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Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport (2007) 10, 193200

ORIGINAL PAPER

A prole of sports science research (19832003)


Stephen John Williams a,, Lawrence R. Kendall b
a
b

Applied Research Centre, Australian Institute of Sport, Australia


Department of Education, University of Tasmania, Australia
Received in revised form 5 July 2006 ; accepted 24 July 2006
KEYWORDS
Sports science research;
Research methodology;
Research design

Summary
A majority of sports science research is undertaken in universities
and dedicated research centres, such as institutes of sport. Reviews of literature
analysing and categorising research have been carried out, but categories identied
have been limited to research design and data gathering techniques. Hence there
is a need to include categories such as discipline, subjects and targeted sport.
A study was conducted using document analysis method to gather data that
described and categorised performance-based sports science research projects
in Australian universities and institutes of sport. An instrument was designed
that could be used by researchers to analyse and prole research in the area of
sports science. The instrument contained six categories: targeted sport, primary
study area, participant type, research setting, methodology and data gathering
techniques. Research documents analysed consisted of 725 original unpublished
research reports/theses. Results showed that over two-thirds of research projects
were targeted to specic sports and, of this group, nearly half involved four
sports: cycling, rowing, athletics and swimming. Overall, physiology was the most
researched scientic discipline. The most frequently used research method was
experimental design, and the most frequently used data gathering technique was
physiological (performance) measures. Two-thirds of research was conducted in
laboratory settings, and nearly half of the research was conducted with elite
or sub-elite athletes as participants/subjects. The ndings of this study provide
an overall synopsis of performance-based sports science research conducted in
Australia over the last 20 years, and should be of considerable importance in the
ongoing development of sports science research policy in Australia.
2006 Sports Medicine Australia. Published by Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Introduction

Corresponding author.
E-mail address: john.williams@ausport.gov.au
(S.J. Williams).

Individuals and organisations undertake research


for a variety of reasons and these reasons are
normally dependant on the needs of the various
stakeholders. Research can be theory driven (fundamental) and contribute to the existing knowledge

1440-2440/$ see front matter 2006 Sports Medicine Australia. Published by Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

doi:10.1016/j.jsams.2006.07.016

194
base, or it can be action-centred (applied) and
targeted at deriving solutions to practice-based
problems.1 The term sports science implies an
applied science, and that research in the area
should be application centred.2 Exercise science
is also an applied science, focusing on tness
and health with an indirect application to sport,
whereas sports science is more concerned with
enhanced sports performance.3 A good sports
science service is married to a strong research
base, and it is the task of the service team to
convince practitioners to adopt research ndings
into general practice.1
The application of research into practice is
paramount to coaches. In her keynote address
at the Cutting Edge Developments in Sports Science Conference, Campbell4 argued that there was
a commonly held belief by sports scientists that
coaches do not know what questions to ask the
sports scientists, and conversely, coaches believe
that sports scientists keep answering questions
that no one is asking. Various methods have been
used to identify sports science research needs. In
the early 1990s, the British Association of Sports
Sciences (now known as the British Association of
Sport and Exercise Sciences) formed three panels
of experts to review literature in the disciplines
of physiology,5 biomechanics6 and psychology,7
with each panel assessing areas requiring further
research. Around the same time, the Australian
Institute of Sport (AIS) conducted bi-annual surveys
of sports stakeholders (coaching directors, sports
administrators and sports scientists) to determine
sports research needs.
Research needs differ according to the type of
stakeholder. Coaching directors and sports administrators are engaged with coaching development
at all levels. An elite coach is concerned primarily
with sports performance, whereas a sports science
researcher is focused on increasing sports science
knowledge (both applied and theoretical), based on
sound research questions.
At the various institutes of sport in Australia
(total of nine), the sports science researchers are
essentially the service providers to the coaches
of elite sports programs, and so the interaction
between these two groups ought to be one of
interdependency. Research at an institute of sport
tends to be linked more closely to the needs of
coaches than do research projects undertaken by
universities, and the relationship between coaches
and sports scientists may inuence the way that
research is conducted. However, in both settings,
research tends to be theoretical in nature because
researchers at institutes of sport have strong links
with universities and PhD and masters students

S.J. Williams, L.R. Kendall


operation at institutes of sport. It is acknowledged
that research conducted by academics is usually
published in journals and therefore is outside the
scope of this study.
In general, sports science researchers work in
controlled environments. Laboratory settings allow
the researcher to control most variables, but the
laboratory setting may not necessarily represent
the sporting task as it would be performed in the
eld. In laboratory settings, there is a need for
tests and equipment that more accurately mimic
the sporting actions and demands, and the challenge for researchers is to conduct more research
in more practical settings. It has been argued8
that the extent to which coaches are inuenced
by and value sports science research depends on
the willingness of the coach to embrace research
ndings determined under conditions where sports
performance has been articially manipulated.
Researchers require adequate time to plan and
carry out rigorous research,9 but coaches generally
need solutions to problems of an immediate nature,
as coaches often want to solve a hundred problems at once, and often cannot clearly dene the
problem in scientic terms.
Before an assessment can be made of how
appropriately research practice meets the needs of
coaches and athletes, a broad prole of research
conducted to date needs to be undertaken. In Australia, considerable funding is directed toward elite
athlete programs and sports science research at
institutes of sport, often in conjunction with university programs. A research activity prole could
be useful as a basis for research policy development; however, such a prole would be descriptive
only as distinct from judging the value of particular
research.
Previous reviews of research have been limited
to specic sports science disciplines, in particular,
sports psychology,10,11 and in the case of sports
psychology, analysis of the methodology and data
gathering techniques employed. One such review
of research projects12 in the area of sports psychology using qualitative methodology was limited
to research projects in three North American peer
reviewed sports psychology journals, between 1990
and 1999: Journal of Applied Sport Psychology,
Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology and
The Sport Psychologist. Research studies were
classied as qualitative if one of the following data
gathering techniques was used; (a) documents, (b)
open-ended questionnaire, (c) interview (unstructured or semi-structured), and (d) observation
(participant or non-participant). Of the 485 articles
identied as coaching science, only 84 (17.3%) were
classied as using qualitative techniques of data

A prole of sports science research (19832003)


collection67 studies used interview technique,
and 32 studies were found to have used a combination of qualitative and quantitative techniques.
Results12 suggested that qualitative sport psychology research had not progressed very far since 1987,
with only a handful of researchers accounting for
nearly all the qualitative research. It was claimed
that a near total reliance on interviews, in particular a one-off interview, limited the likelihood of
achieving depth and comprehensiveness, and that
there should be more diversication in data gathering techniques to capture a more complete picture.
In a study13 examining research in coaching science, research studies published from 1970 to 2001
were reviewed to determine the number of articles,
journal used, what coaching area studied, what
general research methodologies and data collection
techniques used, and what sport and level of coaching. From over 1100 articles identied from 161
different journals, 610 articles met the inclusion
criteria. The top 20 journals identied by Gilbert
and Trudel accounted for 62.1% of coaching science
articles, and just over half of the articles (50.7%)
focused on coaching behaviour. Nearly all (94.1%)
of the research was of a descriptive nature. Most of
the research (85.6%) relied on a single method of
data collection of which survey was the most common method. Coaches of team sports were the most
frequently researched group, with basketball, volleyball, American football, and soccer being the top
four sports. The three top individual sports were
tennis, track and eld and swimming. With regard
to the level of coaches, over two-thirds were either
college level or high school coaches. Elite amateur
and professional level coaches accounted for less
than 20%. Results of the study indicate the dominance of descriptive research in the area of coaching science, with an emphasis on survey as a single
method of data gathering.
In yet another review of sports psychology
research,14 analysis was undertaken of 529 articles
published in two major sport psychology journals

195
(Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology and
International Journal of Sport Psychology) between
1985 and 1994. Articles were analysed according
to article type (research or review), topic/theme,
country of author, research design, research setting
(eld or lab) and subject type. Results of the analysis revealed that most articles (85.1%) were based
on what was termed empirical research and
the remainder were classied as review/discussion
papers. Two-thirds of the research methods used
was either survey or experimental/quasi experimental. The survey methods were predominantly
establishing correlations. Whilst research setting
(eld or lab) was a category by which papers
were analysed, no data was reported to indicate
prevalence of one setting to the other. Only 3% of
studies involved elite-level subjects and, with this
low level of elite participants, it begs the question,
given the paucity of research on elite performers,
whether there is an adequate research base for
some of the applied interventions currently in use.
To date, various studies have described the published literature reporting sports science research
specic to certain disciplines, the research methodology and data gathering techniques used and, in
one study, the specic sports to which the results
have been applied. However, there is no published
research that has described the extent of sports
science research across multiple sports science disciplines and specic sports. Such a study is needed
before evaluation can be made of the appropriateness of sports science research and the subsequent
development of future research policy.

Methods
In order to undertake an analysis of sports science
research reports, it was necessary to design an
instrument, which was called the Williams Sports
Science Research Schedule (WSSRS).15 The instrument was developed, trialed and tested, to ensure

Figure 1 The Williams Sports Science Research Schedule (WSSRS).

196

S.J. Williams, L.R. Kendall

it could be used universally to examine and categorise published and/or unpublished sports science
research projects. All projects that were deemed
to have relevance (both directly and indirectly) to
the preparation of athletes for competition were
included in the analysis. The WSSRS, indicating
criteria and available options, is shown in Fig. 1.
The inter-rater reliability of the instrument
was judged on the degree of agreement between
the researcher and the evaluation of six sample
research reports by ve scientists (from the Australian Institute of Sport) representing ve sports
science disciplines (including medicine) using the
criteria and denitions provided. The scale used
to measure agreement was binary, 1 = agreement
and 0 = non-agreement. The results of calculating
level of agreement for each of the seven categories
of the WSSRS were as follows: targeted sport
100%, primary study area100%, participant type
93.3%, research setting96.6%, methodology
86.6%, data gathering techniques, primary86.6%
and secondary83.3%. However, a potential for
bias should be noted, as only AIS research scientists
were involved in the validation process.
In the primary study area, pedagogy was
dened as the art/science of teaching. Physiotherapy and medicine were treated as two separate
disciplines with injury-based studies being the
primary domain of physiotherapy and illness studies being the primary domain of medicine. Motor
learning/motor control studies were included
in the discipline of sports psychology. For the
WSSRS, experimental research involves intervention, descriptive research makes a statement of
existence and correlational research examines a
relationship between variables. The inclusion of
other as a category provided an opportunity for
the judges to identify a category not included in
the instrument. However, it should be noted that
the category other was not utilized by the judges.
Elite athletes were dened as those who held scholarships at an Australian sports institute and/or

Table 1

Results
Results showed that over two-thirds (71%) of
research projects undertaken at both Australian
universities and the AIS were in the scientic disciplines of physiology (37.3%), psychology (19.4%) and
biomechanics (14.3%). In universities, physiology

Disciplines of sports science research conducted between 1983 and 2003

Discipline
Biomechanics
Medicine
Nutrition
Physical therapies
Physiology
Psychology
Pedagogy
Other
Total (%)

were professional athletes and/or represented


Australia. Sub-elite athletes were those who have
competed at national level, and recreational
athletes were dened as those who competed at
no higher than state level competition.
Analysis of research conducted at the various Australian institutes/academies of sports and
at Australian universities by Master and Doctoral
graduates was restricted to performance related
research and as such did not include studies
addressing sports sociology, history, ethics and general areas of sports participation. All performance
related research projects funded by the AIS, and
conducted at either the AIS in Canberra or at one
of the eight state/territory institutes of sport in
Australia, between the period 1983 and 2003, were
included in the analysis, together with Australian
universities offering Master and Doctoral studies (by
thesis) in sports related studies. Master and Doctoral theses were limited to those completed during
the period 19832003, which matched the years
of research performed at the AIS. A total of 725
sports science research documents, in the form of
unpublished theses from universities and original
unpublished research reports for institutes of sport,
were analysed, consisting of 412 institutes of sport
research reports and 313 university theses (163 Master theses; 150 Doctoral theses).
Approval to conduct the study was obtained from
the AIS Ethics Committee and the University of
Canberra Human Research Ethics Committee. Data
recorded from the research document analysis were
reported as frequency counts and percentages.

AIS % (n = 412)
15.5
10.4
8.0
9.0
39.8
11.7
0.7
4.9
100

Universities % (n = 313)
12.8
5.1
6.4
6.7
33.8
29.4
1.0
4.8
100

Total % (n = 725)
14.3
8.1
7.3
8.0
37.3
19.4
0.8
4.8
100

A prole of sports science research (19832003)


Table 2

Methodology used in sports science research

Methodology

AIS % (n = 412)

Case/eld studies
Causal/comparative
Correlational
Descriptive
Equip development
Ethnography
Experimental
Grounded theory
Historical
Longitudinal
Total (%)

0.2
1.9
22.1
30.3
7.5
0.2
35.4
0.2
1.0
1.2
100

and psychology accounted for 63.2% of the research


projects examined (33.8 and 29.4%, respectively),
whereas at the AIS, physiology and biomechanics
accounted for 55.3% of research projects (39.8 and
15.5%, respectively). This information is shown in
Table 1. When considering the setting in which
research is conducted, approximately two-thirds
(66.7%) of projects were conducted in scientic
(laboratory) settings (69.8% at the AIS and 62.6%
at universities).
At both the AIS and universities, the methodology (or research design) most frequently
used by researchers, was experimental
(40.4%), followed by descriptive (25.0%)
and correlational (21.1%). University research
studies used more experimental research
designs than the AIS (47.5 and 35.4%, respectively)
and AIS research projects used more descriptive
research designs than the universities (30.3 and
18.2%, respectively). This information is displayed
in Table 2.
Research projects from both the universities and
the AIS used physiological (performance) data

Table 3

197

Universities % (n = 313)

3.6
2.2
21.1
25.0
4.4
0.6
40.4
0.6
0.6
1.5

100

100

as a primary data gathering method (30.1%) and


biomedical and physiological as secondary
data gathering methods (26.7 and 25.7%, respectively). Results are shown in Table 3.
In the category of type of participants used
in the research, elite athletes or sub-elite athletes were used for nearly half (46.6%) of the 725
research projects examined, with recreational athletes being used for most of the remainder (39.5%).
At the AIS, nearly two-thirds of research projects
used elite athletes or sub-elite athletes (63.1%),
whereas at universities two-thirds of research
projects used recreational athletes (66.2%). This
information is displayed in Table 4.
Research projects were classied according to
the sport for which the research project was
designed. Results show that the majority (n = 444,
61.2%) of research projects were targeted towards
specic sports, either individual (n = 321, 44.3%) or
team sports (12316.9%), and the AIS accounted for
over two-thirds (n = 303, 68.2%) of the research targeted to specic sports. Four sports, all individual
sports as distinct from team sports, accounted for

Data gathering techniques used in sports science research


Primary data gathering techniques
AIS % (n = 412)

Anthropometry
Biomedical
Developmental
Interview
Observational
Physiological
Imaging
Survey
Telemetry
Documents
Total (%)

Total % (n = 725)

7.9
2.5
19.8
18.2
0.3
1.0
47.5
.9
0
1.9

3.9
17.6
6.8
2.4
12.0
32.4
2.2
14.4
7.1
1.2
100

Universities % (n = 313)
3.5
14.1
0
4.2
18.7
27.3
1.3
21.0
8.0
1.9
100

Secondary data gathering techniques


Total % (n = 725)
3.7
16.0
3.8
3.2
14.8
30.1
1.8
17.7
7.4
1.5
100

AIS
9.9
29.2
0
5.1
9.5
24.5
0
11.5
9.9
0.4
100

Universities
7.0
23.8
0
6.6
7.5
26.9
0.9
9.7
16.7
0.9
100

Total
8.5
26.7
0
5.8
8.5
25.7
0.4
10.7
13.1
0.6
100

198
Table 4

S.J. Williams, L.R. Kendall


Participant type used in research projects

Participant type

AIS % (n = 412)

Elite
Sub-elite
Recreational
Mixed
Nil or not stated

Universities % (n = 313)

45.4
17.7
19.2
9.2
8.5

Total (%)

12.8
12.1
66.2
3.8
5.1

100

Table 5

31.3
15.3
39.5
6.9
7.0

100

nearly half (47.1%) of research projects targeted


to a sport; these sports were cycling, rowing, athletics and swimming. The remaining projects were
targeted to a range of individual sports (25.2%) and
team sports (27.7%). This information is shown in
Table 5. Over one-third (38.8%) of the research
projects had a non-sport specic focus, meaning
that the research was of a general nature, which
could have application across a range of sports
as distinct from being applicable to sports performance in a particular sport, such as rowing, and
Australian universities undertook 173 of the 281
studies classied as non-sport specic.
Less than half (40%, n = 178) of targeted sports
research projects involved the use of elite athletes

Total % (n = 725)

100

as participants, with the four major sports of


cycling, rowing, athletics and swimming accounting for 20.3% (n = 90). Non-sport specic research
projects accounted for 61.9% of research involving
recreational athletes as participants with only
21.6% of research involving elite athletes.
Research projects were also identied by year
of completion. In Australia, during the 1980s, as
the eld of sports science research was emerging,
and with the establishment of the nine institutes
of sports and post-graduate research programs in
Australian universities, the numbers of research
projects in each year gradually increased from 10 or
less in the rst 5 years to over 40 per year, peaking
at 85 in the year 2000.

Targeted sports for research (n = 444)

Major sports

No.

Team sports

No.

Individual sports

No.

Cycling
Rowing
Athletics
Swimming

75
53
43
38

16.9
11.9
9.8
8.5

Total

209

47.1

AFL
Baseball
Basketball
Cricket
Hockey
Ice hockey
Lacrosse
Netball
Rugby league
Rugby union
Soccer
Softball
Touch football
Volleyball
Water polo

12
5
24
13
12
1
1
14
1
2
13
3
3
3
16

2.7
1.1
5.4
2.9
2.7
0.2
0.2
3.2
0.2
0.5
2.9
0.7
0.7
0.7
3.6

Total

123

27.7

Abseiling
Archery
Badminton
Canoeing
Dancing
Diving
Equestrian
Fencing
Golf
Gymnastics
Motor sport
Orienteering
Roller skating
Sailing
Shooting
Skiing
Squash
Surng
Table tennis
Tai Ji
Tennis
Triathlon
Weight lift (g)
Wheelchair prop (n)

1
1
1
18
2
1
3
1
8
14
1
1
1
4
9
3
4
3
1
1
15
15
3
1

0.2
0.2
0.2
4.1
0.5
0.2
0.7
0.2
1.8
3.2
0.2
0.2
0.2
0.9
2.0
0.7
0.9
0.7
0.2
0.2
3.4
3.4
0.7
0.2

Total

112

25.2

A prole of sports science research (19832003)

Discussion
Over two-thirds of the 725 research projects undertaken at Australian universities and Australian institutes of sport were in the scientic disciplines of
physiology, psychology and biomechanics. Sports
science researchers based in institutes of sports
conducted just over half of all their research
in the two disciplines of physiology and biomechanics, whereas university-based sports science
researchers conducted nearly two-thirds of their
research in the two disciplines of physiology and
psychology.
A bias towards physiology-based research may
be attributed to two factors; rst, the fundamental requirement of most sports for athletes
to develop appropriate aerobic and anaerobic tness; and second, a greater number of researchers
working in the discipline of physiology than in
other disciplines, such as sports psychology, sports
medicine and sports physiotherapy. Previous studies have indicated a need for more research in
sports psychology9,10 and for psychology to be
more effectively used in a coaching context. The
results of this study would suggest that university
researchers are providing the majority of research
in the area of sports psychology, perhaps because
sports psychologists employed at universities are
more experienced researchers than sports psychologists employed at institutes of sport, who tend to
be more service focused than research focused.
Scientic research often involves controlling
variables and this is usually achieved by conducting research in a controlled environment, such as
a laboratory. However, this need to control confounding variables can result in test protocols that
bare little resemblance to real-life sports performance, a fact noted by many sceptical coaches
and athletes.7,8 In the present study, it was found
that most of the research in psychology used interview or survey techniques, which was consistent
with ndings of previous research in the area of
sports psychology.12 If studies in sports psychology are excluded from the analysis then less than
one-quarter of studies could be classied as being
conducted in a naturalistic setting. This nding is interesting in the context of a decision by
the AIS to participate in a Cooperative Research
Centre (CRC) for Microtechnology. The purpose of
the CRC for Microtechnology is to develop microsensors, which would enhance the capability for
sports institute scientists to collect data in training and competition environments. The portability
of testing equipment would expand the opportunity
to conduct research in natural settings. The challenge for applied sports science researchers in the

199
future will be to collect research data in the natural training and competition environment yet still
maintain sufcient scientic control for the results
to be accepted empirically.
The majority of research projects had a sports
specic focus, that is they targeted specic sports,
and nearly half of the sports specic research
projects were directed to four sports (cycling, rowing, athletics and swimming). It could be that
these four sports most readily lend themselves to
testing with equipment (ergometers) ubiquitous to
most sports science laboratories, such as treadmills, cycling ergometers, rowing ergometers and,
to a lesser extent, swimming ergometers. It could
also be argued that these sports are among Australias most successful Olympic sports.
In sports targeted research, the emphasis on
individual sports (i.e., non-team sports) differs
from previous research in the area of coaching science where the majority of research was undertaken with team sports.13 The emphasis given to
four individual sports revealed in the study may be
of interest for the development of research policy in the area of sports science. Researchers at
institutes of sport usually work with one or more
specic sports, which may inuence the tendency
for research to be targeted to particular sports; but
the reason for the dominance of individual sports
needs further scrutiny.
The use of elite athletes as participants in
research studies may be dependant on the variables to be measured and whether those variables
are affected by the performance level of the
subjects, the ability to access elite athletes as
subjects, and the capacity to recruit sufcient
numbers to measure meaningful effect size.
University-based researchers are less likely to gain
access to elite athletes than their sports institute
counterparts. Equally so, researchers at institutes
of sport must convince elite athletes and their
coaches, that research studies will not adversely
impact on their regular training programs.
Overall, the results of this study revealed that
physiology was a dominant research discipline,
experimental design was the most frequently used
research method, and measures of athletic performance (physiological) and biomedical parameters
were the main data gathering techniques. Though
the vast majority of research was conducted in
laboratory settings, it is anticipated that eldbased (naturalistic) research will increase with
advances in microtechnology of monitoring equipment. Research conducted at institutes of sport
differs from that conducted at universities in the
following ways: institutes of sport researchers conduct more descriptive research, use more elite

200
athletes as participants in research, and target
their research to specic sports. Sports science
researchers at universities conduct more experimental research, use more recreational athletes as
participants, and target their research more to general sports application as opposed to specic targeted sports. One noticeable difference between
research conducted at institutes of sport and universities is the fact that twice as much research is
conducted in the discipline of sports psychology by
university-based researchers.
This study was designed to describe the prole
of sports science research in an Australian context. Results cannot be used to justify more or
less research in a particular discipline, topic, sport,
or institution. In addition, these results cannot be
used to justify the importance or lack of importance
of particular types of research.

Practical implications
An overview of sports science research performed in Australia over the last 20 years and
could be of assistance in the development of
sports science research policy in Australia.
Investigating patterns of research activity can
be undertaken in a systematic manner using
the Williams Sports Science Research Schedule.
The university research sector, by providing
a greater volume of research in the area of
sports psychology, may be counterbalancing
the smaller emphasis towards this discipline
undertaken within the sports institute network.
A much greater proportion of sports science
research is undertaken in four individual sports
(rowing, cycling, athletics, swimming) than in
other individual sports or in team sports.

Acknowledgements
The data reported in this study was part of a PhD
thesis carried out at the Centre for Sports Studies,

S.J. Williams, L.R. Kendall


University of Canberra under the supervision of Dr.
Daryl Adair and Dr. Mark Sayers. The authors express
their appreciation to Dr. Diana Kendall for contribution to the study design and preparation of this
manuscript.

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