Naomi Datson is a Senior Lecturer in Sports Performance Analysis at the University of Chichester. Her career is headlined by her work at the Football Association, where she reached the position of Head of Sports Science for all England Women’s teams. In this interview she chats about significant achievements, her transition into education, and how sports science support varies between genders.
Having worked at the FA for over 10 years, Naomi started her journey with the England Women’s youth squads, working with the U19 team as their sports scientist. At the same time, she was working part time at the Player Development Centre for elite players at Loughborough University. Naomi recalls how a lot of the current England squad came through that programme and that she enjoyed the day to day contact with the players, rather than the once a month like the normal international squad would be.
In 2010, Naomi became Head of Sports Science for all England Women’s teams, which took her to the European Championships, Olympics and World Cup, winning plenty of medals along the way; a World Cup bronze with the senior team in 2015 and several successes with the U19 side.
Having now entered the world of education, Naomi’s responsibility from an academic point of view is teaching the undergraduate sports science degree at the University of Chichester, in addition to their Master’s degree in sports performance analysis. Naomi combines these responsibilities with researching women’s football; a subject that is close to her heart after her PhD in Applied Physiology in Female Soccer. She has spent her career in that space, looking at the demands of match play for female players, the physical characteristics of female players, and fitness scores across different positions.
Naomi talks about researching and writing her PhD as one of her biggest challenges. “Combining working full-time for the FA in a high pressure, high performance sport role at the same time as doing my PhD meant there were a lot of sacrifices I had to make. All my annual leave was spent writing my PhD at my dining room table!”.
Whilst most of our interviewees have spoken about gender being a barrier in their career, Naomi calls herself lucky to have avoided any significant barriers, although “it might have been different as I was working in women’s football where we are actively campaigning for gender equality and change.”
Despite that, Naomi is still of the opinion that gender inequality plays out on the field, through a lesser amount of sports science support given to female players. “Unfortunately it varies widely – our female athletes generally don’t get the same level of support that male players would.”
However, there has been a step change recently, and you only have to look at women’s football over the last few years to see that. “It is becoming more positive. In the time that I’ve been involved in women’s sport we have received more support, attention and resources, but we’re still a long way off.”
Naomi’s greatest victory comes from empowering others. “I was very fortunate to work with the U19s as they progressed into the senior team. It meant I went on the journey with a lot of the same players and it was really special to see their progression both as players and as people.” In a way, Naomi feels even prouder of the players through being removed from it in the last few years. “Watching them play from my position as a fan makes me realise how far they’ve come over the last twelve years.”
A particular performance stands out for Naomi; the U19 England Women’s team that won gold at the 2009 Euros. “It was a special group of players and staff. As a team, everything came together”. Many of these players were stars of the England team at the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France this year; the likes of Toni Duggan, Jade Moore, and Silver Ball and UEFA Women’s Player of the Year winner Lucy Bronze.
Naomi couldn’t possibly narrow it down to an individual player that has had a significant impact on her career, but when it comes to colleagues and mentors she pinpoints Professor Warren Gregson, Director of Studies when Naomi was doing her PhD, as being a source of academic and personal support over the last fifteen years.
Naomi also credits Shona Halson, one of our previous interviewees, as being a real inspiration, helping Naomi to see the potential in sports science. Naomi first met Shona during a graduate internship at the Australian Institute of Sport, where she was given the opportunity to look at real applied experiences; “it gave me a thirst to kickstart my own career in sports science.”
In the next ten years, Naomi is of the opinion that “sports will be looked at from a multidisciplinary approach; people will no longer be working in silos, thanks to a drive led by the data revolution.” With the amount of business and finance in elite sport, she anticipates it will only keep progressing, and a lot more support staff will be employed across each organisation.
Being able to relate and communicate with different people is a significant part of Naomi’s job role; “You’re working with lots of different people, so emotional intelligence is a must-have. If you can’t form the relationship first, you have no hope in leading them from a sports science perspective.”
Read our previous Women in Sport profiles: