Professional empathy; it just takes time…

Apologies for not putting pen to internet paper for some time now, it’s been a little manic as we are expecting our first son in June and I have been jetsetting to present and research a range of topics. Any way, this post was inspired by a conversation over dinner with an exceptional athlete who asked do I enjoy the sport I’m currently working most with, it’s important to note this sport is also their sport and they are bloody good at it. My answer that ‘I love it’ and that I’ve loved my experiences of attempting the sport so far seemed well received and upon reflection I thought this was important not just for the athlete to hear I loved their sport, but that I had some idea of what playing said sport ‘felt like’ and how difficult it is to even be remotely safe and competent. This got me thinking about ‘Professional empathy’, a term coined off the back of the admonition ‘Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes.’ and how important it is to be able to relate to athletes’ experiences as a sports science practitioner. This post shares three of my professionally empathic experiences and what I’ve gleaned from them.

I’ve spent most of my sporting life as a runner, and most of my sports science life as a nutritionist. Runners, in my experience, typically want to run long and race hard. This clearly requires proper fuelling, and where appropriate strategies to build upon this solid base. It took me about a decade to be a consistent club runner, and I constantly experimented with dietary approaches and techniques so that I could better advise those athletes that would also come to me for advice. I thoroughly enjoyed preparing athletes for marathons, and even when working as a consultant for Full Potential would push and challenge other coaches to experiment with their nutrition. One such example was that of ‘sleeping low’ in preparation for a marathon (based on these papers Paper1 Paper 2); I think Ben Barwick (@bennyFP) nearly fell out with me but we took it slow, logged everything and learnt a lot through the process. I also used to undertake (and still do) relatively long (8-10mile) early morning fasted training sessions, supplemented with caffeine through either green tea, coffee or caffeine gum – the session is always challenging, but after 8-10 weeks of this I feel better prepared for the latter stages of a 10-miler or half marathon where an ability to operate efficiently on limited glycogen is key. Lesson learned: Good results take time, so give yourself it.

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Recently I was involved in a heat acclimation study. I’m not at liberty to divulge any findings or the protocol yet as we are still working on the manuscript, but as a pilot for some of the kit we were using myself and another researcher trialled the protocol following an easy run in a not so cool 40 degrees celsius. When we told athletes that we’d trialled it, and had worked out the kinks on ourselves they seemed a bit taken a back. This is a version of professional empathy I would call ‘Sweat equity’, putting the work in so that athlete and scientist understand each other’s perspectives and we minimise the burden upon the athlete by doing so. We then further refined the protocol with input from other scientists, coaches and athletes. There is no substitute for working with elite athletes, but having a solid protocol going into a study that has been trialled and experienced by someone who can express their experiences is essential. The same applies to non-elites you want to put in challenging circumstances…such as an ice bath that’s only 4 degrees! That video will surface one day soon I’m sure.

Lesson learned: Professional empathy is a reciprocal relationship. Give yourself so you can better give to others.

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Finally, for those who don’t follow my other social media channels, I’m spending a lot of time working with Polo as we establish an understanding of the sport, and begin to publish our observations academically (see here), and in press such as the Polo Times thanks to our partnership with Ainsley Polo. This has led me to learn to ride under the tutelage of my wife, and a host of other equestrians who always seem mostly happy to hear I’ve not fallen off…yet! Although I’m a terrible rider, learning to ride brings me closer to my wife and constantly provides me with an even greater appreciation for the ‘business’ of Polo and the skill required to produce a High Goal performance. Dedicating time to riding, and stick and balling makes the questions we ask in the lab easier to translate to practice and keeps me focussed on the end goal of improving Polo performance and not chasing academic publications. Lesson learned: Get on the horse, so you don’t have to chase it at a later date.

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So concludes this relatively brief post on professional empathy. I cannot stress how important seeking out opportunities to develop this characteristic has been to me, my career and my understanding of self and sports science in recent years. My PhD work has been central to this, but so has everything from taking an athlete’s bloods during an ultra race at 3am in a car park to stick and balling a Polo pony. I look forward to hearing how others have developed this skill in the comments section or via email.

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