S&C Coach or Sports Scientist: Who Does What in Youth Development Pathways?
A little while ago, I was asked to assist a school that was looking to employ a sports scientist by writing a job description for them. I provided a short list of the roles and responsibilities that I think a sport scientist should be fulfilling when working in the schools space. The response I received was interesting! It turns out that the school was looking for a hands-on practitioner whose main responsibility would be to deliver strength and conditioning training sessions. I responded that if that was the case, perhaps the school should consider hiring a specialist strength and conditioning coach.
This type of scenario poses some interesting questions about our industry. The first point I’d like to make is that there is no doubt that expert coaches are scientific in their approach to training, and many of the best coaches in the world (particularly in endurance sports) were specialist sport scientists in their early careers. Unfortunately, individuals who can straddle the dual roles of coach and scientist are all too rare especially early in coach/scientist careers. What I see more often, is young sport science graduates with lots of “book smarts”, but little to no practical coaching experience to speak of, being thrust into roles where coaching is part of their daily responsibility. Some of these young coaches learn, adapt and evolve under these conditions and, in time, become very capable coaches. Others become disillusioned and move out of the industry.
A major driver of this problem is a mismatch between the skills requirement in the sports conditioning industry and the courses currently being offered in tertiary education institutions. Sport science degrees are hugely oversubscribed worldwide, with the number of graduates each year far outstripping the available number of employment opportunities in this field. As a result of the shortage of specialist sport science jobs, the vast majority of graduates are forced to transition into other sports-related fields. There are numerous opportunities to work in school and community level sport because of the number of participants involved at these levels, but the environments, facilities, equipment and skill sets required are usually far removed from what students experienced in university. Mindful students will sum up this job economy quickly and understand that it is essential to acquire skills and experience that will match up with their future job ambitions while working through their degrees.
On the other hand, employers need to be much clearer about what the sport science / strength and conditioning roles they want to fill actually entail. These terms are at times used interchangeably in the schools and youth participation levels, with “scientists” expected to deliver coaching sessions, and S&C coaches expected to provide nutrition and supplementation advice or monitor athlete training loads. Far too often employers see “sport scientist” as a nebulous, catch-all role, and are disappointed when their new employee fails to be all things to all people. As the classic Lewis Carroll quote states, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” Employers should be clear about the job that they want done so that they can match people with appropriate skill sets to these roles.
As an example, I would like to propose job descriptions for strength and conditioning coach and sports scientist roles within a high school/academy context. I do this to highlight the theoretical difference between these two roles. Realistically, people actually working within this space perform some sort of hybrid between these two roles, which is why accurate job specifications are so important.
To lead in the programming and the delivery of gym and pitch-based S&C sessions.
To carry out physical testing protocols.
To be responsible for the programming and the delivery of warm-up protocols to ensure readiness to train or compete.
To manage and supervise the use of the facilities and equipment, ensuring the safety and welfare of all users, offering appropriate training, guidance and advice as and when necessary.
What many employers don't realise is that S&C coaching is a very time-intensive activity. Due to the hands-on nature of coaching, an S&C coach can really only effectively coach 2/3 teams in the same time period, and even then will be severely stretched. Often in the schools space one or two S&C coaches are asked to oversee the development of >300 sports people. (Compare this with "sports coaches" who usually would only have 1 team per season, and often more than one coach per team). Good S&C coaches will have a marked effect on athlete performance, provided they are given the time and opportunity to coach effectively.
In general, sport science roles are highly variable and depend very much on the demands of the sport. For example sport scientists working in team sport generally need GPS skills, while those in individual endurance sports need to develop heart rate monitoring expertise. The role described here is specifically for a sport scientist in a multi-sport development pathway. In this context, the role of the sports scientist is a management role. The Sport Scientist should sit alongside the Heads of Sport to advise them about aspects of their program.
Implement a long-term athlete development plan that emphasizes appropriate training for participants at different ages and stages of development.
Lead collaboration between sports programs and our Strength & Conditioning programs in terms of planning and periodization.
Monitoring of training loads and determine the appropriateness of these loads for athletic development.
Manage a data base of physical test results for students across the school that should be used for performance benchmarking and talent ID.
Manage a program of maturity testing to be able to inform students, coaches and parents regarding biological maturity i.e. whether a student is an early or late maturer.
Provide nutritional advice.
Manage a doping testing and awareness program.
An ideal scenario would be to have a sport scientist running a "performance" department with a few S&C coaches working beneath him, but this may be beyond the capacity of many organisations. A more pragmatic approach would be to determine which of the functions listed in the two job descriptions above are most necessary within an organisation and prioritise those functions. Too many coaches/scientists can spend a lot of time muddling around being busy, but not necessarily effective. Greater clarity on what employers want out of their “sport scientists”, will lead to more effective performance in the long run.
1. Nash, C. and Collins, D., (2006). Tacit knowledge in expert coaching: Science or art?. Quest, 58(4), pp.465-477