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Sunday, 27 September 2015

A letter to the 15000!

Dear budding sport scientist

So you have enrolled on a sports science degree eh? You start this week? Exciting times ahead then. So what lies ahead for you at the end of your studies? Well, I could tell you that this is an exceptional year, for example, we are actually in Games year, or it is critical as it is the first pre-Olympic/Paralympic year since the home Games. All of those might indeed sound a little like the Coleman-balls;

“This evening is a very different evening from the morning we had this morning."

There is indeed a distinct and inspiring challenge ahead for those in the UK high performance system, that is - sustaining success. Sustaining success beyond previous achievements, i.e. Beijing as an away games, or perhaps could we get close to matching or surpassing the efforts in London. This presents us with a unique challenge, to reflect hard, adapt quickly and raise our standards and expectations to new heights. So our needs progress and evolve and so do those of the sports! Essentially, elite sport continues to progress, therefore I can foresee a bright future ahead for applied sports science.

If you have just enrolled on a degree in sports science then today I am writing to you, to tell you that there are careers for you at the end of the tunnel, a chance to work with the best sports people in the UK and the world. But I am writing to tell you that you need to go further than paying your tuition fees, studying hard and getting good grades.

The fact of the matter is that if you want, (and I mean really want, not just fancy it 'cos it sounds alright), to work with the best, the competition pool is massive. Sports science is the most popular degree course in the UK, with 82 institutions offering to teach you with a 115 specialised routes. Estimates show that somewhere between 9000 and 15000 students will exit sports science undergraduate courses each year. Added to this, the inflationary increase of more and more students undertaking a Masters course in the area, means that by the time you get round to collecting your distinction then you would be one of 1200 MSc students graduating each year. So the pool doesn't get any smaller, if anything it becomes more concentrated. 

15000 Sports Science Graduates Per Year - This is your pool of competition!

So I write to tell you what I think you can do about it. Firstly, get a sense of perspective on what you are about to embark upon. Ideally your degree course will offer a work placement, these offer you an advantage, but you will need to go further. The icing on the cake will be if your course requires you to not only learn about a topic/concept/theory - but require you to apply it to a real person or population in a real-world setting, before then processing it by either writing it up, discussing or presenting it for your assessment. LEARN -> APPLY -> SYNTHESISE. Not all courses do this, many will teach then assess. I personally think this is outdated and no longer enough in a big bad world that needs you to actually do the do! I see this most apparently exposed at recruitment/interview for applied sports science positions, the vocational skills of application are far too commonly lacking. So if you cruise through your course, there is a risk that you could be resplendent with knowledge, but not know how to use your knowledge. But really the course providers have made their offering and you have chosen it - so now it is up to you to make the god damn most of it. Printing, this blog off, waving in front of your Head of School's face, stomping your feet and squealing, "NOT FAIR", "SPOON FEED ME",  "WANT TO HOLD GOLD MEDAL", is unlikely to help you in your chosen path. 

You also have to recognise that sports science offers very high employability rates, but at the same time very few courses are set up to offer you specific preparation for the demands of working with elites, which is a very narrow, niche and small portion of the sector. Sports science courses are typically generic, i.e. multi-disciplinary; ranging from knowledge, research, application; exercise, health sport; the combination of which is a real strength. The course you are now signed up to could lead to a career in PE teaching, leisure, tourism, research, banking, pharmaceuticals, medical sales, grass roots sport, coaching or the non-technical side of elite sport! The strength of this genericism comes in its breadth. If I had one reflection of my undergraduate days, that I think would have better prepared me for my career ahead, is that I wish I had read more broadly. When you are working with elite athletes there are some clear opportunities to delve into your specialism, but the majority of your work is multi-faceted, multi-disciplinary and you therefore need a broad knowledge base more than narrow depth. Sports science is already set up to provide you with a wide perspective. 

Sports Science courses are geared up for breadth, but encourage depth - you need both!

With these background perspectives out of the way, now for the recommendation, one that has stood me in good stead to pass onto aspiring applied scientists and one that I wager will not go out of date for millennia to come - ooh confident little fellow aren't I? I am confident for a pair of reasons, first of all I am recommending to start doing the role you want to do (simples) and secondly not many people will have the initiative, the guile, the tenacity to follow this advice. This gives you an advantage and can differentiate you from the others, leap out from the pack and show that you have what it takes to be a brilliant applied sports scientist. 

"The best way of learning about anything, is by doing" 

Sir Richard Branson

In very simple terms - from day one of your studies - you have to get out there and bring your knowledge to life. You have to track test your new found information, you have to find ways to communicate this knowledge to coaches, to your mum, to professors, to all walks of life. So what do I recommend you actually do to acquire real-life experience? 

  • First, club together as like-minded students to discuss, debate and critically question what you have read and been taught - repel against the 'if it is published, it is fact' dogma. 
  • Secondly, get out there and test your own mind and body against what you have learnt. Deplete your body's glycogen stores, create muscle soreness, set scary goals, do hill reps until you puke, try to put on muscle mass, be genuinely experimental with the whole array of preparation methods. All of these experiences will give you a real depth of empathy with full-time elite training.
  • Thirdly, begin to advise others - (you must do this early in your studies). There is nothing quite like feeling the weight of responsibility of guiding others, penning a training programme, advising non-training interventions. When someone is looking to you to help them improve, it should intensify your own questioning of the basic tenets, principles and knowledge concepts.
  • Finally, with unrelenting humility, patience and persistence carve out an opportunity to influence a formalised training programme. Be it, Telford hockey club, Inverness gymnastics club, Spalding indoor bowls club, Aberdovey race walking club - make the approach. You will need to be hugely deferent to make a breakthrough of acceptance. Do not book a trumpet fanfare to celebrate your entrance, "I have knowledge, from a book, I am therefore your saviour". Instead, go along, knock on the door, ask politely to speak to a coach, when they have a moment, not when they are busy. Tell them who you are and what you are studying, but importantly ask if you can help. Can you help with stopwatch timings, session set-up, putting the mats out, getting the lane ropes organised - whatever it might be. Whilst you are doing this - ask if you can learn about the coach's programme, why they are doing what they are doing, towards what goal - asking well chosen, well thought out questions along the way. If, but only if they trust you will they ever turn around and ask you -"So, this sports science stuff you are learning about - have you actually read anything that real coaches can use?" Then with the preparation of a thousand hours of selective thought, reading, critique, observation, prioritisation and rehearsed pitching you get to air your idea, your suggestion or your intervention. You are now an applied sports scientist. No longer languishing in just remembering an article's conclusion, you are now and end-user of that knowledge, you are actually developing know-how. But it won't stop there, the coach or athlete might reject your idea, they might scoff at your best suggestion. That is where you need to be able to reflect and react. Maybe now is not the time, maybe you didn't use the right words, maybe your scrunched up body language, with rising intonation of doubt suggested you weren't convinced either. You need to reflect, learn fast, adapt and set new standards for yourself (see above for UK system). If you don't you will get stuck at this level - most do!

4 steps to developing applied sports science know-how. Discuss - Try out - Advise - Immerse

So go for it, get out there, illuminate your learning. I doubt for a moment you would enrol in a photography course, and learn all about the camera, it's inner workings, the best shutter speeds for different conditions - and never go out and take a photograph. So, you'll need to get up early to get the best light, think carefully about what picture you want to take, wait for the perfect moment to capture your image, and then be your worst critic about what you will need to do to be better tomorrow. So, is the same in sports science.

Some say, "there ain't enough opportunities" - they're right, so go and get one before they are all gone!

Yours sincerely

Steve Ingham 

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Who are you? Understanding the importance of self-awareness in interviewing in applied sports science.

I think self awareness is probably the most important thing towards being a champion.
                                                                                                                     Billie Jean King

An increasing trend in interviews is for the interviewers to ask some questions about you. There are no right of wrong answers here, you have to be your genuine self, because otherwise you will look like a shifty-fraudy-blagger. We are now back into tightrope walking territory – be yourself (my experience tells me that most folk are), but with some decent boundaries. For example, a common ‘personal’ question is, “What are your weaknesses?” An annoyingly common response is to hear something like, “I am just too motivated, I just love it too much and I am ambitious, it is a terribly woesome burden on my soul”. This type of response is akin to hearing, “I think I am a too beautiful, I think my good looks intimidate people” (cue deep frowning and “Give me a proper weakness please” follow ups).

This type of question explores two main areas.

·       Are you self-aware?
·      As a line manager, what sort of person do I have in front of me and therefore, what do I need to keep an eye on and support you with?

Now, I’m no psychologist, so don’t get your hopes up (generally on this blog or if you ever meet me too) for some perceptive insight into the inner workings of the human brain or interactions of human behaviour. (With my disclaimer out of the way, I will launch straight into some psyche-based wild sweeping statements, wee-hee). Self-awareness is the bedrock of high-performing people. Before you can take people with you, before you can influence, before you can form strong, meaningful and trusting relationships, you must know where you stand. What is your style? How do you come across? What are you like on a bad day? What are you like when your strengths are overplayed?

A slight variant of the ‘weakness' question, is “What are your weaknesses and how do manage them?” I am not in favour of this secondary query. The reason being is that I would like to see if they have developed this aspect of maturity. To the above, a line manager is considerably assured when a candidate can show, explain and articulate how they are managing themselves. For example;

“One weakness that I am aware of is at times being a little blinkered. This comes to the fore when I am under a bit of pressure and at times I haven’t engaged with other team members enough and I have ploughed on regardless without them on-board. I am actively working on this area. When I go on training camps with my sport, I have asked the physio to cite me if I go to ground or don’t engage enough. This seems to be helping.”

Now you have showed me that you are self aware, you are reflective and self deferent enough to be working on it and I now have a better idea of how I can work with you. Nice. My spidy-senses would get pricked up if a candidate; a) spoke about themselves in the third person (though who doesn’t enjoy listening to such extraordinary ostentaciousness); or b) spoke around the topic, acknowledging the importance of self-awareness, but couldn’t give examples of how they have adapted and learnt.

Other angles of enquiry about you, that you could expect;

·      Give me an example of how you have supported another practitioner?
(Exploring your team working, empathy to others, commitment to interdisciplinary team working)

·      What makes you frustrated?
(A variant on the weakness and another one for the line manager’s hit list for working with you, but this shines a light on how you like to work)

·      What would others say about you?
(Another variant on self-awareness, I would suggest giving a good and bad side)

There are a plethora of alternatives and angles, they should all explore elements of your character and will be viewed through one crucial questioning lens – ‘can I trust this person?’ One cunning tack - is the impossible question. These tend to border on the moral ethical topics and arguments, but could equally be discipline specific, and will involve the interviewer playing the devil’s advocate to whatever point you make, no matter how well you make it. Importantly, these are not traps laid to be a sneaky-trickster, they serve a crucial purpose, but first some examples;

·      What is the difference between sophisticated sports science support and performance enhancing drugs (ooh controversial)?

·      Why should society invest in high performance sport when 50% of the world’s population don’t have enough to eat? (a monumental and existential question).

·      Should a sport be in the Olympics if it isn’t the pinnacle of achievement in that sport? (an esoteric but important question to the aspiring non-Olympic sports)

·      How would you contribute to culture change in a sport? (a very complex one, where do you start, behavioural, strategy vision, living the values day-to-day?)

The purpose of these questions is to assess your ability to outline the merits of an argument, establish a view and then crucially how you handle being presented with an opposing view. This would test whether you stay calm under a dash of duress, ideally be able to acknowledge the merits of the opposing view but ultimately to test whether you crumble, hold or press harder. As previously discussed in this blog, the interview is designed to explore your competence for the job role, and here it is the ability to ‘hold the middle ground’ and ‘influence others’. If the role/sport/environment you are applying for is likely to encounter such debating and compromising skills and tendencies, then you could expect such a line of questioning.

We are nearing the end of the interview now. You will typically be asked if you have any questions yourself (job role details, location, typical working day, possibility of fractional role; requirements of successful candidate, professional development; working conditions; chances for progression  = Yes: Starting salary, desk, IT, Christmas party details = No, this isn’t the time).

You may well at some point towards the end get asked the tried and tested, trusty old chestnut, “Why do you want this job?” This is a golden opportunity and you should be ready (unlike these smashers that have been unleashed on me, “because I could do with a change” or “it just seemed, er I don’t know, quite good”). I would suggest an impassioned case. You should summarise the case for your abilities, your knowledge and your wherewithal to excel in this role, in so doing outline your interest, motivation and ambitions. You should do this, because if this is your ambition, then this could be the deciding moment when someone takes a leap of faith and chances their company’s money, their time, their opportunity and their reputation to invest in you. This could be when you get that break, this could be the moment your career goes in the direction you want it to, this could be the first step in a long road of helping athletes reach their peak and hopefully succeed.  And that is a cool career and that is why you should always prepare for interviews – your life’s work can depend on it.

A final word.
In this blog series I have tried to cover the main areas you are likely to encounter in the interview process and in so doing highlight some of the areas candidates can trip themselves up, get their knickers in a twist or simply let themselves down, but equally excel. In an attempt to highlight the key areas, there are many areas I haven’t covered. These include assessing suitability for more senior roles, involving management, leadership philosophies, interconnections and depth of knowledge (my second favourite interview question is on this), prioritizing and higher level influencing to name a few…

Really, interviewing is a skill that takes practice, not to become something you are not, but to allow you to get the most out of yourself. Therefore, you should prepare and you should practice. Rather than apply for loads of jobs just for training, enroll in an interview class, or engage in some role-play with some thesps’, you could simply rehearse, engage in reflective practice, keep your own notes on scenarios you could get asked about. So interviewing is no different to many aspects of life, it just feels shrouded in mystery and is so absolute with winner and runner-ups that few rarely want to discuss it openly. It needs work. 

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Clarity, clarity, clarity: Adding structure to your interview answers for applied sport science

Previous blogs in this series

Clarity affords focus.
                                                                          Thomas Leonard

The interview is fully underway now and your tightrope walking and Y type answers have held the attention and impressed so far. The interview panel will certainly have the appointing manager on the other side of the table. They would be your boss and therefore one of the most significant influences in the next phase of your career. They will be the decision maker at the end of the interview process, but they should be flanked with some other people to help them with their decision, to provide other viewpoints, offer a rounded view of the candidates in consideration. They might be  a coach or manager from the sport you are applying to work with. They might be from another service discipline, they might have a certain personality preference that complements or balances the panel out, they might come from the operational/professional services/human resources teams. You will need to ensure your answers to the body of the interview appeal to all aspects whilst not getting distracted from providing a good answer. When it comes to answering questions at an interview, I am often surprised that candidates fail to see that this is series of opportunities to show and convince the interviewers that they are the right person for the job. At some point a potential practitioner should make it quite clear, “…and that is why (humble 'tightrope walking' tone) I feel I am ideally suited to the role”. If you were to end every answer to every question with such a statement it might whiff of desperation, so go easy on this.  In general, there should now follow a series of questions that all candidates get asked, this is best practice to ensure all receive an equitable and fair opportunity.

A primary frustration when listening to answers, is trying figure out what the candidate is trying to say. Usually, candidates haven’t answered the question or they have rambled on in an indiscriminate manner. Nerves will be a big factor here, with all of your brain centers willing you on by shouting, “I have something relevant, let me help”. This precipitates as a melee of thoughts that you are now trying to process, organize and verbalise. Now candidates are primed to blurt their stream of consciousness, starting in the wrong place, mentioning several related facts and jabbering on and on and on, cos you don’t know how to end it, whilst failing to hear “Thank you that’s enough” or seeing the “Please stop” body language.

Here is where practicing answers from blog1 will help you out. But you don’t know what they are going to ask, you can’t possibly prepare and gen up on everything, so where do you start? Rather than suggesting ‘mind mapping’ everything you have ever learnt, possible answers scenarios, potential follow up questions and context specific perspectives, I would suggest that you brush up on the big areas, such as the sport, the key knowledge areas expected and then apply a framework to help simplify and guide you through answering succinctly, accurately and impressively.

Before I share with you a suggested framework, here are some example questions to get your juices flowing, if you’d like to put on some smart clothing, please do so now;

What is well-being and how do you go about supporting the athlete-life demands of a boxer?
(performance lifestyle)

Can you give a prioritized list of exercises to address hip flexor strength for a kayaker?
(strength and conditioning)

What is economy of movement and how do you go about improving it for a long distance swimmer?

What are the pros and cons of pressure training and how do you effectively manage it in a badminton player’s training?

What is the difference between power and impulse and why do you need to understand both for shot put performance?

When applying for my current role I brainstormed (in my thought shower) what I thought would be the most obvious topics to be quizzed on, but in reality I came to a similar realization that due to the scope of the role, I could get asked anything. A mentor and coach to me, the brilliant @RosieMayes, asked me “What do you have that they wouldn’t be able to catch you out on?” After a long pause, I answered, “My values and philosophies. They are mine”. She also asked, “What added value do you bring to the role?” More thinking… “My experience and examples”. Then finally, “What is your strength?”. “Well, I am quite strong at thinking ahead to what the future looks like”. And lo and behold I stumbled across a very neat structure with three key elements that I not only used, but have promoted to others too;

  • Philosophy – what do you think about the area/topic?
  • Examples  - what relevant experiences could you discuss and showcase?
  • Future – where do you want to take it in the future?

Give it a little test drive if you like? Think of a question or use the ones above and add this structure to it. Feels like a custom design catsuit doesn’t it? It shows you have thought in some depth about the area, it shows you have an arsenal of experience to draw on, and it shows you have enough awareness to outline how you could take this area forward or address the challenges ahead.

Now, if someone asks you the chemical formula of water and you launch into, “I highly value water, H2O is very special to me, and if it wasn’t for water, where would we be? I have drunk lots of water, just this morning I had a glass. In the future, I would like to try water with other things in it, like cordial”, then you have gone too far (naughty) and you have taken some blog material and rigidly applied it (and now are blaming me). So if you get a technical question, that requires a definition, or a yes or no, then the PEF (more high performance TLA**s) structure isn’t going to help you.

One last word on trying to blag your way through the various questions you have had the endurance to read this merry day. If you try to wing it, you will probably get found out, because if you are good and show the right focus and direction in your answers, any interviewer worth their salt will dig a little further to assess the limits of your responses. Ultimately, they should dig to find out if what you say is authentic. You ultimately should be prepared for this question, “Who could give full testimony to everything you have said, and would you give permission for us to contact them to verify your experiences*?” You should also be prepared for an interviewer to keep asking questions until they find the boundaries of your knowledge or the interconnections you have made within your knowledge. Therefore, you should also be prepared to say, “I am not sure, that is about as far as my knowledge goes”. This is absolutely fine, it shows you are self aware and honest. Even better if you can point to how or who could develop these areas.

If you give your answers with these filters applied, then you should be able to navigate through the questions in the main body of an interview.

I have one last blog in this series, a bonus one, as I had promised 5, it will address who you are and ensuring you represent yourself well. Read on here...

*This would be an unusual question, but just imagine your nearest and dearest, mum and dad, best friend and Santa are all watching over your honesty.
**Three letter acronyms, LOL!

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.

Read on for how to structure your response to the majority of interview questions.

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