Complexity and interdisciplinarity in sport science: a PhD student’s perspective

Solveig E. Hausken-Sutter
Department of Food and Nutrition, and Sport Science, University of Gothenburg

I read with great enthusiasm the article by Leah M. Monsees on about interdisciplinarity in sport science (Monsees, 2021). Like myself, Leah is a PhD student in sport science who did not have a sport scientific background when starting her PhD studies. Furthermore, we have both experienced different reactions to our positioning in the field of sport science, first in relation to our scientific background, and second, for the way we approach our study object. As “outsiders” approaching the Swedish field of sport science in a non-traditional way (i.e., interdisciplinary approach), we both feel like imposters lacking specific expertise, or aiming for the “impossible”. Nevertheless, we believe that having diverse backgrounds and wanting to learn beyond certain boundaries can create opportunities to grow as researchers but also to broaden the field of sport science through addressing complex issues such as talent development (Leah) and sport injury etiology (myself).

In this text, I elaborate on Leah’s topic of interdisciplinarity in sport science by arguing for its potential in sport injury etiology research. I draw on complex systems theory, which has gained momentum during the last years, especially within the field of sport injury research. Further, I reflect upon interdisciplinarity and becoming an interdisciplinary expert.

Complexity and interdisciplinarity

In 2000, Stephen Hawking, in a response to a question about the way science is developing, replied: “I think the next century will be the century of complexity” (2000, San Jose Mercury News). Hawking was pointing towards the increasing importance of a set of scientific ideas that have their roots in theories of chaos, complex systems, fractal geometry, nonlinear dynamics, and quantum mechanics (Newell, 2001). These sets of ideas and ways of thinking about the world can help us to gain a better understanding of and respond to phenomena that are dynamic and unpredictable, multi-dimensional, and comprise various interrelated components, such as human behavior (Newell, 2001; Salmon & McLean, 2020).

Hawking was pointing towards the increasing importance of a set of scientific ideas that have their roots in theories of chaos, complex systems, fractal geometry, nonlinear dynamics, and quantum mechanics.

As the 21st century unfolds, Hawking’s prediction looks more and more prescient. Complexity theory has become increasingly popular, especially within the field of health science (Terpstra, Best, Abrams, & Moor, 2010), and recently also in the field of sport science and sport injury research (Bekker, 2019; Bekker & Clark, 2016; Bittencourt et al., 2016; Hulme & Finch, 2015; Hulme, Thompson, Nielsen, Read, & Salmon, 2019). Human health behavior, including sport injury etiology, is argued to be complex phenomena that are unpredictable and have uncertain outcomes, and solving these issues will require an integration of diverse knowledge (Bekker, 2019; Burwitz, Moore, & Wilkinson, 1994; Terpstra et al., 2010).

The importance of integrating diverse knowledge to address the complexity of sport injury etiology has been emphasized by sport injury researchers since the 1990s. Burwitz et al. (1994) were one of the first to argue for the integration of knowledge, referring to this type of research as interdisciplinarity. Drawing on research from interdisciplinary experts such as Julie Klein and William H. Newell (1997), interdisciplinarity is understood as a research process aiming to address a topic that is too broad or complex to be dealt with adequately by a single discipline (Klein & Newell, 1997). When working interdisciplinarily, diverse knowledge, or disciplinary knowledge, is integrated through the construction of a more comprehensive understanding of the phenomena under study. The integration of disciplinary knowledge is, for example, possible through a team of disciplinary experts following a pragmatic research process (e.g. Hausken-Sutter, Pringle, Schubring, Grau, & Barker-Ruchti, 2021; Hausken, Barker-Ruchti, Schubring, & Grau, 2018).

According to Newell, “interdisciplinarity is necessitated by complexity, specifically by the structure and behavior of complex systems” (Newell, 2001, p.1). If sport injuries, for example, were understood as complex, then this would mean that the phenomenon is multidimensional. Seeing it from one single angle, or one single discipline, the phenomenon appears different than from another discipline. Since the overall pattern of behavior of a complex system is non-linear and dynamic, an effective method for modelling such a phenomenon must offer insight into the separate parts (i.e., disciplines) as well as the complex pattern produced by their overall interactions (Hausken-Sutter et al., 2021; Newell, 2001). An interdisciplinary approach offers potential to address the separate parts through disciplinary knowledge as well as examining the interactions of the parts through the integration of disciplinary knowledge.

Despite Burwitz’ et al. (1994) call for interdisciplinarity and the recently acknowledge complexity of sport injury etiology, very little empirical work has been conducted thus far. Reasons provided for this reservation have been related to various obstacles that prevent high quality, truly integrated interdisciplinary work, as well as practical difficulties relating to gaining funding and publishing (Buekers et al., 2017). Interdisciplinary research requires more time and it often lacks institutional support and general acceptance as a legitimate approach (Terpstra et al., 2010). There are also philosophical obstacles relating to paradigmatic differences that may result in a lack of shared understanding in the team (Campbell, 2005; Lunde, Heggen, & Strand, 2013; Thorpe, Clark, Brice, & Sims, 2020). Furthermore, sport science as an academic field is a relatively young field, especially in Sweden. Sport science, or idrottsvetenskap in Swedish, was established during the 1990s based on monodisciplines such as physiology, anatomy, biology, pedagogy and psychology (Larsson, 2013). Hence, the emergence of sport science as a field has happened through the creation of subdisciplines resulting in disintegration through fragmentation, and multi- or interdisciplinary collaborations have not been common (Eliasson, 2014).

The traditional boundaries between disciplines still exists and are some of the reasons for mine and Leah’s experiences of not belonging, and for conducting “too complicated” or “deviant” research.

However, this is changing and the field of idrottsvetenskap is becoming more of an interdisciplinary field based on sport related problems that appreciate creativity and new thinking where no theory or disciplines should be valued over another (Eliasson, 2014). These changes are visible at the University of Gothenburg and the Department of food and Nutrition and Sport Science where I am situated. The department aims for a holistic approach to sport and physical activity, and my PhD project reflects this approach through our interdisciplinary teamwork. The ongoing project I am a part of is “Injury free children and adolescents: towards best practice in Swedish football” (FIT project) (Hausken et al., 2018), and our team includes scholars from biomechanics, sport medicine, sociology and sport coaching and we have produced qualitative and quantitative sport injury data. Based on my experiences from working in the FIT project, I aim to develop an interdisciplinary research methodology framed by complexity theory to study youth sport injury etiology.

Interdisciplinarity and PhD studies – a reflection

Being a PhD student in sport science at the University of Gothenburg, despite having no sport specific academic background, is, similar to Leah, a lived example that knowledge can be transferred and applied to other disciplines if people step outside of their comfort zone. Having an academic degree in health and social psychology, as well as research experience within the field of nutrition, my education and research practice has mainly focused on understanding and improving people’s health and well-being by addressing the reasons behind their behavior and choices. The core philosophy has always been holism and “connecting the dots”. Now, by applying an interdisciplinary methodology and complexity as a theoretical framework, and continually trying to move outside of any comfort zone I have settled in, I am not only building a great foundation for my PhD project, but also shaping myself as a researcher who can navigate across disciplinary boarders and adapt when necessary.

Nevertheless, working interdisciplinarily has not been without challenges. The traditional boundaries between disciplines still exists and are some of the reasons for mine and Leah’s experiences of not belonging, and for conducting “too complicated” or “deviant” research. Indeed, interdisciplinarity challenges “business as usual” and as Newell (2001, p.147) points out, creates “an element of troublemaker”. Nonetheless, interdisciplinarity has the potential to impact upon both individuals and institutions in positive ways that traditional single-discipline research cannot (Terpstra et al., 2010, p. 518). Through our PhD work and continuous engagement in interdisciplinarity, Leah and I contribute to the development of sport science in Sweden where we aim to “not only produce knowledge that will be of interest to the academic world, but rather go beyond a mere publication in a journal and instead be of practical use to stakeholders outside of academia”, as Leah emphasizes in her text (Monsees, 2021).

With that said, I agree with Leah; the future of sport science is bright, if we continue to address the complexity of sport related phenomena. As the English philosopher and political economist, John Stuart Mill wrote in his essay “On liberty” in 1859:

The only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind. No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this.

Copyright © Solveig E. Hausken-Sutter 2021


Bekker, S. (2019). Shuffle methodological deck chairs or abandon theoretical ship? The complexity turn in injury prevention. Injury Prevention, 25(2), 80-82.
Bekker, S., & Clark, A. M. (2016). Bringing complexity to sports injury prevention research: from simplification to explanation. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 50(24), 1489-1490.
Bittencourt, N., Meeuwisse, W., Mendonça, L., Nettel-Aguirre, A., Ocarino, J., & Fonseca, S. (2016). Complex systems approach for sports injuries: moving from risk factor identification to injury pattern recognition—narrative review and new concept. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 50(21), 1309-1314.
Buekers, M., Ibáñez-Gijón, J., Morice, A. H. P., Rao, G., Mascret, N., Laurin, J., & Montagne, G. (2017). Interdisciplinary Research: A Promising Approach to Investigate Elite Performance in Sports. Quest, 69(1), 65-79.
Burwitz, L., Moore, P. M., & Wilkinson, D. M. (1994). Future directions for performance-related sports science research: an interdisciplinary approach. Journal of Sports Sciences, 12(1), 93-109.
Campbell, L. M. (2005). Overcoming obstacles to interdisciplinary research. Conservation Biology, 19(2), 574-577.
Eliasson, I. (2014). Utredning om förutsättningarna för idrottsvetenskap som huvudområde vid Umeå universitet. Retrieved from Umeå Universitet:
Hausken-Sutter, E. S., Pringle, R., Schubring, A., Grau, S., & Barker-Ruchti, N. (2021). Youth sport injury research and the potential of interdisciplinarity – a narrative review. BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine, 7:e000933. doi:10.1136/ bmjsem-2020-000933
Hausken, S., Barker-Ruchti, N., Schubring, A., & Grau, S. (2018). Injury-Free Children and Adolescents: Towards Better Practice in Swedish Football (FIT project). Research Ideas and Outcomes, 4.
Hawking, S. “I think the next century will be the century of complexity…” in San Jose News, 23rd January, 2000.
Hulme, A., & Finch, C. F. (2015). From monocausality to systems thinking: a complementary and alternative conceptual approach for better understanding the development and prevention of sports injury. Injury Epidemiology, 2(1), 31.
Hulme, A., Thompson, J., Nielsen, R. O., Read, G. J., & Salmon, P. M. (2019). Towards a complex systems approach in sports injury research: simulating running-related injury development with agent-based modelling. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 53(9), 560-569.
Klein, J. T., & Newell, W. H. (1997). Advancing interdisciplinary studies. In J. G. Gaff & J. L. Ratcliff (Eds.). Handbook of the undergraduate curriculum: A comprehensive guide to purposes, structures, practices, and change (pp. 393-415). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Larsson, H. (2013). Idrottsvetenskap – läran om…idrott?: en nutidshistoria om forskarutbildningsämnet idrottsvetenskap. In H. Bolling & L. Yttergren (Eds.). 200 år av kroppsbildning: Gymnastiska Centralinstitutet/Gymnastik- och idrottshögskolan 1813-2013. Stockholm: Gymnastik- och idrottshögskolan.
Lunde, Å., Heggen, K., & Strand, R. (2013). Knowledge and Power: Exploring Unproductive Interplay Between Quantitative and Qualitative Researchers. Journal of Mixed Methods Research, 7(2), 197-210.
Monsees, L. M. (2021, April 22). Mirror, mirror on the wall – interdisciplinarity is the winner after all? Discussing interdisciplinarity in relation to the sport sciences.
Newell, W. H. (2001). A theory of interdisciplinary studies. Issues in Integrative Studies, 19, 1-25.
Salmon, P. M., & McLean, S. (2020). Complexity in the beautiful game: implications for football research and practice. Science and Medicine in Football, 4(2), 162-167.
Terpstra, J. L., Best, A., Abrams, D. B., & Moor, G. (2010). Health sciences and health services. In R. Frodeman, J. T. Klein, & C. Mitcham (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of interdisciplinarity. New York: Oxford University Press.
Thorpe, H., Clark, M., Brice, J., & Sims, S. (2020). The transdisciplinary health research apparatus: A Baradian account of knowledge boundaries and beyond. Health, 1-24.
Print Friendly, PDF & Email


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.