How to Conduct Sports Research and Write a Thesis

By Duncan Ritchie

05-April-2022 on Tips

26 minute read

Most of you reading this will already be involved in sports research. Notational analysis, or performance analysis, as it’s better known, is the bread and butter of professional clubs and analysts the world over. This is the act of watching a team play, be it your own team or an opponent, and analysing their behaviour on the field to gain a better understanding of their strengths and weaknesses. We’ve written about this type of research extensively on this blog, as that’s what Nacsport is designed to do.


But today, we’d like to switch our focus to talk about a more academic type of research. The type that might commonly be conducted by undergraduate students, postgraduate students, independent sports scientists, and experts in the field. Research that gives us a deeper scientific understanding of sport and gives us all a base to build from.


So, what type of research might this include, how would you go about conducting it, and how do you write the final paper? Well, these are the questions we’re hoping to answer in this blog. 


So, without further ado, let’s get started…


1. What Is Sports Research and Why Is It Conducted?

2. Preparing a Sports Research Paper
          2.1. Choose the Question
          2.2 The Preliminary Research
          2.3. Data Collection
          2.4. Analysis of Data

3. Writing Your Research Paper
          3.1. Abstract
          3.2. Introduction
          3.3. Review Sources
          3.4. Discuss the Methodology
          3.5. Reveal the Results
          3.6. Analysis
          3.7. Conclusion
          3.8. Other Sections

4. Useful Tools for Writing a Research Paper
          4.1. Google Scholar
          4.2. Nacsport
          4.3. Power BI
          4.4. Sharimg
          4.5. Grammarly

          4.6. ResearchGate

5. Conclusion


how to conduct sports research


1. What Is Sports Research and Why Is It Conducted?

What is sports research, you ask? Well, simply put, it’s the process of collecting, analysing, and interpreting empirical data in order to provide a better understanding of a single topic. Undergraduate dissertations, postgraduate theses, non-profit white papers, or professional market research can all be considered types of research papers that are relevant to the world of sports.


Typically, research papers in the field of sports might be based on:


•    Injuries in sport and their effects
•    Sports management
•    Effects of sport on the population
•    Training and improving performance
•    Tactics and their effectiveness
•    Individual players and their place in the team
•    New sports products and the benefits of using them
•    Sports marketing


To name but a few.


Generally speaking, research can be split into two camps: fundamental research and applied research.


Fundamental, or basic, research is the act of obtaining knowledge for the sake of curiosity and is intended to increase our knowledge in the area of sport. Fundamental research tends to come from the world of academia and, as such, doesn’t usually have commercial objectives and doesn’t always lead to a solution for the problem being studied. Fundamental research answers the questions “why?”, “what?”, and “how?”.


Applied research, on the other hand, looks for specific solutions to problems, many of which have been highlighted by the aforementioned fundamental research. Quite often these solutions will have commercial objectives, such as developing new products or services that can then be sold to those that need them. Applied research is generally built on a bed of fundamental research.


No matter which type of research you are conducting, there are some established methods which should be followed, so let’s take a look at these step-by-step.



2. Preparing a Sports Research Paper

Research papers form the foundations of modern sports science, and any other type of science, for that matter. They are an effective method of disseminating research to peers who can read, review, and build upon that initial research. In addition, they are often used in colleges and universities as learning resources to help students get a better grasp of a topic and build their own theses on.


Because of the emphasis on peer review, there are some general, unwritten rules that must be followed when conducting research and writing the final paper. These ensure that everyone is on the same page and that the papers are as neutral and reliable as possible.


For example, the language used tends to be much more formal than it would be for a personal essay, and the findings always stick to the included empirical, numerical evidence rather than unevidenced opinions or theories.


So, keeping this in mind, what’s the first step?


choosing a sports research question



2.1. Choose the Question

Simple, right? Pick a question, do the research, and write the paper. Well, perhaps not quite so simple…


You see, the question you choose is probably the single most important decision you’ll make during the whole process. The question will determine the route that your research will take, the methods of data collection, and, ultimately, shape your entire research paper.


The biggest factor comes in finding the correct balance between a topic which is far too general and one that is laser focused on a single aspect of sport. If the topic is too general, then the final paper will be too wide ranging and informative. It’s more than likely that general topics will already have been covered in-depth in other places.


On the other hand, if the topic is too narrow, you may struggle to find or collect enough relevant data in order to conduct the research successfully.


In addition to this, it’s a good idea to choose a topic that you are actually interested in. If you don’t like the subject, this will shine through in your final paper, making it lacklustre at best.


Here are some example questions, taken from the Homework Lab website. Click the link for a more comprehensive list:


•    Brain concussion of athletes. Should athletes suspected of concussion be removed from the field?
•    Global warming and sports. Does environmental change affect sports and what shifts can be expected in the future?
•    Connection between sports and the economy. Are nations that invest in sports more stable than non-sporting countries?
•    Communication on the field. What is the most effective means of communication between team members?
•    The impact of fame on sports performance. Do famous athletes improve as they become more recognised?
•    Do changes in rules generate stress. The impact of rule changes on athletic training.


As we said, these are just a few examples. When deciding on your own question, try to find a topic which hasn't previously been covered, look for knowledge gaps in previously published literature. And this is where the next step comes in to play...


2.2 The Preliminary Research

No matter how original you think your research question is, it’s likely that there's already a lot of literature out there related to the topic. At this stage, you should try to gather as much of this information as possible to give yourself a foundation for your own research. 


Having all this data at hand will also come in useful when deciding which studies to cite within your own paper. Citations are extremely important, as they show what sources you consulted before and during your own research path, so take note of what you consider to be the most important past research.


Although it differs from country to country and between areas of study, the accepted method of adding citations in the UK is: Author Name(s), 'title' (unpublished [degree level], university, year), page number.


This stage will also help you to refine your question and help determine your ongoing research methods.


Which brings us onto our next stage…



2.3. Data Collection

There may be some research papers which are entirely based on the extension of the preliminary stages mentioned above, finding and curating prepublished data to create something which is unique and publishable. But in the field of sport, we’re probably trying to collect evidence that is a little more objective and tangible.


In fact, there’s a fair chance that what you will be doing will be similar to the notational analysis that we mentioned in the first paragraph. This is especially true if the research being conducted involves looking at an aspect of sport which can be observed, either during a match or on the training field. 


Notational analysis is, of course, a well known process to those who have already been involved in professional video analysis and (shameless, but deserved, plug), Nacsport is the perfect tool for this type of data collection. As the software is fully adaptable and allows the user to set the parameters for any sport or analysis type, it’s easy to get a full dataset for the topic you are studying, like boxing…


We won’t go into great detail about the mechanics of data collection with Nacsport, feel free to browse the blog and website for more information, but we do suggest that, if you’re not already using the software, get yourself a FREE trial for 30 days. It could be the best decision you ever make!


Data collection with Nacsport will give you original quantitative data that can be used in your research paper but, of course, there are plenty of other sources of objective numerical data that can be found online. One such source is InStat which can provide historical statistical data for football, basketball, and ice-hockey matches.


In terms of qualitative data there are many methods which can be used. Here are just a few:


•    Surveys
•    Interviews
•    Focus groups
•    Live observations
•    Case studies
•    Questionnaires


Whichever methods you end up using, it is important that you include a section in your final paper which details the exact methods of data collection and analysis of this data. As a rule, this section will be written in the past tense in your final publication.


sports research preliminary resources



2.4. Analysis of Data

At the end of the data collection process, you will have attained a huge amount of raw data which then must be filtered so that the most relevant information for your study can be found.


Again, for quantitative data that you have obtained yourself, we recommend using the tools available in Nacsport for such filtering and honing of your data set. Tools such as the data matrix can help you get right to the grain of the matter.


As we said previously, we won’t go into great detail on all the tools that are available in Nacsport for this type of filtering. Do some reading and maybe think about doing one of our official courses to get a better understanding of the software. The best thing about doing a course is that you get a 3-month Nacsport license included in the price, which may even be time enough for you to collect all the data you need.


Other options available for the analysis of data and predictive analysis include:


•    Power BI 
•    Tableau
•    Qlik
•    SAP Analytics


Although many of these are used for business analytics and big data, they are great tools for inputting raw data and interpreting results. There are also many other tools on the market, so do some research and choose the one which is best for you.


Whichever filtering methods you use, this will probably be the most time consuming phase when writing your paper and you need to have extremely clear objectives in mind before you even contemplate this part of the journey. Ensure that all the data relates to, and helps answer, the original question set out in your report.



3. Writing Your Research Paper

So, the hard work is done and it’s time to present your conclusions to your peers. This can seem like a daunting task, especially when you have a blank page that needs to be filled with a few thousand words, but it’s also essential. I mean, what’s the point of doing all that research if you can’t present it to the people who matter?


Depending on the type of paper you are writing and what type of institution you are writing for, the structure of your research paper may change slightly. For the purposes of this article, we’ll stick with the generally accepted structure of an academic thesis and you can adapt it to your needs from there.


So, let’s take a look at the structure you should be aiming for…


research methods sports


3.1. Abstract

The abstract is a short overview of the contents of your paper. It gives the reader an at-a-glance understanding of what they are about to read and let’s them know if it is relevant to their needs without wading through many pages of information.


Although we’ve put this first in the list, and it’s the first thing in the paper that will be read, we recommend that you write this part last, after all the other contents are in place. This will make the process much easier.



3.2. Introduction

The introduction is where you expand on the abstract and explain the main points of the paper. The introduction should answer the questions “What?”, “Why?” and “How?”.


Let’s begin with the “what?”. This is where you introduce your research question and explain exactly what it is you are studying.


To answer the “Why?” question, give a bit of background on why you chose the question to research and explain what you believe to be the real world applications of the results of this study.


“How?” is a brief overview of the research methods and how you are going to reach your conclusions. Don’t expand on this too much, as there will be a section on research methods later in the paper.


It’s always a good idea to go back and review the introduction once you have written the conclusion. This ensures that both parts mesh well.



3.3. Review Sources

In this section, you should talk about literature that has already been published on similar topics to yours. The aim here is to show that there are gaps in the information available on the subject…gaps that you are going to fill with your own paper.


Make sure that you cover a wide range of material and present all your sources in a manner which is structured and easily readable.



3.4. Discuss the Methodology

In this section, outline the methods of research that you are going to utilise for the paper and justify why you think this is the best method of research. Include both quantitative and qualitative research methods.


In this section, you should also take a clinical look at your research methods and any weaknesses in your methodology. This will show the reader that you are aware of your limitations, but also give you the opportunity to show how you mitigated these problems.



3.5. Reveal the Results

Show the reader what you unveiled during the research process. This is where all the facts about your research are revealed. 


This can be done through entirely text based reports but, in terms of sports research, which is more scientific in nature, think about including graphs and charts which make your report more structured, more organised, and easier to read.


You might also consider including some comments on the significance of some of the key results and expand on these in the next section.


sports analysis research



3.6. Analysis

This where you provide your own insights into the data and results that have been presented and explain what they mean. You should also try to explain any unexpected results which have been thrown up. 


Again, acknowledge the limitations of your study and talk about any further research which might be needed to build on your own research.



3.7. Conclusion

A good conclusion is important to any research paper. This is where you sum up the work done and reveal whether your objectives have been achieved.


Ensure that your conclusion contains a conclusive answer to the original research question.


Again, you may want to talk about the limitations of the study (this gives more credibility to your work in the eyes of academics), and suggest where future researchers can go when studying this topic.


Basically, tie up all the loose ends and present your conclusions in a nice little package.



3.8. Other Sections

Although we’re not going to expand on these areas, you should also include:


•    A title page
•    A table of contents
•    References / citations
•    Bibliography
•    Appendices



4. Useful Tools for Writing a Research Paper

Here’s a list of some tools that might come in useful in the course of writing your research paper.



4.1. Google Scholar

Scholar is Google’s search tool which specialises in academic literature. Allows you to search for published papers on any academic topic. You can filter these by publication date, relevance and type, making this an extremely powerful tool for the preliminary research phase of your research.



4.2. Nacsport

Again, apologies for the self-promotion…


No, wait, we don’t apologise…Nacsport is a fantastic tool for data collection, management and visualisation. It is completely adaptable to any needs and represents a powerful tool in any sports researcher’s arsenal of tools.


Remember, you can try it free for 30 days, or get a 3-month license by signing up to any of our official courses.

4.3. Power BI

While you can get some amazing data visualisation results with just the Nacsport dashboard tool, Power BI is a dedicated tool for big data analytics which shouldn’t be overlooked. There’s also a free version of the software, meaning you don’t have to shell out large amounts of money for it.



4.4. Sharimg

This is especially useful if you are working as part of a team of researchers. Specifically built for sharing sports video analysis work, Sharimg allows you to upload data and videos to the cloud and share it easily with your colleagues. Material can be opened and viewed directly from the platform and comments can be added to help share ideas in a cloud-based environment.



4.5. Grammarly

If your writing skills are not the greatest, you might want to get some help from this free plug-in which checks your grammar and spelling, and makes suggestions on how to improve your writing. Grammarly also offers a plagiarism checker, which might come in useful in case you’ve inadvertently copied someone else's work.



4.6. ResearchGate

ResearchGate is a social networking site for the world of academia. Researchers can share their work and obtain collaborative help on academic research papers.


This is a great place for conducting literature reviews and, of course, for sharing your completed paper.



5. Conclusion

So, there you have it, a brief overview of writing a research paper based on sport. Of course, we recognise that this just scratches the surface of what you should expect when getting involved in writing a thesis such as this, but we feel it will give you some forewarning of the work that lies in front of you and give you some tools to look out for.


If you have any questions about anything you have read in this article, please don’t hesitate to get in contact with us through our website or any of our social media channels, and we’ll be happy to point you in the right direction.


Until then…


Thanks for reading!

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