Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Science in sport or sport in science: My no. 1 interview question for applied sport science

Previous blogs in this series

Actions are the seeds of fate, deeds grow into destiny.

                                                                                                                                     Harry Truman

My favourite and, I think my most discriminating practitioner question at interview is the plainly simple, “How do you improve performance?” It is deliberately vague, to allow a candidate to flourish or stall; it’s simplicity is both inviting and daunting; it’s direct focus on performance truly tests your standpoint. It immediately offers a fork in the road where wheat vs non-applied wheat* and chaff go their separate ways. I will give you the typical answers for each fork prong, but don’t think for a minute this will enable you to ace the applied answers or allow you to be able to ‘role play’ it (oh no, no, no), because as you will see, you have to have the experience in your locker to be able to back it up (so quick go and rack up 3+ years of experience working with coaches and athletes and then rejoin the blog here), as a good interviewer will dig a little deeper.

“How do you improve performance?”

Answer X)
“Well when I was doing my Masters degree, I did my dissertation on the effect of creatine supplementation during repeated sprint performance. We looked at the effect using a crossover design, and I was keen to look at both a controlled shuttle running test and actual sprint performance during actual matches of field hockey. We found that a statistical effect of creatine (vs placebo reducing the rate of fatigue in shuttle running and in the last quarter of a field hockey game. Therefore, creatine supplementation appears to help maintain performance in repeated sprint performance sports.”

Thoughts running through my head;
“Very interesting and nice attempt. This is a good answer, but sorry no! You have tried to do something applied, but you have assumed that all coaches read Journal of Applied Nutrition (or equiv), and applied science is sitting back and waiting to be consulted. You could well be wheat in research and teaching, you could well have been applied wheat, if you had got out there and worked with some coaches. You still could, if you truly want a career in the applied world, go get 2-3 years of experience and rejoin the blog here.”

Y) “Ah well, that’s a difficult question, because for a support practitioner to have an effect on performance, you must first gain the trust of the coach. What I have found is that if I go in quoting journal articles, or telling them how they should be training, their trust in what I have to offer is questionable. But on several occasions I have changed tack and knocked on the door of a coach and simply asked if I can help. I have explained that I am a budding sports scientist, but that I would really like to learn from their programme, help out with timing or videoing, and if at some point I see an area that I think could benefit, then I will look for an appropriate moment to see what they thought of the idea. From here the relationship can develop and you can introduce more and more scientific concepts.”

Thoughts running through my head;

“Oh you smashing little cherub sent from the Gods of Olympia. You are up and running and now I want to know more from you (cue follow up questions). You have shown industry, resilience and motivation to get out there and learn your craft. You have probably cried in your car, probably listening to Love FM, on the way home from your first few clumsy attempts at bumbling into a sports club, (Lord Flashheart Style) offering your knowledge and citations and been harshly dismissed. But you have risen again, like a phoenix from the flames of the cauldron, wanting to find a way in, and hark, you have reflected, learned, adapted, tried again. And so it came to pass that you are one of the chosen ones.”

To answer X, you might receive some follow up questions based on your understanding of the data, background area, context and applicability. But can you see in comparison to Y, the outlook is entirely different. The task as an interviewer is to assess someone’s competence to undertake a paid role with that company. There is nothing more nerve wracking than appointing someone on a punt, hoping fingers crossed, with as much induction, supervision and management as you can spare, sending  an aspiring practitioner off to work with a coach not knowing if they are going to put their foot in it, or make a na├»ve or clumsy start. The groundwork needs to be done, you need to have earned your applied support stripes, learned from a selection of coaches, made some mistakes reflected hard, questioned the evidence base you thought was so solid, grasped hold of few rare but solid first principles or techniques that can weather any question or storm. You need to have let this experience mature over a minimum period of 2-3 years. Otherwise, (and this is the crunch point) you are not ready to practice, an applied sports science line manager can’t let you loose on day one. The cost of personnel management, especially if an appointment goes wrong is high. Firstly for the practitioner, if they fail and are rejected it is personally hard. The brutal business view of the situation though  is that performance management is extraordinarily costly for any company. The tasks, the emotions, the care all drain resources from those who are performing well and need stretching further. AND THAT is why the fork in the road is so pivotal to the determination of suitability of a practitioner. It is simply too risky to take someone on who hasn’t been out there in the wild! You wouldn't trust a surgeon who hasn't operated before, you wouldn't trust an engineer who hasn't built before, you wouldn't hire a photographer who hasn't photographed before, so you wouldn't employ a sports scientist to practice without them having a record of working with coaches.

X is an attempt to put sport into science
Y is an attempt to put science into sports

In applied sports science you must have developed some craft down the sport prong of the fork, Y.

Later in the week - how to structure your respond to the majority of interview questions.

*Disclaimer: To reiterate this blog is for applied sports science, you are allowed to follow other careers!

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Touch, Pause and Engage*: What you might expect at the start of an applied sports science interview.

Previous blogs in this series
1. Introduction
2. Making an impressive impression

"A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step."

                                                                        Lao Tzu

The interviewing begins and the selectors welcome you. There are reams of work written on polite small-talk (“Where are you based?” etc), handshaking (research says avoid limp handshakes – otherwise you may as well slap a 4 week old leaf of Cos lettuce in their grasp and wave it about), smiling (no ‘Gordon Browns’), making eye contact (no staring contests) or sitting only when directed. Once again there is the chance to impair the first impression, with A or B from the last blog, so your best bet is to be true to yourself** and concentrate on being as mindful as possible about the people you are meeting. You should probably be thinking, “Well it’s very nice to meet you at last”, “I feel fortunate to be here”, and hey presto, your body language and facial expression might just show that too.  Equally, if your thoughts are running away from you, “OOSH MAMA! SIZZLING HOT SEAT TIME” or “You’re shorter than I thought”, you will no doubt be conveying these thoughts too!

Now you are sitting comfortably, take a moment to gather yourself and take some steady breaths. The interviewers should do some introductions, outline the mechanics of the interview, some background to the role and organisation, and subsequent selection and notification. For the sit-down panel interview, interviewers tend to use three starting tactics at this point***. One option is to launch into straight interrogative interview questions, but this is slightly unusual these days. As an interviewer, the job should be to get the best out of the candidates, if they go on the attack, the candidate could feel hijacked and this will close down the possibility of a fair showing - so it is not in the interviewers interest. 

The second option is to use a softer start, a warmer welcoming question such as, “Please could you give us a brief overview of your journey in sport science and what has led you here today?”. This type of question is an ideal opportunity to give an enthusiastic summary of your accomplishments, your applied experiences, mention some of the guiding mentors, culminating in why these aspects of your development ideally place you for the job in hand. You should be well rehearsed and polished for this type of question and take no more than 2 minutes to do so.  If you can’t talk clearly and succinctly about yourself, your experiences or your achievements, it leaves little hope for nuanced, philosophical, detailed or technical questions later on.

A common third option is for you to do a presentation. This once again is an ideal opening for you to show your communication skills. You'll almost certainly receive a title to present to and normally set a time limit. If you want to annoy the interviewers feel free to put the title on the first slide and then talk about something else instead. If you want to annoy them further take your time limit and feel free to add 15-20 mins on top! Keep to the topic and keep to time. 

For example,

“Outline a case-study where you have worked in a multi-disciplinary team to improve performance (10 mins)”, 

I would recommend (underlined = it says it in the title!); 1 slide introduction, 1 outlining the case and the people involved, 1 stating the goals, 1 on the multi-disciplinary team interaction and duties, 1 on your support work area, 1 on performance outcomes and 1 wrapping up. So using this formula (please just take the broad principles rather than copying it) 7 slides, allowing a little time for you to expand the main points.

Some other typical titles for your delectation (focus areas underlined);

·      Present your strategy for leading <<insert discipline>> support work for <<insert sport here>>.

·      Describe the demands of <<insert sport here>> and discuss the priorities for support as <<insert discipline>> practitioner.

·     Describe a support case study in which you have worked, outlining the scientific and emotional elements that made a difference to the athlete and coach.

Stick to the task, stick to time and present with personality and impact.  Interviewers will typically ask at least one or two questions, maybe even 20 minutes worth – it is their choice. Presentation (literally and your first impressions) over, time to take a seat, normally interview questions will now follow. 

Read on for part 4, my no. 1 interview question

* touch (handshake), pause (gather yourself), engage (ebb and flow or interview questions), just in case you thought it was some  interview ritual that you hadn't heard of.
**self awareness in high performance sport, hmm, now there's a blog, waiting to happen, leave it with me...
*** More on group interviews and expecting the unexpected another time.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Making an impressive impression

This blog is part of a series about interviewing for applied sport science, if you missed last week's intro, here it is.

"We’re generally overconfident in our opinions and our impressions and judgments."
Daniel Kahneman

Woah there introductory blog, you give the impression that we are done and dusted with the preamble and we are about to dive into the interview complete with tables, pre-set up projectors, suits, formal wear and a fresh glass of water. No, no, no – back it up a bit, we’ve got a bit of work to do yet. Let’s assume then that the shortlisters have moved you from the mass of applicants to the long list to the short list. The next step will be ‘the call’, “Hello, is that Stephane Ingleham (my Bavarian alias)? Hello, I am calling from the World Institute of Sport, Health, Fitness, Understanding and Life (WISHFUL), and we would like to interview for the post of Performance Optimisation Officer*”. Your heart skips a merry beat, you’re in, they were impressed by your application, they want to see you in the flesh. The majority of the time, candidates will effusively confirm to the affirmative and offer a polite “thank you for calling”, type sign off (bye, bye-bye, love you, bye). Rather bafflingly a good proportion of people will make things difficult and generally being cantankerous about the whole thing. I remember one youngling asking if we could hold the interviews a bit closer to their home (chaff of the crusty husk variety). If the arrangements are tricky then I would suggest negotiating politely and delicately. 

On-the day candidates then fall into largely 3 categories;

A) The super-heroes, turn up in a whirlwind of vocal projection, legs astride, hands on hips, head cocked up to the side, (see, Lord Flashheart). The words “I am here for my interview”, sound like “I am here to save your organization” (for which a trapdoor exit would be best). Such types might also crush your phalanges with a powergrip takedown handshake, or might boom their way through the interview, but they might also behave themselves in the interview room too.

B) The mice scurry in, squeak and leave. Sometimes you notice them, sometimes you don’t. An overly nervy or timid opening can unfortunately be just plain forgettable. High performance sport requires you to have something about you, some 'enter the room presence' – and in that first impression, overly meek will put a question mark over your competency to develop rapport.

(The above two categories could be construed as extraversion and introversion, respectively, and at least superficially I have painted a picture of extreme ends of the spectrum – the reality is that all types can flourish in high performance sport.)

C) The tightrope walkers are with whom the wheat lies. As a support practitioner, the key relationships are with a coach, athlete and other practitioners in a multi-disciplinary team. Therefore you have to be able to project yourself delicately along these various tightropes; teamworker but independent, inter-personal but intra-personal, humble but assertive, deferential but assured, patient but persistent; modest but motivated, tolerant but critical, open-minded but discerning. If you can balance these factors and more then you will be tightrope walking to success. The reality is though you will need to develop this versatility through your adaptability, through trial and error, effort and reflection loops of matured but fast-tracked learning.

I would reckon, 8 out of 10 times, the admin' staff who do the 30 second meet and greet, make the same selection as the interviewers who’ve spent 8+ hours slogging through interviews. It appears the first impression is cast in milliseconds, being highly related to eventual selection and later management, (known as confirmatory bias). So, wheat, if you are thinking about playing hard-ball for a different interview time, or if you had previously dismissed the reception staff as unimportant, you are stepping aboard the 10m platform to perform a Tom Daley-esque tumble into the chaff bucket. First impressions matter!

Read on for part 3, on kicking the interview off...

*This was a real suggestion, until they worked out the acronym!

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Choosing to be wheat or chaff: A view from interviewing in applied sport science

"The story of the human race is the story of men and women selling themselves short." 

                                                                             Abraham Maslow

If you put ‘job interview’ into Google – it will return a google number of articles about some principles or methods of how to ace it. Despite this my experience of upwards of 500 interviews of  sports scientists tells me that either a) an infinitesimally small number read these; b) they read them but ignore them, because they are for prudes and surely in this day and age of freedom and democracy, ad libbing freestyle is superior, whilst preparation, organization of thought and clarity of communication is abhorred; c) they didn’t really want the job anyway, they just really fancied a 9 hour round trip from the outer reaches of the UK and that stuttering, fumbling and sighing through a somewhat predictable set of questions is pleasurable.

The inquisition of an interview is not generally accepted as the best way to assess the commitment of employment and investment of salary and time, tending to feel staged and stilted, where the to-and-fro question-answer session doesn’t really reach too far beyond the nervous veneer. For leaders, panel interviews do indeed work well, but for practitioners, I personally like a group task because they quickly get behind the mask. They tend to ply and test the need for diplomacy, negotiation, tact, co-coaching, support, magnanimity and listening skills with equal importance to knowledge, logic, discipline specific understanding, explanatory powers and ability to press a point. However, the classic interview does tend to do a decent job of cutting the wheat from the chaff. But this blog (and the few that will shortly follow) is not for the chaff, it is for the wheat that should know better, the wheat that should have done their homework, the wheat that should have taken or sought some more vocational advice at university, the wheat that should have been bolder and asked a mentor figure the honest, open questions of “how do you interview?”, and “how can I do well in an interview”. This blog is for the wheat that just fell into the chaff bucket. Wheat that got beat by better wheat, this is also for you, and wheat that was golden, you might find this useful too – please read this, at worst you still have options b & c above.

I’ll run a series of blogs describing what I (and it is a personal view, and I sure ain’t perfect, no siree) consider as the essential components. By the way, reading this blog is not going to get the job, even if you follow it step by step, you still have to have the experience to back it up (more on that later), but it might reduce the probability of you getting lost, failing to answer the question, or being forgettable. Oh and you also need to be yourself, no-one wants a formulaic performance. 

Pre-interview training and the taper

·      Research the company you want to work for, look at their website, read their publications, see how they feature in the press.

·      Find out about the people who will be interviewing you. For a start they might have publications you can search in pubmed, often a biography that describes their career achievements or background. Obviously they might have other online activity or presence – this is a bit of grey area and might feel like cheeky peeking. Linkedin, twitter, etc, though are public profiles (at which point I am obliged to point out that my views are my own and not that of anyone I have ever worked for, or have ever known, or are related to, or have been near or have thought of),  and so they are probably fair game.

·      Give your CV and covering letter some serious work. No mistakes, nothing more than 5 pages (many say no more 2), it must include your grades, it must include your chosen referees. Two features must be central to your paperwork and must be upfront enough to grab the shortlisters attention within 10 seconds (there are plenty of statistics out there claiming that the average time spent reading a CV is less than milliseconds, and I would say that unless it grabs my attention in 30 seconds I will put it in the ‘no’ pile). First it must showcase your relevant experience. Second the letter must compel the interviewers to why you want and are ideally suited for, the job. If either of these are missing then you are relying on a heap of assumed knowledge and you should not expect to be enlisted for the interview.

·      Think about some potential interview questions (I will be giving you plenty of my best ones in the weeks ahead). Write the questions out and verbalise or write some answers down.

·      Get some rest the night before (I thought I should say it, but in reality don’t expect a good night’s sleep if you truly care about the opportunity – just accept that, more than likely, everyone will be in the same boat). Triple check your travel arrangements. Eat brekkie with a serviette in your collar; check your last minute nose blow hasn’t left a residue on your lip; do any zips up that need to be zipped; tuck your shirt/blouse in – if it should be tucked in (I have encountered all of the above and more, but lets not lower the tone).

Now I think you are ready to meet your inquisitors. Breathe in, shoulders back, apply a little saliva along the length of each eyebrow (unless they are drawn on, that could leave you smudingly surprised) - read on for... 

Part 2. Making an impressive impression

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

2012 Olympic and Paralympic reflections part 2/2

In the last blog, I reminisced about my highlights of the Olympic and Paralympic golden summer of sport. They were all a little predictable and almost over familiar recollections. Here I want to reflect upon the rise of Team GB!

Once we got past the superb Glover/Stanning duck breaking 1st Wednesday (honour to be there - great tickets - thanks @Olympianben!), the most profound memory will be the unprecedented torrent of medals that followed. It was a delight that there was no sense of complacency or increasing indifference in welcoming each one onto the medal table. There was a fabulous excitement that built in the lead up to each one and how everything had to stop to witness every moment. The real difficulty was in keeping up with each and every one of the 65 Olympic and 120 Paralympic medallions, and of course that includes each of the near misses, the 4ths and 5th etc.

Team GB & Women's rowing break their duck

We have a simple formula in the English Institute of Sport (@eis2win) for increasing the number of gold medals won by Team GB, well actually it is just from the physiology team across NGBs and home country sports institutes. In fact it is so effective that I am reluctant to reveal it  such is the strength of association between this intervention and gold medal return. Well here goes! (Actually before I reveal all, I should tell you that the data are real, you can easily check the gold medal tallies from previous games, you will have to take my word for it, having worked at the BOA during the post-Atlanta period to post-Athens and the checked with the admin staff for Beijing!)

The answer to getting more golds - send more physiologists to work at the Olympics (holding camp, outside or in the village)! As you can see the relationship between the two (cause and effect, no doubt) is the purest of the pure, cleanest of the clean, tightest of the tight associations between the two. Unequivocal, I am sure you agree. Just send more and the bling rolls in. 

Do bear in mind that even if you don't want a gold medal you still have to send 3 and a half physiologists, equally if you want all 302 golds we need a rally to arms for an almighty 122 physiologists to attend the games (I am not sure actually whether they need to do any work, perhaps just being there is effective). Beyond the fact that I might have been a teensy bit selective in deciding who went was a physiologist and who went as a coach, (e.g. I officially went as a coach to Beijing, but I am claiming myself as a physiologist), the actual relationship would not be hugely weakened (so please do feel free to abuse this chart for any of your stats lessons or the like - much gaffawing will not doubt ensue - we have a right old laugh with our science japes don't we?). Of course, of course it is not sending the physiologists to a games that results in more gold medals, but what this does represent over time is a growth of the support system. You could rightly label the x axis, 'infrastructure' or 'investment' or 'experience'. Having seen the introduction of lottery money ushering the wave of athletes into full-time training, the birth of the institutes, the awarding of the home games and then ultimately the home games themselves, it has been a fast and relentless development of the system. We have had tears and tantrums as the system makes hard calls (often at the sake of peoples livelihoods) and the pressure of performing in the heat of the cauldron always makes some people go a bit doo-lally. But it would be fair to say that we now have a system that has matured with great experience, established strong relationships with sports and their coaches coupled with a know-how that is truly performance focused.

If I took a longitudinal view of the support system, in the history of the institutes (circa 10yrs), two disciplines have grown from a seedling to full bloom, they are strength and conditioning and performance analysis. The number of S&C coaches, that could mix it with the best coaches in the world's best coaches, 10 years ago in the UK was just a handful, but over the last two Olympic cycles we have seen the people and the potential unlocked from the conditioning teams. Creativity in movement patterns, critical thought about loading and ultimately the improvement of appropriate force generation has been vital in protecting and progressing our athletes performances. The latter (PA), born out of match analysis, has proved its worth through the evidential  recording and observations of performance that inform judgement rather than  mystical opinion and guesswork. I can't think of a sport that shouldn't have this as a bedrock of all support and coaching, and so it proved with our very own Stafford Murray leading a team of performance analysts at the games (there might be a correlation brewing...), providing instantaneous and holistic analysis across sports. 

Physiology has undergone its own transformation  from 'lab-testers' to 'response optimisers' (see previous top 10 blogs from the summer), but physiology support was established as an essential service from as early as the 1970's, whereas S&C and PA have blossomed more recently as performance drivers. So does the relationship between physiologists vs golds stack up, I hear you ask? Did we send the 15 physiologists that would be necessary to magic 29 golds? Er, no I reckon there were 10 in attendance, oh well never mind! Nevertheless, there was great satisfaction seeing some of the physiology team and the EIS as a whole getting some great recognition for their work with our Olympic and Paralympic medallists. So whilst the noble art of backroom support will remain an altruistic role,  there to help when things go wrong, there to innovate when the next edge is required, it was heartwarmingly nice but reassuring about its effectiveness, to see so many of the SPOTY interviewees give a thoroughly generous and gracious nod to the whole system of support.

London has left a lasting glow of euphoria on my soul, on support systems in the UK, on the Olympics and Paralympics that makes me wonder if it will ever get any better than this? Well maybe not for us here in blighty, but who wouldn't want to see the Olympics take a samba into the South Americas in 2016 or see how the wonderfully proud Japanese would represent themselves in 2020 (or Istanbul or Madrid for that matter, but my money is on Tokyo to be announced on 7th Sept 2013). The Olympics moves on, life-after-London is something we have planned for and to use it to stoke our ambition - to keep the flame alive after the cauldron has been extiguished. As Simon Barnes described we must return to the foothills once again and look upwards at the lofty zenith. This time we can climb armed with the knowledge and experience of having previously summited the highest peak.