“How To Support A Champion” Part 2: Interview with Dr Steve Ingham

As promised, my blog series on How To Support A Champion continues, with Part 2 bringing you the interview with the books’ author Dr Steve Ingham. Steve is currently the Director of Science and Technical Development at the English Institute of Sport, and a strong advocate for improving the vocational skills development of students and graduates of sport science courses to better prepare them for work in the industry. This is also something I believe strongly about, having been a graduate of both a sport science bachelor and doctorate degree, yet feeling as though I learnt all my relevant practitioner skills “on the job”. Needless to say, if I had another 8 or so years I’d like to do both again, with a completely different approach, mindset and understanding of the fundamental skills of the profession (wait, is that called hindsight?). The beauty of it is, current students and recent graduates of sport science degrees can benefit from hindsight and the lessons learned by others, such as the examples Steve shares with us in How To Support A Champion. The personal and professional development of oneself for entry into the world of elite sport is the main theme portrayed throughout How To Support A Champion, and these concepts are explored further in our interview.

It’s a great privilege to speak with Steve personally about this topic, and it just shows his dedication to the cause that he was willing to persevere with my rookie attempt at an interview! So, without further ado, I bring you the insights from Steve on effectively developing sport science students and graduates to work in high performance sport.

Interview with Dr Steve Ingham of How To Support A Champion.

1. Your main purpose for writing How To Support A Champion, was it to expand the topics of your blog post Letter to the 15 000, or did you also have the idea of sharing this same knowledge for currently employed practitioners?

In part yes, but not entirely.  I have written a blog for several years now as a means of highlighting particular topics. The Letter to the 15,000 was around the specific issue of students entering into education thinking courses would develop them for the big-bad world, but for the high performance system, we know this is limited. A student has to do more in order to train their practical and vocational skills. How to Support a Champion was written from a deeper reflection of mine, that not only vocational skill needs highlighting and developing, but the arc of personal development should never stop throughout one’s career.  I am passionate about developing my own skills but even more so the skills of others, in whatever role they find themselves. I wanted to write something about the lessons I’ve learned, that whatever the career destination or stage of, could be helpful.

2. Is there a global connection of fundamental sport science practical skills, abilities, and knowledge that practitioners should possess regardless of country of origin?

Fundamentally yes, I believe the skills translate globally. I’ve had the chance to speak at and visit all of the major institute systems around the world and have been able to observe the dynamic between athlete, coach and support staff, and I can see the same challenges and limitations of evoking change facing everyone. Cultures will inevitably be different and will have a major influence on the necessary approaches, however the themes identified in How to Support a Champion such as trust, innovation, accountability and influence transcend cultural barriers.

3. With countries that operate under a similar structure and framework of sport science such as Australia and the UK, is there opportunity to collaborate and develop specific vocational training strategies for the universities to implement? Is there a recognized need for this amongst directors of other institutions internationally?

I have been campaigning with our UK universities for close to 15 years on this issue, yet I see a drift between the content of sport science courses and the needs of the industry. What is driving universities in the UK are student fees, research money and student experience, yet interestingly sport science students are amongst the most employable. However, and quite perversely, we see a general lack of vocational skill or awareness of ‘what it takes’ to succeed in high performance sport. I think the issue is also relevant in other westernised societies such as Canada, Australia and the US and I would imagine they have their own individual approaches to tackling the issue. Should we come together and work on this? I’m not sure – quite simply, there is a competitive advantage if you have more influential and skilled workers; it is effectively the same as having a faster bike or a more economical athlete. In the past when we have proposed the idea of organising a worldwide congress on applied sport science, questions were raised about why we would do this and share with other nations! However, the reality is that the devil is in the application.

4. From a practical perspective, applied sport science seems to be moving in the direction of possessing broad skill sets and being a “specialist generalist”. Seeking experiences across a range of sport science disciplines and roles in the early career development phase would thus be advantageous; is it also valuable to specialise sport science knowledge and skills in one particular sport for a length of time?

A recognisable expertise is a huge advantage and I foresee the next generation of applied practitioners having both a generic knowledge base and a specific PhD-level expertise and associated experimental design thinking. The strength of having an institute system such as in the UK, is that we have 280 practitioners and if they all have a specialist expertise then we are able to offer advanced levels of input rather than generic answers. A deep level of expertise can offer truer individualisation and problem-solving than a basic understanding, however you do need breadth when you enter this world.

5. When you entered the sport science profession, it was not as well developed nor supported by science and best practice principles as it is now. Did this lack of information in certain areas drive you to think laterally, apply theory to practice and build your own evidence base?

This is a tricky question Kellie. I’m not sure. If I think about practitioners today, they are challenged to think laterally and to be innovative and adaptable in their approaches; it is inherent to the culture of high performance sport worldwide. However, as standards go up and up all the time, the bandwidth for practitioners to make mistakes is smaller than it was when I first started out. I certainly made more mistakes and was given greater license when I began working with athletes. That is why I am such a strong advocate for aspiring practitioners to accumulate an experience base through their own self-generated work before they enter into a paid professional post. I liken this to undertaking a photography course, whereby you are trialling your photography techniques, taking lots of pictures and learning as you go, rather than learning all of the photography theory and then becoming a professional photographer.

6. Looking for the evidence in data and individual athlete responses to guide practice rather than relying on scientific literature is a common theme in How To Support A Champion. Does the current university education system over-promote this ‘safe’ approach and deter graduates (and practitioners) from experimenting and exploring innovative solutions in service provision?

Randomized controlled studies are truly a thing of beauty, but they are mostly population observations.  As I described in How to Support a Champion the job of the applied practitioner is to bring knowledge to life for unique athletes and coaches, and so knowledge cannot necessarily be transposed into their world without adaptation, contextualisation and adequate prioritization. I think students should learn the theory, apply it to a population or individual, reflect, and then crystallise their lessons.

7. To bridge the gap between vocational skills of graduates and industry needs, the Skills4Performance workshop was developed by the EIS across a number of sport science disciplines. Has the course enhanced the development of graduates and deepened the talent pool of potential employees?

Yes, the Skills4Performance course was very successful. At the EIS we have appointed nearly 20% of the graduates. We would like this percentage to increase and therefore we will be more selective in who we invite to participate in future. Until we see waves of vocationally-ready practitioners appearing at interview, Skills4Performance will continue to be necessary. (I should also say that we do recognize that we in the high performance world need to do more to communicate the demands of this environment for the next generation of staff and for the people who will be educating and mentoring them).

8. Is there value in expanding the Skills4Performance workshop to specifically target practitioners? Either for UK sport scientists and/or external practitioners?

We have always been open-minded about who attends such courses. In the future, I think this approach could help us talent spot, so it doesn’t matter where people are from. If they’re talented, motivated and effective then we can benefit from their expertise.

9. In closing, what would you consider to be the 5 “critical steps” to take in improving the development of sport science graduates?

  1. Greater government-level funding for sport.
  2. Greater recognition for the application of knowledge.
  3. Greater transparency in what universities can actually deliver to the graduate.
  4. Greater prominence of vocational skill development, including problem-solving, personal performance and leadership development.
  5. Cross-profession sharing about effective applied practice.

*You can read Part 1 of this series here, in which I review Steve’s book How To Support A Champion.


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