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Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport (2007) 10, 193—200

of Science and Medicine in Sport (2007) 10 , 193—200 ORIGINAL PAPER A profile of sports

ORIGINAL PAPER

and Medicine in Sport (2007) 10 , 193—200 ORIGINAL PAPER A profile of sports science research

A profile of sports science research (1983—2003)

Stephen John Williams a, , Lawrence R. Kendall b

a Applied Research Centre, Australian Institute of Sport, Australia b Department of Education, University of Tasmania, Australia

Received in revised form 5 July 2006 ; accepted 24 July 2006

KEYWORDS

Sports science research;

Research methodology;

Research design

Summary A majority of sports science research is undertaken in universities and dedicated research centres, such as institutes of sport. Reviews of literature

analysing and categorising research have been carried out, but categories identified have been limited to research design and data gathering techniques. Hence there

is a need to include categories such as discipline, subjects and targeted sport.

A study was conducted using document analysis method to gather data that

described and categorised performance-based sports science research projects

in Australian universities and institutes of sport. An instrument was designed

that could be used by researchers to analyse and profile research in the area of sports science. The instrument contained six categories: targeted sport, primary study area, participant type, research setting, methodology and data gathering techniques. Research documents analysed consisted of 725 original unpublished

research reports/theses. Results showed that over two-thirds of research projects were targeted to specific sports and, of this group, nearly half involved four sports: cycling, rowing, athletics and swimming. Overall, physiology was the most researched scientific discipline. The most frequently used research method was experimental design, and the most frequently used data gathering technique was physiological (performance) measures. Two-thirds of research was conducted in laboratory settings, and nearly half of the research was conducted with elite

or sub-elite athletes as participants/subjects. The findings of this study provide

an overall synopsis of performance-based sports science research conducted in

Australia over the last 20 years, and should be of considerable importance in the ongoing development of sports science research policy in Australia.

© 2006 Sports Medicine Australia. Published by Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Corresponding author. E-mail address: john.williams@ausport.gov.au (S.J. Williams).

Introduction

Individuals and organisations undertake research for a variety of reasons and these reasons are normally dependant on the needs of the various stakeholders. Research can be theory driven (fun- damental) and contribute to the existing knowledge

1440-2440/$ — see front matter © 2006 Sports Medicine Australia. Published by Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

doi:10.1016/j.jsams.2006.07.016

194

S.J. Williams, L.R. Kendall

base, or it can be action-centred (applied) and targeted at deriving solutions to practice-based problems. 1 The term ‘sports science’ implies an applied science, and that research in the area should be application centred. 2 Exercise science is also an applied science, focusing on fitness and health with an indirect application to sport, whereas sports science is more concerned with enhanced sports performance. 3 A good sports science service is married to a strong research base, and it is the task of the service team to convince practitioners to adopt research findings into general practice. 1 The application of research into practice is paramount to coaches. In her keynote address at the Cutting Edge Developments in Sports Sci- ence Conference, Campbell 4 argued that there was a commonly held belief by sports scientists that ‘‘coaches do not know what questions to ask the sports scientists’’, and conversely, coaches believe that ‘‘sports scientists keep answering questions that no one is asking’’. Various methods have been used to identify sports science research needs. In the early 1990s, the British Association of Sports Sciences (now known as the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences) formed three panels of experts to review literature in the disciplines of physiology, 5 biomechanics 6 and psychology, 7 with each panel assessing areas requiring further research. Around the same time, the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) conducted bi-annual surveys of sports stakeholders (coaching directors, sports administrators and sports scientists) to determine sports research needs. Research needs differ according to the type of stakeholder. Coaching directors and sports admin- istrators are engaged with coaching development at all levels. An elite coach is concerned primarily with sports performance, whereas a sports science researcher is focused on increasing sports science knowledge (both applied and theoretical), based on sound research questions. At the various institutes of sport in Australia (total of nine), the sports science researchers are essentially the service providers to the coaches of elite sports programs, and so the interaction between these two groups ought to be one of interdependency. Research at an institute of sport tends to be linked more closely to the needs of coaches than do research projects undertaken by universities, and the relationship between coaches and sports scientists may influence the way that research is conducted. However, in both settings, research tends to be theoretical in nature because researchers at institutes of sport have strong links with universities and PhD and masters students

operation at institutes of sport. It is acknowledged that research conducted by academics is usually published in journals and therefore is outside the scope of this study. In general, sports science researchers work in controlled environments. Laboratory settings allow the researcher to control most variables, but the laboratory setting may not necessarily represent the sporting task as it would be performed in the field. In laboratory settings, there is a need for tests and equipment that more accurately mimic the sporting actions and demands, and the chal- lenge for researchers is to conduct more research in more practical settings. It has been argued 8 that the extent to which coaches are influenced by and value sports science research ‘‘depends on the willingness of the coach to embrace research findings determined under conditions where sports performance has been artificially manipulated’’. Researchers require adequate time to plan and carry out rigorous research, 9 but coaches generally need solutions to problems of an immediate nature, as ‘‘coaches often want to solve a hundred prob- lems at once, and often cannot clearly define the problem in scientific terms’’. Before an assessment can be made of how appropriately research practice meets the needs of coaches and athletes, a broad profile of research conducted to date needs to be undertaken. In Aus- tralia, considerable funding is directed toward elite athlete programs and sports science research at institutes of sport, often in conjunction with uni- versity programs. A research activity profile could be useful as a basis for research policy develop- ment; however, such a profile would be descriptive only as distinct from judging the value of particular research. Previous reviews of research have been limited to specific sports science disciplines, in particular, sports psychology, 10,11 and in the case of sports psychology, analysis of the methodology and data gathering techniques employed. One such review of research projects 12 in the area of sports psy- chology using qualitative methodology was limited to research projects in three North American peer reviewed sports psychology journals, between 1990 and 1999: ‘‘Journal of Applied Sport Psychology’’, ‘‘Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology’’ and ‘‘The Sport Psychologist’’. Research studies were classified as qualitative if one of the following data gathering techniques was used; (a) documents, (b) open-ended questionnaire, (c) interview (unstruc- tured or semi-structured), and (d) observation (participant or non-participant). Of the 485 articles identified as coaching science, only 84 (17.3%) were classified as using qualitative techniques of data

A profile of sports science research (1983—2003)

195

collection—–67 studies used interview technique, and 32 studies were found to have used a combi- nation of qualitative and quantitative techniques. Results 12 suggested that qualitative sport psychol- ogy research had not progressed very far since 1987, with only a handful of researchers accounting for nearly all the qualitative research. It was claimed that a near total reliance on interviews, in particu- lar a ‘‘one-off’’ interview, limited the likelihood of achieving depth and comprehensiveness, and that there should be more diversification in data gather- ing techniques to capture a more complete picture. In a study 13 examining research in coaching sci- ence, research studies published from 1970 to 2001 were reviewed to determine the number of articles, journal used, what coaching area studied, what general research methodologies and data collection techniques used, and what sport and level of coach- ing. From over 1100 articles identified from 161 different journals, 610 articles met the inclusion criteria. The top 20 journals identified by Gilbert and Trudel accounted for 62.1% of coaching science articles, and just over half of the articles (50.7%) focused on coaching behaviour. Nearly all (94.1%) of the research was of a descriptive nature. Most of the research (85.6%) relied on a single method of data collection of which survey was the most com- mon method. Coaches of team sports were the most frequently researched group, with basketball, vol- leyball, American football, and soccer being the top four sports. The three top individual sports were tennis, track and field and swimming. With regard to the level of coaches, over two-thirds were either college level or high school coaches. Elite amateur and professional level coaches accounted for less than 20%. Results of the study indicate the domi- nance of descriptive research in the area of coach- ing science, with an emphasis on survey as a single method of data gathering. In yet another review of sports psychology research, 14 analysis was undertaken of 529 articles published in two major sport psychology journals

(Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology and International Journal of Sport Psychology) between 1985 and 1994. Articles were analysed according to article type (research or review), topic/theme, country of author, research design, research setting (field or lab) and subject type. Results of the anal- ysis revealed that most articles (85.1%) were based on what was termed ‘‘empirical research’’ and the remainder were classified as review/discussion papers. Two-thirds of the research methods used was either survey or experimental/quasi experi- mental. The survey methods were predominantly establishing correlations. Whilst research setting (field or lab) was a category by which papers were analysed, no data was reported to indicate prevalence of one setting to the other. Only 3% of studies involved elite-level subjects and, with this low level of elite participants, it begs the question, given the paucity of research on elite performers, whether there is an adequate research base for some of the applied interventions currently in use. To date, various studies have described the pub- lished literature reporting sports science research specific to certain disciplines, the research method- ology and data gathering techniques used and, in one study, the specific sports to which the results have been applied. However, there is no published research that has described the extent of sports science research across multiple sports science dis- ciplines and specific sports. Such a study is needed before evaluation can be made of the appropriate- ness of sports science research and the subsequent development of future research policy.

Methods

In order to undertake an analysis of sports science research reports, it was necessary to design an instrument, which was called the Williams Sports Science Research Schedule (WSSRS). 15 The instru- ment was developed, trialed and tested, to ensure

instru- ment was developed, trialed and tested, to ensure Figure 1 The Williams Sports Science Research

Figure 1

The Williams Sports Science Research Schedule (WSSRS).

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S.J. Williams, L.R. Kendall

it could be used universally to examine and cate- gorise published and/or unpublished sports science research projects. All projects that were deemed to have relevance (both directly and indirectly) to the preparation of athletes for competition were included in the analysis. The WSSRS, indicating criteria and available options, is shown in Fig. 1. The inter-rater reliability of the instrument was judged on the degree of agreement between the researcher and the evaluation of six sample research reports by five scientists (from the Aus- tralian Institute of Sport) representing five sports science disciplines (including medicine) using the criteria and definitions provided. The scale used to measure agreement was binary, 1 = agreement and 0 = non-agreement. The results of calculating level of agreement for each of the seven categories of the WSSRS were as follows: targeted sport—– 100%, primary study area—–100%, participant type— –93.3%, research setting—–96.6%, methodology—– 86.6%, data gathering techniques, primary—–86.6% and secondary—–83.3%. However, a potential for bias should be noted, as only AIS research scientists were involved in the validation process. In the ‘primary study area’, pedagogy was defined as the art/science of teaching. Physiother- apy and medicine were treated as two separate disciplines with injury-based studies being the primary domain of physiotherapy and illness stud- ies being the primary domain of medicine. Motor learning/motor control studies were included in the discipline of sports psychology. For the WSSRS, experimental research involves interven- tion, descriptive research makes a statement of existence and correlational research examines a relationship between variables. The inclusion of ‘other’ as a category provided an opportunity for the judges to identify a category not included in the instrument. However, it should be noted that the category ‘other’ was not utilized by the judges. Elite athletes were defined as those who held schol- arships at an Australian sports institute and/or

were professional athletes and/or represented Australia. Sub-elite athletes were those who have competed at national level, and ‘recreational’ athletes were defined as those who competed at no higher than state level competition. Analysis of research conducted at the vari- ous Australian institutes/academies of sports and at Australian universities by Master and Doctoral graduates was restricted to ‘performance related’ research and as such did not include studies addressing sports sociology, history, ethics and gen- eral areas of sports participation. All performance related research projects funded by the AIS, and conducted at either the AIS in Canberra or at one of the eight state/territory institutes of sport in Australia, between the period 1983 and 2003, were included in the analysis, together with Australian universities offering Master and Doctoral studies (by thesis) in sports related studies. Master and Doc- toral theses were limited to those completed during the period 1983—2003, which matched the years of research performed at the AIS. A total of 725 sports science research documents, in the form of unpublished theses from universities and original unpublished research reports for institutes of sport, were analysed, consisting of 412 institutes of sport research reports and 313 university theses (163 Mas- ter theses; 150 Doctoral theses). Approval to conduct the study was obtained from the AIS Ethics Committee and the University of Canberra Human Research Ethics Committee. Data recorded from the research document analysis were reported as frequency counts and percentages.

Results

Results showed that over two-thirds (71%) of research projects undertaken at both Australian universities and the AIS were in the scientific disci- plines of physiology (37.3%), psychology (19.4%) and biomechanics (14.3%). In universities, physiology

Table 1

Disciplines of sports science research conducted between 1983 and 2003

 

Discipline

AIS % (n = 412)

Universities % (n = 313)

Total % (n = 725)

Biomechanics

15.5

12.8

14.3

Medicine

10.4

5.1

8.1

Nutrition

8.0

6.4

7.3

Physical therapies

9.0

6.7

8.0

Physiology

39.8

33.8

37.3

Psychology

11.7

29.4

19.4

Pedagogy

0.7

1.0

0.8

Other

4.9

4.8

4.8

Total (%)

100

100

100

A profile of sports science research (1983—2003)

197

Table 2

Methodology used in sports science research

Methodology

AIS % (n = 412)

Universities % (n = 313)

Total % (n = 725)

Case/field studies

0.2

7.9

3.6

Causal/comparative

1.9

2.5

2.2

Correlational

22.1

19.8

21.1

Descriptive

30.3

18.2

25.0

Equip development

7.5

0.3

4.4

Ethnography

0.2

1.0

0.6

Experimental

35.4

47.5

40.4

Grounded theory

0.2

.9

0.6

Historical

1.0

0

0.6

Longitudinal

1.2

1.9

1.5

Total (%)

100

100

100

and psychology accounted for 63.2% of the research projects examined (33.8 and 29.4%, respectively), whereas at the AIS, physiology and biomechanics accounted for 55.3% of research projects (39.8 and 15.5%, respectively). This information is shown in Table 1. When considering the setting in which research is conducted, approximately two-thirds (66.7%) of projects were conducted in scientific (laboratory) settings (69.8% at the AIS and 62.6% at universities). At both the AIS and universities, the method- ology (or research design) most frequently used by researchers, was ‘‘experimental’’ (40.4%), followed by ‘‘descriptive’’ (25.0%) and ‘‘correlational’’ (21.1%). University research studies used more ‘‘experimental’’ research designs than the AIS (47.5 and 35.4%, respectively) and AIS research projects used more ‘‘descriptive’’ research designs than the universities (30.3 and 18.2%, respectively). This information is displayed in Table 2. Research projects from both the universities and the AIS used ‘‘physiological’’ (performance) data

as a primary data gathering method (30.1%) and ‘‘biomedical’’ and ‘‘physiological’’ as secondary data gathering methods (26.7 and 25.7%, respec- tively). Results are shown in Table 3. In the category of ‘‘type of participants’’ used in the research, elite athletes or sub-elite ath- letes were used for nearly half (46.6%) of the 725 research projects examined, with recreational ath- letes being used for most of the remainder (39.5%). At the AIS, nearly two-thirds of research projects used elite athletes or sub-elite athletes (63.1%), whereas at universities two-thirds of research projects used recreational athletes (66.2%). This information is displayed in Table 4. Research projects were classified according to the sport for which the research project was designed. Results show that the majority (n = 444, 61.2%) of research projects were targeted towards specific sports, either individual (n = 321, 44.3%) or team sports (123—16.9%), and the AIS accounted for over two-thirds (n = 303, 68.2%) of the research tar- geted to specific sports. Four sports, all individual sports as distinct from team sports, accounted for

Table 3

Data gathering techniques used in sports science research

Primary data gathering techniques

Secondary data gathering techniques

 

AIS % (n = 412)

Universities % (n = 313)

Total % (n = 725)

AIS

Universities

Total

Anthropometry

3.9

3.5

3.7

9.9

7.0

8.5

Biomedical

17.6

14.1

16.0

29.2

23.8

26.7

Developmental

6.8

0

3.8

0

0

0

Interview

2.4

4.2

3.2

5.1

6.6

5.8

Observational

12.0

18.7

14.8

9.5

7.5

8.5

Physiological

32.4

27.3

30.1

24.5

26.9

25.7

Imaging

2.2

1.3

1.8

0

0.9

0.4

Survey

14.4

21.0

17.7

11.5

9.7

10.7

Telemetry

7.1

8.0

7.4

9.9

16.7

13.1

Documents

1.2

1.9

1.5

0.4

0.9

0.6

Total (%)

100

100

100

100

100

100

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S.J. Williams, L.R. Kendall

Table 4

Participant type used in research projects

Participant type

AIS % (n = 412)

Universities % (n = 313)

Total % (n = 725)

Elite Sub-elite Recreational Mixed Nil or not stated

45.4

12.8

31.3

17.7

12.1

15.3

19.2

66.2

39.5

9.2

3.8

6.9

8.5

5.1

7.0

Total (%)

100

100

100

nearly half (47.1%) of research projects targeted to a sport; these sports were cycling, rowing, ath- letics and swimming. The remaining projects were targeted to a range of individual sports (25.2%) and team sports (27.7%). This information is shown in Table 5. Over one-third (38.8%) of the research projects had a non-sport specific focus, meaning that the research was of a general nature, which could have application across a range of sports as distinct from being applicable to sports perfor- mance in a particular sport, such as rowing, and Australian universities undertook 173 of the 281 studies classified as non-sport specific. Less than half (40%, n = 178) of targeted sports research projects involved the use of elite athletes

as participants, with the four major sports of cycling, rowing, athletics and swimming account- ing for 20.3% (n = 90). Non-sport specific research projects accounted for 61.9% of research involving recreational athletes as participants with only 21.6% of research involving elite athletes. Research projects were also identified by year of completion. In Australia, during the 1980s, as the field of sports science research was emerging, and with the establishment of the nine institutes of sports and post-graduate research programs in Australian universities, the numbers of research projects in each year gradually increased from 10 or less in the first 5 years to over 40 per year, peaking at 85 in the year 2000.

Table 5

Targeted sports for research (n = 444)

Major sports

No.

%

Team sports

No.

%

Individual sports

No.

%

Cycling

75

16.9

AFL

12

2.7

Abseiling Archery Badminton Canoeing Dancing Diving Equestrian Fencing Golf Gymnastics Motor sport Orienteering Roller skating Sailing Shooting Skiing Squash Surfing Table tennis Tai Ji Tennis Triathlon Weight lift (g) Wheelchair prop (n)

1

0.2

Rowing

53

11.9

Baseball

5

1.1

1

0.2

Athletics

43

9.8

Basketball

24

5.4

1

0.2

Swimming

38

8.5

Cricket

13

2.9

18

4.1

 

Hockey

12

2.7

2

0.5

Total

209

47.1

Ice hockey

1

0.2

1

0.2

 

Lacrosse

1

0.2

3

0.7

Netball

14

3.2

1

0.2

Rugby league

1

0.2

8

1.8

Rugby union

2

0.5

14

3.2

Soccer

13

2.9

1

0.2

Softball

3

0.7

1

0.2

Touch football

3

0.7

1

0.2

Volleyball

3

0.7

4

0.9

Water polo

16

3.6

9

2.0

 

3

0.7

 

Total

123

27.7

4

0.9

 

3

0.7

1

0.2

1

0.2

15

3.4

15

3.4

3

0.7

1

0.2

Total

112

25.2

A profile of sports science research (1983—2003)

199

Discussion

Over two-thirds of the 725 research projects under- taken at Australian universities and Australian insti- tutes of sport were in the scientific disciplines of physiology, psychology and biomechanics. Sports science researchers based in institutes of sports conducted just over half of all their research in the two disciplines of physiology and biome- chanics, whereas university-based sports science researchers conducted nearly two-thirds of their research in the two disciplines of physiology and psychology. A bias towards physiology-based research may be attributed to two factors; first, the funda- mental requirement of most sports for athletes to develop appropriate aerobic and anaerobic fit- ness; and second, a greater number of researchers working in the discipline of physiology than in other disciplines, such as sports psychology, sports medicine and sports physiotherapy. Previous stud- ies have indicated a need for more research in sports psychology 9,10 and for psychology to be more effectively used in a coaching context. The results of this study would suggest that university researchers are providing the majority of research

in the area of sports psychology, perhaps because

sports psychologists employed at universities are more experienced researchers than sports psychol-

ogists employed at institutes of sport, who tend to be more service focused than research focused. Scientific research often involves controlling variables and this is usually achieved by conduct- ing research in a controlled environment, such as

a laboratory. However, this need to control con-

founding variables can result in test protocols that bare little resemblance to real-life sports perfor- mance, a fact noted by many sceptical coaches and athletes. 7,8 In the present study, it was found that most of the research in psychology used inter- view or survey techniques, which was consistent with findings of previous research in the area of sports psychology. 12 If studies in sports psychol- ogy are excluded from the analysis then less than one-quarter of studies could be classified as being conducted in a ‘‘naturalistic’’ setting. This find- ing is interesting in the context of a decision by the AIS to participate in a Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) for Microtechnology. The purpose of the CRC for Microtechnology is to develop micro-

sensors, which would enhance the capability for sports institute scientists to collect data in train- ing and competition environments. The portability

of testing equipment would expand the opportunity

to conduct research in natural settings. The chal- lenge for applied sports science researchers in the

future will be to collect research data in the nat- ural training and competition environment yet still maintain sufficient scientific control for the results to be accepted empirically. The majority of research projects had a sports specific focus, that is they targeted specific sports, and nearly half of the sports specific research projects were directed to four sports (cycling, row- ing, athletics and swimming). It could be that these four sports most readily lend themselves to testing with equipment (ergometers) ubiquitous to most sports science laboratories, such as tread- mills, cycling ergometers, rowing ergometers and, to a lesser extent, swimming ergometers. It could also be argued that these sports are among Aus- tralia’s most successful Olympic sports. In sports targeted research, the emphasis on individual sports (i.e., non-team sports) differs from previous research in the area of coaching sci- ence where the majority of research was under- taken with team sports. 13 The emphasis given to four individual sports revealed in the study may be of interest for the development of research pol- icy in the area of sports science. Researchers at institutes of sport usually work with one or more specific sports, which may influence the tendency for research to be targeted to particular sports; but the reason for the dominance of individual sports needs further scrutiny. The use of elite athletes as participants in research studies may be dependant on the vari- ables to be measured and whether those variables are affected by the performance level of the subjects, the ability to access elite athletes as subjects, and the capacity to recruit sufficient numbers to measure meaningful effect size. University-based researchers are less likely to gain access to elite athletes than their sports institute counterparts. Equally so, researchers at institutes of sport must convince elite athletes and their coaches, that research studies will not adversely impact on their regular training programs. Overall, the results of this study revealed that physiology was a dominant research discipline, experimental design was the most frequently used research method, and measures of athletic perfor- mance (physiological) and biomedical parameters were the main data gathering techniques. Though the vast majority of research was conducted in laboratory settings, it is anticipated that field- based (naturalistic) research will increase with advances in microtechnology of monitoring equip- ment. Research conducted at institutes of sport differs from that conducted at universities in the following ways: institutes of sport researchers con- duct more descriptive research, use more elite

200

S.J. Williams, L.R. Kendall

athletes as participants in research, and target their research to specific sports. Sports science researchers at universities conduct more experi- mental research, use more recreational athletes as participants, and target their research more to gen- eral sports application as opposed to specific tar- geted sports. One noticeable difference between research conducted at institutes of sport and uni- versities is the fact that twice as much research is conducted in the discipline of sports psychology by university-based researchers. This study was designed to describe the profile of sports science research in an Australian con- text. Results cannot be used to justify more or less research in a particular discipline, topic, sport, or institution. In addition, these results cannot be used to justify the importance or lack of importance of particular types of research.

Practical implications

An overview of sports science research per- formed in Australia over the last 20 years and could be of assistance in the development of sports science research policy in Australia.

Investigating patterns of research activity can be undertaken in a systematic manner using the Williams Sports Science Research Sched- ule.

The university research sector, by providing

a

greater volume of research in the area of

sports psychology, may be counterbalancing the smaller emphasis towards this discipline

undertaken within the sports institute net- work.

A

much greater proportion of sports science

research is undertaken in four individual sports

(rowing, cycling, athletics, swimming) than in other individual sports or in team sports.

Acknowledgements

The data reported in this study was part of a PhD thesis carried out at the Centre for Sports Studies,

University of Canberra under the supervision of Dr. Daryl Adair and Dr. Mark Sayers. The authors express their appreciation to Dr. Diana Kendall for contri- bution to the study design and preparation of this manuscript.

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