Alysse Soll interviews Anita Sirotic for WiST
By Alysse Soll, WiST Board Member, President NewModel Advisory, LLC
Nearly 3,000 Major Sports Teams Globally Rely on This Secret Weapon
Catapult is the world leader in sports performance technology, working with nearly 3,000 teams in 39 sports around the world. Catapult provides wearable technology, video analysis, and athlete management software to improve the performance of athletes and teams.
Get with the Program!
According to a Google search, sports science focuses on improving athletic performance through the application of psychology, physiology and biomechanics principles and techniques. Sports scientists observe and monitor athletes to design performance-improving exercise and training programs.
Anita Sirotic, Product Director at Catapult, puts it this way, “Sports science is a driving cog in the machine which helps players to improve.” In her role, she connects the dots and brings together information housed in separate silos of a sports organization to deliver a recommended training program tailored to optimize an athlete’s performance.
Consider the conductor of an orchestra. Disparate instruments positioned in distinct sections: strings, percussion, woodwind, brass, piano and a harp (or two). Each instrument represents a key element of the symphony and needs to be individually tuned and harmonized with the others for an optimal performance. Each musician needs to be at their best, so the orchestra is at its best. Now consider sports scientists as the conductor of a sports team, identifying and integrating the key elements for an athlete’s individual success and harmonizing that for the team’s success. Quite the program.
From Concept to Completion – The Ultimate App
Taking a product from concept to completion is not for the faint of heart. For Anita, this journey is a life lesson in juggling priorities, ensuring stakeholder buy-in and communicating with transparency.
As the Product Director for AMS—Catapult’s Athlete Management System—she is responsible for guiding the portfolio of Catapult products, designed and created to address customer needs. One major hurdle was providing easy access to all Catapult products. Enter the Catapult Athlete App, a mobile portal for athletes to engage with their favorite Catapult products. The goal of the App is to provide a seamless feedback loop between the athlete and the coach delivering key data points on the athlete’s health and stress points during workouts.
Anita’s stewardship of this product from concept to launch is a process that has engaged multiple departments within Catapult and client organizations. Working with research, product design and development, marketing, sales, finance, coaches and athletes, Anita and her team have brought this concept to life. “It’s always a juggling act. You can’t please everyone, so you constantly make decisions based on good science, good research and good data. Stay true to the vision.”
I Got the Science Knocked Out of Me
Proof and prove. As a student, Anita had to prove she could master science. As a sports professional, she had to prove she could provide value to the organization. None of these are a given. Sports science methodology is built on proof. You can see how body mechanics work in the lab. But proving that science in the field is a very different value proposition.
“When I secured my PhD, I was a scientific nerd who understood the mechanics of how the human body reacted to a variety of factors. I was brimming with knowledge. My last two PhD years were spent in and out of the classroom working with a professional Rugby team, the Parramatta Eels.”
Transitioning from the scientific method burned into her academic brain to real world sports was an unnatural process for Anita. “Let’s just say that’s when I got the science knocked out of me. It was almost an unravelling of my PhD.”
Anita had to prove to the athletes and coaches that the science she was sharing was of value to them and had to do it in a way that was a benefit, not a burden. For any stakeholder, she always needs to prove that the product she and her team have built works in the field, not just in the lab.
Q and A with Anita Sirotic
Anita is the very definition of a woman making her mark at the intersection of sports and technology. In her Rugby League roles as Head of Performance, she applied sports science to enhance player performance. At Catapult, she applies sports science to generate tech products that enhance player performance. The ability to incrementally improve each element of this constant feedback loop—understanding the science, perfecting the product, enhancing player performance—is fundamental to Anita’s strategy for success.
WiST: You have a Masters in Exercise and Sports Science and a PhD in the Physiology of Rugby League. What drew you to focus on Sports Science as the basis for your career? What value does a Sports Scientist bring to today’s sports teams?
It was clear that a 9-5 job was not in Anita’s future.
She grew up playing sports which gave her an appreciation for the commitment required of athletes, coaches and their support systems enabling an athlete to perform at their very best. At the start of University, she considered being a Physiotherapist, but it was too narrow. Then she found sports science, her focus through her PhD, and never turned back.
When she started, sports science was a nascent concept. There was limited understanding of the myriad of factors, or the integration of those factors, that drove optimal athletic performance other than strength training, nutrition and sleep. Today, sports science focuses on the entire athlete: monitoring everything about them, gathering as many data points about their health and wellness to make a scientific assessment of how they can elevate their game without damaging their bodies. The input for these data points comes from the players, coaches, nutritionists, video analysts and medical team (to name a few) and Anita’s team analyzes and coalesces these data points into a recommendation for each athlete. Anita wants to take a player from good to better and from better to great.
Anita recognizes a pervasive lack of understanding of the value sports scientists bring to the table. In most sports organizations, sports science is not viewed as a direct revenue producer. However, their key performance indicators (optimal athlete performance), drive success on the field (wins), which cascade into revenue generation. In the hyper competitive world of professional sports, these positive outcomes position sports scientists as a “must have” rather than a “maybe.” Anita’s work is leading that narrative.
WiST: As Product Director for Catapult Sports, what are your responsibilities?
Ultimately, I am responsible for our product vision and strategy, short term and long term.
My team needs to orchestrate the process of how we identify customer pain points, create products that solve those pain points, and effectively communicate how our products improve our customers’ lives.
We focus on product road mapping, which includes identifying the tiniest features required to enhance product utility, ease of use and performance. We share that information with the product team so that they can design and build best in class products with features that deliver an outstanding customer experience, never forgetting the financial mandate of managing to budget and driving profitability.
Anita started off client facing, running product demonstrations and account management. Once she understood the client side, she transitioned, leveraging her knowledge of “what a client wants and needs” into product design and delivery.
Her client and product roles ultimately find solutions for pain points. It’s both challenging and exciting. Juggling has become Anita’s forte.
WiST: As you graduated from academics to professional sports, how did you navigate the transition from the scientific approach you practiced for decades in academia to the real world of professional players and coaches? Making the scientific method relevant to the end users?
Academic success does not imply career success in sports, especially when it comes to athletes and coaches. Anita credits her mentors with helping make this transition.
During her final two years earning her PhD, Anita worked with the Parramatta Eels, a professional Rugby team in the NRL. There she gained significant insight into what makes an athlete tick, how they interact with their coaches, teammates, and the staff – on good days and bad. Her job was to analyze those moments of interaction with scientific data that could enhance or reboot training activities.
While every player wants to improve, they can be wary of new methods driven by scientific testing, data gathering and analytics to reach those goals. To succeed with the team, Anita quickly realized she needed to humanize the science, translating it into tangible benefits for the athlete and team. “Science needs to work for the athlete, not the other way around.”
WiST: You have spent decades learning (as a student) and teaching (as a lecturer). What aspects of learning and teaching enabled you to excel with professional sports teams and in your present role at Catapult creating technologies for improved outcomes?
Earning my PhD was a true lesson in life skills—understanding process, instilling discipline, prioritizing and planning a long-term project. It’s a slog, but it’s a necessary slog. Perhaps I learned more about myself than I did about the scientific method. Earning a PhD is an intense four years. I liken it to being an Olympic athlete, you work intensely for 4+ years doing so much on your own, self-motivating and consistently preparing to achieve your personal goals. Then it’s over in a few moments. But it’s not really over, it’s just beginning.
During the last two years of my PhD, as part of my requirements, I began teaching at University. Teaching is daunting, but hugely rewarding. It forces you to be an extrovert and to know more than your students (who were my peers). Students can be brutal—if they are bored, you know it. You must positively impact your students and find exciting ways to do so. One method I found particularly successful was to share real world examples of my work with the Eels, bridging the gap between the science they were learning and the sports they would be impacting.
This method of bridging the gap between hard science and real-world impact is a tool I learned to use with my students, my athletes and now, with my clients. It keeps them engaged and excited about what we are building for them. I am always learning, and so are they.
WiST: You are in “full on” professional growth mode in the sports ecosystem. What can you share with your peers about your learning curve, and the skills required to progress on their career path?
Never stop learning. When you hit learning plateaus, it’s likely a sign to move on. In my career to date, I pivoted three times. My time at the Eels was a huge learning curve for almost ten years. I started as a Sports Scientist which gave me the opportunity to progress internally, finishing as their Head of Performance. The environment and people you work with are so important in providing different opportunities and learnings to push you out of your comfort zone—learning how to deal with different club and organization cultures, not just the science aspect. This helped me leave the security of my mentors and move to a Head of Sports Science role with the Melbourne Storm, a team with different culture and reporting structure, thus another learning opportunity. When it was time to develop experience on the product side, I pivoted again, to Catapult. I can’t say these pivots were plotted or planned, but they were a natural progression stemming from my thirst for knowledge and the opportunity to grow and perform.
WiST: If you had one quote to share about the future of women in sports what would that be?
To quote a friend and former colleague, “You need to have an ego to be successful in sports, but you need to keep your ego in check.” I believe women have a bright future in sports. Don’t miss the opportunity by not being ready.
A special thanks to Anita for sharing her story with the WiST community. Anita’s ability to turn scientific theory into performance reality is a proving ground for her success. Inspiration comes in all forms.
To learn more about WIST and become a member, visit www.womeninsportstech.org.
To learn more about Catapult, visit https://www.catapultsports.com/.