Sam Moore is an applied sport scientist who recently joined University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Exercise and Sport Science graduate school as a research fellow in the Applied Physiology Lab under the direction of Dr. Abbie Smith-Ryan. Prior to UNC, Sam was with the NC State Wolfpack from 2019-2021 as the Director of Sport Science and Assistant Strength & Conditioning Coach.
After two season-ending knee surgeries during her dual-sport collegiate athletic career, Moore was drawn to the starkly different experience entering the “real world” as a former female athlete compared to that of male athletes. This was the inception of what would later establish her as the topic expert in the field of female athlete physiology in the pursuit of gender equity in collegiate women’s sports.
As the first woman to serve as a Director of Sport Science in the NCAA, Sam implemented a revolutionary and evidence-informed framework of women’s specific training design based on the hormonal landscape of the Wolfpack female athletes. Sam has presented at major conferences on topics ranging from metabolic and performance effects of female sex hormones to bigger-picture issues of social and gender justice for collegiate athletes.
Freelap USA: Working as a sport scientist and performance coach at North Carolina State, one of your roles was to implement menstrual cycle-based periodization and athlete management strategies. What were some of the most effective strategies that you were able to provide through that process and what performance outcomes did that effort help bring about? In addition, what type of feedback did you receive from the athletes while applying this model?
Sam Moore: I would consider the most impactful outcome to be the empowerment that arose from the education provided to my athletes. So few women are taught about their own physiology, whether that be about menstrual cycles, oral birth control, implants, etc., and how these hormonal changes affect their lives and their training.
At NCSU, empowerment looked like women taking the initiative on behavioral interventions to lessen the severity of symptoms at different points in their cycle, having conversations with their healthcare professionals about their options and what is best for them at that point in their lives, and using the information to improve their lives. That’s the best possible outcome for any coach.Every athlete needs to hear their physiology, experience, and place in sport is valued, respected, and worthy of time and resources, says @SamMooreStrong. Click To Tweet
The feedback from the athletes was nothing but positive. The strength of the relationships I developed in my time at NCSU was unlike any other I’ve experienced, from the 17-year-old athlete who came to college halfway through their senior year to the 23-year-old redshirt senior dealing with constant injuries. Every athlete needs to hear their physiology, experience, and place in sport is valued, respected, and worthy of time and resources.
Freelap USA: With any training method or protocol, some elements scale from the adult/elite level to the youth level and some do not—with regard to accounting for an athlete’s menstrual cycle as a factor in training and performance, are there any specific takeaways that coaches at the early teen level can adapt or simplify from the program you implemented at NC State? Additionally, for youth and high school coaches, do you have any “best practices” you can suggest as general guidelines for understanding the evolving hormonal landscape of their female athletes?
Sam Moore: Absolutely. I understand not every strength and conditioning coach or sport coach has the time and resources I’ve been given to develop the frameworks I was able to implement.
Two important strategies come to mind. The first needs to happen as early as possible, and that’s simply functional movement training. I know some people have opinions on both sides of that term, but from where I see it, these athletes need the basics. The anthropometrical changes associated with estrogen-dominated puberty are so significant that athletes develop bodies that can move much differently compared with their bodies prior to menarche. Our female athletes need to be taught how to navigate fundamental movement patterns effectively and safely during the peri-puberty, puberty, and post-puberty stages.
The second strategy is choice. Give athletes choice in anything you can possibly manage it for. Programming, exercise selection, intensity, volume, even when they practice (if it’s feasible). If you have adequately educated your athletes on the why behind everything you do, then by giving them ownership in their training combined with the skill of personal attunement to biofeedback, you have empowered them for the rest of their lives.Our female athletes need to be taught how to navigate fundamental movement patterns effectively and safely during the peri-puberty, puberty, and post-puberty stages, says @SamMooreStrong. Click To Tweet
I think one of my biggest mistakes early on came from a genuine attempt to explain how important female physiology is and how we, as a discipline, need to be better. Through conversations with colleagues, clients, and a fair bit of self-reflection, I realized what I had been doing was ultimately gatekeeping female physiology education and applications for coaches at levels that might have prevented them from having the time and resources to pursue the narrow-minded strategies I laid in front of them.
I’ve tried to widen my scope of consideration when creating applications for coaches of different levels and disciplines. It’s important that these applications get to all coaches who need them. Prioritizing accessibility has been a big shift in my work and with my company moving forward.
Freelap USA: How has the diversity of your athletic background—having competed collegiately in both volleyball and the track multi-events—been an asset and informed your ability to work across different disciplines as a sport scientist and performance coach? What challenges did you have to overcome to be able to compete in multiple sports, particularly on the volleyball side where early specialization and year-round competition is the norm?
Sam Moore: I grew up in a small town on the Oregon coast. This meant a lot of community support, but not as many elite-level athletic resources. I just so happened to be born with two collegiate All-Americans for parents. Growing up, I played every sport I could, and while track was my first sport, volleyball quickly became my favorite.
The biggest asset I gained from volleyball that carried over was my “jack-of-all-trades” experience. I specialized as a setter around sixth grade, when I was small and young for my grade, a bit of a late bloomer athletically speaking. I graduated at 6’0” tall, with school records in the long, triple, and high jumps and several other events. Because of my late puberty, when I got to high school, I didn’t fit the “setter” stereotype.
I remember going to a Boise State volleyball camp and not telling anyone my position. I went through half the camp as an outside hitter before the coaches figured it out. And that’s mostly how my college career went, with starts at every position except for libero. Injuries would cut out pin hitter numbers, so I would play outside for a few weeks. A setter quit our team once, so I went back to setting for a while.
Sometimes it would change based on our competition as well. If we were preparing for a team with a dominant middle, I would play middle in the front row and set in the back row. I learned early on that good footwork and court vision transferred to every position. It made my player-to-coach transition much different than most. Instead of starting my career working with the specific position group that I played, I saw positions not as people, but as a list of constraints that needed to be satisfied to do the job well, which could be done through a wide range of athlete types.
Viewing the game as malleable components of a larger framework helped as a multi-event specialist as well. Unfortunately, I had a significant knee injury my freshman year in college, which meant I needed to learn to high jump and long jump off my nondominant leg. I thought about similar patterns from my volleyball experience, like when I learned to jump off one leg for a slide attack as a middle in college and used it to help visualize what high jumping would feel like on that leg.
My knee injury also provided a level of humility that I needed. Coaches always talk about “the bigger picture,” but until I was forced to confront the possibility of life after sport, I thought my entire purpose here was to play volleyball. Learning the hard way that my competitive career was finite helped me keep things in perspective as I navigated the rest of my collegiate career. It changed my major from English to Exercise Science as well, so hindsight—I’m pretty grateful for it.
Freelap USA: What is the focus of your current research at UNC Chapel Hill and what are some of the projects you expect to work on during your time there? What direction do you expect this course of study to take you once you’ve completed your PhD?
Sam Moore: If you’re asking what I want to be when I grow up, I have no idea. Just kidding.
There are a few reasons I came to UNC Chapel Hill rather than pursue the other professional opportunities I had in front of me. The first is to be an independent researcher. I kept coming up against the same barrier of “there’s just not enough research for us to try that” when it came to female athlete strategies. That frustrated me beyond words. Because while I agree there’s not enough research with women athletes, strength and conditioning as a whole creates and implements innovative applications without sufficient or applicable research all the time. So I thought, if there’s not enough research, I’ll go learn how to do it myself.While I agree there isn’t enough research with women athletes, S&C as a whole creates and implements innovative applications without sufficient or applicable research all the time. Click To Tweet
The second is my mentor, Dr. Abbie Smith-Ryan. I love educating people on female athlete-related topics—it’s what makes me feel like I’m truly fulfilling my purpose here. But there are seasons when I get so exhausted with convincing people these topics even matter in the first place. The misogyny ingrained in these systems can emotionally wear on me. I felt it was a priority for me to never have to navigate the conversation of “I promise this matters” with my mentor. I wanted a mentor who understood that women deserve better in their sport, their health, and their lives, before I even walked in the door. That was Dr. Smith-Ryan.
Projects often largely depend on grant funding, which is difficult to predict, but it’s been an incredible opportunity to be part of the Applied Physiology Lab and some of the ongoing projects here already. Discussions are constantly evolving on what are the most critical barriers faced by women and female athletes, what capabilities do we have to contribute to the removal of those barriers, and what’s the best way to do so? I feel confident in saying that my purpose of improving the quality of experience, health, and life after sport for female athletes is fully supported and encouraged by my lab team and our leader.
Freelap USA: Institutionally, throughout the pathway from youth sports organizations to high schools to universities to professional teams, what are some proactive steps that those making hiring decisions can take to increase the overall number of female sport and performance coaches and, just as importantly, better retain, progress, and promote those female coaches over time?
Sam Moore: This is such an important but often unasked question. The first step is to take a critical lens to the demographics of the current coaching staff and hiring process. Does your current hiring process include women already at your institution or in the field? Because it should.
How was the job description written, and by who? Job descriptions shouldn’t be crafted for or by the last person who held the job, though I understand that’s often the path of least resistance. Job descriptions often list requirements that aren’t really all that concrete, yet listing them as “required” can dissuade women from applying if they don’t have all the parts satisfied.
Lastly, what’s the experience of women currently or formerly in the department? Were the demands of the position feasible for working mothers and how does that speak to the resources allocated to the department? And if you’ve never had a woman in a full- time position, that’s probably something worth your attention in itself.
I’m not a diversity, equity, or inclusion expert, and I don’t claim to be. But I know that we have systemic biases and persistent microaggressions for women, and women of color, in the sport community. I also know that everyone needs a seat at the table for it to ever improve.We want a doorstop for the most qualified coaches that might look different than the “expectation,” because just sitting at the table isn’t good enough for us anymore, says @SamMooreStrong. Click To Tweet
I thank the women that came before me. The women that busted down the door by coaching circles around their male counterparts just to get the same, and often less, exposure and salary. The women who put their lives on hold to get a seat at that infamous “table,” because without them I wouldn’t be where I am.
It’s with their accomplishments we can build. Because we don’t just want a seat at the table to close the door behind us. We want a doorstop for the most qualified coaches that might look different than the “expectation,” because just sitting at the table isn’t good enough for us anymore. Now we’re here to run the whole show.
Lead photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire.
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