The letter to the 15,000 was first posted on my blog spot in 2015 and has since had nearly 200,000 views across 27 countries. It was written for Sports Science students aspiring to work in the field of elite sport, but the lessons translate to grass-roots sport, coaching, health and exercise science, in fact has been discussed and applied in a host of fields keen to discuss vocational training and being ready to work. I’ll be honest with you, it was written out of frustration due to the lack of readiness of the graduate pool. While much responsibility lies at the door of university departments to do more to prepare the next generation, overall they have lagged behind the need of industry, in particular sport and performance which has developed rapidly. Some universities are beginning to move forward, many are considering it, but most are doing little. As you’ll read, you can moan about this or you can get ahead. The article has been edited for 2019 as since I first wrote it the principle message stays the same, but the working environment is shifting, so is the growth in interest in studying this topic globally.
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“You are unlikely to be taught and therefore acquire the skills required to work in sport and performance while you are studying at a university“
Dear budding sport scientist
So you have enrolled on a sports science degree eh? You start this week? Exciting times ahead then. So what lies ahead for you at the end of your studies?
I believe sport is more important than ever. In turbulent times, there is every chance that we will question whether sport is valuable. But we see no downward turn in interest. The march forward for more, seems to be insatiable. The challenge is that if you fancy a career in such a world, (my observations from 25 years of interviewing 1000s of graduates, reviewing 10s of 1000s of job applications) the gap between what sport requires from professionals and what graduates are equipped with – isn’t narrowing, its widening! In 2019, this is, in part, due to the rapid evolution of performance sport and equally a lack of development in the courses that train graduates, over the last 15 years.
If you have just enrolled on a degree in sports science then today and you’re aiming to work in sports and performance, as are 50-80% of your year, I am writing to you, to tell you that there are careers for you at the end of the tunnel, a chance to work with the best sports people in the the world. But I am writing to tell you that you need to take ownership of your own destiny, go further than paying your tuition fees, studying hard and getting good grades, and invest time and effort in your own development.
The ABC of where you are at the moment is;
A) You are in the right place to learn the foundation knowledge
B) You are unlikely* to be taught and therefore acquire the skills required to work in sport while you are studying at a university
C) You now have a choice to either, do enough to get through your course or create a better future for yourself
The fact of the matter is that if you want, (and I mean really want, not just fancy it ‘cos it sounds alright), to work with the best, the competition pool is massive. Sports science is the most popular degree course in the UK, with 82 institutions offering to teach you with a 115 specialised routes. Estimates show that somewhere between 9000 and 15000 students will exit sports science undergraduate courses each year. Global estimates put this figure between 75000 to 100000 sports science students at undergraduate level. Added to this, the inflationary increase of more and more students undertaking a Masters course in the area, means that by the time you get round to collecting your distinction then you would be one of 1200 MSc students graduating each year in the UK and 30000 to 45000 globally. So the pool doesn’t get any smaller, if anything it becomes more concentrated.
So I write to tell you what I think you can do about it. Firstly, get a sense of perspective on what you are about to embark upon. Ideally your degree course will offer a work placement, these offer you an advantage, but you will need to go further. The icing on the cake will be if your course requires you to not only learn about a topic/concept/theory – but require you to apply it to a real person or population in a real-world setting, before then processing it by either writing it up, discussing or presenting it for your assessment.
LEARN -> APPLY -> SYNTHESISE.
Not all courses do this**, many will teach then assess. I personally think this approach from most universities is seriously outdated and no longer enough in a big bad world that needs you to actually do the do! I see this most apparently exposed at recruitment/interview for applied sports science positions, the vocational skills of application are far too commonly lacking. So if you cruise through your course, there is a risk that you could be resplendent with knowledge, but not know how to use your knowledge. But really the course providers have made their offering and you have chosen it – so now it is up to you to make the god damn most of it. Printing, this blog off, waving in front of your Head of School’s face, stomping your feet and squealing, “NOT FAIR”, “SPOON FEED ME”, “WANT TO HOLD GOLD MEDAL”, is unlikely to help you in your chosen path.
You also have to recognise that sports science offers very high employability rates, but at the same time very few courses are set up to offer you specific preparation for the demands of working with elites, which is a very narrow, niche and small portion of the sector. Sports science courses are typically generic, i.e. multi-disciplinary; ranging from knowledge, research, application; exercise, health sport; the combination of which is a real strength. The course you are now signed up to could lead to a career in PE teaching, leisure, tourism, research, banking, pharmaceuticals, medical sales, grass roots sport, coaching or the non-technical side of elite sport! The strength of generic training comes in its breadth. If I had one reflection of my undergraduate days, that I think would have better prepared me for my career ahead, is that I wish I had read more broadly. When you are working with elite athletes there are some clear opportunities to delve into your specialism, but the majority of your work is multi-faceted, multi-disciplinary and you therefore need a broad knowledge base more than narrow depth. Sports science is already set up to provide you with a wide perspective.
Sports Science courses are geared up for breadth, but encourage depth – you need both!
With these background perspectives out of the way, now for the recommendation, one that has stood me in good stead to pass onto aspiring applied scientists and one that I wager will not go out of date for millennia to come – ooh confident little fellow aren’t I? I am confident for a pair of reasons, first of all I am recommending to start doing the role you want to do (simples) and secondly not many people will have the initiative, the guile, the tenacity to follow this advice. This gives you an advantage and can differentiate you from the others, leap out from the pack and show that you have what it takes to be a brilliant applied sports scientist.
“The best way of learning about anything, is by doing”
Sir Richard Branson
In very simple terms – from day one of your studies – you have to get out there and bring your knowledge to life. You have to track test your new found information, you have to find ways to communicate this knowledge to coaches, to your mum, to professors, to all walks of life. So what do I recommend you actually do to acquire real-life experience?
First, club together as like-minded students to discuss, debate and critically question what you have read and been taught – repel against the ‘if it is published, it is fact’ dogma.
Secondly, get out there and test your own mind and body against what you have learnt. Deplete your body’s glycogen stores, create muscle soreness, set scary goals, do hill reps until you puke, try to put on muscle mass, be genuinely experimental with the whole array of preparation methods. All of these experiences will give you a real depth of empathy with full-time elite training.
Thirdly, begin to advise others – (you must do this early in your studies). There is nothing quite like feeling the weight of responsibility of guiding others, penning a training programme, advising non-training interventions. When someone is looking to you to help them improve, it should intensify your own questioning of the basic tenets, principles and knowledge concepts (see below).
Finally, with unrelenting humility, patience and persistence carve out an opportunity to influence a formalised training programme. Be it, Telford hockey club, Inverness gymnastics club, Spalding indoor bowls club, Aberdovey race walking club – make the approach. You will need to be hugely deferent to make a breakthrough of acceptance. Do not book a trumpet fanfare to celebrate your entrance, “I have knowledge, from a book, I am therefore your saviour”. Instead, go along, knock on the door, ask politely to speak to a coach, when they have a moment, not when they are busy. Tell them who you are and what you are studying, but importantly ask if you can help. Can you help with stopwatch timings, session set-up, putting the mats out, getting the lane ropes organised – whatever it might be. Whilst you are doing this – ask if you can learn about the coach’s programme, why they are doing what they are doing, towards what goal – asking well chosen, well thought out questions along the way. If, but only if they trust you will they ever turn around and ask you -“So, this sports science stuff you are learning about – have you actually read anything that real coaches can use?” Then with the preparation of a thousand hours of selective thought, reading, critique, observation, prioritisation and rehearsed pitching you get to air your idea, your suggestion or your intervention. You are now an applied sports scientist. No longer languishing in just remembering an article’s conclusion, you are now and end-user of that knowledge, you are actually developing know-how. But it won’t stop there, the coach or athlete might reject your idea, they might scoff at your best suggestion. That is where you need to be able to reflect and react. Maybe now is not the time, maybe you didn’t use the right words, maybe your scrunched up body language, with rising intonation of doubt suggested you weren’t convinced either. You need to reflect, learn fast, adapt and set new standards for yourself (see above for UK system). If you don’t you will get stuck at this level – most do!
So go for it, get out there, illuminate your learning**. I don’t expect for a moment you would enrol in a photography course, and learn all about the camera, it’s inner workings, the best shutter speeds for different conditions – and never go out and take a photograph. So, you’ll need to get up early to get the best light, think carefully about what picture you want to take, wait for the perfect moment to capture your image, and then be your worst critic about what you will need to do to be better tomorrow. So, is the same in performance science.
Some say, “there ain’t enough opportunities” – they’re right, so go and get one before they are all gone!
“The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark. “
* Some courses completely neglect vocational skill. Many courses promise this, but don’t deliver it. Some courses deliver this, 3 cheers for them!
** If I have the attention of some of my learned colleagues in academia, charged with the responsibility of guiding young minds to a purposeful and successful career, I hope you are championing what I have to say, that students need to take responsibility and ownership for themselves! However, I’d like you to take a look in the mirror, are you doing enough to help and support the rounded development of future professionals? Are you equipping them for success in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world? Are you doing enough to modify your courses to stay at the forefront of contemporary learning? Or are you boring your students with death by powerpoint, or sucking the life out of skill-development by using multiple-choice exams, etc? Please, on behalf of sport look forward and shape what you do to be best and most effective learning journey possible for students!
***With the due diligence of assuring quality of work provision, legal requirements of insurances and first aid etc.