Penn State

Penn State’s David Hamilton talks student-athletes’ training, performance

David Hamilton, a former professional rugby player, is Penn State’s first assistant athletic director for applied health and performance science.
David Hamilton, a former professional rugby player, is Penn State’s first assistant athletic director for applied health and performance science. Photo provided

Former professional rugby player David Hamilton may have a small, windowless office in the athletic department’s Lasch Building, but he also has a job Penn State created just for him.

Hamilton is the assistant athletic director for applied health and performance science.

The crux of the job, Hamilton said, is maximizing athletes’ health and well-being, while optimizing their performance.

The 38-year-old took the job in October as part of Penn State’s new high-performance initiative for its sports programs.

“The role is to oversee all 31 teams that are here at Penn State and basically help challenge what is current best practice and help implement more high-performance thinking when it comes to winning,” he said.

“The end goal to be leagues ahead of where the other colleges are when it comes to sport science and moving the performance needle,” he added.

Hamilton began playing rugby at age 9 and went on to play for professional teams in New Zealand, Ireland, England, Canada and Hong Kong.

In 2001 he graduated with honors from De Montfort University in England, where he majored in sport science. In 2010, he graduated with higher distinction from Edith Cowen University in Australia after completing a master’s degree in exercise science.

Hamilton said his philosophy for continued athletic success can be defined in one simple equation: Performance equals potential minus interference.

Potential is an athlete’s ability to get better at a sport from a “tactical, technical and also physical standpoint,” he said — with a better athlete comes an increased chance of success.

Interference is everything else in the program’s environment that hurts an athlete’s ability to maximize his or her potential. Some examples are excessive training load, the stresses of college, lack of sleep, travel, injury history and nutrition.

To lessen the interference, Hamilton said he must first collect data, both subjective and quantifiable. He makes his decisions based on trends he sees in the data.

Other colleges have these problems, he said, “but we have a real opportunity to find an edge and maximize our return on our student athletes here at Penn State.”

Hamilton said athletic programs sometimes spend unnecessary money on new equipment that the closest rival just bought, but then lack the resources to effectively use it.

“So my role is to support all coaches, support staff and student-athletes so that we build strong communication links, establish clear performance objectives and continue to challenge what we do day to day around our sports,” he said.

Hamilton also will be a conduit between the kinesiology department and the teams.

“We have the best kinesiology department in the country, and this is a real performance edge for us,” he said.

The key, he said, is finding the right fit between faculty members and the different teams.

In his first year, Hamilton said, he will work out the commonalities among the sports and where the “major leakage” is so that he can make quick fixes.

He said he will have to “shepherd” people in the right direction instead of telling them what to do.

“The key to making others want to change is buy-in,” said Hamilton, and to do this he must have the appropriate information that links back to performance and winning.

Hamilton worked for the English Institute of Sport from 2003-06. He returned to the institute in 2009 as head strength and conditioning coach for women’s field hockey. Most recently, he was director of performance science with USA Field Hockey from 2013-16.

Craig Parnham, head coach of the U.S. women’s national field hockey team, was the pushing force to get Hamilton hired for that position.

He and Hamilton met after the Beijing Olympics in 2008, “in the buildup to the London Olympics,” Parnham said. “It’s worth saying that over the last two Olympic cycles he has been involved with two of the top five (national field hockey) teams,” he said.

His limited free time is mostly dedicated to sports. “Since I’ve been in the U.S., I have a huge love for football. I make sure I have my NFL package,” he said.

Hamilton also loves spending time with his two children, using that time to “energize, so I can be really impactful with the stuff I do,” he said.

Hamilton said he’s a believer in work-life balance.

For athletes, balance is necessary between recovery and physical work, along with “the emotion well-being of our students with their academia,” he said. “So you’ve got to train them hard, but you’ve also got to rest them really well so that you don’t create abnormal training responses.”

“This is a great job,” he said, “because of the ability to work with so many sports and so many great staff and coaches.”

Renato Buanafina is a Penn State journalism student.