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Performance Science: Is it science?

By Kevin Currell | 26/10/2018

Performance Science: Is it science?
By Kevin Currell, EIS Director of Science & Technical Development

About 18 months ago I was presenting at a conference on nutrition for elite athletes. As part of the questions one eminent academic asked me “Is what you do science?” I thought it was a great question, probably one I gave a bumbling answer to at the time yet has been stuck in my brain since.

To answer the question, we first need to define science, and where better to start than the etymology of the word itself, which comes from the Latin word “Scientia” meaning knowledge and expertness. For many of us in the practitioner world, this is where we begin, we get our qualifications and off we go – we are experts with all the knowledge we need. When finishing my PhD in 2006 and entering the EIS, it took all of five minutes with an elite athlete to realise I knew nothing!

Science viewed as purely knowledge, or as experts can lead to the white coated view of sport science, which is far removed from what EIS practitioners do day to day. It can also paint us as unaware of the context, with coaches and athletes rightly dismissing this approach as not making a difference to them and scientists not understanding performance or even worse just looking for publications.

This leads to a second definition, where the science council define science as a process.  An observation, leading to curiosity and question about what you are seeing. Developing a hypothesis, designing an intervention, analysing results or outcomes and becoming more curious about what you see. This sounds much better.

Yet still where we begin in that process can determine how it lands with an athlete or coach. At its worst we begin with the experiment or intervention, leading to a science upwards approach. I’ve lost count of the times I have seen practitioners shoe horn an intervention into the athletes in front of them, just because it’s on their mind or the “guidelines say so.” Even worse this approach lends itself to science being seen as just about numbers and measuring things, about a gadget or gizmo, about certainty and impact; when I believe science is so much more.

Beginning with curiosity and questions about what you see, building relationships and understanding context, allows a practitioner to delve into the science process. This can take time; time beside a coach in training building a relationship, time with an athlete building relationships, time with other professions building relationships. It’s not about you as a practitioner, it’s about coaches and athletes and what they need, and your curiosity to help their performance.

This focus on building relationships, communication and problem solving provides the focus of much of the learning opportunities we have in the EIS. While the technical aspects of a practitioner’s role are important and minimum standards of practice are essential, we often see the differentiator between practitioners is their ability to build relationships, communicate and problem solve.

However, is Performance Science, science? The scientific process is just one tool to help us solve problems, problems in performance, health, about the person and the climate we work within. When we align a Performance Support team behind one audacious goal, all pointing in the right direction, magic happens. All the conditions for problem solving are present, expert knowledge, discipline specific skills, curiosity, open mindedness, cognitive diversity, leadership, climate and teamwork. Science is just one of our tools to support the problem-solving process.