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Driving high performance in women’s sport

Olivia Knowles is a PhD student in exercise science with a keen interest in helping women athletes get the most out of their bodies. It’s fitting, then, that she works in the AFLW as High Performance Manager for Hawthorn Football Club.

A passion for sport has always fuelled Olivia, something she combined with academia as she completed undergraduate studies in Deakin University’s School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences. She went on to complete an Honours project exploring how the time commitments of student-athletes impacted their health and wellbeing.

‘I grew up competing at the national level in swimming and cross country running. I loved understanding how coaches made decisions about our training and competition, which is probably what led me to working in high performance services,’ she says.

Sport is part of Olivia’s everyday life, from her running community and PhD research to her day-to-day work in the AFLW.

Helping women athletes reach their full potential

Olivia’s been able to create a career that supports women’s success and says a career in sport is both challenging but incredibly rewarding for women and non-binary people. ‘The landscape for women working in the sports industry has significantly improved over the last few years and we are making space to have an impact in both men’s and women’s sport,’ she says. Pushing boundaries and working towards gender equality is a driving force for Olivia.

I’d like to be known for building genuine, authentic relationships with my athletes and staff and leave a legacy that women can be exceptional leaders in sport.

How Olivia carved a path that combined sport and research

Olivia first completed a Bachelor of Exercise and Sport Science at Deakin University. ‘During this time, I volunteered and worked at a number of grass-roots sporting organisations to gain experience in the industry. I later started my PhD, which investigates the impact of inadequate sleep on strength training and skeletal muscle health in women.’ she says.

Networking with people in the industry

Olivia’s degree taught her both the foundational skills needed in the sports industry and offered chances to meet industry professionals and get insights into career paths. ‘Deakin provides more than just a classroom to learn in – it provides opportunities to network with people in the industry and experience multiple avenues in the sporting industry within which students can forge their career,’ she says.

Based on her first-hand experience in Deakin’s School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences, Olivia’s not surprised that it’s topped world rankings for the third time. ‘Deakin has elite learning facilities but more importantly has exceptional people who encourage curiosity and innovative thinking – I think this has led to its success in teaching and research.’

Balancing study at Deakin and research at Hawthorn FC

Balancing study at Deakin and research at Hawthorn FC

A typical day for Olivia starts with a burst of exercise or taking the dog for a walk. She then heads to Deakin’s Melbourne Burwood Campus to work on her PhD. This might include laboratory work analysing participant muscle and blood samples or sitting down to write her thesis. She takes her research with her into the real-world, spending afternoons at the Hawthorn Football club in pre-training meetings with the performance and medical team.

‘Once training starts, I monitor the players’ loads throughout the session and lead conditioning-based drills. Following the football component of training, the players head into the gym, where the strength and conditioning coaches and I help players with their strength and power training.’

Sport emerging as an in-demand career path

The importance of exercise for physical and mental health is well documented and continues to be an area of interest for researchers. Olivia says advancements in technology are increasing demand for experts in sports performance. ‘Importantly, I think this positive perception of a career in sport exists not only in elite sport, but is increasingly seen in the private sector for amateur athletes or kids and adolescents learning fundamental movement skills,’ she says.

Leading the way

Forging a career in a male-dominated industry is challenging, but for Olivia it’s the only way to make real change. ‘I think it’s important that the status quo continues to be challenged and that people, regardless of gender, feel empowered to work in this industry,’ she says.

In the end it’s pretty simple, says Olivia, as she offers key advice to any young woman torn between playing it ‘safe’ or pursuing a career in a field they love. ‘I would say that they should pursue their passions. If I could change anything about our current landscape, it would be to get more women working in sport. More women leaders, coaches and sport scientists.’

Interested in learning more? Find out more about Olivia's research.

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