Exploring the science of sport and development
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Could sports science and analytics take S&D actors to new frontiers?

That a pandemic like COVID-19 would bring sport activities to an unexpected screeching halt is something very few would have dared to guess. It is little surprise then that this situation has left sport professionals paralyzed with uncertainty. In a lot of ways, the situation has been a reality check. Considering most were convinced that sport is (or can be) an inextricable part of people’s lives, the most damning among the realizations has been the fact that it isn’t “essential” after all.

The growth of elite professional sport has been unsustainable for a while. In the quest for profits, it has been growing increasingly distant from its cultural roots. Corruption allegations, unethical practices such as organized doping and negative economic effects of mega-events have been contributing to the questioning of its relevance. The sport and development (S&D) sector, however, doesn’t stare at a crisis the same way.

By virtue of the aims and objectives laid out, many S&D initiatives across the world have remained a lot more grounded in the social realities. It is little surprise then those involved in such initiatives have been often found taking up crucial community work during this time. The value that these initiatives bring to the communities is more relevant than ever as they address key aspects like education, health, nutrition, gender equality and youth development – all of which can significantly impact how well communities can recover and move forward.

It is fair to acknowledge that the circumstances of today will compel a radical change in sport participation and consumption, at least for the near future. There is a pressing need to re-imagine program delivery quickly to account for basic social distancing and disinfection protocols. The S&D sector is however better placed to resume as it is not dependent on macro variables such as state intervention, international travel, consumer purchasing power and stadium-based events. Therefore, it is the best time for the sector to leap forward through innovative practices that can address micro-level needs by utilizing some of the advancements that elite sport has enabled. This could include a gradual adoption of sports science and data analytics.

It is obvious that new concepts cannot be directly implemented as advancements in these fields have been based on performance outcomes and not social development. Therefore, a lot will depend on how science is contextualized. This presents an interesting opportunity for S&D practitioners to lend out a hand to different kinds of professionals and initiate discussions.

How could mainstream sports science concepts be relevant for S&D? Take the case of General Adaptation Syndrome. At face level, for exercise physiologists, this is just a basic theory that explains the physiological changes that occur the body due to training. But in the social context of addressing inequities, this takes a completely different meaning. The fact that all individuals, irrespective of physical ability or background, can create adaptations in their body and explore their abilities showcases why sport is an effective development tool.

Let us now consider the case of biofeedback training. Sports psychologists use this technique to gain data-based feedback on mental states during performance through the use of electronic devices. If the principle of psychophysiology can be applied in the social development context, data collected over a period of time could help ascertain the impact a program is having a child in a vulnerable situation and predict the conditions of future success.

The possibilities are endless. On one hand, it can help professionals get oriented to the reality on the ground and expand their scope of work – perhaps it would make a sports nutritionist address malnutrition, a physiotherapist curious about stunting or a sports psychologist understand the roots of racial discrimination. On the other hand, S&D organizations will have novel means to ascertain their importance through scientific evidence and build programs that create new frontiers of collaboration and impact.

Shreyas Rao is a learning design consultant, driven by a mission to make information and learning more accessible for individuals in grassroot sports. Currently working with sport for development organizations, sports federations, educational institutions, sports professionals and elite sport academies on aspects such as curriculum design, learning management, teacher/coach development programmes and digital marketing.


Learning Design Consultant (Freelance)
Bengaluru, India


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