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Careers in Sports Science and Sport Performance

What is Sports Science and Sports Performance?
Sports Science is a broad field of study that includes training modalities for improved performance; development of methods that allow athletes to train at higher intensities, more efficiently, and without injury; and the development of equipment or gear that improves performance. 

Sports Performance on the other hand generally refers to those who work with athletes on a daily basis to improve physical abilities necessary for sport.  The most common sports performance passion is in strength and conditioning (S&C). Sports medicine is often closely related to sports medicine, which includes team physicians, athletic training, and an overall focus on injury prevention. The training and internship process for sports science and sports performance is very distinct, however.

Where does a Sports Scientist Work?
Sports Scientists can work in a variety of settings and roles. The three discussed here are academic, industry, and athletics.

  • ACADEMIC - One option is to be a sports science researcher. There are few full time sports science researchers in the United States.   This is primarily because funding of sports research is limited while health research has dramatically greater funding.  As a consequence the majority of sports performance research is performed at mid to upper-level universities by researchers whose primary job is teaching university courses in sports or exercise science programs.  There are only a few exceptions to this trend including the military research centers like the US Army Research Institute in Environmental Medicine.       
  • INDUSTRY - Many sports related companies hire product designers and sports scientists to work in research and development.  From major shoe companies to exercise equipment companies, sports scientists working in industry will find a unique environment.  As opposed to academic research in sports science, industry rewards creativity and risk taking to a larger degree. Therefore many find industry jobs to be a somewhat more dynamic environment. For those who prefer a competitive, business atmosphere, working in industry is a natural fit.
  • ATHLETIC TEAMS & ORGANIZATIONS - Every athletic team is looking for a performance edge.  Sports scientists may work directly with athletic teams, strength and conditioning, sports medicine, or some combination of these.  Some organizations will have a multidisciplinary sports ‘performance team’ including full time sports scientists. In this setting the sports scientist might work in conjunction with the head coach, athletic training, and strength and conditioning staff by performing more precise physiological assessments and consulting coaches on training methods.  Many have identified this as an optimal arrangement for athletes, but budgetary constraints frequently prevent organizations from hiring full time sports scientists.  As an alternative to the above ‘performance team’ approach many organizations will simply contract out such testing and consulting to independent sports science consultation businesses. The number of such consulting businesses has grown over the past decades and will likely continue to gain popularity.  There are some large sports consulting businesses, but the vast majority are small businesses with a few entrepreneurial sports scientists. In most instances these small businesses specialize in one area of sports science (performance biomechanics), a single sport (basketball), or topic (ACL injury prevention). By hiring consultants instead of single sports scientists, organizations not only save money, but they can also find a specialist in each area of interest as opposed to single more general sports scientist. This also makes it possible for individual athletes and small organizations to access cutting edge sports science guidance.

Where does a Strength and Conditioning Coach Work?
Strength and conditioning has become a nearly universal part of sports training.  Strength coaches are employed by all variety of universities and colleges, professional sports teams, and even in larger high schools. In addition to these options, privately owned strength and conditioning businesses have become prominent, even competing with traditional gyms and fitness centers.

Each of these settings provides some unique challenges and rewards. Working with youth in high school and private facilities can be a lower stress environment than collegiate S&C. On the other hand, such settings will require that you work with a wide range of ages and ability levels.  Adapting the programs to fit such a variety of athletes can be challenging. Among Universities athlete ability will vary by NCAA division and by school atmosphere. Collegiate strength coaches will face the same diverse athlete problem to some extent.  S&C among professional sports teams is unique in the high level of athleticism in these athletes.  At the professional sports level, injury prevention and rehabilitation gain importance as athlete longevity becomes a greater concern.

Sometimes the S&C coach must wear other hats as well.  Smaller universities and colleges may require the S&C staff to fulfill additional responsibilities such as teaching or recreational fitness activities. Similar dexterity is required of private S&C business owners who will need to spend a significant amount of time and effort in business management and marketing.  A good recommendation for students who think they might like to work in S&C is to intern or shadow in each type to establish which is preferable to them.

How Do I Become a Sports Scientist?
One of the problems with exercise science curriculum in the US is that they have a definitive lack of formal sports science.  Instead, sport is often presented simply as an example in exercise physiology courses, or minimized to strength and conditioning.  Australia, the UK, and New Zealand, on the other hand, are more likely to have curriculum that clearly integrates sports science concepts and applies them to actual sports teams and athlete training.  Does this mean that you need to transfer out the US for school?  NO, but it does mean that you will need to supplement your exercise science education with several thoughtful internships, extracurricular experiences, research involvement, and/or an impressive work history.  Attaining a meaningful degree is important, but is not enough to ensure success in such a highly competitive field. Having at least one good mentor in sports science is a critically important predictor of success for a young sports scientist. Involvement in the American College of Sports Medicine is a great way to network and be exposed to the work of accomplished sports scientists. It is recommended that students join the ACSM early and participate as much as possible as they work thru school. Regional ACSM meetings and student events are simple and unintimidating ways to start getting involved.  

The education requirements for each of the three areas of sports science above vary a bit.  Academic researchers will need to get a PhD.  Persons interested in this track will want to seek out graduate programs with a strong history of sports performance research in the area of interest.  A second important consideration is the mentor and the practical experiences within sports science as a graduate student.  Choosing a mentor who routinely works with high caliber athletes is an important part of the practical learning process.

The education requirements for sports scientist in both industry and athletic organizations is less clearly defined.  A masters degree in some area of sport and exercise science is the most common.  Many PhDs also work in this area as well. Because universities are full of academic sports scientists, finding a graduate program with a mentor particularly suited to these two areas may be difficult.  As an alternative, internship experiences and assistantships would be very helpful to fully develop your resume.

How do I Become a Strength & Conditioning Professional?
Over the past 20 years the prevalence and acceptance of strength and conditioning as a unique and necessary coaching discipline has helped to develop the apprenticeship system that currently exists.  Because the general exercise science education that is prevalent in the US falls short on application and practical experience, internships, graduate assistantships, and apprenticeships have become a necessary part of professional development. For that reason, most strength and conditioning coaches have achieved a masters degree in a sport related field while completing a graduate assistant ship in Strength and Conditioning.  Because apprenticeship is so important for young S&C professionals, a graduate program or assistantship with a recognized and respected S&C professional should be a primary consideration.  As with sports science, the importance of mentorship and experience cannot be overemphasized.  Additionally, it is important to get involved in S&C related organizations early in your academic career.  The National Strength and Conditioning Association and the Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association are important organizations for networking and continuing education in addition to ACSM.  

Rebecca Kudrna, M.S., CSCS