Reflections on Strength & Conditioning versus Sport Science

“The role of scientists is to lay out the scientific facts and, importantly, the uncertainties. They are not there to coach.” Kelvin Giles.

A cursory review of my very modestly sized Twitter feed will tell you that there appears to be a growing divide between those that define themselves as S&C coaches and those that engage in the study of Sport Science at an academic level.

Is this divide real or just a product of a small sample size (sounds kind of Sports Science doesn’t it!)?

Unquestionably, there are plenty of authors on the Internet who loudly proclaim how “hard” they are in their approach. My observation would be that many of them seem to originate from the power-lifting or Crossfit genre. Why…who knows? Clearly it takes a “hard” attitude to succeed personally in either pursuit. In which case, it would seem that practitioners from these schools subscribe to the “do as I do” school of thought. While this attitude may succeed specifically in those environments I am yet to see it succeed in a specialist athletic environment.

This is no more evident than in Special Forces operations in Australia and the U.S. While both groups have had their dip at Crossfit (and maybe to some extent individuals still do), it is now generally considered that the CF approach “breaks more than it makes” given the unique set of physical requirements of these individuals. With SF operators having literally millions of dollars of training invested in them, they are considered valuable commodities and as such, SF units e.g. SAS (Australia), Navy Seals and Delta Force (U.S.) all have specialist S&C coaches in place to ensure maximum development and minimum injury in their respective operators.

So as professional sports teams throw more money into their player management, resulting in Physical Performance Departments with more staff, the dedicated “hard nuts” described find themselves without a place in professional teams, so this leaves us with the genuine S&C coaches and the Sport Scientists. Where is the line drawn between the two? Is there any line at all?

Unquestionably S&C coaching requires not only a solid academic / science based knowledge, but almost more importantly, a successful S&C career is derived from years of experience working in the field amongst many different athletes in many different athletic pursuits, and ideally under the guidance of a senior S&C coach. It is the years “in the trenches” that allows the young coach to develop not only a practical paradigm on which to base his/her practice, but also the interpersonal skills, the emotional intelligence and the wisdom necessary to navigate the myriad of personality traits that often stand between the athlete and their best performance either in training or competition.

The S&C coach is one of the critical influencing variables in an athlete’s career that helps them develop and refine their rigor, discipline, focus and work ethic for training and competition, all things that no successful athlete can exist without. Further, the S&C coach is the one who drives an athlete’s confidence in their body, the primary weapon in any athlete’s arsenal.

In many cyclic sports, athletics, swimming, rowing, cycling etc., it is the coach who fulfills many of the aforementioned roles, blending the coach / S&C roles. In team sports however the S&C coach stands as an independent leader when it comes to developing not only the athlete’s athletic qualities but also many of the personal qualities that will help them complete what is required to achieve their goals.

So where does a Sport Scientist fit in?

At the recent Exercise and Sport Science Australia (ESSA) Conference Dr. David Martin (AIS Canberra) summarized the role of the Sport Scientist in the most eloquent manner I have come across.

He described the Coach “as a lion, scarred and battered, having earned the position, he requires respect, and sometimes that means taking the program in the direction he wants to go, despite any contrary opinions you may have”.

Sports Scientists he described, “as chimps, weird individuals who must watch how they interact with the coach and athlete, never get between them, don’t create confusion, don’t present with ego, and ensure you work through the coach”.

Dr. Martin personally described himself as the "guy behind the glass" when discussing his involvement with Australian sprint cyclist Anna Meares in her return from injury preceding the 2008 Olympics.  Indicating that he felt he contributed to the program maximally by working in the background in a technical capacity.

Without doubt professional team sports need the “guys behind the glass”, in cyclic sports probably even more so. Someone needs to crunch the data; someone needs to identify the trends be they positive or negative. Can those guys be S&C coaches as well? In my mind given the appropriate skill set and experience of course.

A quick look around the world’s major sporting teams and it seems this integration is already underway with a significant component of the S&C world lining up to get PhD’s, while spending some quality time developing genuine skills in and around the S&C model. So irrespective of what I think, it would appear that the line between Sport Science and S&C is in fact becoming more blurred the further we go.

What is the possible downside to this evolution?

The downside is big sets of letters (i.e. PhD) getting people into jobs that they just aren’t qualified for. In the course of my tenure in professional sport I’ve seen a number of PhD qualified individuals fall radically short when it comes to coaching skills.

The same goes for S&C coaches. I feel like there is a trend toward guys calling themselves S&C coaches when in fact the bulk of their professional career has been spent in the weights room. Personally I think an S&C coach in team sport needs to be credible in movement modalities both in the gym and on the field. This means being able to coach deadlift and squat as well as you can coach on field multi-plane acceleration and deceleration, and at a more critical level understanding the links between the modalities. This last point is something I see many young coaches missing badly. Understanding the relationships between training modalities is crucial.

I’ll take this further and say this is even more relevant for rehabilitation coaches. I’m sorry, but the old “exercise physiologist” thing just doesn’t do it for me. The role of the rehabilitation coach is critical in re-establishing motor control and neuromuscular function, not to mention tissue structure and capacity. This is a role for a genuine coach! No half measures. In fact many athletes in long-term rehabilitation processes often return to sport better when a coach well skilled in all facets of movement facilitates their program.

So where does this leave us…

I think as both S&C coaches and Sport Scientists it is critical that we stick to fundamentals.

Don’t learn the tricks of the trade…learn the trade”. Kelvin Giles

Understand your role in the team and respect those that are directly accountable for the program (nobody needs white ants on their crew!)

Know the people you work with and be very cognizant of respecting the channels of communication with deference to task specific information.

If S&C and Sport Science do merge more with the new generation of PhD’s so be it…just make sure as individuals you’ve done the work in both fields to warrant your role. When the pressure comes you will get to test your skill set!

As an S&C coach don’t be marred by the insecurities of individuals who feel their way is the only way and they have no need of evolving with the world around them. Keep up with the research; know where your profession is heading.


Darren Burgess and I will be discussing this subject and more in our Webinar Series.  Click below to now to register!


Johnny Vincenti

This is such a super article JW, and something we discuss a bunch. While the knowledge needs to be there and be constantly updated, all the letters in the world next to your name won’t automatically qualify you to excel as a coach. The years of experience and understanding where everything fits in to the grand scheme are simply priceless.

Keep up the great work

Matt Whalan

Fantastic article that touches on a number current issues in professional and semi professional sporting teams.

Greg Dea, Performance Physical Therapist at EXOS China

Really well written article Jason. In preparing my own workshops, I recognise they’re so much better with an S&C coach alongside me, since my role behind the scenes requires a great S&C coach to take over at the right time. Even more so now in China where my Sports Physio role merges into something the Chinese understand – rehabilitation coach, with more of a role towards tissue capacity development that mightn’t be the case elsewhere. Important points about knowing one’s role, others roles, respecting those but understanding how they evolve from organisation to organisation, country to country. Good stuff JW.

James Marshall

Hi Jason, nice post and well put. I see a lot of academics “meddling” in the real world: they emerge from their ivory tower as an “expert” deliver for a short time and then return. How do they see the long term effects of coaching, how do they reflect on interactions? Or do they just see athletes as an opportunity to “data mine”.
Your point about S&C coaches hiding in weights rooms is well made: it is importnat to get out and talk with coaches and athletes in their environment.

James Ballantyne

Great Article… Still so much to learn in the world of coaching

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