Can sport teach science about excellence?

hockeyScience knowledge has improved sport performance in many ways. New training and recovery programs plus advances in equipment have led to new heights of achievement. Is it time for science to learn from sport?

When I was considering grad school, a mentor told me:

A working scientist needs to be 2 of these 3: smart, lucky, and hardworking. A successful scientist works hard and is smart enough to create luck by recognizing opportunities.

I remembered this conversation when talking with my friend who is a professional hockey player about his career. He said that to get to the NHL, a player needs: talent, discipline, drive, and the support from family and friends. Success in hockey sounds a lot like success in science – could science take lessons in training from hockey?

Career Journeys in Hockey and Science In Canada, there is a ‘farm system’ of hockey. Players with talent are recognized early and given opportunities to play in competitive leagues. As they progress, the options require more dedication and many players leave home in their early teens to play for the best teams. Scouts for pro hockey watch these leagues for talent and some players will enter various junior leagues where NHL teams recruit players.

Do you see any parallels with science training? We work hard and there are drop-outs at each stage (BSc, MSc, PhD, post-doc, etc.) plus many of us go to new cities to train. A few will become a tenured professor. As in hockey, many are happy to step down at an earlier stage, using their skills in related careers.

While talking with my hockey friend, I was stuck by the support of the community in his childhood training. Should we do something similar for budding scientists?

Moving beyond ‘interest in science’

There are many programs to spark an interest in science. I’ve been involved in several programs over the past decade and am a big believer in outreach programs. But many of these programs are too limited – they initiate excitement or students complete one challenge but there isn’t long term support. Students who have an interest may have nowhere to go with this excitement.

Science is like soccer (football) in Canada. I’d argue that hockey is popular in Canada because we produce excellent players but it’s a bit of a chicken/egg scenario. Money is put into hockey training because it’s popular and can be profitable. Soccer is played by 8% of Canadians (source: FIFA) and there are almost twice as many registered soccer players than hockey players. Why don’t we revere our pro soccer teams? For that matter, why don’t we produce better soccer players? There isn’t the same level of opportunities for kids who show talent in soccer – at least not yet.

Can we create a training program for science?

In sport, there are specific skills and it is fairly easy to create related training drills for improvement. Plus, sports don’t usually dramatically change in a short time. Hockey players don’t suddenly have to learn how to swim. But scientific research techniques are always mutating. My mad wet lab skills from 2003 are probably obsolete for 2011. What skills would we want to improve in a training program?

Many people have written about the skills needed as a scientist, including those who contributed to this post at the  PostDoc Forum. My quick list:

  • critical thinking and planning skills to develop good research questions
  • good hands to do the work
  • writing skills to communicate the work
  • teamwork/people skills to collaborate and manage staff
  • excitement to keep going (drive)
  • work ethic to show up even when it sucks (discipline)

As you can see, most of the list is about talent but those are the things that can be improved. The drive and discipline are internal but we may be able to help students find ways to cultivate these traits.

How do you set up a training program for these skills? Is it math and engineering competitions? Science fairs? Doing experiments like the elementary students who published their work on bees?

Possible ideas

If I had the money 1, I would create a multi-year program. Students with initial interest and talent would enter an exploration year where they would learn about different science disciplines and do small experiments or challenges in each field. They would compete for spots in the following focus year where students would work in two areas, doing supervised research. Top students would then be chosen for a third year and perform independent research. All years would require students to read and discuss current research, write, and work in teams. What do you think?

What would you do? How would you measure success?

Please share your suggestions! We could design the ‘best’ program as if we had unlimited funds. It’s a fun exercise. Plus, there may be some funding opportunities and at least some of the best program could be accomplished. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments or by email (anderson [at] genegeek [dot] ca].

  1. Money matters. Canada had a controversial Own the Podium program for the Vancouver 2010 Olympics. It was a 5 year $120 million program to strengthen high-performance sport and improve Olympic success. It worked – Canada had 14 Gold medals, the most of any nation for a winter Olympics. The program has been extended and includes the Road to Excellence to support athletes for the 2012 summer games. It wouldn’t take as much money to set up a network of mentors, create opportunities and support our future scientists and it could make a real difference.


  1. David Manly says

    Great post, and as a fellow Canuck, I never fully realized the similarities between sports and the sciences (aside from sport science) lol.

    I agree that science should be nurtured from a very young age, like sport, but you need to be careful not to discourage people out of science.

    If I had unlimited funds, I would make a program that exposed a large population of people to the value and skills needed for growth in the science field. As well, I would create a support network of professors, teachers and people in science research to help the students.
    As you mentioned, some would take it further, but others would use what they had learned in respective fields.

    • says

      I agree that everyone should be encouraged to participate in science (and sport). I was thinking of the multi-year program as an addition to the recreation science available to all.

  2. says

    The ‘Science is like football (soccer) in Canada’ (yes I’ve renamed it) is my favourite analogy for problems with the Canadian science education system and what is about to go wrong in the UK. If it wasnt for the #scienceisvital campaign it would have been a lot worse.

  3. Lisa says

    Great post.
    I think the long-term aspect of a program is key. It is time that is required to become an effective critical thinker, to know how to plan experiments, develop questions, and to learn the patience needed for science.
    I think a long term program, such as the one you propose, should also have frequent “assessments”. They could be informal and a chance for students to realize their strengths and weaknesses. What if they realize they love teaching science, but not doing science (for example). Not making it to the third year shouldn’t be viewed as failure to thrive as a scientist (necessarily) but the program could also be a chance for students to realize how many amazing things you can do with science.
    Long-term, well-funded programs are essential……easier said than done(as I’m sure you know!)

  4. Arielle says

    Very interesting comparison! I really enjoyed reading this :)

    Something that my University just started which could be helpful on a smaller scale is a journal club (similar to a book club but instead of being assigned a book between meetings, you’re assigned an article) They’ve only run one meeting so far but I feel like it has a lot of potential as it really helps us students gain familiarity with lab technique and experimental design, as well as learn how to critically analyze an experiment. Plus, it’s a lot of fun to be able to meet with other students interested in research.

  5. says

    Great post!

    I agree that science is like any high-stakes, high-performance field. You have to put in your 10,000 hours, you have to train, and you have to constantly “tool up”. High-level science also needs a great deal of creativity. In college, my intro bio prof gave us a New Yorker article on a hard-working violin player, telling us that this was the best description of scientific life he could think of!

    Unlike sports, science seems to have little problem over-producing participants, so I particularly like your idea of the farm team.

  6. Valery Zaby says

    I couldn’t help but notice that your possible ideas section sounds an aweful lot like Future Science Leaders ! Was thinkign about sports inspiring science what led you to devise the FSL program ? If so, that’s super cool ! I never thought about what was initial idea that sparked this program to be created, but now I understand :)

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