How to Support a Champion – A Review

Love it or hate it (and I personally love it), sports science is becoming a big part of sport – and not just at the elite level. It isn’t uncommon for even recreational athletes to have a VO2max test these days, and even personal trainers utilise sports science principles when it comes to training absolute beginners in the gym. We have taken great leaps forward in the last few years, with the study of sports science at university moving from something sports people did to get a degree, to an actual real recognised science.

 

But what makes a good sports scientist? Well, clearly, you have to have a good grasp on the actual science of it. But that is only part of the battle. No matter how smart you are, if you turn up and work with a coach or an athlete and immediately tell them everything they’re doing is wrong, you won’t be working with them for very long. Similarly, your knowledge of the science might be correct, but your application might be wrong – you might know what the athletes’ blood lactate reading is, but can you turn that into usable information?

 

There are an ever increasing number of sports science students graduating from university every year. Many of them dream of working in professional sport, but don’t know where to start. My course at university dealt with physiology, biomechanics, psychology, and research methods; I left with lab skills and some knowledge, but no practice in applying this to the real world. The same is true for many budding sports scientists – how can you become better at what you do? There isn’t a textbook that tells you this, and indeed it probably isn’t something you can learn from a textbook. That’s why I was excited when I heard that Steve Ingham, Director of Science & Technical Development at the EIS, had written a book, called “How To Support A Champion”.

 

Even the smallest amount of interaction with the sports science team can have a big impact on athletes. This was illustrated to me really nicely at the 2007 World Championships –  every morning I would bring the sports science team a small container of my urine, step on some scales, and fill out a questionnaire. At those championships, I suffered horrifically with jet lag; most nights I got about 4 hours sleep. As a result, I ran pretty poorly in the 100m, and didn’t fulfill my potential. I was determined to learn from this, and improve on the whole process for the Olympics the following year, which had the same initial time change. Fortunately, the sports science team had the same idea, and used the holding camp at those 2007 Championships to monitor how we were responding to the time change. Using information on our hydration, weight changes, and response to questionnaires, they could plot on a graph how we were dealing with the jet-lag, and make recommendations to us individually on what to change. I took on board these recommendations, and then in 2008 at the Olympic holding camp, when I continued to provide the sports science team with a bottle of my urine, morning weight and questionnaire scores, he could give me real time on feedback on how I was adapting. This information was used to determine training intensity and load, among with lifestyle interventions. The end result was that I performed much better at Beijing in the 100m (not the relay, obviously).

 

The above illustrates really nicely the impact a sports scientist can have on an athlete. They collected data, presented that data, made recommendations, and then supported the implementation of those recommendations as part of a team. It had a big impact on my performance in 2008, and as such I remember it well. Steve was part of this team, but probably doesn’t remember it quite as well, as it doesn’t make his book, although that might just be because I’m not famous enough. It turns out that Steve has worked closely with a fair few incredibly high performing athletes; Steve Redgrave, Matt Pinsent, and a host of other incredibly successful Olympic rowers; Jessica Ennis and Kelly Sotherton, and World Class middle-distance athletes Hayley Tullet and Mike East. Throughout the first part of this book, Steve describes his journey with them; lessons he learned and mistakes he made. He gives examples of how he had to deal with athletes failing (and how he wishes he did a better job of it), his own shortcomings, and things he did incorrectly, but also what he did right; how he built rapport with athletes and coaches, getting them to buy into his ideas.

 

In the second part of this book, Steve gives practical tips on how to grow as a sports scientist, and how to truly support a champion. The last chapter is especially useful, as the lessons learned throughout the journey are condensed into smaller, take away sections, with bits of “homework” to do – including a reading recommendation for each section.

 

Overall, for me the book was very interesting. I expected a textbook, but it isn’t that at all, and I think rightly so. A textbook would have felt too dry and clinical, whereas instead here we actually get a feel of what it’s like to be part of a team as a sports scientist, with practical implementation strategies as opposed to theory. I very much enjoyed reading it, and would thoroughly recommend it.

 

Who might find this book interesting? Well, sports scientists for a start, but that’s obvious. The fact is that today the line between sports scientist and coach is blurry; its expected that a coach should have good knowledge of sports science principles, and be able to apply them correctly to their athletes. There is also a lot in this book that isn’t just sports science based, but instead deals with how to work with elite athletes (we’re an odd bunch), and also how to work within a high performance team and build trust and buy-in within that team. As such, anyone involved in sport, including sports scientists, or coaching in general, would probably find something useful from this book.

 

Full disclosure – I received a review copy of this book. Whether you think this impacted my review is down to you, but there was no expectation of a positive review from Steve. I have no financial incentive to promote this book.

Correction (9th May) – I initially thought that Steve was the Sports Science team member who collected my urine at the 2007 WC and 2008 OG, but my memory failed me. It was Marco Cardinale, another great sports scientist. Sorry Marco! You can check out his blog at marcocardinale.blogspot.com.au and his own book here, which again I would recommend!