“I can finish the match, but I can die. If I die will the International Tennis Federation (ITF) take responsibility?”
So pled Daniil Medvedev, currently the world’s #3 men’s tennis player in the world, to the chair umpire during the brutally hot and humid Tokyo Olympics in 2021.
University of Leeds doctoral candidate Kate Sambrook wanted to get a sense of the experiences of a broader swath of outdoor athletes in her newly published paper, “Outdoor Sport in Extreme Heat: Capturing the Personal Experiences of Elite Athletes”, published by Weather, Climate and Society, with contributions from co-authors Sally Russell¹, Yasmina Okan², and Emmanouil Konstantinidis³.
GSB spoke with Sambrook about her journey to the intersection of Green, Sports, and Academia; the paper and its findings; and what she’s looking to do next.
GreenSportsBlog: Kate, how did you find your way to sustainability, sports, and academia?
Kate Sambrook: As I look back on it, it now seems like a natural evolution. As far sports goes, when I was growing up in Doncaster in Yorkshire, I loved to participate — I was a sprinter — and became a big rugby fan — the Leeds Rhinos are my team. In fact, I now play tag rugby!
Research? I LOVE it. I think it keeps me alive. I love finding out new things and sharing them with people who might not be interested initially. My appreciation for sustainability came from my grandfather, a lover of nature and the outdoors. That certainly translated to me.
So, I came to the University of Leeds with a love for the environment, a desire to keep the world safe for future generations, and an understanding that we have to do so in an equitable way that promotes climate and environmental justice.
Kate Sambrook (Photo credit: Kate Sambrook)
GSB: What did you study at Leeds?
Kate: I got my bachelor’s degree in physical geography…
GSB: What does that actually entail?
Kate: We study glaciers, rivers, coastal erosion — all sorts of dynamic landscapes. From there, I got my masters at Leeds in climate change. It was an interdisciplinary degree that provided me with a solid foundation in the physical science of climate change, climate change impacts, adaptation to and mitigation of climate change, as well as in broader debates on environmental policy and governance.
GSB: Sounds fascinating…
Kate: It was. This exploration led to more questions for me. So, I took a two-year break between finishing my masters and beginning my PhD during which time I worked as a research assistant. In 2018, I had the opportunity to work with The Climate Coalition on a report called ‘The Game Changer’, which explored how climate change impacted soccer, golf, and cricket in the UK.
GSB: What were the main conclusions of that study?
Kate: That cricket was the most impacted, with flooded pitches being all too common. In golf, it is links courses near the coasts that have suffered due to sea level rise and coastal erosion. Football also has had to deal with flooding but not to the same extent as cricket.
It was all an eye opener for me as to how much sport has been impacted by climate change, how little we really know about it, and how much we have to learn. That experience convinced me that researching the multi-pronged intersection of climate change and sports was what I wanted to pursue for my PhD and ultimately, my career.
GSB: So, what is the focus of your PhD thesis? I have a strong feeling that you’re doing the work at — where else but the University of Leeds!
Kate: You’re right about that, Lew! My thesis is titled ‘Climate impacts in sport: Risk perception, personal experience and communication of extreme heat and climate change’. It draws on theories in psychology and behavioral decision research to explore: (1) elite athletes’ perceptions, experiences, and responses to extreme heat in relation to climate change; and (2) how we could use these stories / narratives to connect people to the climate crisis. I’m doing my research at both the School of Earth and Environment and Leeds University Business School. I’m about to start my fourth year and hope to get to defend it this fall.
GSB: You clearly have a lot on your plate, but you somehow found time to write your paper — “Outdoor Sport in Extreme Heat: Capturing the Personal Experiences of Elite Athletes” — and have it published. What was the genesis of this paper and what did you learn?
Kate: I started the process in 2019, looking at the interrelationships between personal experience of local weather anomalies, extreme weather events and climate change beliefs. How did that change attitudes and behaviors among athletes?
Prior research on this topic was really scant, and what existed was found in the sport psychology arena. There was nothing in sport science, and that was the field of study that really interested me, especially as it concerns athletes’ perspectives on playing their sport during heat waves. We knew something about how heat can impact their health and performance, we knew nothing about their perspectives. So, that’s what my co-authors and I pursued.
Daniil Medvedev struggled with extreme heat at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics (Photo credit: Reuters)
GSB: How did you go about finding this out? How did you structure the study?
Kate: Well, while our sample size was relatively small — 14 athletes — it was broad based from a geographic standpoint, with athletes from Australia, Canada, Sweden, the UK, and the USA. And ten sports were represented: Aussie rules football, baseball, canoeing, cricket, field hockey, golf, netball, race walking, rowing, rugby 7s.
We went into quite a bit of depth with each interviewee, speaking with them for an hour. The style was semi-structured, so we were able to veer off on a wide range of topics.
GSB: What were some of those topics?
Kate: How did playing during heat waves impact them? What kind of risk do you perceive from extreme heat? How did that impact your performance and health? What if anything was put in place by team officials to help? How do you feel about using your platform as an athlete to speak out on issues of extreme heat and climate change? These are just some of the areas of inquiry we explored.
GSB: What are the paper’s main conclusions?
Kate: There were three main conclusions from the research:
- There is a great deal of uncertainty among our athletes about what heat waves are, how serious a risk they are to athletes, and what those risks are. There really was a wide disparity of knowledge and awareness on this.
- These athletes had powerful, emotional narratives and experiences when it came to extreme heat and heat waves. They were in the main unsure about how to communicate about climate change and would like some guidance in doing so.
- Their experiences with sports organizations when it came to coping with extreme heat and heat waves also varied. They would like to see more education available to them about this and expect their teams, coaches, and event organizers to have policies to deal with extreme heat.
GSB: Based on these reactions from your athlete subjects, what kind of policy changes would you like to see?
Kate: Well Lew, we of course know that athletes voices can be powerful indeed when it comes to climate change. It’s clear that they need the tools and education to become confident climate communicators. They also need the forums to be able to spread the word. And, as far as actually dealing with extreme heat on the pitch and on the court is concerned, they need tools to help them adapt and clear policies to help them avoid being put in dangerous situations…
GSB: …Like heat breaks in the middle of football/soccer matches. Your study seems like an important beginning at the intersection of sports science, climate change, and athletes. Where do you want to take this next?
Kate: Future research involving larger samples is clearly warranted and therefore I would like to examine how perceptions and experiences of extreme heat and climate change may differ between sports, gender, level of competition and nationality. This would involve athletes from Asia, Central and South America, and Africa as well as athletes who practice other outdoor sports such as tennis, triathlon, and football, who were not represented in my work.
We of course want our audience to read the paper — how can they go about doing that?
Kate: The paper is available to read here!