Happy 30th Anniversary ESSA!

The Australian Association of Exercise and Sports Science (AAESS, later to become ESSA) was established in 1991 when the Founding President, Professor Tony Parker, along with key colleagues from around the country, made the tough decision to branch out from Sports Medicine Australia. This was a move that would see the formation of an organisation that represented the evolving field of exercise and sports science, by striving to build recognition and future employment opportunities for graduates.

This year we celebrate ESSA’s 30th anniversary and stop to reflect on the journey so far. To help commemorate this occasion, several key contributors to this journey were interviewed to share their views on the success of the organisation and the key milestones that have paved the way to the ESSA we know today.

30 years young and huge successes

While 30 years seems like a long time, it was clear to all on reflection that compared to equivalent organisations, ESSA is still in its relative youth. Considering this, it is even more remarkable that the recognition of our professionals is the strongest of anywhere in the world. While the specific mission and vision of AAESS/ESSA has evolved over the years, the organisation’s core function of supporting exercise and sports science professionals and establishing career opportunities has been highly successful.

Built on three decades of highly capable and dedicated volunteers and, in more recent times, a growing office staff with passion and expertise to accelerate the journey, along with a sustained groundswell of support from its membership, ESSA’s journey is the perfect example of creating your own good luck.

The great successes of this collective effort is a credit to the leadership across the 30 years span, with particular recognition of CEO, Anita Hobson-Powell who has been at the forefront of the successes and challenges for the whole second half of the journey.

"Where ESSA is now speaks to all the hard work, passion and commitment of everyone that has been part of that journey.” Kirsty Rawlings – current ESSA President.

From Humble Beginnings

When AAESS was formed, it started as a collective of motivated academics and industry professionals operating entirely on volunteer energy. Portfolios were established to partition workload from Secretary and Treasurer to Sports Science, Exercise Physiology, Professional Development, Operations and Risk, and Marketing and Communication to name a few. This model actually sustained long into ESSA’s journey, until the governance framework was restructured in 2014 marking the growing maturity and capacity of the organisation to its now skills-based Board. The foundations built in the early years set ESSA up to achieve and capitalise on the rapid-fire successes that have come in more recent years

ESSA started from the ground up, not only in regard to the development of the organisation but also in the beginning to define the exercise and sports ccience fields and vocations, coming from an era when this was an applied science degree with no defined roles for graduates outside of research. 

“In the sports medicine community, exercise and sports scientists had always done good research, much better than other groups, but they were not recognised appropriately.” Professor Tony Parker – AAESS/ESSA Founding President, Life Member

The movement was driven primarily from within the university community, but right from the beginning had a strong focus on vocational outcomes for graduates. This focus has fostered a sustained strong link between ESSA and the university sector, both in the education of graduates, but also the link to research and evidence-based practice and policy. 
“The success of ESSA is very much driven by the attractiveness of our university programs… reflective of how many universities in Australia offer Exercise Science and Exercise Physiology (with Sports Science continuing to grow) so universities then perceive our programs and professions as positive within their systems.” Jeff Coombes – ESSA Past President, Chair of EIM Australia.

‘The Medicare Moment’

Ask anyone involved with ESSA over the 2000s and they will know the term ‘The Medicare Moment’, representing the legislative change in 2005 to include Accredited Exercise Physiologists (AEPs) into the national funding scheme for people with chronic diseases to access allied health professionals. 

This event was hugely significant in itself because it created a world-first opportunity for AEPs nationwide to access a fee for service from the government to support people with chronic disease. This underpinned a sustainable business model for private practice that began a surge of AEP businesses across the country over the next decade. 

“It was about recognising our skills and we achieved that because we were able to put forward evidence based arguments… both at the political level and at the allied health level, and so we were very successful in moving forward that debate and that narrative around the role of Exercise Physiologists.” Dr Phil Hamdorf – ESSA Past President, Life Member, Chair of Fellows Committee

Beyond this direct benefit, the decision to include AEPs within Medicare brought unprecedented legitimacy that has progressively flowed on to recognition by DVA, Workers Compensation Schemes, Private Health, NDIS and aged care. The nature of the Medicare funding requiring a GP referral also mobilised the membership to increase GPs awareness of the Exercise Physiology profession and the role of exercise as part of the patient’s treatment plan. GP education, along with higher level sustained advocacy from ESSA, has built a rock-solid relationship between EP and GP that continues to evolve today.

“Medicare was a catalyst, or even a catapult towards broader recognition.” Chris Tzar – Former ESSA Board member, Former Chair of EIM Australia.

The Importance of Robust Standards

The backbone of success in broad recognition of the role ESSA’s professionals has undoubtedly been the robust system of professional standards and accreditation. The first set of professional standards were established as AAESS/ESSA’s Full membership criteria, which would transition to become ESSA’s Accredited Exercise Scientist. From there, the Board set to define the specialist skill sets to be offered as higher-level accreditations in Exercise Physiology and Sports Science. Additionally, the Board worked hard to establish a University Accreditation System that became known as the National University Course Accreditation Program (NUCAP), seeing our first universities (5 in total) becoming accredited in 2005.

After ‘The Medicare Moment’, the Board at the time realised that the underlying professional standards need to be bolstered to ensure those entering the profession were all minimally competent to provide safe and effective exercise services as allied health professionals. The subsequent set of professional standards that grew out of this review significantly lifted the core educational requirements of AEPs which subsequently created a significant opportunity to work with a broader and more clinically complex mix of clients. Still to this day, only one other country has achieved allied health status for Exercise Physiologists. 

“When you put AEP after your name, that has been very hard fought for." Professor Steve Selig – Former ESSA Board member (2006-2021), Life Member.

Recognition of the Accredited Sports Scientist

A major turning point for the trajectory of the Sports Science profession occurred in what was termed, ‘the blackest day in Australian sport’, when in 2013, a self-proclaimed Sports Scientist provided high profile elite athletes with banned substances. This event had the potential to tarnish the profession, however, ESSA used the scandal to successfully advocate for the establishment of a recognised accreditation process. With some successful political lobbying and a few trips to Canberra, a Senate inquiry eventually led to the mandating of Sports Scientist Accreditation with ESSA for all sports that receive federal funding from Sport Australia. Like ‘The Medicare Moment’ for AEPs, this decision (again with lots of ongoing soft diplomacy) also led to the adoption of this policy across some of the professional sport leagues.

Research to Practice

The first AAESS annual conference was held in Brisbane in 2004 with the theme ‘From Research to Practice’. The event created a place for like-minded individuals to gather, providing a hub for the sharing of information and ideas. The Research to Practice conferences have been a great success since then, with the size and number of attendees increasing with each event. In 2016, it became the largest of its kind in the southern hemisphere, and in 2018, the conference saw registrations from 14 countries including Australia. 

There is no disputing the valuable opportunity the event affords for further education development for ESSA professionals, helping ensure service delivery is backed by the latest findings in exercise and sport research. On top of this, the conferences have created a great environment for acknowledging new research and the achievements of ESSA members. The introduction of significant prizes and recognition for outstanding research by young and early career researchers, including an exchange award with the European College of Sports Science, has further lifted the profile and quality of the conference. The opportunity to foster world class research that directly informs practice and to bring the researchers and practitioners together exemplifies the strong evidence base for the professions.
Growth and International Recognition

Following the Medicare announcement, membership uptake increased dramatically from 2005. The operations of the organisation grew, moving to a larger headquarters within Brisbane in the same year, taking on more staff and opening more office positions, advisory and interest groups and chapters. 

“Now there’s a lot more access to appropriately trained AEPs and Sport Scientists, so hopefully those in need of prescribed exercise or sports science are getting not only better access but better access to trained professionals.” Professor David Bishop – ESSA Past President

The early days of AAESS saw international interest in the area of Sports Science due to the success of Australian athletes on the world stage. Progressively from 2005, ESSA’s reputation grew in Exercise Physiology and led to formal relations with many equivalent national bodies around the world, leading to the recent recognition of AEPs in Canada and the USA. 

ESSA leadership have also been invited to visit China on a number of occasions over the years to lecture on our systems and successes, and there remains interest to work together to advance their training of practitioners. More recently, ESSA has led a group of representatives from the USA, United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand in establishing the International Confederation for Sport and Exercise Science Practice to support the internationalisation of our professions. 
Maturity on show in a crisis
At the beginning of 2020, ESSA was busily planning the first national conference in Perth, was successfully rolling out it’s $1.838m Exercise Right for Active Aging Grant, the Board had just commissioned their first external performance review and were commencing a review of organisational culture, and with an almighty bang, along came COVID-19.  

Presenting many challenges for everyone, including ESSA members and accredited professionals, the COVID-19 crisis caused significant interruptions to service delivery. The maturity and capability of the organisation was put to the test as attention switched to supporting members navigate a rapidly changing and perilous environment, alongside a well-executed advocacy campaign to ensure the rapid decisions being made at various levels of government had due consideration of ESSA members. 

A key example of this maturity was evident through the work of CEO, Anita Hobson-Powell as a Board member and leader of Allied Health Professions Australia who was able to provide a collective voice for allied health and advocate for members’ interests. Among other things, this helped to secure widespread and rapid access to funded telehealth services, which ESSA is strategically working to ensure remain in place for the future. This challenge also saw the organisation recognised as a trusted and valuable source of information, actually being sought out by government in an advisory role to inform on things such as safe exercise guidelines during COVID-19 outbreaks. 

The future is bright and ambitious!

Contributors interviewed for this article were also asked to consider where ESSA could be in another 30 years. Some common themes were identified, describing more of a journey than a destination. 

ESSA is on a good path and, even in the state of absolute disruption of the past 1-2 years, continues to deliver outcomes and progress the interests of the professions. Key areas to continue to progress in the next few decades were the role of exercise in primary prevention, strengthening ESSA’s political links and profile, increasing community awareness of ESSA accredited professionals, growing the professions internationally, supporting and growing research capacity, and generally consolidating the numbers of accredited professionals and ensuring as we continue to grow the direct relationship and supports for members is sustained. 

There was a strong consensus for the role of ESSA in shaping policy and practice in societal physical activity behaviour and the role of our accredited professionals and research. This links strongly with enhanced recognition and opportunities for the Accredited Exercise Scientist. More broadly, there is a huge opportunity for the Exercise Scientist skillset to be recognised across health and disease prevention, in schools, workplaces, local communities and even (as has been explored previously) in clinical investigation. 

“An increased presence at various tables where conversations are had around preventative health initiatives.” Nathan Reeves – ESSA Past President, Chair of ESSA Professional Standards Council

“If you looked into the future…. and wanted it to be perfect, you say that you need to have an ESSA accreditation to work in fitness, in Exercise Physiology and in high performance, anywhere on that spectrum.” Distinguished Professor Aaron Coutts – ESSA Board member

Expanding on this, ESSA has the potential to become the household name for all things sport, exercise and physical activity not only in Australia but also internationality.

“ESSA is in a very unique position now where it can continue to play a leading role in the development of the professions internationally. There are countries where there are no standards at all where I think ESSA can be playing a really critical role.” Associate Professor Chris Askew – ESSA Past President.

Reflections of the authors

Tasma Wells-Sidler – UniSA CEP Honours student
Looking back on the process of writing this article, I feel very privileged to have been given the opportunity to speak to those who are the best in their field and held the top positions within our governing body. Their insights have made me realise just how much hard work has gone into the achievements that have now become the norms for members. I am excited to enter the industry after listening to their enthusiasm and ideas for the future direction of ESSA, its professions and the community.

Associate Professor Kade Davison – ESSA Past President
What really resonated for me in the process of researching this article is the significance of the decision 30 years ago to establish AAESS. It must not have been an easy process to splinter from the Sports Medicine Australia community but the benefits of this visionary move are clear to us all. Hats off to Professor Tony Parker and the other founding directors for putting the wheels in motion that will continue to carry our industry to success after success for the next 30 years and beyond.

Thank you to all those who have been quoted in this article for giving their time in reflecting on their journey with AAESS/ESSA.

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