The London Olympics: Getting behind Team GB

London's successful Olympic bid has sparked fresh interest in studying sports sciences. Laura Smith reports
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The Independent Online

Bradley Busch always knew he wanted to work in sport. But until his A-level psychology and physical education teachers encouraged him to study sports science at university, he had no idea about the range of options open to him.

Now in his second year of an undergraduate degree in sports science at the University of Loughborough, the 20-year-old says the fact that London is to host the 2012 Olympics means there is no better time to be entering the field.

"The university was involved in the Olympic bid so the general buzz at the school is huge," he says. "It's an amazing time to be studying in this area because so much of what we learn can be related to the Olympics. A few countries are even looking at Loughborough as their training base."

Even before the success of the bid, sports science was one of the fastest-growing undergraduate subjects. Last year more than 8,500 students were accepted on degree courses and nearly 750 onto foundation courses - an increase of 18 and 50 per cent respectively on the previous year.

Mike Parkes, admissions tutor from the University of Birmingham's School of Sport and Exercise Science, says the growing popularity of the subject reflects, in part, the preoccupations of young people. "It fits in with their life aspirations," he says. "They are interested in their health and in their bodies."

Parkes, who has worked in the field for a decade, says the number of people applying for courses at the university, which runs three degrees in sport and exercise sciences, increases by around 10 per cent every year: "It's one of the most popular ways of studying science at university now."

There are more than 400 undergraduate degrees in sports science offered in the UK, taking between three and four years full-time. A number combine the discipline with a whole range of other subjects, including tourism, chemistry, biology, law, sociology and even fine art.

Combined courses aside, most sports science students will learn to carry out laboratory- and field-based research as well as how to analyse the results using a range of methods. Human biology, physiology, nutrition, biomechanics and the psychology and sociology of sport will also be taught to varying degrees.

"One day we will be doing work in class, the next day we will be applying what we've learnt in gymnastics and the next day, analysing what we've found on computers," says Bradley Busch. "That's what makes it so fantastic."

"There is more and more of an emphasis on psychology," adds Parkes. "If you look at the top athletes who always come first there is no physical difference that distinguishes them from those who always come second or third. So there is now a huge amount talked about motivation and the psychological element to achievement in sport."

Entry requirements differ depending on the institution. Birmingham, for example, which places a heavy emphasis on training students as scientists, requires A-levels in science, preferably biology or chemistry. But others, like the University of Loughborough, do not specify science as a requirement. A-level psychology or PE are welcomed. Foundation degrees are accessible with a BTEC national award, diploma or certificate.

The sheer number of applicants - Birmingham now receives 1,500 applicants for 152 places - means competition is tough and high grades are expected. But Parkes says that shouldn't put people off: "The number of courses students apply for means many will take up offers elsewhere."

What applicants do not need to be is a first-class athlete. "It's a myth that you have to be an Olympic athlete to study the subject," says David Stead, director of undergraduate programmes for the School of Sport and Exercise Science at Loughborough. "Top athletes do exist in the department but what we want to see fundamentally is students who are coming here with a hunger to learn, understand and be excited about the sports sciences and how they can use them to make things better in the world of sport."

The career opportunities are wide. As well as sports-related jobs such as coaching, training, management, physiotherapy and dietetics, many graduates go into teaching, law, medicine, accountancy, marketing, the police and the army. "Students develop a lot of valuable and marketable skills, such as the ability to work as a team, to communicate, to analyse and to develop ideas, that make them attractive to future employers," says Stead.

Professor Craig Mahoney, chair of the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences, which represents 2,500 members - the majority of such professionals working in the UK - hopes the Olympics will be a catalyst for better government funding of the field. "There is great potential for the Olympics to affect the sports science industry in a positive way," he says. "The government needs to be putting money into funding sports scientists who can help make our sports people as prepared as possible, which is the best way of bringing home medals. There is a massive amount of sports science knowledge out there and most sports are not utilising that knowledge."

Stead, too, hopes the event will enhance the career prospects of graduates: "Britain is going to be incredibly sensitised to the world of sport. One of the reasons the bid was so successful was because it focused on young people, so there will be a lot of outreach work and a lot of jobs. The eyes of the world will be on the UK."

Vicki Aitken: 'I love being able to make a difference in somebody's life'

Vicki Aitken, 32, has been the official sports psychologist for the Ladies' European Golfing Tour for the past five years.

I have played golf at a fairly high level myself back home in New Zealand, so golf was a logical place for me to go once I qualified as a psychologist.

If you don't understand the sport of the people you work with it can be difficult. You don't get the respect and it's difficult to build a rapport.

It's a very varied job. When I'm on tour I live in hotels and am on call 24/7. Clients can call me in the middle of the night if they want to. I will be there on practice days to work with clients and during play I will observe them. On an ordinary week when I'm at home I write articles for golf magazines and deal with emails or phone calls from clients.

I love the job. Your main function is to improve their performance. If they feel nervous or they're having problems concentrating, you try to help them understand why and come up with strategies to help them overcome the issue. I love being able to make a difference in somebody's life. It's really nice when they win tournaments and they acknowledge you for it.