Peter Francis Column: What is Sports Science?

A Sports and Exercise Science degreee is wide and varied, says our columnist Peter Francis.

A Sports and Exercise Science degreee is wide and varied, says our columnist Peter Francis.

During my career, particularly in the early part I was frequently annoyed by the puzzled look on peoples face when I told them I was an exercise scientist. Following the puzzled look came the all too familiar questions “So you’re a PE teacher?” No, “a physio?” No, “like a personal trainer?” No. Recently I have had a number of parents and prospective college goers ask for my opinion on courses of study in this area and seek some clarity as to what it is. So here it is.

A Science Degree

Firstly Sport and Exercise Science, is just that, a science degree. Therefore it equips students with all the generic skills from most science degrees which include but are not limited to report writing, data analysis, presentations, public speaking, laboratory techniques and crucially an understanding of how to interpret research.

A foundation of physics, maths, anatomy and physiology is developed in first year. This first year provides the platform for 3 core disciplines Biomechanics, Psychology and Physiology. These three areas are explored in relation to all aspects of human health and sports performance.

3 Key Disciplines

Ever wondered how David Beckham curls the ball into the top corner of the net? How Rory Mc Ilroy stops a ball dead on the green? How a Spanish midfielder covers 12 kilometres in a match? How O’Gara always seems to make the pressure kick?

How more and more people successfully complete challenges in the extreme heat, cold or at altitude? How a premier league player taken off with injury on Saturday is ready to play on Wednesday? Why chronic disease is treated more and more with exercise and behaviour change prior to medication?

A sport and exercise scientist wonders, understands and then influences. The biomechanist understands that in order to move a football, golf or tennis ball in a desired direction will require the co-ordinated movement of a number of joints, to create the required application of force. To curl the ball from right to left, David Beckham must create an area of high pressure on the one side of the ball. By doing this he can kick the ball away from the goal and the area of high pressure created will cause it to swing inwards towards the goal perhaps deceiving the goalkeeper. Apart from encouraging the athlete to develop appropriate physical conditioning to carry out this action, the biomechanist can influence the traction on the football boot, the fault lines on the club head or the dimples on the golf ball to optimise this response. The Adidas predator football boots were made famous for allowing players to increase the amount of high pressure they could create on one side of the ball to enhance curl over and above the traditional smooth football boot. A sport scientist would have been at the core of this design.

Psychology is often the difference between winning and losing in sports performance and the difference between health and disease in the general population.

Psychologists are at the core of influencing human behaviour change. The placed kick in rugby provides the perfect example of how a sport psychologist can influence a successful outcome. There are two key elements the sports psychologist can influence here, skill acquisition and managing anxiety to remain calm under pressure.

All sports psychologists will tell you that David Beckham, Ronan O’Gara, Johnny Wilkinson will all have one unique asset in common. The willingness to engage in thousands of hours of practice so that the skill execution becomes almost automatic. This is perhaps why the levels of perfection we see in these players careers did not occur until aged ~25. Once the skill is close to perfect the next challenge is to produce it in pressurised environments. Often sports psychologists will assist players to practice in simulated environments but more importantly develop routines that cannot be influenced by anyone in the stadium. This is why the routine becomes as practiced as the kick.

For example the number of steps backward, left or right, the gaze at the bar etc. all help to focus the player on executing the skill rather than the pressurized environment. In line with developing routine the exercise psychologist may help an inactive person develop routine away from the couch and more towards the guidelines recommended for physical activity.

Those more inclined towards physiology develop a deep understanding of the mechanism by which the body and all its tissues are regulated. Physiology is a core component of applied work in the sporting and health related fields. Once we understand the cardio-respiratory, nervous, endocrine (hormonal) and muscular systems we can see how best to influence them to seek a training response we are looking for. Physiologists constantly monitor how the body responds to stimuli such as exercise, diet, heat, cold, altitude and stress.

Therefore quite often they are best placed to design and monitor training programs to optimise the body’s response i.e. improve fitness. The reason Xabi Alonso can repeatedly cover 10-12km per game or Mo Farah can run 80 – 100+ miles per week is due to carefully tailored training programs which take account of the body’s physiological response to training.

By the same token clinical physiologists are best placed to tailor programs to maximise health benefits such as reducing fat mass, improving cardiac or lung function or muscle strength. The physiologist and psychologist may work closely to implement the necessary change in behaviour to bring about the desired change in physiology.


Sport and Exercise Scientists go onto to work in a range of environments. Many University of Limerick graduates work in high performance sport. Munster Rugby, the Irish Institute of Sport, Sports Institute Northern Ireland, Paralympics Ireland, Blackburn Rovers, West Ham United and Cardiff City Football Club to name just a few employ many graduates.

For those who are more interested in the health benefits of exercise many are employed in cardiac rehabilitation centres, act as part of GP exercise referral schemes or work in local community sports partnerships which promote physical activity for all.

The beauty of a sports science degree is that there are no limits only the ones you impose upon yourself. Graduates who work hard have a solid grounding in Nutrition, Strength & Conditioning, Exercise Prescription, Biomechanics and Psychology.

This grounding combined with many opportunities for add-on CPD courses and internships to gain experience are a potent combination which leads to a very competent practitioner in the field. It is always unfortunate to here misinformed people suggest there are no jobs in this field.

This rhetoric only comes from those who misunderstand the area. You may never open the jobs section of a newspaper that says, “Sport & Scientist Wanted”, that is because this degree prepares you for a career far bigger than any one job.

Further Research

During a 4 year science degree which has a solid grounding in core competencies leads many students to begin to identify areas they would like to specialise in or follow up on. This leads to many going onto further study at MSc or PhD level. Many graduates go on to specialise in their field using a taught MSc in the areas of physiology, nutrition or physiotherapy to name a few.

Others take an in-depth look at one area of their field at PhD level; this usually leads to a career in research or lecturing at a third level institutions at home or abroad. Sport and Exercise Scientists who go onto research are responsible for investigating recommendations given to the public in relation to health, exercise and sports performance. For example the world health organisation’s recommendations for physical activity will have been subject to the rigour of exercise scientists time and again to make sure they are fit for purpose.

Popular topics such as altitude, ice baths or protein shakes are all under scrutiny to see if they provide value to the sporting public or elite performer.

Wherever graduates go they always rely on and are renowned for their multidisciplinary background. This enables them to provide value across a range of topics for organisations on a budget or fit seamlessly into a high performance team.

Did I mention some go onto write in a local newspaper ...