sports science

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sports science

Two approaches

‘Doing science in the context of sport’ is one definition of sports science. Arguably the greatest scientist seriously to study sport, Nobel Laureate A. V. Hill, did so in this vein — ‘The complaint has been made to me — “why investigate athletics, why not study the processes of industry or disease?” The answer is twofold. (1) The processes of athletics are simple and measurable, and carried out to the utmost of a man's powers: those of industry are not; and (2) athletes themselves, being in a state of health and dynamic equilibrium, can be experimented upon without danger and can repeat their performances again and again’ (1927). Only a minority of top-class athletes are prepared to offer themselves as subjects for experiment in the way which Hill implies, but they are an invaluable minority. With their help, much has been learnt about the human body performing at its limits.

However, this is not the approach which would be favoured by Sports Councils, governing bodies of particular sports, or the majority of top-class sportspeople. The organizations which fund most sports science research are seeking support and service to their ongoing training programmes. This approach to sports science is much less likely to produce results which are fundamentally illuminating, but obviously it serves substantially better the purpose for which it is designed.

Four main streams

The two approaches just noted represent differences of purpose, but they say nothing about the content of the science involved. Yet sports performance involves the whole person, and its complete study must take account not only of the body but also of the mind of the sportsperson, and the societal aspects of the sport itself. Thus sports science is an envelope term, embracing at least the following disciplines: (i) Physiology of sports performance; (ii) Biomechanics of Sporting Movement; (iii) Sports Psychology; (iv) Sociology of Sport.

Furthermore, between and derivative from these four main streams are sub-disciplines, many of which have great practical importance. Thus, sports nutrition combines relevant aspects of both physiology and psychology; skill learning is studied by combining techniques from psychology, biomechanics, and neuromuscular physiology; while sports physiotherapy and podiatry (the therapeutic study of feet and gait) are examples of disciplines allied to medicine which draw heavily upon the various aspects of sports science. Another such area of important study, bridging medicine and science, concerns the influences of drugs on performance — whether or not they were deliberately taken to try and enhance it: this could be termed ‘sports pharmacology’, though in fact that term is rarely used. A final mention, with very different emphasis, should be of match analysis; this is the detailed recording of movements and events in a contest, to aid the evaluation of tactics or physical demand.

Relation to sports medicine

The range of these examples will indicate that the division between sports science (particularly in its service role) and sports medicine is not sharp. The American College of Sports Medicine, indeed, is that country's leading sports science forum also. In Britain the two disciplines have separate professional associations, yet with considerable overlap of membership; and this pattern is repeated in many countries. The two books suggested below for further reading embody just this feature: each, despite its title, devotes more than half its space to what would normally be regarded as sports science.

Representative questions

As to the mainstream sports science disciplines listed above, some examples will help clarify their coverage. Sports physiologists address such questions as:(i) What distinguishes a sprinter from a marathon runner — and each from the ungifted struggler?(ii) Why are the effects of training so specific to the particular programme undertaken?(iii) What are the optimum proportions of glucose, salt, and water in a drink to be taken during competition?A sports biomechanist might study:(i) The effects of shoe design on the shock waves caused by foot–ground impact.(ii) The kinematics of a high diver's multi-axial rotations.(iii) The optimum techniques of fast bowling, rowing or putting the shot.Some representative topics of sports psychology are:(i) The function of a performer's mental images during a gymnastic routine.(ii) The effects of concentration on reaction time.(iii) Maintaining the right amount of aggression — not too little, not too much!And sports sociologists study matters like:(i) Class, race, gender, and social expectation.(ii) Sportspeople as role models.(iii) Politics and the funding of sport.

Future theme?

It is tempting to ask whether a common theme is likely to crystallize out of the interactions of these disciplines as the new millennium gets under way — a theme, that is, at subtler level than the perpetual quest to improve performance by minute particular developments. If there is such a theme, it seems permissible to suggest that it will centre round the interactions of genetic and social inheritance, environment, nutrition, and personal training in the individual's sports performance

Neil Spurway


Kent, M. (1994). The Oxford dictionary of sports science and medicine. Oxford University Press.
Dirix, K. et al. (1988). The Olympic book of sports medicine. Blackwell, Oxford.

See also exercise; sport.