• Jason Wulfsohn // MSc (Med) Exercise Science

Editor's Musings: I Exercise, Therefore I am... Athlete?


Sport scientists should be working with athletes. Bam! Right off the bat, I’ve drawn my line in the sand. Sport science is still a marginalised career in South Africa. There are a few reasons for this, but for now, I just want to address one. Sport scientists need to have a clear target population, because if we don’t know this, then it becomes difficult to stake our claim in the market.

What is an “athlete”? My father has taken to cycling fairly regularly these days, and no offence to him, but I definitely wouldn’t call him an athlete. What about a lady who’s been training for the Two Oceans half marathon as part of her social events calendar, does she qualify as an athlete? I lean towards “no”. A quick disclaimer, often when differentiations are made, people tend to look for examples that straddle the borderline. There would be instances when you’d have to use your discernment. When I think of an athlete, I think of a person participating in a sport, who puts in many hours of hard work, on and off the field, with the goal of winning or being highly competitive. I guess that everyone would have a slightly different opinion on that. Thankfully, there has recently been a definition put forward. Araújo & Scharhag (2016) suggest four criteria that a person should meet to be regarded as an athlete. These are:

  1. to be training in sports aiming to improve their performance/results

  2. to be actively participating in sport competitions

  3. to be formally registered in a local, regional or national sport federation

  4. to have sport training and competition as his/her major activity (way of living) or focus of personal interest, devoting several hours in all or most of the days for these activities, exceeding the time allocated to other types of professional or leisure activities

These criteria are composed with academic intentions in mind, so maybe it’s not necessary to be too rigid about using them in practice. So, why does it matter how we define an athlete? As the primary population of interest to a sport scientist, athletes need to be conceptually separated from those who are simply exercising. By defining athletes, it becomes easier to differentiate between the domains of health and performance. I chose to pursue sport science because I loved the idea of working with athletes, to help them improve their performance and reach their goals. I didn’t intend to be working with people whose primary goal is to lose weight, manage their diabetes, or other health-related matters. The health industry is vast and there are many other capable professionals who have that all covered.

Now to an academic context, Araújo & Scharhag (2016) also relay the importance of appropriately defining the age and competitive level of athletes. A national team in one sporting code may not be equivalent to a national team in another. For example, consider one study involving elite youth Portuguese football players competing in Portuguese championships[2] and another study which investigated phase play from the “best” rugby teams in the Portuguese Premier League Championship and Portuguese Cup[3]. If one isn’t discerning, it might be taken for granted that both studies involve elite athletes. Considering that rugby is still an amateur sport in Portugal, I think it’s fair to say that the level of competition between their football and rugby is vastly different. In the ideal realm, because “athlete” has been defined and the importance of describing an appropriate competitive level is encouraged, we are now able to compare apples with apples. It allows for practitioners to read the research and better integrate the information for their specific context.

Back to that first point, sport scientists should be working with athletes. Additionally, we should be mindful of the competitive level we’re working in and that of the literature from which we base our practices. Don’t take the training routine from that elite Portuguese football study you just read and convince your daughter’s u9 football coach that it’s the only way to win the Sunday Cake League. Just don’t.

This fourth issue of SPORT SCIENCE COLLECTIVE was once again only possible due to the efforts of the contributors. They have put aside their personal time to bring a healthy range of topics to SPORT SCIENCE COLLECTIVE. Simone do Carmo enlightens us with a look into the athlete and FODMAPs, Dr Jason Tee contemplates issues big and small about maturation in sport, and Dr Wilbur Kraak gives us his take on over-coaching. Alongside our regular contributors, we have three guest contributors. We welcome back Dr Michele van Rooyen who is following up her video analysis article from the previous issue, and Ian Darragh who delves into some concurrent training concepts. We hop aboard the “bant wagon” with newcomer Chris Webster who is filling in for our regular David Leith, as he slaves away to hand in his MSc.

Enjoy the read.

1. Araújo, C. G. S. & Scharhag, J. Athlete: A working definition for medical and health sciences research. Scand. J. Med. Sci. Sport. 26, 4–7 (2016).

2. Coutinho, D. et al. Typical weekly workload of under 15, under 17, and under 19 elite Portuguese football players. J. Sports Sci. 33, 1229–37 (2015).

3. Correia, V., Araujo, D., Craig, C. & Passos, P. Prospective information for pass decisional behavior in rugby union. Hum. Mov. Sci. (2011). doi:10.1016/j.humov.2010.07.008

#Athletes #SportScience

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