Science in sport or sport in science: My no. 1 interview question for applied sport science
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Previous blogs in this series
1. Introduction
2. Making an impressive impression
3. Touch, pause and engage
Science in sport or sport in science: My no. 1 interview question for applied sport science
“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.”
Science in sport or sport in science: My no. 1 interview question for applied sport science
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 naïve 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!

About steveingham

Dr Steve Ingham is one of the UK’s leading figures in sport and one of the world’s leading performance scientists. He is steeped in high performance and has been integral to the development of Britain into an Olympic superpower. He has provided support to over 1000 athletes, of which over 200 have achieved World or Olympic medal success, including some of the world’s greatest athletes such as Jessica Ennis-Hill, Sir Steve Redgrave and Sir Matthew Pinsent. Steve has coached Kelly Sotherton's running for heptathlon and to 4x400m Olympic medal winning success. Steve has worked at the English Sports Council British Olympic Association, English Institute of Sport, where Steve was the Director of Science and Technical Development, leading a team of 200 scientists in support of Team GB and Paralympics GB. Ingham holds a BSc, PhD and is a Fellow of the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences. Steve is author of the best selling ‘How to Support a Champion: The art of applying science to the elite athlete’, discussing and inspiring the importance of learning and adapting to reach our maximum potential. Steve established Supporting Champions with the ambition of helping ambitious people to find a better way of creating high-performance. Steve hosts the Supporting Champions Podcast on sharing his pursuit of understanding and exploration in performance.

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