Risk your neck for an exciting job in sport

Extreme sports needn't just be a hobby: as an instructor, or selling equipment, you could do what you love for a living, says Alex McRae
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The Independent Online

Careering down a raging torrent in a kayak might not be everyone's cup of tea. But for Ben Woodcock, 23, it is paradise. "It's the thrill. If you're going down the river with humungous waves splashing in your face, and you're pushing yourself to keep up with everyone else, it's an amazing adrenaline rush."

Woodcock teaches outdoor sports at Stubbers Adventure Centre, just outside London, where he's a senior instructor. It's his job to coax children, youth groups and nervous adults on corporate teambuilding events to hop on to jet-skis, surfboards, kayaks and canoes, and rediscover their inner daredevil. Instructors at the centre also coach youngsters with behavioural problems and disabilities.

Woodcock says it is his dream job. "I love instructing. Seeing people finally get it, after they've been trying really hard to achieve something all week, is great. And it's hard not to enjoy yourself when you're playing the sports you love for a living."

As the popularity of extreme sports like surfing, skateboarding and kayaking grows, there are more opportunities for careers based around them. Steve Quinton teaches sports science and outdoor activities at Pembrokeshire College, accredited by the University of Glamorgan. He says he's seen the number of people interested in a career in extreme sports growing.

"When we started, about 13 years ago, there were only a few places offering courses. Since then, more sports centres have opened and there's more coverage in the media, with extreme sports channels on satellite TV. The number of people interested in outdoor sports like surfing and climbing has really taken off."

Getting a qualification in outdoor sports can give you a head start. Woodcock has a bachelors degree in adventure tourism management from the University of Birmingham. He says that being properly qualified is particularly important if you want to teach other people. "The qualifications mean that you're offering a safe service to your clients."

Quinton agrees, adding that having a degree can give budding professional thrill-seekers an edge in their careers. "In the outdoor world, you need national governing body awards to teach in most centres. If you've got an HND or a degree, it gives you a little more scope beyond just instructing. You could learn about the health and safety side of things, nutrition, environmental conservation and management skills."

Instructing isn't the only career avenue. Chris Humphris, 23, set up his own skateboarding company, Faltown Skateboards, with his friend Alex Brinnen, 26, while the pair were in their second year at university. They design special "longboard" skateboards, which allow skaters to perform sliding tricks, and have now branched out into clothing and DVDs.

But when they started out, Humphris says, there was no career plan. "It wasn't like: 'Right, let's start a business.' It was a natural progression, from being a hobby, to making skateboards and videos. We couldn't really afford new skateboards, so we started prototyping and making our own. One summer we went into our friend's back garden, made about 30 skateboards, sprayed them, and ended up selling them all."

Realising that they had spotted a gap in the market, Humphris and Brinnen began to design more skateboards, and set up a website to sell them from. Then they started sponsoring their own team of professional skateboarders, went on a promotional trip to the US, and produced a DVD, which won best surf/skate film at the Cornwall Film Festival in 2005.

However, setting up a business in an ultra-hip environment like skateboarding involves more than just looking cool. "You have to be pretty self-motivated," says Humphris. "It's a tough business because it's so competitive - there are a lot of pipe dreams, so you have to find a niche. And it has been a long slog trying to get funding, do a business plan and deal with the paperwork."

Another thing to bear in mind is that a job in extreme sports, though masses of fun, may not be a ticket to a fat salary. As Woodcock says of his job as an instructor, "Compared with a high-paying office job, you don't get a lot of money."

And Humphris relates that running a business isn't wildly lucrative, either. Even after the success of Faltown Skateboards, he and his partner Brinnen still have extra jobs, washing up dishes in a local restaurant and cleaning. "We had to put a lot of our own money in the business at first, because we didn't have a lot of investors. It's been a lot of hard work. But if you do believe in what you do, you're unstoppable."