Sport science will give you a sporting chance of a fulfilling career

Science, technology, engineering and mathematics find their ideal arena in sport, where success goes hand in hand with innovation

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The Independent Online

With fewer than 80 days to go until the start of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games it would be easy to conclude amid the hype that the "future" of sport is restricted to only a few weeks in July and August. However, those involved in the industry are already looking beyond the games and there are plenty of opportunities for those with science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) skills to make their mark in the sporting arenas of the future.

While not the only factor involved – luck and hard work probably come into it somewhere – science and technology play a critical role in developing sporting performance, explains Dr Dominic Southgate, of Imperial College London. "The margins between podium places are getting narrower in elite sport and coaches are looking at all the options to find improvements. This means looking at highly technical aspects such as aerodynamics, which require specialist Stem skills to be able to measure, interpret and improve them."

Developments in sports science and related fields such as biomechanics or physiology have gone hand in hand with rapid advances in technology over the past few decades, adds Dr Mark King, senior lecturer in the school of sports, exercise and health sciences at Loughborough University. "If you think about how computers have developed in the past 20 years, as they've developed so has our ability to capture and analyse movement in sport."

There are many practical applications for this ability that go beyond filming skateboard tricks for You Tube. Students are able to collect data about the whole body movement involved in bowling a cricket ball, for example; high-speed motion capture also allows research into the methods used to judge whether or not a bowler has "chucked" the ball – straightened their arm during bowling – which is against the rules.

On the golf course, combining computer analysis using bespoke programmes and research data allows elite golfers to scrutinise their swings and work to improve their performance. Still on dry land, meanwhile, rowing machines measuring the force generated by elite rowers help them maximise their strokes on the water.

These are far from the only uses for technology, as new materials and design techniques along with improved understanding of ergonomics contribute to better equipment for athletes. Students at both Imperial and Loughborough have been working with paralympic athletes to improve wheelchair design and performance, for example. "We've been doing work with some of men's and women's teams, focusing on design and customisation," explains Loughborough's Dr Jon Roberts. "When we're designing equipment we need to understand the needs of the athlete, how they're going to use it and how they'll benefit from it."

The full benefits of the work will continue to be felt well after London 2012. "Our innovation design engineering Masters students have completed a module as part of the Rio Tinto sports innovation challenge and their brief was very broad with many of the designs aimed well into the future," adds Southgate, whose students are looking ahead to the Rio 2016 paralympics and beyond. Imperial's design students show that those who have an aptitude for Stem subjects don't have to follow a dedicated sports programme to contribute to the industry.

Even the infrastructure surrounding sporting events, from stadiums to race tracks and everything needed to power and connect them, relies on people who have Stem qualifications. Emma Judge, head of UK graduate resourcing at BP, notes that around 100 of the organisation's 2012 intake have worked on the London Olympic Games, "bringing their very specific Stem attributes – such as being highly process orientated, analytical and logical thinkers – to various roles. They could be working at the National Olympic Co-ordination Centre at Scotland Yard or working in event management roles at the Olympic Park."

However, those who do choose to specialise in competitive sport can contribute in a variety of ways. It's not just about high-tech equipment or sculpted musculature: as anyone who has witnessed a penalty shootout will attest, much of sport takes place in the mind; another realm where Stem postgraduates can give competitors an edge.

"Within our research group for sports psychology we've developed a number of psychometric tools that psychologists can use to better understand athletes' and coaches' behaviour," says Sophia Jowett, who reads psychology at Loughborough University. "A lot of the knowledge we generate can be used to measure behaviour – such as anxiety, resilience and motivation – but it also influences policy and the way coaches are being trained and educated."

The benefits of this are clear for elite athletes, but it also has the potential to benefit the wider sporting community, helping coaches work effectively with their charges or showing parents how to positively influence child athletes. "All this knowledge is being filtered down," says Jowett. "It will benefit competitors at all levels."

Research will help in the further understanding of elite sport, adds King, but the knowledge gleaned from this will ultimately reach the population at large through developments in teaching and coaching methods. "Hopefully that ensures that young athletes or players will get better, with a stronger basis to their technique, thanks to research done at a higher level."

Which is surely the whole purpose of the exercise, according to Roberts. "Reaching the average person has to be the aim eventually. What happens over a period of time is that the technology involved becomes cheaper and more accessible."

For proof of this, look out onto the street. Bruce McLelland, head of sector at the Institution of Engineering and Technology, points out that the ABS braking systems on most modern vehicles were originally developed for Formula One cars, and that in the future we may see versions of the kinetic energy recovery system currently seen in some F1 vehicles appearing in the cars on our roads. Sports-related innovation has helped him on a more personal level too – McLelland's artificial leg uses technology initially developed for sport. "The leg I have has been inspired from the development of sport technology projects and paralympics competitive drivers. So I'm a good example of when engineers have designed technology for sports which in turn has been deployed to assist mankind in general."

Whether it's through studying automotive engineering, sports biomechanics, nutrition, psychology or any one of a huge range of subjects, Stem postgraduates have a great deal to contribute to the future of sport. The sheer diversity of disciplines that can unite under sporting colours is part of what makes the industry so innovative, and also explains the breadth of employment options open once courses are completed. Further research appeals to many, or there's the possibility of working for major sporting brands and governing bodies.

There's also the potential for personal satisfaction, according to King. "Why can one person run faster than the next, even if the other person is trying just as hard? What's the difference between first and last? The inquisitive side of me wants to answers those questions, and I think that's healthy. Most people have some interest in sport, and developing skills that let you look at it in a different light is interesting."

Those skills can benefit the student, and also society. Not simply in a practical way, but in a more philosophical one as well, suggests Jowett. "I think it's important to have more Stem skills in sport: everyone can agree that there's a lot of scope for more and better research. How quickly can a person run? Will there be a time when the 100m record can't ever be broken again; will we reach the limit of human function? We might never know. But science can help. And there's so much empirical evidence showing that sport is good for everyone, and for that reason it's something that benefits society. A healthier society is more productive, so sport is important."

Case Study: 'I hope that I'm contributing to the future of sport'

With a Masters in biomechanics and undergraduate qualifications in sports science, Erica Buckeridge , a PhD student at Imperial College, is now working on conducting research with the GB rowing team (left).

"I was always drawn to biomechanics, so although I don't have a rowing background, I thought this opportunity was perfect as it's a combination of biomechanics and elite sport. It's also a fantastic chance to get involved in something relating to the Olympics.

"My work looks at the lower limbs in rowing and the extent to which rowers load their joints, and how this affects their posture and technique.

"There's a real, practical application to the research. The GB rowers come into our lab three or four times a year for biomechanical assessment, and they get real-time feedback. They have a computer screen in front of the rowing machine with a stick figure of themselves, they can see exactly how flexed they are and get a really nice view of how they're rowing.

"I hope I'm contributing to the future of sport. When I finish the idea is that a new student will build on my work; I'd like to think that I'm leaving a small legacy behind, that the work will continue and that athletes will come in and get something useful from it."