Women in Sport – Heidi Thornton, Head of Sports Science at Gold Coast Suns

With a wealth of experience across the NRL and AFL, Heidi Thornton is one of Australia’s rising sports science stars. She talks to us about her career journey to date, her Ph.D. on athlete monitoring, and the impact that COVID-19 has had on the Gold Coast Suns’ training program. 

From NRL to AFL 

The completion of Heidi’s Ph.D., ‘Training Monitoring in Team Sports’, remains her proudest moment. Working while pursuing a degree is an ambitious task: “The challenge of working full-time whilst simultaneously completing a Ph.D. and other research isn’t easy.” 

It was this Ph.D. that led Heidi to a role at the Newcastle Knights (NRL) in her hometown. From there she progressed to the role of Head of Sports Science within just a few years, before moving across to the AFL with the Gold Coast Suns. 

Day to day, Heidi’s role involves all things athlete monitoring; everything from using Catapult during training and games, helping plan sessions and load monitoring, to the reporting of data to performance and coaching staff.

It’s clear that Heidi thrives working directly with the players. “Having an impact on what we do and seeing their improvement is so rewarding. Being involved in a young and growing club, and the comradery that comes with it, that’s amazing.”

Part of Heidi’s role includes research with partner Griffith University, where she flourishes. “I really enjoy conducting research and the level of critical thinking that comes with that.”

Challenges faced

“I think the biggest challenge as a female in this industry is actually landing a secure role.” Heidi eloquently highlights the challenges that she has faced in her career: “I started at the Knights in an honors position, then progressing to a Ph.D., where luckily I had a scholarship but also had to work externally to make ends meet. It can be a barrier to many in even attempting to follow that path.” 

She highlights that “it’s hard to say that for a male, this transition into being employed by the club would be quicker, however, there seems to be a recurrent trend with this.”  However, seeing the number of women working in sport currently can be an encouragement in itself. She’s noticed over the past years, the number of women employed has grown a lot, showing that it is possible to those considering it.

Heidi also stresses the importance of finding a good mentor; “Regardless of gender, they can really help to transition into professional sport, but also challenge and encourage you.” Acting as a mentor herself, Heidi tries her best to help encourage women in attempting this career path, but highlights that “it is the people above us – employers and organisations – that need to do better in this area to ensure the career path is more feasible. This means being more flexible in terms of working hours with a family, maternity leave, and perhaps job-sharing options, but at a minimum the pay gap between males and females must be removed.” 

Heidi is of the opinion that whoever is the best fit for the job should be employed, regardless of gender, “but there needs to be a close to even representation of males and females applying for these roles.”

The impact of Coronavirus

Reflecting on the recent impact of Coronavirus, Heidi says the Gold Coast Suns had to think outside the box and rethink the way they did things previously. “In some ways, it has helped bring positive changes, some of these we will continue with in the future.” She highlighted there were changes every day: as the restrictions increased, game days were moved and schedules were adapted, so “all players and staff had to be a lot more flexible.” 

Adapting to change

Over the next decade, Heidi states that the most important thing will be adapting to changes in sport with advances in technology. “Even in my career (~8 years) in sport, technology has changed drastically, and what I do now is well beyond what I did at the beginning.” 

She stresses the importance of practitioners needing to be able to adapt to these changes, potentially changing their practice in line with them to ensure that they are still relevant, and that technology cannot entirely replace a practitioner’s job: “Sport will always need people to make sense of the information we have to help make decisions.” 

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