Helping athletes to get better at getting better
When NBA club the Sacramento Kings announced it would partner with Australian Catholic University (ACU) to gain access to “a world leader in the high-performance sport movement”, it was no surprise to exercise science academic David Opar.
As the inaugural Director of ACU’s Sports Performance, Recovery, Injury and New Technologies (SPRINT) Research Centre, Dr Opar leads a team of experts who are at the cutting edge of sports science.
As far as research institutes go, SPRINT is a relative newcomer to the realm of high-performance sport — but its academics have more than a few runs on the board.
One of the centre’s great strengths, says Dr Opar, is the membership of experts who “have traversed that line of a research career and an applied career, and often melded those two worlds together”.
With a focus on the links between athletic performance and fatigue, recovery and injury interventions, the research team has a strong emphasis on findings that directly translate into practice.
“Our researchers understand the needs of elite sporting clubs and athletes in practice, and that means they can really thoughtfully craft the experimental procedure around that knowledge and understanding,” says Dr Opar, a widely published researcher and educator.
Associate Professor Stuart Cormack and Professor Shona Halson
“We’ve got people like [Associate Professor] Stuart Cormack and [Professor] Shona Halson, who are mainstays of Australia’s high-performance sport network, and a really talented group of mid-career and early-career researchers as well – so there’s great strength in the mixture of experience and expertise that we have in our ranks.”
Focused on finding answers
In the new age of competitive sport, athletes don’t only work longer and harder than they used to, they also work smarter, with the benefit of years of scientific research and leading-edge technology.
High-performance sports science is, in the words of the Sacramento Kings’ performance manager Teena Murray, “quietly revolutionising sport”.
“Behind this high-performance movement is a fierce desire to create a competitive advantage,” she says, “and in front of it, a need for new knowledge, skills, models, expertise and approaches.”
Both on our shores and internationally, ACU academics have figured prominently in this movement, with the School of Behavioural and Health Sciences and the Mary Mackillop Institute for Health Research housing some of the world’s leading exercise and sports science scholars.
David Opar is part of this cohort, joining ACU as an exercise science lecturer in 2013. Over the past decade he’s carved out a niche as a leading expert in the space of hamstring injuries, working with players and staff in various sporting codes including rugby, the AFL, cricket, the NRL and many other sports.
“I never think of it as ‘specialising’ in the field,” he points out, “because as scientists we’re just constantly searching for answers, and if you work closely and deeply in a particular field, you understand that you’re probably never specialised or an expert in it, you just know more of the questions that need answering than other people.”
Dr Opar has first-hand experience in finding some of those answers.
He and fellow sports injury expert Associate Professor Anthony Shield, who was Dr Opar’s PhD supervisor at Queensland University of Technology, are co-inventors of the Nordboard, a novel device that tests and monitors hamstring strength and balance. It is now used by professional teams around the world, potentially saving these sporting clubs millions of dollars through injury minimisation.
“In the space of a few years, we went from inception in the lab to having a device out there in the field and being used,” says Dr Opar, who conducted years of research with Associate Professor Shield to test the reliability and validity of the device. “It’s a really good example of how new technologies can be adopted, and how quickly we can translate our work into practice.”
In recent years, thanks in part to the efforts of Australian researchers to find answers and solutions, the risk of an AFL player reinjuring a hamstring during the season has dropped from 30 per cent to typically below 20 per cent. This is one of many examples of how sports science and technology has aided injury prevention.
“If you look at the AFL as an example, there is objective data to show that the game is getting harder and more intense, so the fact that hamstring injury rates are flat is probably a win because the demands on athletes are going up, but the hamstring injury rates have not really trended upwards,” says Dr Opar, who puts this down to “an evidence-informed approach” to athlete management and injury risk mitigation.
“One of the important roles of sports scientists is to prepare an athlete or athletic group for the rigours of competition,” he adds.
“The best practitioners do this by bringing a well-rounded, well-versed and well-educated perspective to their role. From a researcher’s point of view, when we work in concert with sporting clubs and individual athletes, what’s most important is that the work we do is evidence-based, with a strong and rigorous underpinning that is deeply rooted in scientific principles.”
So, how do David Opar and his colleagues at the SPRINT Research Centre plan to progress their long-term vision for cutting-edge research and practice?
The first step, says Dr Opar, is to stay curious.
“From a performance perspective, that means staying committed to finding answers to applied questions with the highest level of rigour that we can,” he says.
“How do we train athletes better? How do we get them stronger so they can perform better out on the pitch? How do we use technology to monitor their fatigue responses to exercise, so we can plan and progress their preparation for competition? And then looking at all the elements that come around from a recovery perspective, whether that’s sleep-related or other modalities for recovery. And if things do go wrong, how do we identify injury risks early, and expedite rehabilitation as best we can?”
In the race for elite athletes to get better at getting better, the role of sports science is “critically important”.
The centre’s researchers will apply the latest scientific methods and technologies to “do the best quality work we can do” — the type of work that has “the greatest capacity for translation and implementation in the field of elite sport”.
“Sports scientists are just one cog in the wheel of elite sport, and I don’t think many of us would actually sit in there and claim we’re the most important people in the room when it comes to athletic performance,” Dr Opar says.
“At the same time, we have a deep understanding of what it takes to maximise performance while minimising the risk of injury. We know how to use technology as a means of gathering and interpreting data in a way that makes it useful and meaningful for athletes, coaches, and support staff to interpret and make decisions.
“When you put all these things together, you get some idea of why sports science is important. It’s about trying to get as close an understanding to the truth as possible, and to use that understanding to help sportspeople to reach their greatest potential.”
Keen to pursue a career in elite sport and gain access to some of the world’s leading researchers and practitioners? Check out ACU’s Master of High Performance Sport.
Find out more about the SPRINT Research Centre’s projects and programs.