Careers in sport: changing perspectives

Tanja Dawson, co-director of sport at Haberdashers’ Aske’s School for Girls, discusses the advantages of encouraging more widespread thinking of PE as a scientific subject, not just ‘fun and games’

Technology has no doubt had a significant impact on the level of physical activity children participate in today. It doesn’t just affect activity participation and uptake in their spare time, it also influences how much sport is consumed by young people.

Many experts have also argued that as children get older, they are less motivated by PE and sports and less likely to take a GCSE in PE or consider sport as a future career.

For younger children, the reverse is often true in terms of engagement and participation. Of course, physical activity offered to younger children is based around fun and play.

A good programme will develop the fundamental skills and teach them that being physically active can be enjoyable. Younger children also learn more quickly, picking up new techniques easier than teenage children and they also have less fear of trying new activities.

Wider scope for learning

As children get older, they become more aware of their bodies, they are influenced by the perception and judgement of others, and are guided by peer and social media pressures.

Primary aged children are less affected by negative body images that pubescent children worry about, nor do they have those aforementioned distractions. Most young children also have smaller body mass to strength ratio, making any exercise they try easier than it would be for a teenager with a larger body mass to strength ratio.

Sport shouldn’t be confused with physical education (PE). The predominant experience within sport is competition with the sole outcome of winning. Physical education has a far wider scope, focusing on physical competence, skilful movement and perseverance. Excessive competition within lessons retracts from learning skilful movement and can provide negative experiences for some children.

There is an ‘old school’ mindset that PE teachers and sports coaches simply run around shouting and blowing whistles all day long

As children become teenagers, PE tends to become more specialised and serious and less play-based. Competition is also established and for many this becomes less enjoyable.

Rather ironically, sport and PE is often considered a low-value, ‘easy option’ when it comes to GCSEs despite the fact that so many children find competitive sport challenging. There is an ‘old school’ mindset that PE teachers and sports coaches simply run around shouting and blowing whistles all day long.

The examination subject and course content, however, involves applied anatomy and physiology, sports psychology and socio-cultural influences. It is not simply about being ‘on the pitch’. PE actually supports a number of other academic subjects.

Links with STEM overlooked

In the past the link between PE and STEM subjects has been overlooked. The relationship between PE and the sciences (biology, chemistry and physics) is something that more schools are keen to highlight. Students are becoming more aware of PE GCSE theory content and how this theory element complements the work they will also undertake in science.

Many schools have rebranded the GCSE to ‘sports science’. This has given more academic ‘weight’ to the subject and has encouraged greater student and parent curiosity as to how we address the sciences.

Of course, there is much more to do in the quest to change traditional thinking and stigma around PE and sport. Examination boards could also play a part in this by including or reintroducing additional activities. Cheerleading is huge in the UK right now and rounders is now a competitive game played at all levels.

Pupils would be keen to see such sports back in the specification. Putting PE back into the GCSE option boxes, rather than viewing it as an additional subject, combined with running a special STEM PE day, has already doubled our own uptake in school.

Physical education is not just an excellent base for the A-level in physical education, it can take the student much further. It is an excellent additional qualification for those undertaking the sciences with the intention to move through into medicine or physiotherapy routes.

Those fascinated by the human mind, may decide to study psychology. For students who enjoy the sociology element of the course and would like to further study humans, sociology may be another route.

Varied career spectrum

Beyond A-level, the study of physical education can lead on to university degrees in sports science, sports management, healthcare or exercise and health. Physical education can also complement study in biology, human biology, physics, psychology, nutrition, sociology, teacher training and many more.

There is also a wide spectrum of careers associated with sports and PE. Graduates who choose to continue their education and training beyond undergraduate level can specialise and become nutritionists, physiotherapists, sports psychologists and research scientists.

We need to encourage pupils to view PE differently – to think outside of the pitch and consider the impact on physical competence, knowledge and understanding

There are a host of other roles that link with other subjects too such as a sports reporter or columnist, sports photographer or television sports producer.

Less obvious may be jobs in sports technology and biomechanics. Health technology (designing sports equipment and clothing) and inventions to advance sports performance is a lucrative industry where an understanding of science, sport and performance is essential.

Missing the point

Despite the range of potential career routes, unfortunately there is a wealth of evidence to suggest that many students are essentially missing the point of PE. It is severely undervaluing the part PE plays in developing the ‘whole’ student.

Physical education isn’t a break from cognitive work. The body and the mind are intertwined and for the mind to work effectively, the body requires endorphins and feel good hormones, which are released by physical activity.

When students gain physical competence and skilful movement, their confidence improves, self-esteem develops, they appreciate how to persevere and as a by-product of enjoyable activity, feel good hormones are released. These all complement the challenges and energy needed to succeed in academic studies and also in their future careers.

We need to encourage pupils to view PE differently – to think outside of the pitch and consider the impact on physical competence, knowledge and understanding to stay body healthy and mind fit.

If we can teach them to become intrinsically motivated and to find ways of being active that they can enjoy and maintain in their everyday life, it will have a positive impact on mental health and wellbeing too. We need to instil the view that this mindset will positively affect academic achievement and that it is not just being about being ‘good at sport’.

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