Pushing the Boundaries of Elite Sport


In sport, success at the top level is attributable to more than just natural talent. In the highly competitive and pressurised world of elite sport, athletes are surrounded by coaches and trainers dedicated not only to improve their physical training, but also their performance management, mental skills, nutrition, and recovery. These professionals require knowledge in cutting-edge sport science that today is fundamental to excellence in athletic endeavour and achievement.

I have myself experienced sport science as a subject and profession from three different viewpoints. As a full-time athlete for a number of years representing Great Britain in rowing, as a rowing coach, and also as a graduate in psychology and M.Sc. student in sport science. I eventually became a sport psychologist, and to me this was a great way to move on to a career that built on my passions.

Enhance Development of Athletes' Psychological Skills

Sport psychologists were traditionally regarded as people who pick up the pieces when problems arise. Now we are increasingly seen as an integral part of the multidisciplinary teams that work alongside the athletes, our main responsibility being to enhance the development of the athletes' psychological skills for enhanced performance, which are themselves related to greater enjoyment and satisfaction.

We use mental-skills training to make sure athletes are able to perform their best and cope under pressure. This typically includes training in controlling anxiety, goal setting, developing visualisation skills, and keeping confidence and motivation high. In addition, the psychologist will probably be involved in life-style management training in which help is given to make sure aspects external to the professional life of athletes don't have a negative impact on their training or competing.

Frequent travel, the media's interest and daily hassles may not be directly related to performance, but relaxed athletes who are in control of their lives are more likely to perform well and enjoy their sports. There is also often a need for dealing with other issues such as the trauma of injury, retirement, selection and family or relationship issues; thus, sport psychologists need to have good counselling and listening skills.

We also support the multidisciplinary team as a whole through team-building and coach education. A key skill of the sport psychologist is thus the ability to build trust and rapport among the athletes and their coaches, and this relies on good communication skills and of course the ability to work within a team oneself. Having a diverse background can be a plus, and although having been at a high level in sport is not a requirement, an idea of the demands it entails is definitely a benefit. Indeed, some sport scientists "put their trainers where their mouth is" and actually complete the programmes they have prescribed!

Of course, the Olympics come along with unique challenges. An Olympic Game is the most stressful event athletes will compete in, and preparing athletes for the nature of that experience is the job of the sport psychologist. Athletes in the Olympic village have to deal with "village life." This includes the atmosphere and emotions associated with a big sporting event, the appearance of "big name" stars and athletes from other sports, and pressure from direct competitors, media, agents, sponsors, coaches, family, and friends. If mental preparation is left to chance, a medal may remain a dream even if the athlete has the required level of skill and physical preparation.

The training route that most sport psychologists take is through a degree, usually in psychology or sport science, followed by postgraduate study in sport science or sport psychology and a period of supervised experience such as the one offered by BASES, the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences. This professional body thus provides probationary sport scientists with the environment, opportunities, and guidance that will facilitate the development of a set of competencies specific for each section--biomechanics, physiology, psychology, and interdisciplinary. It involves working with an accredited sport scientist and learning through observing and practice. It can be likened to the position of a junior doctor [intern] working in a hospital.

Jobs Still Somewhat Limited

I myself am coming to the end of my supervised experience, and I feel I have now built up a substantial amount of experience working with my supervisor and his athletes. My background as both an athlete and coach has been particularly helpful, although I am careful not to blur the boundaries. It gave me a good grounding for understanding each sport science discipline and how each may complement the other. The satisfaction I get from being able to put something back into sport is a prime motivation for me.

The value of sport science is no longer questioned. Although the number of jobs is still somewhat limited, with the British Olympic Association, U.K. sport institutes such as the English Institute of Sport (EIS), and other centres of excellence at clubs and universities, the provision of sport science is now better than it has ever been in Britain. It certainly is an exciting time to be involved in sport science, as more youngsters are being identified with world-class potential and taken through start programmes, and with that the role of the sport scientist is growing. And who knows, if London is awarded the Olympic Games in 2012, it is to be hoped that many more sport scientists will be involved in the preparation of the British Olympic Team that will compete on home soil for the first time in more than half a century.

If you have the desire and ability to get to the top and are passionate about working in a sporting environment as part of a team supporting the world's greatest, then a career in sport science may well be for you. The hard work you put in is given back to you many times over when you are watching athletes at the peak of their fitness achieve the dreams they have held onto for years in a major competition or tournament. I am hoping myself that I can be involved with more and more talented young athletes as they develop into the next generation of medal winners.

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