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Sport Science Integration: An Evolutionary Synthesis

N. Balague, C. Torrents, R. Hristovski, and J. A. S. Kelso

The Big Idea

As scientific disciplines go, sport science is but a babe in the historical woods of science proper. In spite of the fact that the recent evolution of sport science is essentially interdisciplinary, many believe it has already become a victim of its own success. That is, instead of achieving its promise of successfully integrating the disciplines and sub-disciplines it is composed of (such as anatomy, biochemistry, physiology, psychology, sociology, and the variety of clinical and applied research fields), it has actually produced additional specialisation and fragmentation. And this because of the largely reductionist approach favoured where complex problems are explained in terms of ever-simpler or more basic levels of inquiry with level-dependent vocabularies—down from social to organismic to molecular: where love, for example, is reduced literally to a matter of chemistry.

However, the authors of this research paper (published in the European Journal of Sport Science) believe that the current tension between these fields of study can be viewed as an opportunity and not necessarily as a problem. Using dynamical systems theory (DST), these researchers argue that it is indeed possible to synthesize the discipline-specific knowledge in the sport sciences.


  • This study was based on the researchers’ review of two decades of research abstracts in the last two decades of the European College of Sport Science editions (founded in 1995).
  • The issue is the extent to which the sport sciences have collectively compromised the value of their body of knowledge by assuming the validity of a reductionist approach to their research questions and methods.
  • The aim of the paper is to point out a more functional way to integrate what are considered to be unrelated fields in sport science.
  • Common principles and themes between the various disciplines and sub-disciplines become more readily available if we approach our inquiries by way of dynamical systems instead of reductionism.
  • There is integration at all levels of systems from the molecular to the social interactions.
  • In some more recent sport science literature dynamical principles have been applied to the study of specific sports, to sports-related phenomena such as fatigue and perceived exertion, and to interactions between neural networks and tactical patterns in soccer.
  • By using a dynamical systems team approach to understanding the intriguing questions in sport science, the sport sciences will begin to model the nature of the living systems themselves.

The Research

Here is the problem these researchers are dealing with:


Our choicest plans

have fallen through,

our airiest castles

tumbled over,

because of lines

we neatly drew

and later neatly

stumbled over.

–Piet Hein (1905-1996)

Integration in living systems

In the sport sciences the typical meaning of integration is that we study the same phenomenon from different multidisciplinary levels. We can be studying fatigue, for example, from the differing perspectives of sociology, psychology, biomechanics, physiology, or biochemistry. But the interrelationships between these perspectives change over time and do not interact without ever-changing contexts. In living systems, the various components of them are operating at different time scales—at the cell level in milliseconds; at the social level for maybe hours, days, or years—which in turn are producing new components and properties.

Dynamics as the integrative language for sport science

We need to be thinking differently when it comes to integrating the sport sciences. At the cell level there are societies of highly organised individuals; so too in societies are there highly organised individuals. The same way of thinking applies to the small and the large because they have common dynamical principles of organisation. This is how a common language could be possible between the various perspectives within sport science.

Where do DST principles and integration appear in sport science?

Early on applications of dynamic principles to human movement revealed their explanatory potential in such sport contexts as swimming, skiing, martial arts, dance, and even team sports. (This research paper includes a long list of published studies in sports.)

In addition, sport-related experiences have also been investigated using dynamic principles, including endurance, decision-making, performance, attention/focus, perceived exertion, cardio-respiratory coordination, and social coherence. And the list goes on and on covering such integrations as neural networks and tactical patterns in soccer; integrating kinematic and psychological variables in exhaustion; and even measures of entropy or trapping strength as applied to the unpredictability of a game.

What is especially intriguing is the way in which sport science itself has become a source of theories and experimental designs. Collaborations have cropped up in cultural anthropology, human factors, theory of mind, neuroscience, computer creativity, and education.

The beauty of these diverse relationships and integrations is that these diverse sciences can comfortably co-exist, learn from one another, collaborate on discoveries, and collectively solve common problems.

Can integration in sport science help bridge the gap between science and practice?

Here is where things get complicated. For instance, a biomechanist may recommend head guards for injury prevention; but a physiologist might advise not to wear the protection because of possible compromised thermoregulation; yet a psychologist might say the false-security of the head guard could create increased risk-taking by the athlete.

These researchers agree that these kinds of problems appear to be intractable. But with a developing common root knowledge by way of a DST vocabulary, there are increasingly hopeful ways our sciences and practices themselves can become integrated. This would help filter the pros and cons of certain kinds of practices so athletes, coaches, and other practitioners could make truly informed decisions. The sciences would encourage the free flow of information and facts within and between the levels of perspective.

Concluding thoughts

It is the case that reviewing the last two decades of the ECSS research abstracts reveals that the sports sciences are defined by specialisation and fragmentation. Only the illusion of integration is to be found in these documents given the common reductionist approach and research tools and techniques being used.

But if the dynamical systems approach is adopted, we are faithful to the fact that living systems are time and context specific. These researchers argue that common general principles and context-free concepts can be applied to all levels of organized matter. With a common language we have a tool equal to the task of studying our living systems from the top and the bottom. By working together, we can discover and share our common strengths.