• Jason Wulfsohn // MSc (Med) Exercise Science

Editors Musings: The Athlete/Sport Scientist Relationship


Correct me if I’m wrong (seriously, I’d like to hear your opinions), but sport scientists tend to be control freaks. There is a latent desire to be in control. To control the variables, the stimulus, the recovery, etc. Maybe sport science attracts such individuals, or maybe it produces them. Chicken and egg… I’ll be the first to admit to getting a bit put out when I don’t have control over happenings. It’s something I’ve been reflecting on for my personal and professional growth. In particular, my primary peeve of late has been the resistance of a few athletes to the training I’ve introduced. How dare these adolescent hooligans question my superior smartitude?! Most common for me at this point is encountering players who want to bulk in the middle of the season. Despite my explanation as to why the squad isn’t bulking during the season, I still have to kick players out of the gym, sometimes at strange hours of the day. In the past, I’ve encountered a similar stubbornness from runners about the mileage they should be doing leading up to a race. I’ve heard stories of Ironman triathletes who are “allergic” to rest and train themselves half to death, despite “doctor’s orders”.

I try not to take it personally, and rather ask myself why they’re more keen on doing their own training. I haven’t got any solid solutions at this point, but the process is underway, and I’d like to share with you a bit of where I am.

In my current situation I am very much aware that I am the new guy, and that I’m still building trust with my colleagues and the athletes. Trust being a precarious thing, can take a while to build, but a moment to destroy. Over the course of the year, compliance has been improving and I’m taking that to indicate increasing trust in my abilities as a sport scientist. So, I’m not stressing over that for now, as it will come in time. Patience…


Most fortuitously, I recently stumbled upon a journal article about two elite female Norwegian athletes who seemingly came out of nowhere to be thrust into fame and professionalism[1]. It makes for very interesting reading, and I would highly recommend it to coaches, parents, and sport scientists. It is stuck behind a paywall, so the best I can do is link it here. In a nutshell, these two athletes come out of obscurity to compete internationally. They are placed on state high performance programs, with several coaches and specialists all competing for their input. After being placed on their high performance programs, they go through some lean years, fraught with injury and underperformance, before eventually retiring early. Obviously, these are just two cases amongst many successful athletes on high performance programs. Think of it like an aeroplane crash; they very seldom happen, but when they do it’s imperative to recover and analyse the little black box to prevent it happening again.



From the abundance of useful insight this article provides, two strong themes stuck out to me, namely the loss of enjoyment of their sport and poor communication between coaches and athletes. The loss of enjoyment in sport is particularly saddening, as sport is at its core a recreational construct meant to be enjoyed by viewers and participants. Sport scientists risk being complicit in this with all our knowledge and science intended to improve performance, in the meantime forgetting the enjoyment factor. The communication aspect is a pertinent point to linger on. The imbedded excerpts from the article paint a vivid picture of a fundamental problem that can arise when we try to be too controlling. That line of, “you follow the routine or you are out…” can be tempting when the athlete’s physical condition and performance are your responsibility and you back yourself. However, communication is not just about whether we get our message across adequately. It is a two-way activity, with the implication that we absolutely have to listen to the athlete’s words, and not just the data. The second excerpt suggests that athletes can be self-aware about their bodies and their training requirements. Now, I’m not saying that we need to become pseudo-psychologists or that athletes be given total freedom to train as they please. But, the “my way or the highway” approach could mean we become the bad guys in an athlete’s story.

Going forward, I’ll be keeping the enjoyment factor in mind and I’ll be trying to engage more with particular individuals as to why they’re resisting my suggested training routines. Basically, I’m going to swallow some pride and try be less of a control freak.

June brings some change to the modest little website (www.sportsciencecollective.co.za), which I hope will make SPORT SCIENCE COLLECTIVE more accessible and readable. Feedback is always appreciated. Within this issue Simone do Carmo shares her very educated opinion on the quality of the food athletes should be eating, Dr Jason Tee delves into the nuances of rugby conditioning for boys and men, and finally, Dr Michele van Rooyen guides us through a simple process for video analysis.

  1. Kristiansen, E., Tomten, S. E., Hanstad, D. V. & Roberts, G. C. Coaching communication issues with elite female athletes: Two Norwegian case studies. Scand. J. Med. Sci. Sport. 22, 1–12 (2012).

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