Interview: For The Love of Sport Science
We are very fortunate to have hard-working and well-respected individuals contributing to SPORT SCIENCE COLLECTIVE. While their contributions are interesting and insightful, it is nice to have some context about the person behind the text.
SPORT SCIENCE COLLECTIVE interviewed Dr Jason Tee about his background, and his academic and practical exploits as a scientist.
Please tell us about your background as a sport scientist? Where and what did you study?
JT: I’ve hopped around universities a lot! I did my undergrad B.Sc in Sports Science at what was then RAU, and then my honours year at UCT through the Sport Science Institute of South Africa. I did my Masters through Wits, and then my PhD through the University of Johannesburg. Both of these were by dissertation while working full time. Working and studying at the same time is a challenge, but on the back of it, I have significant practical experience that sometimes full-time academics aren’t able to access. What made working and studying at the same time possible was the superb grounding I received at SSISA. To me, the course is world leading in terms of the exposure students get to high-quality research opportunities and supervision. I would recommend the course to anyone looking to make a career in sport science.
What is your area of interest as an academic?
JT: There are a few really, so it’s nice when you get to combine them. I’m very interested in the development of athletic performance, particularly in team sports where individualisation and resources are usually a challenge. What inevitably goes hand in hand with this are questions around athlete monitoring, injury risk management and youth talent development which all feed into improving team performance. What I try to do is stay away from sterile, lab environments and to find sport science solutions that are applicable in real performance environments.
What is your particular area of interest within sport science practice?
JT: I think I’ve probably just answered this because I try to marry research and practice as much as possible. I think that there is a very blurry distinction between strength and conditioning and sport science, where the best S&C practitioners are good scientists in their own right. My approach, therefore, is usually to offer my services as a strength and conditioning coach, and then from within the organisation see what sort of sport science applications might work practically.
Which sports have you predominately worked with?
JT: As a sport scientist, I’ve worked largely within rugby union. I am a huge fan, so I have been lucky to be able to match this interest with research. As a coach, I’ve worked with athletes from a bigger range of sports – athletics, rowing, basketball, hockey, etc.
What is your personal view on the role a sport scientist should play within the context of a sports team?
JT: My experience is that teams bring in a sport scientist when there is a specific need, maybe to manage training loads or to help optimise a process. In this context, you have to do your core job really well before looking for anything else to be involved in. The truth is sport science can improve all sorts of aspects of a team’s operation – talent ID and development pathways, more effective training, better analysis, etc. The real challenge is finding a way to do these things practically within the environment. I’m always very sceptical of people who stand on the outside and say they can fix this and this and this. Every team environment comes with its own constraints and challenges. If it was easy to run a perfect program, everyone would. That’s where the scientific process becomes so important. When you see something you think you can improve, measure it, try to affect it, and measure it again. Often finding the small wins can make a big difference to performance, and advising on where those might be is where the sport scientist is most valuable.
How have you implemented sport science in the past?
JT: During my PhD project I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work with the Golden Lions Rugby Union team. We followed a fairly simple process. We wanted to improve the team's overall injury burden, when I started this was close to 2000 days lost to injury in a super rugby season. We identified some areas we thought we could improve, namely improving players’ movement proficiency, trying to ensure that training loads were optimal, and improving player monitoring. We looked to implement small wins in each of these areas, and the injury numbers started tumbling!
Where do you find yourself in the world currently, and what does that role entail?
JT: I have recently been employed as a Senior Lecturer in Sports Coaching at Leeds Beckett University in the UK. Primarily, my role is to teach strength and conditioning, but there are a number of other research and coaching opportunities that I hope to involve myself in.
What are your first impressions of sport science at Leeds Beckett University?
JT: Excellent so far! The university has been excellent at developing partnerships with local schools, academies and clubs. These partnerships provide excellent sport science to these organisations, while also providing research and work experience opportunities for students. It's an excellent model that I would like to see implemented more widely.
Are there any fundamental aspects from the UK that sport scientists in SA could learn from?
JT: I’m pretty fresh off the boat, so it might be dangerous for me to comment. My initial thought is to under promise, and over deliver. The guys I’ve met here are quite clear on what they may be able to offer to a program and how that might improve it. My experience in SA is that because sport scientists often have to sell ourselves into roles, we claim to be able to have an effect that we can’t, and lose credibility as a result. Everything I’ve seen in the UK so far has been very simple, but very effective.
Theoretically: If you were given free rein to do as you wish within the context of sport science in South Africa, what would you try to implement to promote, progress, and protect the field?
JT: Geez, that’s a big question! I think that it would be good to have a national accreditation body to ensure standards across our industry. Something like BASES in the UK. In fact, I’d try to include strength and conditioning too, because those structures aren’t very formal either. I think that by creating minimum standards of practice, we could ensure credibility in the industry. Every time someone does an inadequate job, the industry as a whole takes a pounding, so we should do our best to prevent that from happening. Also, we have a number of sport science silos arranged around a few universities. A national body might be able to encourage more collaboration and sharing among industry professionals.
Is there any advice you would give to those considering or working towards a sport science qualification?
JT: Get your hands dirty! There’s nothing worse than an ivory tower academic who’s never coached a day in his life trying to tell coaches how to do their jobs better. Success in this industry depends on relationships with coaches and athletes, so the sooner you start building them, the better.