A career in sports can mean anything from on-the-field athletics, personnel management and coaching to team marketing, finance and health and wellness. The broad spectrum of “sports jobs” creates opportunities for people from all walks of life. A burgeoning area of the industry, sports science, looks for scientific ways to improve sporting performance. Sports science isn’t a new field of study but interest in it has amped up in recent years. In an age of unprecedented technology and mass quantities of data where players and coaches look for every legal – and some not so legal – advantage, people and companies are taking sports science to another level. It’s a booming field and a rare opportunity to mix a love of sports with a love of science.
Sports science revolves around human studies like physiology, biomechanics and psychology. In more recent years, it has branched out into nutrition, performance analysis and general sports technology and safety. Obtaining a degree in this field can take you into many areas of the sports workforce from becoming a nutritionist, dietician or P.E. teacher to analyzing player performance, designing new equipment or becoming a strength and conditioning coach. Many companies have set up sports science divisions to better inform the public and add to the products and services they offer. ESPN has a Sports Science department complete with its own website and a feature in ESPN The Magazine and SportsCenter. Gatorade, often on the cutting edge of sports studies, created the Gatorade Sports Science Institute in the mid 80s to increase knowledge on sports nutrition and exercise science. And professional leagues themselves devote more dollars than ever before on player safety and equipment technology research.
Sports scientists study athletic performance in an effort to identify ways to enhance on-field and on-court performance. Studying the basics of motor skills and complexities of biomechanics allows these scientists to understand, at a core level, how the body functions at peak performance. In the mid 1900s, top athletes were fast with toned bodies. As sports science explored the body of an athlete further, the best performers remained fast but added a lot more strength, making them more durable and powerful. If you want to become a sports scientist, courses on biomechanics, motor skills and physiology will give you the information needed to study intrinsically athletic movement such as a defensive lineman’s burst off the line of scrimmage or the torque a batter needs to hit a 95 miles per hour fastball. These athletic movements are studied on tape and in test labs where athletes are brought in and monitored with sensors. Proper strength and conditioning allows athletes to withstand long seasons and, in more physical sports, handle heavy pounding. Sports scientists continue finding safe ways to increase athletic performance and extend the shelf life of athletes.
In the last two decades, sports nutrition has become a hot topic amongst sports scientists. While athletes always have watched what they eat, nutritionists and dieticians now can define caloric counts, protein grams and vitamin intake recommendations on a more personal level. In this area of study, sport scientists learn about the makeup of various body types and how different types of food affect them. It involves a much deeper knowledge of the subject than knowing about the basic food groups and understanding which foods are less fatty. Sports scientists learn about the nutrients of food including water, minerals, fats, vitamins and carbohydrates and determine how each of them impacts the body and its various systems. Once that lower level understanding is built, they learn how to nourish different types of athletes to bring out the best in each of them.
The concussion discussion has intensified, making medical and safety a major focus for sports scientists. While doctors repair injured athletes and trainers aid in their speedy recovery, sports scientists are tasked with improving the medical and safety needs of athletes. There is a broad range of topics these scientists can delve into from equipment technology to designing safe procedures that best protect athletes immediately after an injury occurs. Sports scientists study the game of football, for example, to learn what types of hits inflict the most irreparable damage to athletes’ minds and bodies. The institutes these scientists work for publish articles and make recommendations to leagues on how to better protect players from long term injuries.
While sports scientists focus primarily on improving the body, psychology is a growing area of interest. After trainers, doctors, coaches and sports scientists have maxed out an athlete’s physical potential, they turn to the mind, looking for ways to strengthen player’s ability to deal with stress, stay connected to the team and remain coachable. The stresses and physical nature of collegiate and professional athletics can result in social issues, isolationism and aggressive off-field behavior. And public scrutiny by fans and media alike wears on introverted players who prefer just to do their job and remain out of the spotlight. For athletes that have financial success, family and friends may add to an already strenuous lifestyle by asking for handouts and loans. The financial burden some athletes carry is enough in itself to shorten an otherwise promising career. These various emotional distractions can build up and lead to destructive behavior. Behaviors that sports scientists study and find ways to defuse. This area of study explores the stresses athletes face, how to best reach them in one-on-one and group settings and what warning signs to look for in players with emotional or financial troubles.