Sports science: join the elite giving British athletes a cutting edge

The UK’s sports science graduates are leading the pack, says Stephen Hoare

With the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games only a year away, UK universities have seen a steady rise in applications for sports-related Masters degrees. As a discipline, sports psychology is less than 10 years old, but already UK universities have established a cutting-edge reputation in the field. Sports psychologists often work with coaches to prepare teams for tournaments and help athletes improve their game. Success at the international level can only be achieved when the mind and body act as one. Winners must have self-belief and a positive focus. It is what sets them apart from competitors who rely solely on technique and fitness.

Trainee sports psychologist Mustafa Sarkar is studying for a PhD in sport and performance psychology at Loughborough University after graduating with an MSc last year. His interest in psychology began in the second year of an undergraduate degree in sports science. “If you’re thinking of becoming a sports psychologist you will need a Masters degree. Being at Loughborough has brought me into contact with lecturers who are world-renowned experts in elite sport,” says Sarkar.

Loughborough’s MSc in psychology of sport and exercise is one of only a handful of Masters programmes to be accredited by the British Psychological Society. This attracts students who want a fast track to a career as a professional sports psychologist. To qualify for BPS membership MSc alumni must spend a minimum of two to four years in practice being assessed on one-to-one consultancy skills.

So what are the qualities needed to succeed as a coach? Sarkar considers: “A good coach allows an athlete to make mistakes so that they can develop and grow as a performer. He must adapt his techniques to suit the individual and find out what motivates them.”

David Fletcher, director of the Sports Psychology Support Service at Loughborough University, not only teaches on the MSc programme, he trains athletes for team GB. Fletcher’s work is helping British Olympic athletes to gain the mental edge and the confidence to perform under pressure. Technique can make the difference between winning and losing. “I offer consultancy advice and, like a doctor, there is the same degree of confidentiality,” says Fletcher.

Loughborough has 16 students on its sports psychology Masters course; 12 are on the EPS-accredited MSc. Teaching is through a mix of case studies, practical scenarios and small group work with a lot of hands-on tuition. Career prospects are good. “Many of our alumni go on to find work with the English Institute of Sport, one of the biggest employers of sports psychologists in the UK. Others will work for football, rugby or cricket clubs and a few make it into private practice where they will train elite athletes,” says Fletcher.

Universities such as Loughborough, Bath, Liverpool John Moores and Roehampton offer a range of postgraduate degrees in sports psychology, sports science and physiotherapy. Masters programmes are influencing professional sport. Liverpool John Moores’ Research Institute for Sport and Exercise Science, for example, has strong links with Liverpool Football Club.

The University of East London has ambitions to become London’s leading university for sport from 2015. Launched last year, UEL’s MScs in sports psychology and strength and conditioning are attracting a lot of interest particularly from overseas students. Applications are up threefold on last year. Much of UEL’s success can be attributed to its proximity to the Olympic Park and the fact that it is set to benefit from future use of the Games’ superb legacy sports facilities.

“When students come to our Stratford Campus and ask ‘how do I get to the Olympic Park from here?’ I say, take the lift to the fourth floor and look out of the window. Seeing it for the first time they are blown away!” jokes Marcia Williams, field leader for sports science.

With close links to West Ham Football Club, the Amateur Swimming Association and the Newham Sports Academy, UEL’s aim is to get students involved in preparations for the Games. The university is building London’s biggest student sports facility called the Sports Dock. Due for completion in March 2012 the 5,500 square metre Sports Dock will have two indoor arenas and will bring sports psychologists together with bioscience experts and specialist sports coaches.

UEL sent a delegation of senior teaching staff to the Beijing Olympics in 2008. As a result it made contact with 10 Chinese universities, many of which are embarking on staff and student exchange programmes with UEL. Establishing links with national Olympic squads has generated valuable links. Last year the Indian Olympics team trained at UEL’s Docklands campus on a visit organised by Tessa Sanderson and the Newham Sports Academy.

But it is not just the sports department that offers Masters programmes. UEL’s business school offers an MA in sports media and an MSc in sports management. And the Olympic effect has rubbed off on students. For example, Gemma Gibson, who last year obtained a first-class honours degree in sports science, will be competing in the 2012 judo team.

Roehampton University has strong links to the British Association of Sport and Exercise Science (BASES). The university’s four Masters degrees in sport and exercise science, sport and exercise physiology, sports psychology and bio-mechanics are recognised by BASES and in many cases a degree is a short cut to professional membership.

Roehampton also benefits from strong links to world famous sporting clubs on its doorstep, such as the Lawn Tennis Association at Wimbledon, Harlequins Rugby Club at Twickenham, and Chelsea Football Club.

Caroline Marlow, convener of the sports science Masters programme, believes London 2012 has raised Roehampton’s profile as well as providing career opportunities for alumni. “Students are keen to be in London when the Olympics are on. We will have the 2012 tennis events taking place at Wimbledon and cycling in Richmond Park. One of our ex-students is working for the British Olympic Association as sports scientist/project co-ordinator.”

Not all Masters programmes are hands-on, however. Bath University runs a highly successful distance-learning Masters in sports physiotherapy which attracts around 80 students, some of them mid-career professionals, others recent graduates; around a quarter come from overseas. Launched in 2007, the programme lasts for three years, the first two of which are devoted to theory; a practical final-year dissertation rounds it off. “We have a mix of people who work in elite sports right through to NHS physiotherapists who volunteer at the local cricket club at the weekends,” says Dr Polly McGuigan, director of studies.

The raised profile of sports means plenty of opportunities for well-qualified therapists to work at a senior level at sports clubs alongside other professionals such as nutritionists, doctors, podiatrists and sports psychologists.

Above all, a Masters in sports opens the way to a highly flexible career. As David Fletcher explains: “Sports psychologists can work as human resources or performance consultants, or run employee health and well-being programmes. There is a lot of overlap between sport and business.”