In our tenth Women in Sport profile, we speak to Alice Sweeting, Research Fellow at the Western Bulldogs and Victoria University. Full of stories about her work in AFL, netball, and interactions with Olympic champions, Alice also gives helpful advice for the next generation of sports scientists.
Western Bulldogs & Academia
For someone who’s first choice career was to be a veterinarian, Alice Sweeting has more than succeeded in her second choice. Now a Research Fellow and Sports Scientist at the AFL’s Western Bulldogs, her role varies from working on data science reports for coaching and physical performance teams, to reviewing ethics applications from research across Victoria University.
Alice’s academic background is impressive: Honours in Sport Physiology, and a PhD with the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), Netball Australia, and Victoria University. She now co-supervises seven PhD scholars, who are working on projects including kick detection using wearable sensors, evaluating AFL training using a constraints-led approach, and profiling the physical output of AFL players using time-series methodologies.
Day-to-day at the Bulldogs, Alice’s work involves coordinating the Victoria University/Western Bulldogs PhD and undergraduate (cadet) students across the strength and conditioning, medical, and performance analysis departments, in addition to operating the AFL team’s athlete management system (AMS).
Whilst studying for her undergraduate degree, Alice completed a cadetship year with the Bulldogs in 2011. Prior to that, Alice’s only experience in an AFL environment was playing in a local football and netball league down in Geelong. “Back then, there were no female-specific uniforms at the Bulldogs, so my main barrier was trying to roll up male sized tracksuit pants and hoodies on my 157cm frame!”
Other challenges lie not in gender imbalance, but in the struggle to maintain a work-life balance. Alice stresses that completing a PhD and working in elite sport requires dedication, discipline, flexibility, and commitment. “This results in many meetings, emails, training sessions to attend, travel and working outside a typical 9-to-5 job, including being available on weekends, often working until the early hours of the morning.”
Not being able to switch off is deemed a big challenge for the industry as a whole. “I prefer the term “work-life-integration” rather than “work-life-balance” and always try to encourage PhD students I supervise to make time for things they enjoy, along with taking breaks and getting enough rest.” When accepting work opportunities, Alice understands it’s a learning curve, but tries to stick by a rule: “I try to think strategically and consider if the opportunity will help, hinder or have no real value to our overall research and strategic partnership goals.”
The Future of Sports Science
There has been a huge evolution of science and performance technology (and not just in the kit available to female sports science staff). “I remember using 1Hz GPS units with AFL players, now we have 10Hz units across a list of 44 players.”
Alice highlights how we can now record, upload and send videos of an athlete performing a skill on our phone or handheld device. Not only that, but the quantity of data from many types of technologies (e.g. GPS) allows for implementation of technologies usually reserved for the laboratory into the daily training environment.
As a result, Alice thinks the industry will evolve to reflect the skills that are required for performance sport. “Specifically, being able to collect, handle, clean, merge, model and visualise data from different technologies, in different formats and different capture processes and sample rates.”
Alice hopes that we’ll turn our attention to focussing on analysing continuous data traces, rather than aggregating to discrete periods or events, and hints at computers having a much bigger role to play. “Even the way we capture constraints, for example how much perceived pressure placed on an athlete whilst performing a skill, is currently manually coded by a human, but could (and should) be captured by a computer in a continuous sense.”
Successes & Inspirations
Ever the selfless sports scientist, Alice cites the development of her PhD students as her greatest victory. “I co-supervise Dave Corbett who was a GPS analyst at the Western Bulldogs and is now working as a data scientist with the Orlando Magic. Seeing Dave develop personally and professionally, from working primarily in Excel with aggregate GPS data to now being proficient in R and Python, whilst also developing his analytical ability in handling, modelling and visualising complex datasets has been a proud moment!”
When conversation moves to discussing athletes, teams, and colleagues that have made a lasting impact on her, there is quite a list. During Alice’s PhD, she worked with Lisa Alexander and the Australian Netball team leading up to the 2015 Netball World Cup, where the Diamonds won their 11th World Cup. She credits Lisa with making “the support staff and athletes one big team”, and encouraging Alice to “play her role, experiencing how elite athletes prepare, train, review and promote their sport.”
Alice recalls with awe her meeting with Anna Mears, the two-time Olympic gold medallist Australian track cyclist “after following her cycling journey and preparation to be the best athlete in the world. Anna’s dedication, physical preparation, attitude and resilience are impressive…many athletes and non-athletes could learn a lot from Anna.”
Sharing advice for the younger generation of sports scientists, Alice highlights key skills she’s learned over the years: “accepting constructive feedback and being able to work independently are important”. More importantly, however, is the value of failure. “Always have the confidence to give something a go…even if it doesn’t work the first time round, there is always a lesson in having a go.”
Read our previous Women in Sport profiles: