Being a Sport Scientist Does Not Make You Smart

Example 1: “I’ll always remember the day that young blonde girl ran into the room, late, looking completely lost.”

That’s how my friend Borut describes the first time he met me. The first day of our PhD. When I ran in, soaked with rain and so so late, there were 4 people calmly waiting in the room; our supervisor (French) and his students, who were Slovenian (Borut), Greek and Dutch. They’d waited half an hour for the final student of the group (me) to arrive. None of them had been to Birmingham before, some of them had never been to England before. Yet they all managed to find the lecture room buried in the centre of the University before me. The University that I’d already been an undergrad at for 3 years (If you know me, this won’t have suprised you at all). That is the first time I realised these people were a lot smarter than me.

One of them was a mechanical engineer, who modelled the aerodynamics of cycling to determine crazy clever things like the optimal time trial position and the effect of crosswind. One of them investigated the biomechanics of assisted locomotion in elderly people, developing an in depth guide for osteo-arthritic patients. The other one, critically assessed existing tools, and developed their own unbelievably complicated devices for monitoring bicycle control – allowing them now to run a successful business fitting bikes for elite cyclists (Sorry if I have undersold any of your research). So you can imagine my joy when I had to present my research ideas to them that day; “Hi, I am Laura, and I want to track football players to see if they can work harder without getting injured.” I spent most of the meeting trying to work out what the big words (not in their mother tongue) in their many questions meant. I didn’t have any questions for them.

Sorry for the story, but there is a point. These three people had all chosen to do their doctorates in sport science, same as me, with the intention of having a profession as sport scientists. The similarities ended there. They all had masters, whereas I’d jumped straight from undergrad to PhD. Whether it was the age difference, or the extra exposure to academia, I was years behind. They had moved to a different country, away from everyone they knew and loved, to study in a different language and culture. Never underestimate someone with the balls and drive to do that.

I learnt so much from them, many invaluable life lessons, but the one relevant to this post is this: Just studying sport science does not make you smart. These people are the cleverest people I ever met. They have spent years meticulously studying their subjects in depth. Not only are they super academic, but it is their life experiences, ability to understand people, adapt to a different culture and most importantly, who they are as individuals, that makes them truly smart.

Some of the incredible people I met doing my PhD. There were so many more and they all taught me so much. Not always work related.

Example 2: A couple of years ago, I attended as a speaker at a conference where the Doctor introducing the conference said something like “There are people here over 50, with years of experience and a wealth of information to share, they are here to teach. There are people here between 30-50, who have started to build up their knowledge, they are here both to share their initial findings and to learn from those who are 50+. Then there are people here under 30 who have yet to gain experience or knowledge, they are here to learn.” WTF.

Are you honestly telling me that at 50, you have learnt and experienced everything and can no longer grow? Whilst at 30 or under, you are yet to learn or add anything to your field?? That man was well over 50, and made one of the least clever statements I’ve heard. Age has nothing to do with being smart. Understanding that everyone, no matter what age, gender or background, has something to add, is smart. Being open to learn from anyone you meet, that is smart. I think so anyway.

“If you are the smartest person in the room, you are in the wrong room.”

Me presenting age 27.

When I first came out of University, I thought I could change everything – you are lying if you didn’t feel the same. Even now, sport science is relatively new in football, the majority of people you work alongside have never been to University and a lot didn’t finish school. Football lacks the process driven, logic first, evidence-based approach Universities have. So I went in thinking if I test this, read about that and measure those, I’ll make a huge difference here without even trying.

Needless to say that didn’t happen, and I am so glad, because I needed to learn that being book smart does not make you clever. I have seen numerous people fail, who have never managed to grow out of their purely academic ‘well the journals say this, so you are wrong’ mindset.

I think that as sport scientists, we support the players and the coaches to perform at their optimum. They are the experts in the game. They know the politics. They know what they are capable of achieving. They have years of experience, have travelled the world, learning from other coaches and players. They have met and worked with a lot of people. They are smart at what they do, without (or regardless of) a degree. I don’t think you can ever learn too early the value in that. Can one book chapter read, or even worse, one tweet scrolled past, carry more weight than the collective experience and knowledge of the people you are arguing with, who have spent years perfecting their craft? I am not saying we aren’t sometimes right, but we can always learn, or at least consider.

I am a total nerd, I often go off on some geeky tangent that I think could revolutionize practice. But the second I think my mad scientist idea is more important than the collective contribution of the team I work with, is the second I go wrong. There is absolutely a place for what I do, and I am so proud of what I have achieved. I hope people respect who I am, what I know and what I’ve experienced. But I also know not to understimate the knowledge, experience and life stories of the people I work with or have worked with. Each one has influenced my thinking or my behaviors in some way to make me a better sport scientist, whether I like it or not.

“Everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t.”

Bill Nye

And if I ever think I am smart, or I have nothing left to learn, I’ll remember those three people, numerically modelling movement, doing real science in sport, and writing about it in their second, or third language.

TTFN, Laura

3 thoughts on “Being a Sport Scientist Does Not Make You Smart

  1. Nidheesh Pillai says:

    Loved your post. The below statement is bang-on!

    “but it is their life experiences, ability to understand people, adapt to a different culture and most importantly, who they are as individuals, that makes them truly smart.”

    Age and education doesn’t make man smart. 100%.

    My hellos to your batch-mates as well. Hope all are fine in today’s’ distress times. Take care!


  2. Paul Boanas says:

    Thanks Laura – really strong piece…

    I’ve heard several different versions (or bastardisations) of the “smartest person in the room” quote…I love it. Its something I have often lived by. Far too many people employ/hire staff that aren’t as intelligent as them through some type of superiority complex…wholly wrong.

    Keep up with the writing. Enjoyable reading.


  3. Abdallah says:

    Liked your post. A real humble, down-to-earth scientist. Being part of team of professional is a wealth, but one should be more a contributor rather than a dominant to edifying a consensual outcome..


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