From Super Saturday at the 2012 London Olympics to England’s win at the Women’s EURO in 2022, there’s no doubt that without the support of sport and exercise scientists, Britain wouldn’t have had so many successes in recent years.
According to The British Association of Sport and Exercise Science (BASES), sport and exercise science is the application of scientific principles to the promotion, maintenance and enhancement of sport and exercise-related behaviours. But what does this mean and how do you become a sport and exercise scientist?
Jonathan Robinson is an applied sports scientist at Team Bath’s Physio and Sport Science Centre, based at the University of Bath. In this article, we’ll hear a little about Jonathan’s role and career journey, and he kindly offers some valuable careers advice.
What does sport and exercise science involve?
The three core disciplines of sport and exercise science are…
This involves looking at human movement and how athletes interact with their equipment and apparatus. Examining an athlete’s technique can help them avoid injury and improve their performance.
Physiology is concerned with assessing how the body responds to physical exertion. This is Jonathan’s area of expertise so we asked him about his role. “I deliver physiological testing and applied sport science support services. My role is broad. In one session I might be with a 50-year-old runner keen to do better in their next half-marathon and in another working with an Olympic pentathlete! We offer a full range of assessments including VO2 max (to identify aerobic endurance and optimum heart rate), muscular strength, hydration and blood testing, and body composition analysis.” To get an insight into Jonathan’s role, watch this video to see him at work with the UK hill-climbing champion.
3. Sport and exercise psychology
This is to do with managing the behavioural and emotional aspects of sport and exercise. Working with professional and amateur sportspeople or teams, coaches and referees/umpires, psychologists develop strategies to help them cope with anxiety, motivation and focus. Exercise psychologists help motivate people to participate in exercise in order to improve their general health and fitness.
Interdisciplinary sport and exercise science makes use of more than one of the above disciplines to solve problems within sport or exercise, or contribute to scientific understanding.
‘Sport and exercise science’ isn’t one career – all sorts of jobs come under this umbrella title. Broadly speaking, those who work in the area of sports science focus on helping amateur or professional sportspeople/teams maximise their performance. On the other hand, those working in the context of exercise science use physical activity to help prevent illness, improve health, and support patients recovering from illness or injury or with managing their long-term health conditions.
Career possibilities include those in: sports nutrition, sport and exercise psychology, sport physiology, health promotion, coaching strength and conditioning, lecturing in further and higher education, and scientific research.
Where could I work as sport and exercise scientist?
Depending on your role, you could work in a wide range of settings. Possible employers include:
- sport national governing bodies (NGBs)
- amateur and professional sports clubs and teams
- the UK Sports Institute and the home country sports institutes
- universities (in lecturing or research)
- NHS and private clinics, hospitals and rehabilitation units
- local and central government bodies concerned with health promotion
- gyms and fitness centres
- sports technology companies
Would I suit a career in sport and exercise science?
It’s essential to have an interest in sport, health and fitness, but you also need to have an aptitude for science, an analytical mind and excellent problem-solving skills. Being able to work as part of a team is important, and you need good communication skills and the ability to motivate others.
How do I get into sport and exercise science?
Many people start by taking a relevant degree. Some undergraduate (and postgraduate) programmes are endorsed by BASES. Courses differ in content and focus, so make sure that you choose one that is right for you. Unless you have a career in mind, a course that covers the main elements of sport and exercise science – physiology, biomechanics and psychology, as well as interdisciplinary approaches – will keep your options for the future open. Other things to investigate include teaching and assessment methods, the facilities available and links with potential employers.
Jonathan’s TIP: “When researching degree courses, find out how successful previous students have been in finding relevant work and what sort of careers they have entered. Courses that offer a placement year or other types of work experience/volunteering opportunities are particularly valuable as they will help you explore different career areas, give you a network of contacts and help you develop some relevant skills.”
Check the entry requirements for any courses you are considering through UCAS. Along with GCSEs/Nationals, you’ll need A-levels/Highers – most institutions expect you to have a science, maths or PE. Equivalent qualifications, such as a relevant BTEC National, may also be acceptable.
Jonathan’s TIP: “Entry to degree courses can be very competitive. As well as ability in science you’ll need to demonstrate your interest in sport. Gaining relevant paid or unpaid experience (perhaps coaching children’s football or teaching swimming) might give you the edge. Taking relevant courses, such as in first aid or coaching, would also be useful.”
If you don’t have the necessary requirements for direct entry, some degree courses are offered with an initial foundation year. You could also consider taking a relevant foundation degree or HNC/D; with further study, you can usually top these up to an honours degree.
Jonathan’s TIP: “It’s increasingly common for employers to expect you to hold a master’s degree, so be prepared to keep learning after you have graduated. Some people study part-time. If you are in relevant work, your employer may support you in your studies.”
A postgraduate course will allow you to study in more depth and specialise. You can search for postgraduate courses and find out about their focus, content, entry requirements etc through the Prospects website. (Certain ‘undergraduate’ programmes are offered over an additional year as integrated master’s programmes.)
If you are interested in psychology, by law, to use the title and work as a ‘sport and exercise psychologist’, you must be registered with the Health & Care Professions Council having gained an HCPC-approved qualification. After suitable undergraduate study or equivalent and an accredited/endorsed master’s, you could either take an approved professional doctorate in sport and exercise psychology (offered through a few universities), or complete the British Psychological Society Stage 2 Qualification in Sport and Exercise Psychology or BASES Sport and Exercise Psychology Accreditation Route (SEPAR) through supervised employment.
Training in employment
You never stop learning. Once in employment, there are all sorts of continuing professional development opportunities. Some people undertake further study and/or work towards BASES Accreditation (see below).
We were interested to hear about Jonathan’s career route. He explained that his was fairly typical. “After gaining A-levels in biology, chemistry and physics, I took a degree in sports science and decided to focus on physiology. I went on to take a master’s degree in exercise and physiology. I coached swimming, worked as a lifeguard and taught sport and exercise science at a further education college. My break came when I was offered a job as a sports science lab technician at the University of Bath. This led to a career as an applied physiologist and BASES Accreditation.”
What opportunities are there to develop your career in sport and exercise science?
We’ve already mentioned some of the areas in which you can work, so that will give you a flavour of how your career might progress. Some sport and exercise scientists work as private consultants to sports teams or sports organisations or work with individual athletes.
Another option is to work overseas.
Jonathan’s TIP: “Don’t worry if you’re not sure which area of sport and exercise science you’d like to specialise in. Most degree courses are broad allowing you to learn about different aspects of the subject before homing in on areas of interest through research projects and option modules.”
Graduates can work towards BASES Sport and Exercise Scientist Accreditation. For this, you need to complete the BASES Supervised Experience (SE) programme, although there is also a direct route for those with extensive experience. The SE involves postgraduate-level study (either prior or during the SE), supervised practice, workshops and demonstrating that you meet the required competencies. With BASES Accreditation, you can also apply for Chartered Scientist status.
The following specialist Accreditations are also available:
- High Performance Sport Accreditation
- Certified Exercise Practitioner (for those working in a clinical exercise environment)
- SEPAR (see above)
- Clinical Exercise Physiologist through the Registration Council for Clinical Physiologists (for those who work as health professionals in exercise testing, and the prevention and management of all sorts of health conditions)
Jonathan’s TIP: “BASES Accreditation provides assurance to potential employers/clients that you are competent in the sport and exercise science discipline in which you specialise and within your area of practice. Accreditation is not essential, but it will help you in your career and is now required by certain employers.”
How can I find out more about careers in sport and exercise science?
We’ve only been able to give you an overview on careers in sport and exercise science.
Jonathan’s TIP: “The BASES website has lots of useful information, including a careers guide. As a student you can become a member of BASES and this will give you access to more detailed careers resources, a range of support and keep you up to date with current issues.”
You can find relevant career profiles on Prospects and the various national careers sites. Professional bodies, such as BASES (as mentioned by Jonathan), The Physiological Society and CIMSPA (Chartered Institute for the Management of Sport and Physical Activity), can also provide information.
Apart from sport and exercise science, there are all sorts of other careers in sport. Also bear in mind that a degree in sport and exercise science will give you the skills and knowledge to enter a wide range of graduate jobs.
Continued commitment to maintaining and improving elite performance, increasing numbers of amateur sportspeople and an awareness of the importance of exercise to health, all mean that career opportunities in sport and exercise science are expanding. At the same time, this is a very popular career area, so there’s lots of competition for jobs. However, if you take the advice given in this article, you’ll be in a good position to get started.
Debbie Steel, July 2023
With a background working with apprentices and teaching in further education, Debbie was employed as an in-house careers author before establishing herself as a freelancer. As well as co-authoring numerous careers books, Debbie has produced resources and web content for a range of high-profile clients. She is an enthusiastic proponent of impartial and reliable careers information.