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  • Neelam Babardesai

How Sports Science packs a punch in High Performance Academies

In this article, Neelam Babardesai, Head of Sports Portfolio - Tata Trusts draws upon the learnings from the High Performance Leadership program and her personal experience of implementing Sports Science interventions with Tata Trusts and Gymnastic programs to suggest a practical and cost-effective model of building Sports Science support programs for sports academies targeting excellence in various sporting disciplines.

Neelam is an alumna of the inaugural edition of the High Performance Leadership Program launched by ELMS Sports Foundation in association with the Abhinav Bindra Foundation.


Sports Science - a term that reminds us of a plethora of experts such as the Physiotherapist, Strength and Conditioning Trainer, Sports Nutritionist and Psychologist, Data Analyst, Sports Scientist, Performance Analyst, Video Analyst, and Research - buzzwords in High Performance Sports.

Today everyone involved in High Performance Sports is talking about them.

However, in India, we are still new to them. We know about them, we know they are important, have started using them, but only sporadically. Very few high performance academies in India are using them effectively and in a structured manner. The majority of the knowledge and resources being used is still imported, mainly because we haven’t invested in developing our own.

And then there is the Athlete Management System (AMS), an application that is supposed to be the one-stop solution for improving high performance of athletes.

Understanding all of this and implementing it can be overwhelming for any academy to set up. Especially managing all of this along with regular operations, within the budgets allocated. Normally at the beginning of the program, funding is not a problem but over the years, sustaining the funding is always an issue. Hence while designing programs, one needs to keep that in mind.

So how can we go about setting up a Sports Science support system? What is the best way? What do we prioritise?

In this article, I share some of my personal experiences in the implementation with Tata Trusts and my own gymnastic programs.

A Phased Plan approach

If one has the budgets, the general tendency is, to ‘GO WITH THE BEST’ from the beginning. But it’s also important to pause, think and understand if that is really required at the start. Needs can differ based on the level of players that we start within an academy. Rarely do we start with the top players. Generally, we identify the best from the younger age group of12 to 16. These can be typically district/state level players. So we need to understand what is required for those players to start with.

As the level of the player’s increase, so do their needs. And hence it helps if we plan accordingly, in phases.

In this article, let us look at what we can do in the initial phase of setting up your Sports Science support.

Setting up Sport Science systems and processes in the Academy:

  • Team: Set up the basic team first. Good coaches, physio and consulting nutritionists could be a good starting point. Based on the budgets available, it is good to have a Strength and Conditioning (S&C) expert on board from the beginning. Else a Physio with some certification in S&C will do. Masseurs for regular massages can help in effective recovery.

  • Develop knowledge base: If you have foreign coaches or experts, try and have Indian coaches and experts – even with less experience but with the right attitude to learn, to shadow them from the beginning. Urge them to take up International certifications, provide them with exposure to help them understand how Sports Science is used effectively.

  • Processes:

    • Coaches: Understand Periodisation. Define a yearly calendar. Document macro, meso and microcycles. Define and document SMART goals – long term and short term. Plan training sessions plans. Use software to help digitize the sessions plans. Create a repository.

    • Physio:

      • Do a ‘needs analysis’ of the sport. This includes determining the physical and physiological demands of the sport. And the assessments conducted should allow the physio to build an athlete profile that shows whether each individual athlete can meet these demands. This would be the foundation on which one can build a training program for the athlete to reduce the risk of injury and enhance athlete performance.

      • Do Functional Movement screening and Musculoskeletal assessment for all players to understand existing issues if any. Based on the findings, define pre-habilitation routines for players.

      • Set up a fitness assessment protocol.

        • Define, along with coaches, which parameters are relevant for the sport. It’s easy to go overboard with standard assessments as there are many generic tests. But the more the parameters, the more the time taken to conduct the tests and most important to co-relate the results of the test to performance improvement in the sport. Hence it is very important to have sports specific ones.

        • Tests should be reliable. In case suggested equipment is not available, then ensure that the test chosen for each parameter has the highest validity and reliability and is appropriate for the training age and training history of your athletes.

        • The priority of any testing should be to ensure that movement is fundamentally correct. Incorrect movements will lead to incorrect data which will impact your analysis. Eg. Maximum push-ups can be recorded, but more important is to check the form of EACH and every push-up and only then count it.

        • Define frequency.

        • Digitise and track the assessment data.

        • Define the S&C plan. One can start with generic plans for players (based on age and gender) keeping in mind the periodization.

        • Set up SOPs for tracking and treating injuries. Every injury reported should be documented. Player wise digital data should be maintained – along with treatment right up to ‘return to play’.

        • Set up recovery-related SOPs. What kind of recovery is best for the sport? Rest, of course, is the simplest and easiest way. Massages, swimming/hydrotherapy, ice baths, cryo chambers are also alternatives that can be chosen based on resources available.

        • List and plan equipment procurement in a phased manner. Try and find indigenous solutions requirements that could be alternatives to expensive equipment. They may not be as effective but are definitely better than nothing.

        • Analyse assessment and injury data frequently to understand the correlation between the two. Tweak assessments as needed over the first couple of years to understand what’s best. Refine prehab routines based on analysis of most frequent injuries.

    • Nutritionist:

      • Set up SOPs.

      • List medical tests required to understand physiological issues.

      • Define frequency.

      • Based on training needs, nutrition can be defined. While choosing food items on the menu – points to be considered:

        • the environment of the players – where they came from

        • what is locally available

        • gradually move them to global foods

      • Educate the athletes on how eating right can help them in recovery and improved performance. Developing a taste for different kinds of foods is also important, which will help them when they travel to different places for competitions.

Mental trainer: Generally, the talented player joining the academy comes from humble backgrounds. In addition to their physical skills (fitness and sports skills), it is also important to work on their mind. In the beginning, there is a need to just work on their personality – helping them to open up, build self-confidence and improve communication skills. It can really help if we can engage a part-time expert who can speak the language of the players, who can relate to the players and bond with them, and work on their personality development.

  • Aptitude assessment should be done by the expert and identify the individual issues, prioritise and work on them and track progress over the months.

Education of coaches and athletes

Getting athletes and coaches to do the ‘RIGHT’ thing is crucial. The best sports science plan will be a waste if it’s not followed in the right spirit. Generally, they are told the ‘What’ to do, but knowing the ‘’Why’ behind the ‘What’, can definitely help in getting their buy-in for better implementation.

For coaches: Coaches also need a deeper understanding of how each component of sports science can help them to get the athletes to perform better on the field. Continued certifications from international bodies on higher-level training can help in efficient training.

For athletes: There is always a lot that the athlete needs to do. Train – on the field and in the gym, go to school, study – extra tuition, be part of recovery and prehab sessions. Eat well, and rest well. Do assessments, participate in competitions. In all this, it is very difficult to find a separate time for sports education. It leads to a ‘Why do all of that’ attitude and hence important things are neglected. But as we all know it is better to TRAIN SMART, THAN JUST TRAIN HARD. It’s important to prioritise the ‘WHY’ – even if it means less of ‘DOING’ because it will improve the quality of action and give better results.

Set up a gradual sports education plan with at least once a week classroom sessions on one of the topics such as training, strength and conditioning, nutrition, prehab and mental training which can be easily managed on rest days or light load training. Important to keep these sessions short, focused on one or two points. Concentrate on what has been implemented or would be implemented in the weeks to follow so that they can relate to them.

Communication for collaboration:

And last but not the least, set up a practice for all the coaches and sports science support staff to meet on a regular basis. Ideally once every week, but if not, at least once in 2 weeks to discuss the athletes and their performance. It will help to have pointed discussions around the athletes who are not able to perform as required on the field. Each support staff can share their inputs on the athlete and try and identify the reasons and find solutions.

Congratulations! With these basic steps in place, you are good to go.

Let’s understand what we can do more, to improve on this foundation, in our next article.

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