ESSA’s Sports Science Accreditation Story

Words taken from Activate, June 2018 issue

As we look back at 30 years of ESSA, a section of our industry that has had significant growth is our Sports Scientist and High Performance Managers, who have also helped to shape the sporting landscape throughout Australia and internationally over the last decade and beyond.

Australia has been early adopters of the idea of sports science professionals in sporting organisations. With the success of the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), there has been pioneers in the industry leading the way from the very beginning. This has allowed for the profession’s sports science practices and safe innovations to be built in to sporting codes both in Australia and internationally.

Sports scientists were always the people behind the scenes,” says Anita Hobson-Powell, ESSA Chief Executive Officer.

Although there was a lot of work to get the previous accreditation scheme for sports scientists recognised, aimed at how they will meet minimum standards, with a code of ethics and professional development requirements, this was met with push back that this is what their employers were doing and that they can look after themselves in employing appropriate professionals. No one wanted to pay to get a certification to do their jobs, and not many in the wider profession could see a need for it...

And then Essendon happened
The ‘darkest day in Australian sport’ had impacted on the positioning of sports science and how it looked externally; it had impacted the conditions and trust in the profession. That’s when the wider industry decided it was time to do something and looked to ESSA as an industry leader for a solution.

"We were were concerned that individuals describing themselves as sports scientists (where title protection had not been available) were performing a role within sporting organisations and clubs without appropriate qualifications, accreditation by an independent and recognised organisation, or statutory control," adds Anita.

In May of 2013, the Greens secured a Senate Inquiry into the practice of sports science in Australia, with the Senates Committee report being released in July. With legal cases starting, there was a lot of hesitation from the industry in letting due course be run before the government became involved. ESSA then stood up to take responsibility for the establishment of quality assurance requirements and regulatory processes for sports scientists within an individual code or sporting organisations. However, ESSA was careful that change was driven and truly led by the industry and its needs.

An advisory group of stakeholders, including Distinguished Professor Aaron Coutts, was formed to start reviewing the current ESSA Sports Science Standards and accreditation process. In April 2014, a roundtable meeting was held at the MCG in Melbourne, where 25 key people from diverse backgrounds in the sports science area were brought together. There were sports scientists, those who employed sports scientists, and academics, all from a range of different sports, who discussed the open-ended question of, ‘what is needed?’ With all the major sporting organisations represented at the first meeting, or providing feedback in offline meetings, all the sporting codes provided input into a new sports science accreditation system, which was announced by ESSA in February 2016.

“Sports science is different to other ESSA accreditations as its industry is led by its standards and competencies, which is why the three-tiered accreditation system was eventually put in place – Accredited Sports Scientist Level 1, Level 2, and Accredited High Performance Manager,” explains Aaron.

ESSA believed that there needed to be immediate registration, but how could the experienced professionals, who had been practicing for 20+ years, be looked after? To ensure they would get on board, and the process wouldn’t be difficult, the Grandfathering pathway process was put in place (until February 2021). This process, for the first time, was a pathway that didn’t require evidence of exercise science experience, which was a big adjustment for ESSA and its National Board, highlighting the promise that ESSA were putting the needs of the industry first.

Anita confesses that, “It’s been a very difficult journey, as it has put a lot of challenges up, but most importantly, ESSA has sat back and listened to the industry and provided an accreditation based on industry necessity.”

The significance of an accreditation scheme
Australian professionals are working everywhere. We’ve got sports scientists and high performance managers in the premier league, in the NBA, and the NFL to name a few, serving as a testament to the strong branding the Australian sports science industry has created over the years. Then when it comes to our sporting integrity, we’re just like any country – we want to win, but it can’t be at any cost. All sports scientists have a responsibility to uphold both their ethics and integrity whilst maintaining a heavily competitive mindset, which is a fine balance.

Aaron weighs in that, “Exporting Australian talent is a sign of success, but we need to make sure there are systems in place to back up the people who are leading, and support those who will one day replace them. This accreditation scheme and the systems in place will allow this, with the help of an active membership.

The release of the Profiling the Australian High Performance & Sports Science Workforce Report in December 2013 alarmingly highlighted the fact that only 50 per cent of the sports scientists surveyed had received ethics training in their workplace. You can’t regulate ethics, but what you can do is provide a minimum standard and a code of ethics so you can control who’s in and who’s outside the profession. Once that integrity and morality is lost, and the code of ethics is broken, there’s lasting consequences, as we have seen with the Cricket Australia ball tampering scandal and the AFL doping scandal.

Through regulation, this will then hopefully lead to leveraging a higher standard of professionals in the industry, who can then continue to create conditions together that assures the minimum standards are met and the code of ethics is applied. An accreditation scheme also brings together those working in sports science and high performance management, so they can work on common problems together to make the profession even stronger.

What has been interesting is that there’s a handful of Australians (growing slowly) who don’t work in Australia (working for college and professional sporting codes in China and the US), and are therefore not bound by this decision, but most of them were accredited before this requirement was put in place. As ESSA accreditation is only required in Australia, it can be assumed they have made the decision to be accredited due to the high value placed on the accreditation scheme and its standards. There is also interest from highly experienced non-Australian sports science professionals, who work for non-Australian sporting organisations, in holding this accreditation without being prompted.

What is happening in Australia, and in ESSA, is filtering out to other countries.
Moving forward
Through committed advocacy, a decision was handed down from the Australian Sports Commission (ASC) in late-2017 surrounding the requirement of all sports science staff (physiologists, biomechanists, performance analysts, skill acquisition specialists and strength scientists) to hold relevant accreditation with ESSA by the end of 2018.

Since then, ESSA has continued to ensure that there are rigorous governance measures in place to protect both our sports science professionals and athletes as well as the integrity of Australian sport.

This includes the ongoing abuse of interns. Sport use a lot of “freebies”, free students who will do anything as they’re looking for opportunities to get in to sport, and some sporting organisations are possibly breaching a lot of Fair Work Australia requirements regarding internships. In December 2019, ESSA published their ESSA's Sports Science Graduate Internship Guidelines, with its main aim being to aid both the graduate and the organisation in determining whether an internship experience will be mutually beneficial.

Another topic that ESSA is addressing head on is encouraging more women to take on roles in the sports science industry. In 2018 and 2019, ESSA hosted a range of Women in Sports Science & Sports Medicine Breakfasts across different cities which included panels of inspiring women working in the field. The breakfasts saw women from a range of sports science and sports medicine backgrounds come together to network and discuss life as a woman in the sports industry. The events were hugely successful and ESSA looks forward to bringing the breakfasts back in 2021, after a break in 2020 due to COVID-19.  

The Sports Science Advisory Group (SSAG) was also established to provide ESSA with greater input from industry experts. Since its conception, the SSAG have worked on a range of projects that aim to assist our Accredited High Performance Managers and Accredited Sports Scientists. These include the Internship Guidelines, the Sports Science Industry Development Plan 2020-2025, the ESSA Factsheet: 'What is an Accredited Sports Scientist?', the ESSA Factsheet: 'Defining the role of the Accredited High Performance Manager in Sport', and the Accredited Sports Scientist Salary Guide. The current members of the SSAG can be found here.

With Thanks

Anita wishes to thank the following people for their involvement in this sports science accreditation journey: Allison Cook, Aaron Coutts, Paul Gastin, Chris Gore, Dennis Hemphill, Michael Poulton, Nello Marino, Kevin Thompson, David Buttifant, Stuart Cormack, Dee Jennings, Ryan Timmins, Kevin Thompson, Michael Baker, and Janette Frazer-Allen.

Aaron also adds that, “Considerable thanks and credit must go to Anita. The extensive amount of work that Anita invested in this accreditation scheme from the get-go is significant and impressive and shouldn’t go without recognition.

If you'd like to locate an ESSA Accredited Sports Scientist or Accredited High Performance Manager, visit our online search function today.

Click here

Women in Sports Science & Sports Medicine Breakfast - Brisbane, 2018

Women in Sports Science & Sports Medicine Breakfast - Melbourne, 2018
L-R: Prof. Clare Hanlon, Simone Austin, Anita Hobson-Powell, Sylvie Withers, Jessie Mayo, and Susan Alberti AC

Supporting health through exercise for 30 years 

To celebrate 30 years of Exercise & Sports Science Australia (ESSA), we are reflecting on 30 stories which commemorate the profound impact the exercise and sports science industry and its professionals have had on our communities, and how they have benefited the health landscape in Australia.

Click here to read more like this one