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Conducting research in professional sport: What’s in it for the athlete?

There is an increasing demand for more ecologically valid research within sport psychology. This is particularly true when exploring elite sport and sports performance. However, the stumbling block here for researchers has consistently been access to participants. I have listed to many colleagues lament the fact that both professional and elite sports performers are unwilling to participant in their studies. This issue is further complicated by the difficulties in developing truly ecologically valid research designs (essentially, does the task replicate the ‘real world’ or sports performance).

Sport science

The question here is why is there this disconnect between research and applied practice? Why are the ideal participants generally unwilling to participate? I have a foot in both camps as both a researcher and practitioner and believe this has offered me an insight to a potential solution.

Throughout my time as an applied consultant I have been approached many times by students and researchers alike to gain access to the professional athletes and teams that I have worked with. I have always tried to be helpful and facilitative where possible, but at the same time have always had one eye on the reputational impact that advocating participation in a study would have for me. As the potential ‘gatekeeper’ I always have to consider the impact upon my standing with my clients of asking them to volunteer for interviews and to spend time completing questionnaires.

Being aware of this I always throw the same question back at the potential researcher, which is ‘what is in it for the participants?’ If the researcher can present a robust answer to this question then I am glad to act on their behalf. If not, then the answer is no!


I think this issue reflects an historical problem for many researchers trying to access the performance environment. Expert researchers have an excellent understanding of their issues of interest and the contributions the study could make to our wider understanding, but this is often at the expense of seeing the research study from the perspective of the participant. Higher level or professional sports performers are busy people. Also, due to the nature of their ‘jobs’ doing paperwork (such as questionnaires) is pretty alien and as such more time consuming. For these reasons participation in a research study can be an inconvenience. We know that professional sports performers are always aspiring to higher levels of performance, so if you can present a case for how the outcomes of the research could potentially enhance their performance I am pretty sure there will be a positive response. Also, it might be that the outcomes might not help them, but could help future generations of performers in the sport. This is another avenue that I have seen have a positive impact upon participant recruitment.

So, if you are designing a research study that is seeking to understand elite performance, and as a result requires elite performers, ask your self the question ‘what is in it for them?’ before you start trying to recruit participants. This small step has the potential to significantly increase the number of elite performers who are willing to take time out of their busy schedules to participate in your study.

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