How science can make you a better athlete
In recent years, sports scientists have transformed professional sport - without them, competitions across the world would look very different.
Eliud Kipchoge made history when he ran the marathon in Vienna in under two hours in October 2019. It was an incredible feat only made possible by the combined efforts of a team of specialists helping him control the variables. 42 carefully co-ordinated runners ran with him, a car drove in front beaming green lasers on to the road to indicate the required pace, and even his shoes were especially designed just for that run.
But science and technology don’t just take centre stage at big events. Sports scientists analyse data about athlete performance day in, day out, in order to help them perform at their absolute peak.
Ellie Maybury is one of them. The High Performance Coach and lead sports scientist for the Youth Women’s National Soccer Teams in the USA, Ellie works with all eight of the youth teams. Her main focus at the moment is working towards the upcoming Under-20s and Under-17s World Cups in 2020. Her goal is finding ways of producing the best football players in the world.
Collecting all kinds of data
So how does she do it? Ellie told us that her job responsibilities fall into two main areas: on and off-camp. While on-camp involves training the athletes and spending time with them face-to-face, it’s off-camp in Chicago that the data magic happens.
Data about the players will get sent to Ellie, and she’ll analyse and review it, in order to create the optimal training programme for the players.
“We’re always trying to answer questions such as… how can we make our players quicker, more powerful, recover faster, sleep better, because all these things impact performance, so if we can work with each athlete on an individual basis in terms of their strengths and weaknesses, and use the data, then we can really help them when they step on the field,” she said.
She explained that the sport science team analyse the players remotely from their HQ in Chicago. Athletes log into apps to log information such as how they slept, their nutrition or menstrual cycle information.
Ellie and the team use this data to decide when the athletes should be training, how hard, and for how long. This involves working together with the regional clubs the girls all play for, to make sure they’re really in peak physical condition for competition.
A big part of her job is managing travel fatigue – the USA is a big country, so when players travel and get jet lagged, that needs to be mitigated.
Being a sports scientist involves a lot of different areas of expertise, like conditioning and nutrition, physiology, recovery, sleep and so on: “Where possible we tap into experts, so I’m not a nutritionist… but I really want to work with people who are… and make sure we’re giving the player the best provision.”
Sports science wasn’t always Ellie’s dream career. She studied material technology with sports science at the University of Birmingham and, after university, got what she thought was her dream job at Nike’s European headquarters in Holland, developing sports apparel.
But after a year she realised it wasn’t quite what she wanted and decided to put her heart and soul into sports science - even though she knew it was a risky decision: “I wasn’t sure going into it whether I could actually make a living out of this.”
Ellie came back to the UK and took a Master’s degree in Exercise Physiology: “It was really only at that point I made the conscious decision that sport was something I was passionate about, I wanted to work with athletes.”
When Ellie met Dawn
Part of the reason she didn’t initially think of sports science as a career for her, was that she hadn’t (at first) seen any women doing it. “I knew sports science was a career but it was (and still is to this day) very male-dominated, and at that point that was a little bit off-putting.”
Luckily, she met Dawn Scott, who today is the Sports Performance Director for the US Soccer Women’s National Team, and that was a revelation: “She was someone who I could see doing this role, doing it successfully, leading the way, and that was inspiring for me. I could look up to someone and say ‘this is a career I could follow’.”
And being around people who inspire you is one of the key messages Ellie wanted to give to young women aspiring to a career in sports science: “I think having good people around you and good mentors is essential. I think a big part of why I’ve been successful in my career is people have given me opportunities at really key times.”
And on top of that, it’s important to know that however much you do, even the best-laid plans can go awry: “I just had to be prepared to fail. I knew I could go into this job and maybe not earn any money. But I think I just got into the field at a good time, because women’s football where it is now is in such a good place, but back then it wasn’t.”
‘We can’t lose momentum now’
And it certainly is in a good place now. After the roaring success of the Women’s World Cup in France in 2019, women’s football in the UK is seeing record-breaking attendance, such as England’s Lionesses selling out Wembley for the first time this autumn.
But Ellie thinks that although the recent push for women’s football has been amazing to see, “we can’t lose momentum now”. “The women’s game still needs really good people working in it and needs people that are passionate. And even now, it needs more females, especially in sports science.”
She told us as well that ‘sports scientist’ still has some negative connotations attached, that she’s hoping to debunk: “I think sometimes if I tell people I’m a scientist, it’ll have a different reaction to if I tell them I’m a sport scientist.
“For me, working in STEM it means you’re creative, you’re innovative, you’re passionate, whoever you want to be you can do it.”
And it’s not just the people working in the field that get the benefit of such an exciting career - it’s the fans, too. As Elly explained, all the hard work scientists put in behind the scenes creates the magic on and off the pitch.