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  • Neelam Babardesai

Sports Science implementation in Excellence Academies

This article is the 2nd in a 3-part series by Neelam Babardesai, Head of Sports Portfolio - Tata Trusts, in which she 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.


Our previous article described the initial steps for setting up a Sports Science team. The main resources required are qualified sports physiotherapists, strength and conditioning experts, masseuses and nutrition consultants. Each expert needs to establish processes relevant to their speciality and start recording the data. Workshops for educating coaches and athletes about sports science benefits should be planned in parallel to ensure efficient implementation.

Let us look at a case study to understand better and plan for the next steps.

A residential sports academy for pursuing competitive excellence has been set up for a team sport. Best coaches were recruited and a sports science team of Sports Physiotherapist, Masseur, and a Nutritionist was set up to support the coaches. A Strength and Conditioning (S&C) expert was also recruited 7-8 months down the line along with a mental trainer.

In the first year, each unit set up its own processes.

Coaches defined the yearly calendar and set up weekly and monthly training cycles. As the majority of the athletes recruited were in the age group of 13-17 years and had already been training before at some competitive level, they had morning and evening sessions, with schooling/tuitions happening in between. The sessions were majorly divided between sports training and S&C sessions. They also set up sports-specific assessments.

Physio defined the physical fitness-related assessments. Their core responsibility was injury management and rehab and in the initial months, in the absence of the S&C, also defining the S&C training schedule and its implementation. They also allotted slots for massages, as a recovery mechanism along with some ice bath sessions.

The nutritionist prepared the diet plan based on the training plan and some medical tests. Workshops were conducted for the food vendor so that he/she understood the needs, SOPs were defined for the food preparation and serving to also track the quantity of food intake by the athletes.

Within a year’s time, everyone had settled into the daily rhythm of a residential sports academy of training and learning. Each unit was following its own processes and was generating its own data.

The team also performed well in the tournaments in the year. Since it was the first year, there were no major wins, but that was acceptable.

All in all, everything seemed to be going well. But somehow the coaches felt that the athletes were not giving their best. Physically they were not 100% fit. There were some injuries which the physios were managing. So services of S&C were added who was then given the responsibility for the physical fitness of the athletes. He/she could support the Physio by taking over the fitness requirements of the players, leaving the physios with their core work of injury tracking and management.

A mental trainer was also recruited, who worked with the athletes in groups, helping them open up and develop their confidence. Individual aptitude assessments were also conducted to help understand the nature of the athletes.

What else can be done to improve the ability of the athletes to perform better in the sport?

That’s where we go on to the next phase of our implementation.

Generally, coaches, physios, and nutritionists are busy completing their own individual responsibilities. It is at times difficult for them to find time to do any kind of analytical work. Ideally, all support staff must meet at least twice a month with the coach to discuss athletes, their performances and problems. But due to the regular routine, these collaborative meetings get sidetracked, especially with tournaments and matches coming up towards the end of the year.

Hence there is a need for someone who can hold the entire sports science team together – organize the data collected, maybe in silos, analyse it, convert that into a format which the other units can understand and bring out some learnings from it. And that can be done by a Sports Scientist and Data Analyst.

Data management, collation, analysis and collaboration are the main responsibilities of the Sports Scientist (SS) and Data Analyst (DA).

Whatever data has been gathered in phase 1, can be used as a base for basic analysis. The Data Analyst churns the data and numbers and tries to show some trends and the Sports Scientist interprets those to identify generic issues.

So now let’s go back to our case study. We had the individual units in place, but coaches were still expecting more of the athletes.

The SS and DA are now recruited.

The SS spends a lot of time initially observing the various processes. The SS also spends a lot of time talking to the individual experts and defining the problem statements.

The coach says “Athletes are not giving their optimum best on the field. Many times, the entire team is not on the field – athletes miss sessions and I don’t understand why. I have to change my training plan due to that. With the tournament coming up, I need more sports training sessions. We might have to reduce S&C sessions.’

The physio says “When an athlete comes to me with injury – I do my job of treating the injury. That requires time. I cannot say how much time. I cannot let the athlete go back to play unless he/she is fully recovered. The injuries are also getting repeated.”

The S&C says “I need to work on their form a lot. They are doing exercises incorrectly. Need to focus on that as a group, assess their individual fitness levels and then plan their progression to improve the same. Need more sessions with them.”

The mental trainer, who is part-time, says “I get just 2 sessions a month with the athletes – that too on Sundays when no other sports science or coaching staff is present. Even during these short sessions, I have completed my assessments, I know their issues, I have worked on them, I even can see a positive change in the athletes. But to do more, I need more individual sessions with feedback from others on the results.”

The SS after hearing them tries to define the set of problems – and decides – let’s tackle the first problem of the coach – athletes missing the sessions and understanding why.

The process:

With the help of the DA, the SS sets up templates to monitor the attendance on the field and also starts putting in reasons for sessions that are missed. Assuming health and injuries would be one of the reasons, they also start tracking the wellness data of the athletes. How do they feel, how much do they sleep and what is the quality of sleep, how much water do they take during the day, how much pain they have etc. The SS conducted workshops for the athletes to make them understand the ‘WHY’ of this data and how it will impact their own performance, and how to record this data on a scale.

The analysis:

After a month or two of this data and other inputs from the physio and the S&C, they were able to identify the training load of the athletes through using the ACWR* (acute: chronic workload ratio) method. They were able to pinpoint which of the athletes was being over trained and also those who were undertrained.

The on-field attendance analysis along with the injury data was correlated and trends were identified such as which of the athletes had more injuries, which of them were recurring, and what were the common injuries. This also led to identifying some common reasons for these injuries happening.

The action:

Better and more recovery sessions, identifying physical form-related issues through better and regular screenings such as musculoskeletal and functional screening, personalized prehab sessions with the physio which were more preventive in nature as opposed to post-injury rehab sessions, detailed injury reports clearly specifying action taken and tracking the return to play, were the actions that were undertaken as a result of the analysis.

The outcome:

Reduction in injuries and improvement in attendance.

This was just one problem statement.

There could be many more, which can be tracked to closure, only if all the support staff collaborate, share data, analyze, discuss, define actions, observe outcomes - which if not satisfactory, go back to review the entire process to find different solutions.

Two important learnings out of the above case study:

  • Set some indicators/KPIs for success for each individual unit of Sports science. Eg. For physios, it can be the duration for return to play, which of course can be injury specific. But based on data and experience one should define this and track accordingly for each athlete. This gives better visibility for the coaches to understand when their athletes would be available for training. The KPIs show transfer of training or impact of rehab and can be used as a summary to show overall increase/decrease in athlete performance. The assessment of these KPI’s of individual units should be interlinked i.e other units should be able to comment/give feedback on work done by the unit.

Again taking the example of the return to play protocol or number of injuries per month – the coach and the S&C should be giving feedback to the physio. Whereas the physio can be giving feedback to the coach on the intensity of training and coach and physio giving feedback to the S&C on the fitness of the athletes as seen on the ground etc. These inter-dependencies will help bind the individual units together and help them to act as one single unit with the sole objective of ensuring that the athlete is fit and able to perform the best.

  • There has to be a way for data generated by one unit to be shared with the others – so everyone is aware of what is happening with the athlete. Most of the time, the documents/data collected are only used by the one who created it and that is a real waste of useful data. In today’s times of collaborative learning, data has to be shared with others so others also can learn from it. And it is possible only when that data is easily accessible. If one has the data available at the tip of one’s fingers, then it’s more likely he/she will use it, as opposed to walking over to someone’s office and asking for the same. And that’s where an AMS (Athlete Management System) can help.

But that’s another story. And let's understand more about it in the next article of this series.

For now, I hope you have found the information useful and that it has given some concrete steps and a checklist to help you set up your Sports Science System.

* Recent sports science research has proved that poor training-load management and prescription is a major risk factor for injuries, which on the most part can be easily preventable. ACWR is one of the most popular methods to monitor the training load of the athlete and helps in prescribing the load the next day, which has been proven to improve performance, readiness-to-play and most importantly, prevent injuries.

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