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An interview with International Performance Scientist, Stephen Bird

Interviewed by Camella Brightman, ESSA Member Communications Officer.

The article has been republished from Move Magazine.

Stephen Bird is an International Performance Scientist within elite sports conditioning, athlete recovery and performance optimisation. Having been a member of ESSA since 2002, Stephen was also the inaugural recipient of the ESSA Medal in 2006. Since then Stephen’s career in academia and sports science has exploded. He shares his career background, advice for the sports science industry and more.

You’ve been working within the sports science industry over the last 20 years with a variety of teams and universities – tell us about your career to date.

EARLY DAYS 

After completing work experience at Parkview Gym in Bathurst (NSW) during Year 10, the owner offered me a full-time job, so I left school early and started working in the fitness industry as a 16-year-old. I loved to train and was extremely curious about the human body and athletic performance. Over the next 10 years, I found myself training more and more athletes, from pre-elite youth to professional, across a variety of sports. During this time, my passion for strength and conditioning and sports science resulted in me applying for several roles. You name it, and I applied for it – from State Institutes and professional teams, to the AIS and national team roles; all the while receiving the infamous ‘We regret to inform you’ letter, as I did not possess undergraduate qualifications. 

In 1998, I was the Physical Preparation Coach for several national team boxers in the lead up to the Commonwealth Games (one of which, Damian Dennis ranked #3 in the world). Boxing Australia had just advertised a Physical Preparation Coach position, I applied, and once again, another ‘We regret to inform you’ letter. That was a defining moment for me. Feeling extremely disappointed and dejected, I found myself reflecting on a conversation I had had with my father who told me to, “Find your passion, make it your profession, and you will never work a day in your life”. This was my passion, so, 13 years after I left school, I was accepted as an Associate Student at Charles Sturt University (CSU) in the Bachelor of Human Movement. That’s when I met Professor Frank Marino and Dr. Kyle Tarpenning, two world-leading academics that would significantly impact my career. 

CHARLES STURT UNIVERSITY

During my time at CSU, I completed a Bachelor of Human Movement (Exercise Science), Bachelor of Human Movement – Honours (examining Chronobiology), and a Doctor of Philosophy (Exercise Physiology & Nutrition). I then accepted an academic role in Exercise Rehabilitation and was responsible for coordinating the Master of Exercise Science (Rehabilitation) and Master of Clinical Exercise Physiology (Rehabilitation). My PhD thesis titled ‘Influence of nutritive interventions on biochemical signals and markers of myofibrillar protein degradation following acute and chronic resistance exercise in untrained men’ received the NSCA Graduate Research Award (2005), and was awarded the Inaugural ESSA Medal (2006) for the most outstanding PhD thesis in the field of exercise and sports science across all universities in Australia. The findings provided preliminary evidence of nutritional regulation of myofibrillar protein degradation, during which the independent and combined effects of carbohydrate/essential amino acid ingestion on hormonal and muscular adaptations following acute resistance exercise and chronic training were characterised. Notably, these works presented an alternative mechanism regulating muscle growth, termed the ‘anti-catabolic effect’, which may better favour conservation of myofibrillar protein, as assessed by 3-methylhistidine excretion. The potential implications of such responses are of practical significance not only for athletic populations, but more importantly chronic disease states where nutrient status is compromised, resulting in muscle wasting.

I was invited to collaborate with Deakin University’s molecular research group under the direction of Professor David Cameron-Smith to examine nutrient/gene interaction following multi-nutrient supplementation during acute resistance exercise and chronic resistance training. These studies determined the attenuating effects of nutritional regulation on ubiquitin-proteasome component genes providing preliminary insights into the anabolic drive of nutritive interventions and preliminary understanding of key molecular signals leading to transcriptional regulation of the ubiquitin pathway in response to resistance exercise. I was then invited to collaborate with the Auckland University of Technology doctoral student, Elaine Rogers, examining a multitargeted treatment approach to cancer cachexia under Auckland’s cancer cachexia evaluating resistance training trial, investigating resistance training and essential amino acid ingestion in cancer cachexia patients.

After presenting on chronobiology and performance at the ASCA National Conference, I was invited to meet with the performance staff at the Wests Tigers (NRL) at the end of 2006. I accepted a 3-month consulting role for the offseason, working specifically with David Boyle and Ciriaco Mescia to review the athlete monitoring framework for the upcoming session. In 2007/08, I conducted research examining nutritional knowledge of NRL players, across multiple teams, which resulted in the implementation of player nutrition education programs. Then in 2012, I was a Sports Science Research Associate with the Penrith Panthers (NRL) working with Matt Ryan to examine the accumulative physiological and psychological stress from training and competition on player wellness, with two Honours students. The data specifically influenced the monitoring process and provided a framework for quantification of individual athlete load tolerance levels. Collaborations then followed with the Perth Wildcats (NBL), West Coast Waves (WNBL) and Basketball WA, thanks to an opportune meeting with Perth Wildcats Head Coach Rob Beveridge. 

WESTERN REGION ACADEMY OF SPORT

As part of my academic appointment at CSU, I served as Director of Strength and Conditioning (S&C) for the Western Region Academy of Sport (WRAS) from 2006 to 2015, coordinating the CSU/WRAS S&C Internship Program. The program provided professional mentorship for 45 students in the many areas of S&C, developing the proficiency skills and knowledge required as early career S&C professionals servicing 1200 pre-elite youth athletes during this time. Most notably, the program was a four-time winner of the Strength of America Award presented by the NSCA in conjunction with the President’s Council on Fitness. CSU/WRAS were the first non-US institutions to receive this award that represents excellence in delivering strength and conditioning for high school athletes and dedication to ensuring the safety of young athletes through education and promotion of best practice. 

 INDONESIAN OLYMPIC COMMITTEE 

CSU entered into an agreement with the Indonesian Ministry of Youth and Sport Affairs and the Indonesian Olympic Committee (IOC) in 2007 as part of the Indonesian High-Performance Sport Collaboration. My works with the IOC span 10 years leading project management across three university partnerships. I was responsible for high-performance sport initiatives implementing National Sport Federation policies, leading coach education and assisting athlete preparation and performance support services for Indonesian National Team coaches and athletes for scheduled events by Olympic Council of Asia including Olympic Games, South East Asian Games, and Asian Games. From an applied research perspective, projects were successfully conducted for Badminton Indonesia, Tennis Indonesia, Indonesian Amateur Boxing Association, Indonesian Athletics Federation, and Indonesian Sports Education and Training Centre for Students. 

I was fortunate to attend the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games as part of the Indonesian National Team contingent in the role of Department Head, Strength and Conditioning, and the 2016 Rio Olympic Games in the role of Head of Performance Science (Badminton).  To be able to have impact across all levels, from Ministerial, Sport Federations and the IOC in developing National frameworks has been extremely rewarding, both professionally and personally.

JAMES COOK UNIVERSITY

I accepted the position of Associate Professor in Sport and Exercise Science at James Cook University (JCU), Cairns in 2015. Leading the High-Performance Sports Initiative, I established key international partnerships and collaborations in three countries (Indonesia, PNG, and Scotland) for major competitions – UCI Mountain Bike World Championships, Scotland Rugby League (Rugby League World Cup), Indonesia Olympic Committee (Rio Olympic Games 2016), PNG Sports Foundation, National Basketball League, Marlin Coast Netball (State League), Northern Pride Rugby League (Q-Cup), NQ Baseball, and FNQ Heat FC. During my time at JCU, I was able to combine my passion for academia, research and elite sport, fulfilling high-performance roles embedded within my appointment. These included Director of HighPerformance, Northern Pride Rugby League (feeder team for the NQ Cowboys); and Head of Performance Science, Townsville Fire – WNBL. I was fortunate to attend my second Olympic Games (Rio 2016) as part of the Indonesian Olympic Badminton Team, with Tontowi Ahmad and Liliyana Natsir winning the Gold Medal (Mixed Doubles). During the year, I was honoured to receive the Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Innovation and Change (2016) for establishment of the JCU High-Performance Sport Initiative, and the ASCA Professional Coaches Scheme, Mentor Coach of the Year.   

The next two years where busy, both internationally with the Rugby League World Cup, Downhill Mountain Bike World Championships and World Cup, Indonesian HighPerformance Program, and Commonwealth Games; and nationally, with the Northern Pride Rugby League (Q-Cup), Illawarra Hawks (NBL), and Townsville Fire (WNBL). I was contacted by Scotland Rugby League to discuss collaborations for the 2017 RLWC. The Braveheart’s were drawn to face Tonga, New Zealand and Samoa, playing two games in Cairns and one in New Zealand. I was appointed Head of Sport Science and worked closely with the coaching staff and interdisciplinary performance team, particularly, Steve McCormack (Head Coach), Paul Beckett (S&C coach) and Trent Bowden (Physio). I was responsible for an integrated systematic approach to physical preparation, strength and conditioning, player wellness monitoring, travel scheduling, nutrition and recovery management. The 2017 Downhill Mountain Bike World Championships were hosted in Cairns and I had the privilege to work with Australia’s international superstars, Tracey Hannah and Mick Hannah during the year in their quest to win the World Championship and World Cup.

Next stop was the 2018 Commonwealth Games. I was contacted by Rob Beveridge, who had just accepted the position of Head Coach with Scotland Basketball, inviting me to meet Barry Lang (Head of Basketball Operations). In the meeting it very became clear that what we were searching for was about more than just basketball. This was about an opportunity for Scotland players to leave a forever-lasting legacy. I felt privileged to be offered the role of Athlete Health and Performance Lead. To experience the Commonwealth Games with Scotland Basketball was truly amazing, the result held national significance and created history.

UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN QUEENSLAND

Most recently, (May 2020), I accepted the position of Associate Professor in Sport and Exercise Science at the University of Southern Queensland. The opportunity to work with Professor Chris McLellan, Head of School, Health and Wellbeing, in developing the Strength and Conditioning Department and overseeing a dedicated Strength and Conditioning Laboratory was too good to pass. Without giving too much away, I would say ‘watch this space’ as we are deep in discussions with world-leading international S&C coaches and researchers. 

You’ve more recently worked as the Athlete Health & Performance Lead for Basketball New Zealand. Given the changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic, what has that new role been like?

Basketball New Zealand (BBNZ) invited me to present an athlete heath and performance framework, and our discussions led to being offered the role of Athlete Health and Performance Lead, assisting the Women’s Senior National program (Tall Ferns). Then of course, the COVID-19 pandemic created so many challenges, but to see the commitment of BBNZ administration, coaching staff and players has been inspiring.

My first task was to lead the Basketball New Zealand COVID-19 Framework Project Team in designing guidelines for the safe return to training and competition for the condensed National Basketball League season following COVID-19. The guidelines are supported by Sports Medicine New Zealand and published in the New Zealand Journal of Sports Medicine. This was extremely important as we had a 6-week preparation period for the Tall Ferns nationally televised showcase game. Currently, we are in the final stages of preparing the COVID-19 Health and Safety Protocols for Travelling Teams. 

This year you co-authored the book ‘When Winning Matters: Lessons Learned From Sport’s Elite’ – what was the inspiration behind the book?

I had been thinking about writing a book for some and spoke with a good friend of mine, Dr Jo Lukins (Psychologist), who I had worked with at the Townsville Fire. Dr Jo had recently published a book and put me in contact with the publishing group. I approached Rob Beveridge (Bevo) to co-author the book with me, as we have such an extensive and diverse range of experiences in elite sport, and that’s when I came up with the concept of When Winning Matters.

Our goal was to reveal the lessons learned from sport’s elite to create a successful, winning environment. We provide readers with unique first-hand accounts and personal reflections from working with Championship-winning teams in the NBL and WNBL, along with insights from World Championships, World Cups, Commonwealth and Olympic Games. We wanted to create a book that would take the reader deep inside the inner sanctum of sport’s elite. With COVID causing so much stress and disruption to everyday life, we worked extremely hard to have the book written and published in around four months. We want people to draw inspiration by relating to the experiences we share. 

I often get asked what my favourite chapter is. To be honest, I really don’t have just one, they all relate and build on from the previous. From ‘Know Your Game Plan’ to ‘Culture Counts’; ‘Do Your Job’ to ‘On Your Worst Day’; ‘The X Factor’ to ‘Next Play Mindset’; ‘The 1%ers That Count’ to ‘Embrace Chaos’. All the chapters have meaning and context. One of the most humbling experiences in writing the book, for me personally, was how freely Andrew Bogut (NBA Champion and 3x Olympian) and David Andersen (former NBA Player and 4x Olympian) gave of their time to write the foreword. 

Having worked with professional sports teams and international sporting organisations, do you have any career highlights that you’d like to share?

Olympic Games: 

Beijing Olympics 2008: Badminton Indonesia win Gold, Silver and Bronze. To be in the arena and witness the shuttlers perform when it matters most was inspiring. One of my fondest memories was taking part in the closing ceremony. As we left the stadium, we gave away some of our Indonesian Olympic apparel that we were wearing to spectators stands. I gave mine to a little boy and his face lit up with excitement. I have a son, so it was meaningful for me to see that little boy’s reaction.

Rio Olympics 2016: Liliyana Natsir and Tontowi Ahmad win Gold in Badminton. Watching mixed doubles pair, Tontowi Ahmad and Liliyana Natsir win the Gold medal, was to witness mental fortitude that is at the heart of Olympic champions. I was a little emotional as I was with Liliyana when she won Silver in Beijing (2008), and to be with her when she won Gold is a memory I will hold forever.

2017 Downhill Mountain Bike World Championships: 

SikMik and LittleTrace. Working with international superstars, Tracey Hannah and Mick Hannah during their quest to win the World Championship and World Cup was an amazing experience. They are both ‘next level’, with no fear or self-preservation. Those who work with extreme athletes will know what I mean. It was humbling to receive airtime with them in the mini-documentary, ‘This is UR World: A World Championship at Home’, a high pace documentary with Tracey and Mick as they prepared for the 2017 World Championships. This is a real insight into what it takes to be prepared to win the World Championship.

Commonwealth Games 2018: 

Basketball Scotland: Creating history. The team achievements are of national significance, going undefeated in the Pool stage with wins over England, Cameroon, and India. Notably, the victory over England; the first in 34 years. This was followed by victory over Nigeria in the quarterfinals, with Scotland progressing to the medal rounds. Following a loss to Australia, Scotland came agonisingly close to winning the Bronze medal, however, he succumbed to a very strong New Zealand team and finished in fourth position. This was the first time in Commonwealth Games history that a Scotland team sport progressed to the medal rounds. 

With the changes to the Olympics, elite and community sport throughout the year, do you think the pandemic will change the way we train athletes and sporting teams moving forward?

The COVID-19 pandemic has not only changed the way we train athletes and sporting teams, it has changed the way we live for the unforeseeable feature. From a training perspective, notably, there has been an increase in engaging athletes in the online environment. But more importantly, I think COVID has allowed us to refocus our attention undoubtedly on one of the most important factors, not only for athletes, but every person. That is – mental well-being. A lot has been said about the increase in stress, anxiety and sleep-related disorders, and I think these are real concerns moving forward. I strongly encourage athletes to take the time to refocus their mindset; each and every day. One psychological strategy we use is called ‘situational reframing’. The goal is to reset one’s mindset daily and use this time as an opportunity to embrace personal growth (i.e. growth mindset). 

For anyone looking to enter the sports science and research field, do you have any advice?

Here are my top 5 tips for early career sports scientists and research students:

  1. Surround yourself with high-quality mentors.
  2. Become involved in collaboration.
  3. Reach out to as many like-minded people as you can.
  4. Ask questions, but don’t always expect the answer you are looking for.
  5. It’s ok to not have all the answers!
The Olympic Rings.
Stephen Bird is an International Performance Scientist within elite sports conditioning, athlete recovery and performance optimisation.