EMMA ROSS, Head of Physiology at the English Institute of Sport (EIS), explains the importance of role models and highlights some of the crucial lessons she has learnt about what it takes to have a successful career in sport science.
The high profile support we have witnessed for Women’s Sport Week has been great to see, not least because it has demonstrated the wide range of positive role models that we now have in every aspect of sport including athletes and coaches but also in related careers such as sport science, administration and leadership.
In my specific area of sport science, having examples of women that have succeeded in their chosen field is important and a significant improvement on how things were when I first began my career.
I can recall at several points in my journey from academia to applied sport science and into a leadership role at the English Institute of Sport (EIS) being aware that there were a lack of people to look-up to who had already made the trip.
And whilst this often drove me to say to myself “you have to do this, because somebody has to” it is heartening to see there are now many more females that have carved out good careers in sport and hold senior positions in administration, sports science and medicine and coaching, whilst also maintaining a balance with family life.
That said, there is still a lot to be done and if you asked me what would I say to a young women looking to kick-start a career in sport science then there are a number of pieces of advice I would pass on.
Foremost among these is to never accept that something cannot be done. Whilst this relevant in a gender context for me it is an attitude of how to go about your work.
One aspect of my career I am most proud of dates back to early in my research career, and I began to challenge the traditional view that the techniques I used in my research should be confined to a laboratory. Instead I took my research into the field and conducted experiments on athletes that were cycling the Tour de France route and later on trekkers in the Khunmbu Valley in Nepal.
Through this I was able to generate new data and develop insights that have driven forward our understanding of how factors such as excessive exercise and low levels of oxygen affect the body. However, it is only through a willingness to challenge convention and a passionate belief in what I was trying to do that it was possible to make these achievements.
As I have progressed through my career and had experience of being part of, and leading teams, something that I have increasingly come to value is the importance of balance. I have found that in teams where there is a balanced mix of gender, personality t
ypes and cultural backgrounds, the discussion is richer, and in my experience leads to a better investigation of issues and ultimately delivers more productive outputs.
As we look to build on the successes that have been achieved in creating career opportunities for women in sport, two related observations I would make from my own experience are that it is important to be honest with yourself and, as you progress through your career, it is useful to develop a clear understanding of the aspects of your job at which you excel.
A big part of being honest with yourself is about realising that at certain times in your career there may be jobs that are not suited to your life and circumstances. Working at the frontline of applied sport science is extremely demanding and may mean being track or poolside from 6am in the morning to debriefing with coaches at 7pm in the evening, or away for weeks at a training camp on the other side of the world!
Whilst this dynamic, exciting and challenging role is what many young sports scientists dream of, if, like me, you have a young family, it is not sustainable, nor practical. I have found it has been better to be honest with myself, and to those who work in my team about those realities, and find positive solutions, rather than to rail against them.
It is also really important to know what makes you good at what you do – what are your strengths, and why do other people like working with you. Identifying these allows one to start to consider how transferable these skills are to other roles and opportunities, in, and aligned to your industry. My move from academia to a leadership position in applied sports science at the EIS have shown me that you should never pigeon hole yourself into one career path, and that as you develop, you can reflect on your strengths, and a range of exciting and challenging roles are yours for the taking. It takes courage and self belief to move out of your comfort zone, but the reward of the achievement is definitely worth it.
I would advise anyone that wants to have a long career in sport to not be afraid to take on new challenges and always be open to how they can apply their talents.
The EIS (www.eis2win.co.uk) helps athletes to improve performance through the delivery of science, medicine and technology. It is the UK’s largest provider of sport science and its 300+ employees deliver more than 4,000 hours to over 1,700 elite athletes.