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Sport Science: A Vehicle to Optimise Performance Potential

MCS speaks to Christian Vassallo, a lead sports science and research consultant to the Mediterranean College of Sport. He is currently a lecturer in Advanced Sport Performance Science at Swansea University whilst reading for a PhD in Sports Science at the same university. Vassallo is a UK-based performance consultant, supporting high performance athletes across elite sport. He is the co-founder of Traainer, an integrated network of multidisciplinary specialists coordinating individual athlete preparation and performance support.

“You have great potential”. Heard this phrase before? The latter word ‘potential’ seems to be routinely spoken about haphazardly, with little consideration attributed to its meaning. In the context of sport, this is often attributed to youth athletes displaying high levels of acute sport performance. In our context, it may be helpful to define ‘potential’ as follows:

Recognisable abilities or qualities that can lead to future success or excellence.

This nevertheless begs the question, is potential measurable? If so, how? Does this so-called ‘potential’ grow or decay over time? Can it be developed and nurtured? Is there a genetic ceiling to achieving this?

In high performance sport, this concept is often extended to ‘Human Performance Potential’. If we care to optimise human performance potential, these abilities must be identified, tested and subsequently developed through a process of methodical training and systematic monitoring.

Interventions and solutions are founded upon laws of motion (biomechanics), the body’s adaptive response to stress (physiology), aptitude towards learning new skills (motor learning), behavioural dispositions such as self-belief and motivation (psychology) as well as the biological recovery processes supporting health, growth and repair (nutrition & sleep). Indeed, proposed solutions must translate to adopted daily behaviours (behavioural science). Effective teaching and coaching (pedagogy) is the glue that binds all this together, establishing shared coach-athlete purpose. The appropriate dose of ‘support’ and ‘challenge’ as well as the decision to ‘push’ or ‘pull’ training load is based on a combination of the best available analytics (data science) and the practitioner’s professional judgement (heuristics) on the developing athlete.

Effectively, this is Sport Science. Sport Science, thus, broadly encompasses the enhancement and investigation of human performance potential. It involves the application of integrated scientific principles from an array of disciplines, such as Physiology, Biomechanics, Psychology, Nutrition, Pedagogy, Talent Identification, Motor Learning and Data Science. Exploiting the essence of these roots helps identify performance enablers and rate limiters, facilitating an optimal path towards current and future excellence.

Where does Sport Science fit in alongside sport specific coaching? Foe or friend? Coaches are often the ‘carriers’ of Sport Science in the real world. The extent to which coaches embrace it will by and large influence their athletes’ attitudes towards it. Athletes’ buy-in will in turn largely determine the degree to which they themselves reap the benefits. The technical coach and multidisciplinary Sport Science & Medicine department must work in tandem, much like cogs revolving in a wheel. They collectively direct their effort towards a singular vision of long-term development towards sustainable high performance.

Strength and conditioning (S&C) may be viewed much like the applied branch of Sport Science. The S&C coach must primarily develop the skills of a great generalist, well-versed across multiple Sport Science domains, possessing excellent coaching & problem-solving skills whilst developing strong rapport with athletes and coaches alike.

Strength and conditioning for youth athletes will help develop a lifelong affinity with sport. It will accelerate the development of athletic biomotor qualities (strength, speed, movement efficiency etc.), enhance longevity in the sport (by minimising risk of injury, off-setting premature burn-out) and accrue a cascade of motor skills which underpin expression of sport specific skills to a significantly higher level. Above all, experience of the author suggests it will not only become what they ‘must’ do, but what they ‘love’ to do – prior, during and after their sports career. Thus, fulfilling the component of holistic development as people first, athletes second.

The Mediterranean College of Sport is set to be one of the most pioneering educational and sporting facilities in the Maltese islands, aiming to develop future athletes of international calibre. The co-educational college is set to open its doors to students in October 2024 and will be housed adjacent to St Aloysius College in Birkirkara. For further information please send an email to cbonnici@mcs.edu.mt .