Elite sport at university - hear from one of the experts

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Teesside University
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Matthew Wright is a sports development officer at Teesside University. He works closely with elite student athletes as part of the University’s elite athlete scheme. We spoke to Matthew to find out more...

Working with elite athletes sounds exciting – what does it involve?

It is. At Teesside University we have a number of students who are also international level athletes. I work closely with these students to help them achieve academically, at the same time as developing in their sport.

This can include offering sport science advice or strength and conditioning training on campus before or after lectures. It also involves working alongside academic staff to enable the athlete to study flexibly to fit in important sporting commitments such as training camps or major competitions.

What’s the selection process like for the elite scheme at Teesside?

It can be a competitive field. We don’t have a fixed limit on how many elite athletes we can take but we restrict our numbers to a level where we can maintain the best possible support for our students. We support athletes at international level or with international potential. Our typical undergraduate athletes have achieved junior representative honours and are transitioning to a senior competitive level.

Some of our student athletes are competing at major championships such as the Commonwealth, Olympic or Paralympic games. Many are aspiring to reach this level within the next games cycle.

To apply you should ideally have some representative experience at international level, or show considerable potential – we look to your sport’s national governing body to get feedback on how likely you are to progress within your field. If in doubt my advice would always be to apply – you have nothing to lose.

Find out how to apply.

What’s life like for an elite student athlete at Teesside University?

We have a really nice set-up at Teesside with athletes from different sports training together – the different sporting disciplines brings about an environment which is fun and competitive in equal measure.

The balance between study and sport depends on the athlete and their course. Ultimately our elite athletes are here to succeed academically but having the opportunity to win a medal at Olympic or Paralympic level is something very few people have the chance to do – it’s our job to support our students to do their very best.

Last year we had three athletes in particular who just worked really well together – the support that brings is important.

Our students are lucky in that they can benefit from our excellent gym facilities – we opened a new gym at the beginning of 2016 which offers a fantastic training environment for all students. We also have sports science labs to test athletes, and a strength and conditioning lab for more detailed analysis and individual sessions.

On the rare occasion that an athlete misses a session or is behind on their training monitoring they tend to get some friendly abuse from the others!

What are the main challenges for elite student athletes?

Like many things, this depends on the individual.

Any student who moves away from home can find moving to a new town, settling into a new university course and making new friends a challenge. On top of this our student athletes must also adapt to a new training environment and learn to maintain appropriate levels of recovery in a new setting.

For local athletes their challenges may be more around how their new course can impact on their training or recovery regime – they might have to make slight changes to their schedule.

Good nutrition and sleep are key to athletic success and a stereotypical student lifestyle does not always promote these things!

Any success stories?

Jade Jones, who’s studying LLB (Hons) Law, has recently returned from competing in the Rio Paralympics and also won Bronze in the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.

Beth Mead, a sport and exercise graduate, has played for England at the U20s World Cup in 2014 and was the top goal scorer in the women’s super league. She plays professional football for Sunderland AFC.

Beth and Jade really benefitted from being able to study flexibly to compete in their sport.

In swimming, Aimee Willmott won two silver medals and one bronze at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow 2014. She went on to compete in the 2016 Rio Olympics. We worked really hard with Aimee to develop her land-based conditioning during her time studying BSc (Hons) Sport and Exercise (Coaching Science).

Aaron Myers represented Great Britain Rugby 7s at the World University Games in 2013 – Aaron studied BSc (Hons) Sport and Exercise (Coaching Science) part-time. We also have Harry Tanfield with us at the moment – he’s currently top of the British Cycling national rankings. Harry is enjoying studying BSc (Hons) Civil Engineering. You can find out more about Harry here.

What’s your advice for students who don’t quite make the grade as an elite athlete?

You don’t need to be an athlete to work in elite sport. There are other opportunities for physiotherapists, sports science staff, doctors, masseurs and even chefs. All these roles contribute to the work of an interdisciplinary team supporting coaches and athletes.

Jobs in elite sport are highly competitive and academic qualifications alone are not enough to secure an interview. Experience of applying academic knowledge into practice, synthesising information and reflecting are vital, as well as communications skills and an understanding of an elite sport environment.

At Teesside we provide sport and exercise and physiotherapy students with opportunities to gain valuable experience working with young athletes in these environments. We also give support and mentoring so that our students can develop their practical skills and confidence.

What are the opportunities for non-athletes?

At Teesside University we get a lot of students interested in strength and conditioning or sports physiotherapy volunteering. These students get some great opportunities to work with our elite athletes, although most of their learning comes from working with the FA Girls Regional Talent club or within the Tees Valley Future Champions project.

We have some great examples of students going on to get good jobs in elite sport. Michael Main has just finished working as head of strength and conditioning for the Sri Lankan cricket team. He’s now working in Victoria, Australia. Luke Passman and Ruaridh Cuthbertson both work with tennis players in the Soto Academy in Spain and Scott Pollock is head of strength and conditioning for British Swimming working with our Team GB swimmers.

At Teesside University we make the best of our partnerships and this can bring lots of benefits and opportunities for our students. In 2016 we announced Middlesbrough Football Club as an official partner. It’s great working with MFC to enhance the learning experience of our students.

And finally, what’s the best thing about your job and what’s great about sport at Teesside?

Working with different individuals and characters is fantastic. We’re lucky that we can individualise the nature of our support to each athlete – this means we can offer really tailored training and guidance.

We have a unique environment at Teesside where people from completely different sports are all striving to achieve success. This creates a brilliant competitive spirit within our students and also contributes to a very fun and supportive atmosphere.

Find out more about elite sport at Teesside and explore Teesside University’s courses here.

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