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3 challenges for applied practitioners

Are you working in applied sports science and realising that it’s not a simple straightforward application of hypothesis, methods, experiment, analyse? Then you’re not alone.

Here are three challenges that applied sports scientists and performance support staff, working in elite sports performance, commonly face. If you have experience of working in this world they will be familiar. If you don’t have experience this blog might be useful to help you develop your skills before the rubber hits the road.


When you’re working in performance environments, there are a multitude of factors that can and do influence the decision about what to do next. If you’re genuinely considering what’s in the offing, it can become overwhelming very quickly. For example… What has the athlete just experienced? How did they recover? What is their history? How receptive are they? What are the risks? What observations offer certainty of understanding? What biases are the team susceptible to? (to name just a few). So how do you avoid this overwhelm, begin to find a method that cuts through the noise and provides you with clarity on what to do next.

Here are some key question that can help you move forward:

  • What is the problem we’re trying to solve?
  • Do we know that problem really exists?
  • What would give us the greatest return for the lowest possible risk?

Evidence based

We are developed as science trained staff. We pride ourselves on our technical understanding. Yet when we’re faced with complex performance problems, we can use the answers to the questions above to add clarity to our thinking. But when we then turn to look for evidence, from the literature, from lay articles, from our peers and we often find a lack of information. Why? Because case-studies are few and far between and so are elite observations. Why? Because elite environments often discourage publication, sharing and external communication. Why? Because it’s often felt that this will give away competitive advantage. Either that or performance staff are simply paid to deliver, so they concentrate on what they’re paid to do and not the contributing bit. I’ve been asked before, “Why would you want to fly across the world and present what you are doing, so that other people can benefit and while we’re at it – why would we want to pay for it and why would we grant time away from your performance work to do that?” It’s a tricky one to answer.

Key questions for you to ask to help you move forward;

  • What are the first principles in play that can guide your thinking?
  • What are the known limitations that mean you shouldn’t act on other options?
  • Who could you speak to who has experienced something similar?


One of the upsides of a performance teams is that there are several viewpoints on a given problem and circumstance. One of the downsides of performance teams is that you have several viewpoints on a given problem and circumstance. Often when I spend time consulting with performance teams, I see teams that are either all trying to get along (and so agreeing for the sake of lowering the challenge level in the group) or they’re full of individuals contesting to have ‘their view’ heard the most, accepted and recognised (and so creating a hostile, egotistical competitive environment that inhibits collaboration). The sweet spot is where teams are engaged in mutually respectful but wholly open challenge FROM WHICH collaborative agreement follows, everyone stand behinds the decision and leans into making it work.

Key questions for intact teams

  • What is the win-win that means teams can agree on one key area to focus their work on?
  • What interdisciplinary perspective could you adopt that would challenge your own thinking?
  • What craft skill would be most appropriate to develop to engage, challenge, support and feedback within your team?

For those people working independently and who lack the benefit of or are unshackled by the presence of a team environment, the challenge is different. You need to add multiple perspectives to the work you’re doing, add viewpoints and experiences that you do not yet have, add reinforcement to views you had a hunch were important but you lacked certainty.

Key questions for those working independently

  • Who is actively communicated solutions to similar performance problems?
  • What are the philosophies and ways of working they are using and communicating?
  • What resources are they creating that I can invest my time and development into?

When you’re challenged, switch your thinking. All the best.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the main challenges faced by applied sports scientists in elite sports performance?

Applied sports scientists often encounter three major challenges: managing complexity, finding reliable evidence, and fostering effective collaboration within performance teams.

How can applied sports scientists manage complexity in performance environments?

Applied sports scientists can manage complexity by asking key questions such as identifying the problem, understanding its existence, and evaluating the potential return and risks of different actions.

Why is finding evidence-based information difficult for performance support staff?

Finding evidence-based information is challenging because elite sports environments often restrict publication and sharing to maintain competitive advantage, resulting in a scarcity of case studies and elite observations.

How can collaboration be improved within performance teams?

Collaboration can be improved by fostering an environment of mutually respectful, open challenges that lead to collaborative agreement and collective effort towards shared goals.

What strategies can independent practitioners use to enhance their performance work?

Independent practitioners can enhance their work by seeking out diverse perspectives, learning from others who have faced similar challenges, and investing time in developing new skills and philosophies relevant to their field.

How can applied sports scientists ensure their decisions are evidence-based?

Applied sports scientists can ensure evidence-based decisions by identifying first principles, recognizing known limitations, and consulting with experienced peers to validate their approaches.

What role does collaboration play in the success of performance support teams?

Collaboration is crucial as it brings together multiple viewpoints, leading to well-rounded decisions and collective commitment to executing performance strategies effectively.

For tangible advice, skills and connection in a peer focused community take a look at our Applied Pro Practitioner Courses Plus access to the Community!

Photo by Willian Justen de Vasconcellos on Unsplash