A high-performance master’s led by a high-performance master. Meet Blake McLean.
If you’re an NBA fan, an AFL aficionado, an NRL tragic or obsessed with American college sports, then chances are that Dr Blake McLean has shaped one of the teams you’ve been watching. McLean, the course convenor for UTS’s new Master of High-Performance Sport, has had a storied career in the world of elite sports.
As a sports scientist and strength coach in both Australia and the US, he supported the NRL Wests Tigers to attain their lowest yearly injury incidence in the first 15 years of the club’s history, contributed to some highly influential research projects that have shaped the way AFL teams think about altitude training, and led the Performance Science department of the Oklahoma City Thunder, a team that’s had the best player availability in the NBA since entering the competition.
And that’s just the highlights reel.
But, while career has been a roll-call of leading sports teams – certainly, his technical expertise puts him among the global elite of the human performance industry – McLean will be the first to tell you that he’s equally passionate about academia.
“I thought academia was somewhere I’d eventually end up,” he says.
“The Master of High-Performance Sport just felt like the absolute right fit for me and where I’d like to head, hopefully for the rest of my career.”
McLean is returning to UTS more than 13 years after completing a Bachelor of Human Movement (Hons) at the university’s Kuring-gai campus. Back then, he studied under the guidance of Distinguished Professor Aaron Coutts, the head of the Sport and Exercise discipline at UTS and a world-leading researcher in the field.
That degree – and Coutts’s mentorship – have shaped McLean’s career ever since.
“The program here has such an excellent embedded research component to it that Aaron has developed and led. My time at UTS really helped develop my skills in applied research in the sports field – over the course of the last 13 years, it has always been part of my work,” he says.
Today, McLean and Coutts are working side by side to develop and deliver the Master of High-Performance Sport. In that sense, McLean’s return to UTS is as much a homecoming as it is a new opportunity in an already high-profile career.
The master’s degree is comprised of 13 subjects, including embedded internships and/or work placements, and covers everything from research methods to leadership and management, injury rehabilitation, and strength and conditioning. For McLean, however, it offers more than just a checkbox of the technical skills required to succeed in a sporting career.
Instead, he says, the course has a strong focus on the development of critical thinking and the capacity the translate theoretical knowledge into action – two competencies that are key to success in a professional sporting career.
“Our master’s program has been designed to foster excellent good critical thinking skills, which I think is one of the most important aspects of being a valuable practitioner in this field,” McLean says.
“Translational skills, where you’re taking the technical knowledge and putting it into practice, and also helping other people put it into practice, are also crucial in terms of student development.”
The master’s degree will open its doors in Autumn 2020, but even once it’s online, McLean and his colleagues have big plans to keep expanding its scope. The ‘nested’ structure of the course is the first step in this process – students can already progress from the graduate certificate to the graduate diploma and through to the full master’s degree, or they can exit once they’ve finished one of the shorter qualifications.
Eventually, however, McLean would like students to have the option of curating an experience that truly reflects their individual goals.
“Say if you’re a rugby league coach and you want to upskill in coaching-specific areas, we’d like to be able to offer you a coaching graduate certificate that combines coaching science, management and something like performance and data analysis,” he says.
Beyond the teaching component of his role, McLean also has grand plans to continue building his research profile. Following his UTS bachelor’s degree, he completed a Master of Kinesiology at the University of Texas at Austin where he studied neuromuscular and perceptual fatigue responses in Division 1 female collegiate soccer. Later, his work at the Collingwood Football Club was combined with his PhD at Australian Catholic University to explore the effects of hypoxic training techniques on Australian footballers.
Since then, he’s continued working on a range of industry research projects, often in collaboration with the UTS Sport and Exercise team. He has contributed to projects within the NBA and through his role as an advisor on both NIKE’s North America Sport Scientific Advisory Group and ESSA’s Sports Science Advisory Group.
At UTS, he says, he’s keen to position his research at the intersection of academia and industry, just as he’s done throughout his career.
“One of the key things that UTS does, and that I really value also, is answering questions that are generated from industry. So that’s my preference – to go into industry and say, ‘What are the challenges you’re facing in preparing your athletes, and how can we use research to help you get there?” he says.