration at Derek’s website. Horne’s authority on the subject comes from the collaborative innovations he has put in place at Northeastern University and from the effort he puts in each year to organize the annual Boston Sports Medicine and Performance Group Summer Seminar. Read what Hansen-Horne are saying. See how easily they get in depth and move between issues. It’s an effective, informative conversation between peers who have gained the broad, deep familiarity through the range of subjects that sports science entails.

Now read another Q&A, this one with Phil Wagner of Sparta Science interviewing Ben Alamar, author and data analyst for the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, at the Sparta blog. Both Wagner and Alamar live and work in Silicon Valley and have helped to develop performance technology. Wagner pioneered the Sparta Traq force plate interface and the movement signature test/benchmark into a high-quality science-based athlete performance indicator, while Alamar was an advisor on the Krossover sports video annotation service. Given all the two have in common the two seem to talk past each other with little evidence that Alamar understands Traq or that the Cavaliers will successfully develop players using it. If they had been more engaged there would have been more details about Traq or about Cavalier goals, or at least references to college programs that use Traq and have had player development success. But that’s just my impression.

Chris West, the strength coach for basketball at UConn, told me awhile back about the challenge he’d face when he had to prep athletes to make it through their coach’s practices, rather than focus performance gains toward big games and late-season tournaments. Based on the recent podcast between Ron McKeefery and Kansas strength coach Andrea Hudy that appears to be the case with men’s basketball coach Bill Self. Hudy’s description of the Jayhawks’ in-season training repeatedly references player restoration and I’ve heard Self describe the hands off relationship he has with Hudy (at the 2013 Midwest Sports Performance Conference in Lawrence). What is really interesting is that KU researchers Matt Andre and Andrew Frye have shown (through ongoing testing of player stress physiology during the 2013 season) that players were not at their best late in the season. If Kansas basketball takes an evidence-based approach then changes should be coming.

Compare what’s going at Kansas with what they currently do at Baylor, outlined in an Andrew Althoff article in the Training Conditioning trade journal. Sport teams, strength coaches, sports medicine, and athlete services for things like nutrition and academics operate cohesively, focused on the 360-degree needs of young student athletes. It is hard to tell though if close academic research collaboration that Kansas has with Andre-Fry exists at Baylor. Fully integrated applied sports science has an enormous number of facets. More collaboration across those facets is typically going to be better, but inevitably institutions will have physical, cultural and administrative barriers, all challenges that get in the way.

The fully integrated science-based athlete performance setup might only currently exist at the private training companies–EXOS, P3 and Sparta Science. They are as much laboratories as training facilities, something they can do by concentrating the range of sports science personnel under one roof and focusing them on the needs of individual elite athletes. Teams have hired from these places and ones that invest resources and authority are more likely to achieve the sci-tech integration that produces results. The Chicago Bulls and Portland Trail Blazers both did well with their Performance Director hires last summer (Jennifer Swanson and Chris Stackpole, respectively). The Cavaliers also hired a Performance Director before last season, Alex Moore, who came from U.S. Ski Team. Things did not go as well in Cleveland.

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