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Champion for Success: An Interview with Dr Craig Duncan

For this issue of Activate, we managed to track down 2014 ESSA Accredited Sports Scientist of the Year, Dr Craig Duncan. Craig has been involved with high performance sport for a number of high profile teams including the Western Sydney Wanderers and Canterbury Bulldogs Rugby League, most recently he has been on the move with the Socceroos during their Asian Cup campaign.

Craig, thanks for taking the time to answer our questions, no doubt you have been pretty busy over the last few months. To begin with can you tell us a little about your background and how you got to the position you are currently in?

Academically, I have a PhD in Sports Science, an undergrad degree in sports science, a Post-Graduate in Education and am currently completing Post-Graduate in Psychology. Away from learning, I am also a senior Lecturer at ACU in Sport Science and continue to work in high performance sport with the Socceroos, NSW State of Origin, the Western Sydney Wanderers and the Canterbury Bulldogs.

Like many sports scientists I loved to play all sports and particularly football (soccer) and it was a natural progression to study this once I finished playing sport at a serious level.

At present I combine my senior lecturing role with working in elite sport collecting data for our research. However, it varies in different situations. For example, at the moment I am working with the Socceroos and we have been in camp for over three weeks for the Asian Cup. We played South Korea so at the completion of that game we started our first stage of recovery and I have been overseeing further recovery and training for players that did not participate in this game. I will then go on to analyse the data from training and the game and report to the coaching staff. Our days are long starting at 7am and often not finishing until 9-10pm but this is unique as we are traveling and in camp every day.

What have been the highlights of your career so far?

I have had many highlights but often these might be just seeing players maximise their potential or helping a player come back from injury. I also truly value working with great coaches and also working with my team of sports scientists, seeing sports scientists such as Fabian Ehrmann, Liam Cody and others develop has been fantastic.  In respect to the normal concept of highlights I’d say

  • Working with the Socceroos as it is my nation’s team and my favourite sport
  • 2009/10 A League Championship and grand final winners Sydney FC – A very good playing group and as it was my first year with the club it was a great outcome
  • 2014 Asian Champions League Western Sydney Wanderers – perhaps one of the best achievements by any Australian sporting team – playing in many different countries in differing climates at different stages of the year – a real sports science puzzle
  • 2014 State of Origin winning team NSW – my first year working with this team after they had many years of not winning. A very enjoyable experience in a different code.

What have been the major changes you have seen in the sports science industry?

There is more technology and far more people calling themselves sports scientists. However, technology is only good if it has an evidence base and makes a positive difference to your practise!

As a sports scientist, what do you think is the biggest challenge you and your co-workers face and what does the future hold for the profession?

The main challenge is to remain relevant. Sports scientists are great at collecting data, poor at presenting it and ineffective at interpreting it. This is not always the case but this is the perception of many coaches so it is vital we improve this coach/sports scientist relationship otherwise we could become extinct. Its obvious sports science has much to offer but we must communicate this message effectively.

For me, the future for me is all related to accreditation. I hope for the day when only accredited sports scientists are employed in high performance sport. Accreditation is vital and must be implemented but we have to make it worthwhile for people to aspire to be accredited. The accredited exercise physiologist model of accreditation has driven people to strive for this and we must do similar with the accredited sports scientists. At present not enough people know about the accredited sports scientist and this needs to change and furthermore, we need to become more known in the industry.

We have many ESSA students, do you have any advice to those wanting to get into the industry?

I believe that it’s imperative to start working in the industry as soon as possible. Volunteer your services, get any work experience you can get and work in lower level competitions. There are so many teams at semi-professional level that would love to have sports science support so go and be that support. I started working with 2nd division football teams, junior football teams and netball so I could get the experience across the entire spectrum of sports science. Too often I find that people want to start at the top without the development of skills at a lower level.

Away from work and on a more personal note, we understand that a few years ago you suffered a number of heart attacks? Can you tell us what happened, how you recovered, how it affected your work and outlook? 

I had a spontaneous coronary artery dissection (Scad) whilst lifting weights. It caused a blockage in an artery and being silly I did not go to the hospital straight away. I run every day so over three days I tried to run but each time I was in a lot of pain until I finally went to see a doctor. I am always thankful to my wife for getting me to go to actually seek help! It changed me in many ways but most importantly I now realise that I need to take it easy and realise I can’t control the universe. I still work hard and the results of teams that I work with still affect me but I also realise there is a bigger picture. I enjoy talking about it so people realise that if it can happen to me it can happen to anyone!

Quick fire question time!

Do you have any favourite sports teams? Always the ones I work with!

You have worked in football, netball, basketball, rugby, cricket, cycling and triathlon – but do you have a favourite sport or team? Why?

Football (soccer) because that’s what I played the most but I love all sports and believe our systems can work across all sports. 

Of all the sports you have worked with, which ones would you say are the hardest on an athlete’s body? Why?

All are, but Rugby League is brutal due to the physical contact. I have never seen anything like it! 

What do you consider to be some of the most common limitations in human performance?

What we believe we can do. I think human performance is limited by our mind and if we can work with this effectively I am sure we can see an improvement in human performance. 

Your philosophy is “prevention is better than cure”? Explain!

My priority is to maximise the performance of every player we work with so to do this effectively they must be effectively prepared. Performance = Fitness – Fatigue, so it’s about balancing the two Fs which will prevent injury, overtraining and/or decreases in fitness. If we can prevent problems before they arise it is much easier than solving it when it’s already happened. (That’s the plan anyway!)