Many of us dream about becoming a world-famous sports star. Scoring an overhead kick in the last minute of the World Cup final or sinking a three-pointer right on the buzzer in a play-off decider are probably up there with some of the greatest experiences a person can have. Unfortunately, most of us have to make do with a pick-up game at the local sports center on a wet and cold Tuesday night. However, there is another route to sporting glory, but you’ll need to go through university to get there! Studying sports and exercise probably won’t make you famous, but it will certainly give you the chance to contribute towards sporting success!
Sports and exercise medicine are relatively new subjects. In fact, they were virtually unheard of in the 1970s and 80s, a time when many British football players thought a greasy cooked breakfast was the ideal pre-match meal. Fast forward to today’s game and figures like Cristiano Ronaldo make former players look like a different breed altogether. Moreover, sports stars such as LeBron James and Serena Williams have taken their sports to a whole new level, largely due to advancements in sports science and technology.
So with all that in mind, here are a few more reasons why you should study sports and exercise medicine.
Help the world’s best athletes get even better
As well as the more traditional jobs like gym instructor, sports coach, or performance analysis, new and exciting careers are being created all the time thanks to advances in sports science and medicine. One of the most rapidly growing areas of interest is sports nutrition. It's also one of the most valuable, especially for professional athletes or sports teams. Today's nutritionists don't just create standard healthy eating plans. Instead, they assess individual body type, metabolism rate, and a host of other unique factors to create a personalized diet plan for every athlete. Others go into specific areas, such as weight loss. This is a technique used by boxers and MMA fighters to make the required weight before a fight. Today's science-savvy nutritionists have got this down to an exact science, where they can accurately predict changes in the body on an hourly basis. Their work is helping bring credibility to what is still a very controversial practice, and the athletes who cut weight safely and efficiently have an advantage when the first bell rings.
Small margins make massive differences in competitive sports. Jumping a few inches higher, accelerating half a second faster, or being able to run just a little bit further is often the only difference between winning or losing. In some cases, it can be the only difference between entering into the history books or disappearing down the memory hole forever. And while star athletes will always attract the majority of the glory, the work behind the scenes by fitness experts is just as important as anything that's done on the track or out on the pitch.
One of their jobs is to look for any opportunities to improve overall performance, no matter how insignificant it might seem. British cycling coach Sir Dave Brailsford came up with the concept of ‘marginal gains’. He argued that by making a 1% improvement in a whole host of areas, the cumulative gains would end up being hugely significant. The attempted gains were as marginal, as seemingly trivial, as testing different massage gels for fastest muscle recovery; hiring a surgeon to teach each rider the best way to wash their hands to reduce the probability of catching a cold; determining the best pillow and mattress to optimise the quality of riders' sleep; and even painting the inside of the team support truck white, which helped them spot little bits of dust which could reduce the performance of their finely tuned bikes! So it may not come as a surprise that many doubted his philosophy, but it helped turn a GB cycling team once described as 'laughing-stock' into a group of elite athletes with 16 gold medals between them.
Similar work has been done at the University of Exeter. A group of sports scientists found shots of beetroot juice improved athletes’ sprinting performance and decision-making. Again, the gains were seemingly small -- around 3.5% -- but often that's all it takes. It certainly helped Leicester City FC during the 2015/16 season. The English football team began the season as rank outsiders but went on to lift the Premier League trophy, the most illustrious piece of silverware in the English game. During the 38-game campaign, the beetroot-sipping Leicester players recorded the fastest sprinting times, the most goals scored on the counter-attack, and the fewest injuries!
If you study and work in the field of sports and exercise medicine, you could be in some way responsible for innovative strategies such as these.
You can help shape the future of sports technology
Science and technology now play a major part in pushing the boundaries of athletic performance. Athletes and major sports teams are always on the lookout for the brightest graduates with new and innovative ideas. And with a considerable increase in funding over the last few years, there are plenty of chances to continue sports science research at a postgraduate level. Much of this exciting research involves using the latest high-tech equipment and computer modeling systems to create intricate experiments to uncover the science behind things like the perfect baseball pitch or the ideal golf swing.
Dr Mark King, a senior lecturer in the School of Sports, Exercise and Health Sciences at Loughborough University, said, "If you think about how computers have developed in the past 20 years, as they've developed so has our ability to capture and analyze movement in sport." Dr King and his students have run hundreds of tests to find out what the human body is really capable of. Projects have used high-speed motion capture to analyze the body movements involved in bowling a cricket ball, while others have designed dry-land rowing machines to ensure each rower maximizes their strength in every single stroke.
Sports science students at both Imperial College London and Loughborough University have been working on creating new materials to improve athletic performance in many different sports. Combined with recent developments in ergonomics and biomechanics, these innovators have produced cycling costumes that reduce air drag and swimsuits that help medal-winning athletes glide through the water even faster. They have also worked with Paralympic teams to improve wheelchair design and performance in sports such as basketball, wheelchair rugby, and sprinting. The running blades that made such an impact during the 2012 Paralympics were also designed and tested by a group of sports scientists from the German Sport University Cologne.
The market is bigger than ever
People are more health-conscious than ever before. Thanks to public health campaigns and the growth of social media platforms, doctors and other fitness experts have turned the general public onto the benefits of staying fit and healthy. There is a strong consensus that regular exercise is a crucial part of maintaining a healthy body and mind. It reduces stress, anxiety, and significantly reduces a person’s chances of developing life-threatening conditions, including heart problems and degenerative illness like Alzheimer's. It also keeps us stronger for longer, and with more people living well into their 70s and 80s, many are turning to exercise to ensure they maintain quality of life during the golden years. All this new interest in health and nutrition has created a massive global market worth around $30 billion -- and it's not showing any signs of slowing down soon.
But what does this mean for sports and exercise medicine graduates? Well, in a word, it means opportunity! If you are a self-starter who likes to be in charge of your own time, there are thousands of potential clients looking for personal trainers (PTs), nutritionists, sports coaches, or just someone to help give them a little kick-start. You could work in a local gym on a freelance basis or set up on your own fitness schools or classes. All you need is some equipment, some open space, and a few clients. People will pay anything between $20-50 an hour for a class, so you don't need to build up a huge roster of clients to turn your passion for fitness and sport into a well-paying profession. And with the power of social media, sports scientists with a shrewd marketing eye can attract tens of thousands of followers, leading to some very lucrative sponsorship deals. Joe Wicks, also known as the Body Coach, has over two million followers on social media and is the author of several books on nutrition and exercise. He began his career working as a PT in a local gym and posting workout tips online.
You might not be able to break the 100m record; thousands of people will, alas, (probably!) never sing your name from the terraces; it’s unlikely that Nike will ever come knocking with a million-dollar sponsorship deal. But nothing can stop us from dreaming, and nothing can stop you from finding a different route to the top by studying the science of sport and exercise!