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  • Jo Clubb

Why We Must Translate Not Transplant Systems

The verb to transplant has been defined in the following ways:

  • To lift and reset in another situation, such as with a plant

  • To remove from one place and settle elsewhere, as per the verb to relocate

  • To transfer from one individual to another, such as with an organ

In these situation, the transfer sounds straightforward. Some considerations are given for the setting that is receiving the transplant – such as the blood type of the individual receiving the organ or the type of soil in the area receiving the plant. Meanwhile, objective compatibility tests are carried out to determine the suitable of a transplant between a potential kidney donor and recipient.


Such tests determine if the setting is appropriate, but do not seek to change the item that is being transplanted. If there are incompatible blood types, this cannot be changed in the transplant organ and a new recipient is looked for. Whilst I am no doubt greatly simplifying the process of an organ transplant, I am seeking to emphasise the categorical and linear procedure of a transplant. However, the complexity of sporting environments means systems must be translated, rather than transplanted.


The complexity of sporting environments means systems must be translated, rather than transplanted.

The verb to translate is defined as “to express the sense of words of text in another language”. It might be assumed that this is a direct process, that one word equates to another. However, anyone who has attempted to learn another language will testify that it is often not straightforward and requires navigating differences in grammar, meaning, and culture. Thus, translate is a more suitable verb to use to describe navigating more complex differences.


Translating Research to Practice

Translation has been widely discussed in the sports science literature and as far back as 1980 with an editorial entitled “bridging the gap in sports science” by E.R. Burke. Such discussion has predominantly focused on the translation of research into applied practice. As Applied Scientists, we are tasked with translating research into a suitable and meaningful approach within our specific environment.


Numerous models for translating sports science research into applied practice have been proposed. David Bishop’s Applied Research Model for the Sports Sciences (ARMSS) includes steps to analyse potential barriers to intervention uptake and then evaluating intervention effectiveness. Similarly, Caroline Finch and colleagues published the Translating Research into Injury Prevention Practice (TRIPP) framework and followed up with a hot topic editorial entitled “No longer lost in translation: the art and science of sports injury prevention implementation research.” More recently, Joe Eisenmann aligned and synthesised both of these models, along with a “bench to bedside” model from medical translational science, into a new model for translational sports science.


These works acknowledge the applied environment as an entirely different setting to the controlled research environment. As Bishop wrote: “For any implementation to occur, an appreciation of the infrastructure available to the coach and athlete is required. What are the manpower, finance, equipment, time and other resources required to implement the proposed intervention?” Research adds to our understanding of phenomena in an isolated and/or controlled state; yet, translating this into action in the applied setting is a critical skillset for practitioners.


Translating within the Applied Environment

I’ve had the opportunity to work in different countries and sports, and consequently to cultivate my ability to translate systems. Two of these sports – ice hockey and American football – I had minimal knowledge of prior to my role. It was initially tempting to try to transplant the sports science systems I had previously created in football into these sports. However, it quickly became apparent that such a transplant would not work because of the differences in ecology.


The process was therefore, not to transplant a system, but to translate it. Training process theory is relevant to all athletes but the context differs. I had to consider how the context – and therefore, the application – of player tracking data differs when dealing with athletes on ice, for instance. Similarly, how such information is relevant to the training process across different position groups, with vastly differing demands, in American Football. I have previously spoken in greater depth about this challenge on the Pacey Performance podcast, and for the Sports Surgery Clinic (conference review available on Sportsmith here).


While this approach is amplified when moving between sports, it is just as relevant to those within the same sport. Working across different organisations, teams, sex, and/or age groups, requires an understand of the individual milieu. I have previously discussed a number of tools that can help translation in the applied environment. The Value Burden Matrix challenges practitioners to consider the worth a particular data collection process will bring to their individual environment; alongside the additional responsibilities it will require. Just because a process succeeded in another setting, does not necessarily mean it can be transplanted elsewhere.


The ability to translate this (textbooks and research) into meaning within their specific applied setting determines the success of a performance support setup.

The Precision Practicality Tradeoff highlights the need for practitioners to contemplate how both the accuracy and the workability of a particular tool will translate into their applied setting. This in itself may be variable and so, it is up to the practitioner to optimise this tradeoff by how the tool is implemented. For example, research tells us that dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DXA) is the gold standard for body composition assessment, but which tool – DXA, skinfolds, bod pod, bioelectrical impedance analysis etc. – provides the optimum compromise in precision and practicality based on the constraints of your environment? Textbooks and research can only prepare practitioners so much: the ability to translate this into meaning within their specific applied setting determines the success of a performance support setup.


Borrowing Principles

In the 100th episode of the Supporting Champions podcast, Steve Ingham spoke to Baroness Dame Sue Campbell. Within a fascinating conversation, they both agreed on the need to “borrow principles” from other systems, rather than try to replicate them. This was discussed both within the context of UK Sport adapting principles from the Australian Olympic system in the 1990s, as well as today whereby women’s football is attempting to translate suitable principles from the men’s game, without attempting to copy it. As Baroness Campbell, surmises:


We’re learning from everybody… you’re crazy not to look at great systems and understand them. But what you can never do is lift them and plonk them in your own country; you’ve got to look at what makes them successful and how do you apply that.” - Baroness Sue Campbell

This is precisely why we are called “Applied Sports Scientists”; it is our responsibility to apply findings from research and other systems into our own setting.


Final Thoughts

Translating rather than transplanting systems is an essential skillset. Both research and our prior applied experiences provide a starting point, but it is the ability to understand how processes can be implemented within a specific environment that, for me, sets practitioners apart. This requires understanding the rules and regulations, traditions and cultures, people, sport and positional demands, and time and money resources, to name but a few. So, if you want performance support to have the impact it could – and should – have within a setting, make sure you have an excellent translator.


I act as an External Teammate to deliver performance systems that are successful within the context of your specific setting. Contact me to discuss your translation needs further.


Infographic explaining the complexity of sporting environments and performance mean that systems must be translated, rather than transplanted. Translation factors from research to applied practice are listed as time, culture, equipment, value v burden, rules & regulations, and precision v practicality.