Wednesday, 23 December 2015
To follow up my letter to the 15000, I was asked to interview for the British Association of Sport and Exercise Science (BASES) The Sport and Exercise Scientist (TSES). The interview was published in the Winter 2015 edition. In it I expand on some of the points raised in my previous blog and ask the question as to whether the university sector prioritises the development of vocational skill enough...
The article is attached, and the transcript is below
Copy by Kelly Goodwin - interview with Dr Steve Ingham - Director of Science and Technical Development EIS
Employability: An EIS perspective.
Tuition Reform came into force three academic years ago raising questions about the value of a university education and how universities will meet the needs of employers by providing work ready graduates (BIS 2013).
Fuelled by on-going industry claims that candidates lack specific skills (The Times 2015), the employability agenda has continued to take on ever greater importance and the development of graduates with relevant attributes, skills and knowledge has placed graduate employability at the centre of the HE agenda (HEA 2015). The importance of work related learning and the need for specific learning opportunities for students to apply theory to practice is clearly stated within the BASES Position Stand on Curriculum-based Work Placements (Summer edition 2014). The message is clear and considering the centrality of the employability within the HE agenda the findings from the Association of Graduate Recruiters Survey (2015) were disappointing with two-thirds of companies having unfilled graduate vacancies with nearly a third claiming that candidates lack specific skills. Although the buoyant job market for graduates may explain some of the deficit, a deficit still appears to exist and a greater understanding is required to determine the nature and extent of the shortfall within the field of sports science.
The EIS were approached for comment on this matter as they actively promote the fact that they foster a culture of continuous learning and personal development (EIS 2015) and consider the career of the sports scientist from student learner to graduate and beyond. We interviewed Dr Steve Ingham, the Director of Science and Technical Development at the EIS to offer a view about the state of play and what more we can do about developing the vocational skills of graduates:
Interview with Dr Steve Ingham:
Lottery funding has been around for nearly 20 years and when I first came into post in 1996 there were 10 full time sport scientists in the country, in 2004 when I took a role in the EIS there were 65, today there are 190 and many, many more in the Home Country Sports Institutes and professional clubs. Although the number of job roles may have grown, I recognise that elite sport is a very small sector compared to the size of the leisure industry or research; however I do feel we are a prominent sector because I believe the application of science and medicine to elite athletes is a genuinely great British success story. Because we are exposed to economic market forces if staff, team or discipline work is judged under par we are criticised or potentially sports disinvest in us or staff. What comes with this high exposure is a need for the EIS to employ people that have a depth of experience and who can influence a high performance programme.
The types of opportunities for work based learning and post graduate study at the EIS:
We attempt to do what we can to encourage, develop and train the next generation of staff. We host work placements (for undergraduates), mentoring placements (for those who have graduated, are working in the area, but need some development), graduate schemes (for fresh Bachelor or Masters graduates). Our staff are active around the network, undertaking lectures and seminars about what we do, what it is like in the high performance system and how graduates can better prepare themselves for a career with us. We also offer an educational course or two across the different disciplines with the primary one being Skills4Performance.
For more information visit http://www.eis2win.co.uk/Pages/Learneropportunities.aspx
What does the EIS look for in the people they recruit?
For the sport sciences there is a very clear need to have good grades but this does little to differentiate individuals when there is a wealth of applicants. Normally we would have over 50 to 100 applicants for one post and you end up with a long list of people with a 2:1 or a first in their undergraduate studies and then a Masters degree on top. Having specific technical skills and background understanding, such as dietary analysis, certain analysis software or testing methodologies can also help.
Beyond grades and background knowledge we would look for some sort of experience, ideally two to three years as a minimum. We would expect people to have either carved out their own opportunities and/or to have had some sort of structured placement, preferably both. We are looking for relevant experience whether this is in performance analysis, psychology, lifestyle, nutrition or physiological support. Applicants should have some sort of background in the discipline that they want to work in; you often get people enquiring about working for the EIS and when they have no background history of any contact with an athlete or coach and surprisingly it comes as a surprise that they are not employable.
Are applicants applying for job roles with the EIS suitably knowledgeable?
If we take what we see at interview as our evidence, then there is still a need for sport science curricula to address some important topics. There are still some specific knowledge areas that do not really get taught and it can be embarrassing to see people with fantastic degree grades from prominent universities saying they have never been taught about areas such as training and they are supposed to have studied sport. We see gaps in understanding event demands in terms of the physiology, energy systems used, movement technique, the psychosocial demands on a performer at a recreational and elite level. We also see a lack of understanding about high performance sport and the ability to critique effective interventions.
Are applicants applying for job roles with the EIS suitably experienced?
Across the board the answer would be no. Many applicants do not have the necessary experience or have not maximised their experience to be at the standard required to work with Olympic and Paralympic athletes.
At recruitment we need to be able to select people that we can place pool side, track side, down by the rowing lake, wherever it may be, and for them to be able to work effectively with coaches from the outset. A full understanding, respect and empathy of working with a coach, the coaching process, and supporting teamwork is required and the number one mistake we see sport science graduates make is to try and tell a coach what to do as opposed to working with them, understanding their programme, what makes them tick and work towards their significant goals. It is important to understand the background theory but equally about how to work with coaches. You have got to get out there and do it; you have got to have an experience base because that is where the learning really happens.
This is a critical step that is commonly absent from the student experience and so leaves us wondering if it is being addressed in the educational systems. The need for individuals to learn the theory and then to apply it to an individual or a case situation or population and with that understanding then synthesise their learning. For example, if you were a physiotherapist you would learn about anatomy or an injury and then you will go and practice it on person. This is something that appears to be generally lacking on courses where sport scientists are trained to research and understand how to read a journal and the basic theory but they don’t necessarily know how to apply it with due attention to the craft experience necessary to bring that knowledge to life. This is what I hope universities would be interested in developing, but I am not sure if it genuinely competes for devoted time against other priorities such as research, operations and student numbers/income. This will be dependent on whether universities are actually interested in developing vocational skills which begs the question whether employability genuinely matters and if universities are prepared to devote and prioritise time above research for example.
Training the next generation of applied sport scientists
The EIS currently offers educational courses the primary one being Skills4Performance. This course was deliberately shaped to increase awareness of the demands of working in elite sport in an attempt to bridge the gap between what graduates have and what they need in high performance sport (and we believe applies to high performance industries and for high performing people too).
What I can observe is that over the last 15 years the vocational skill gap has not narrowed, it has not stayed the same it has actually widened and that does not reflect well on the sector as a whole. As such, whilst we scope our next cycle, where we are looking for that next edge, the next great sports scientist, the next great intervention, we will have explore all avenues of development and education to ensure improvement in vocational skills and readiness to practice that we need. At this stage I am not sure what this might look like but it might need to be radical, innovative to address the dearth of skills, so it could include apprenticeship schemes or developing specific educational courses for the area. But I think there is a real opportunity for a department or two out there, to gain a jump on the market, and truly differentiate themselves with a reputation of turning out high performance sport ready practitioners of the future. I know if I was a student looking for courses in 2016, those schools that truly understand, encourage and drive employability would get my student fees.
Association of Graduate Recruiters. (2015). AGR's Graduate Recruitment Survey. Available: http://www.agr.org.uk/For-Employers
BIS. (2013). Business Populations Estimates for the UK and Regions 2013. Available: www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/254552/13-92-business-population-estimates-2013-stats-release-4.pdf
Dogliani, Z. (2015). Graduate jobs market improving but skills shortage remains, Buoyant market leads to unfilled posts. Times Higher Education. Available: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/graduate-jobs-market-improving-skills-shortage-remains
English Institute of Sport. (2015). Why work for the EIS? Available: http://www.eis2win.co.uk/pages/WhyworkfortheEIS.aspx
The Higher Education Academy. (2015). Employability. Available: https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/workstreams-research/themes/employability
Sunday, 27 September 2015
Dear budding sport scientist
So you have enrolled on a sports science degree eh? You start this week? Exciting times ahead then. So what lies ahead for you at the end of your studies? Well, I could tell you that this is an exceptional year, for example, we are actually in Games year, or it is critical as it is the first pre-Olympic/Paralympic year since the home Games. All of those might indeed sound a little like the Coleman-balls;
“This evening is a very different evening from the morning we had this morning."
There is indeed a distinct and inspiring challenge ahead for those in the UK high performance system, that is - sustaining success. Sustaining success beyond previous achievements, i.e. Beijing as an away games, or perhaps could we get close to matching or surpassing the efforts in London. This presents us with a unique challenge, to reflect hard, adapt quickly and raise our standards and expectations to new heights. So our needs progress and evolve and so do those of the sports! Essentially, elite sport continues to progress, therefore I can foresee a bright future ahead for applied sports science.
If you have just enrolled on a degree in sports science then today I am writing to you, to tell you that there are careers for you at the end of the tunnel, a chance to work with the best sports people in the UK and the world. But I am writing to tell you that you need to go further than paying your tuition fees, studying hard and getting good grades.
The fact of the matter is that if you want, (and I mean really want, not just fancy it 'cos it sounds alright), to work with the best, the competition pool is massive. Sports science is the most popular degree course in the UK, with 82 institutions offering to teach you with a 115 specialised routes. Estimates show that somewhere between 9000 and 15000 students will exit sports science undergraduate courses each year. Added to this, the inflationary increase of more and more students undertaking a Masters course in the area, means that by the time you get round to collecting your distinction then you would be one of 1200 MSc students graduating each year. So the pool doesn't get any smaller, if anything it becomes more concentrated.
15000 Sports Science Graduates Per Year - This is your pool of competition!
So I write to tell you what I think you can do about it. Firstly, get a sense of perspective on what you are about to embark upon. Ideally your degree course will offer a work placement, these offer you an advantage, but you will need to go further. The icing on the cake will be if your course requires you to not only learn about a topic/concept/theory - but require you to apply it to a real person or population in a real-world setting, before then processing it by either writing it up, discussing or presenting it for your assessment. LEARN -> APPLY -> SYNTHESISE. Not all courses do this, many will teach then assess. I personally think this is outdated and no longer enough in a big bad world that needs you to actually do the do! I see this most apparently exposed at recruitment/interview for applied sports science positions, the vocational skills of application are far too commonly lacking. So if you cruise through your course, there is a risk that you could be resplendent with knowledge, but not know how to use your knowledge. But really the course providers have made their offering and you have chosen it - so now it is up to you to make the god damn most of it. Printing, this blog off, waving in front of your Head of School's face, stomping your feet and squealing, "NOT FAIR", "SPOON FEED ME", "WANT TO HOLD GOLD MEDAL", is unlikely to help you in your chosen path.
You also have to recognise that sports science offers very high employability rates, but at the same time very few courses are set up to offer you specific preparation for the demands of working with elites, which is a very narrow, niche and small portion of the sector. Sports science courses are typically generic, i.e. multi-disciplinary; ranging from knowledge, research, application; exercise, health sport; the combination of which is a real strength. The course you are now signed up to could lead to a career in PE teaching, leisure, tourism, research, banking, pharmaceuticals, medical sales, grass roots sport, coaching or the non-technical side of elite sport! The strength of this genericism comes in its breadth. If I had one reflection of my undergraduate days, that I think would have better prepared me for my career ahead, is that I wish I had read more broadly. When you are working with elite athletes there are some clear opportunities to delve into your specialism, but the majority of your work is multi-faceted, multi-disciplinary and you therefore need a broad knowledge base more than narrow depth. Sports science is already set up to provide you with a wide perspective.
Sports Science courses are geared up for breadth, but encourage depth - you need both!
With these background perspectives out of the way, now for the recommendation, one that has stood me in good stead to pass onto aspiring applied scientists and one that I wager will not go out of date for millennia to come - ooh confident little fellow aren't I? I am confident for a pair of reasons, first of all I am recommending to start doing the role you want to do (simples) and secondly not many people will have the initiative, the guile, the tenacity to follow this advice. This gives you an advantage and can differentiate you from the others, leap out from the pack and show that you have what it takes to be a brilliant applied sports scientist.
"The best way of learning about anything, is by doing"
Sir Richard Branson
In very simple terms - from day one of your studies - you have to get out there and bring your knowledge to life. You have to track test your new found information, you have to find ways to communicate this knowledge to coaches, to your mum, to professors, to all walks of life. So what do I recommend you actually do to acquire real-life experience?
- First, club together as like-minded students to discuss, debate and critically question what you have read and been taught - repel against the 'if it is published, it is fact' dogma.
- Secondly, get out there and test your own mind and body against what you have learnt. Deplete your body's glycogen stores, create muscle soreness, set scary goals, do hill reps until you puke, try to put on muscle mass, be genuinely experimental with the whole array of preparation methods. All of these experiences will give you a real depth of empathy with full-time elite training.
- Thirdly, begin to advise others - (you must do this early in your studies). There is nothing quite like feeling the weight of responsibility of guiding others, penning a training programme, advising non-training interventions. When someone is looking to you to help them improve, it should intensify your own questioning of the basic tenets, principles and knowledge concepts.
- Finally, with unrelenting humility, patience and persistence carve out an opportunity to influence a formalised training programme. Be it, Telford hockey club, Inverness gymnastics club, Spalding indoor bowls club, Aberdovey race walking club - make the approach. You will need to be hugely deferent to make a breakthrough of acceptance. Do not book a trumpet fanfare to celebrate your entrance, "I have knowledge, from a book, I am therefore your saviour". Instead, go along, knock on the door, ask politely to speak to a coach, when they have a moment, not when they are busy. Tell them who you are and what you are studying, but importantly ask if you can help. Can you help with stopwatch timings, session set-up, putting the mats out, getting the lane ropes organised - whatever it might be. Whilst you are doing this - ask if you can learn about the coach's programme, why they are doing what they are doing, towards what goal - asking well chosen, well thought out questions along the way. If, but only if they trust you will they ever turn around and ask you -"So, this sports science stuff you are learning about - have you actually read anything that real coaches can use?" Then with the preparation of a thousand hours of selective thought, reading, critique, observation, prioritisation and rehearsed pitching you get to air your idea, your suggestion or your intervention. You are now an applied sports scientist. No longer languishing in just remembering an article's conclusion, you are now and end-user of that knowledge, you are actually developing know-how. But it won't stop there, the coach or athlete might reject your idea, they might scoff at your best suggestion. That is where you need to be able to reflect and react. Maybe now is not the time, maybe you didn't use the right words, maybe your scrunched up body language, with rising intonation of doubt suggested you weren't convinced either. You need to reflect, learn fast, adapt and set new standards for yourself (see above for UK system). If you don't you will get stuck at this level - most do!
So go for it, get out there, illuminate your learning. I doubt for a moment you would enrol in a photography course, and learn all about the camera, it's inner workings, the best shutter speeds for different conditions - and never go out and take a photograph. So, you'll need to get up early to get the best light, think carefully about what picture you want to take, wait for the perfect moment to capture your image, and then be your worst critic about what you will need to do to be better tomorrow. So, is the same in sports science.
Some say, "there ain't enough opportunities" - they're right, so go and get one before they are all gone!
Wednesday, 8 April 2015
Who are you? Understanding the importance of self-awareness in interviewing in applied sports science.
Previous blogs in this series
I think self awareness is probably the most important thing towards being a champion.
Billie Jean King
An increasing trend in interviews is for the interviewers to ask some questions about you. There are no right of wrong answers here, you have to be your genuine self, because otherwise you will look like a shifty-fraudy-blagger. We are now back into tightrope walking territory – be yourself (my experience tells me that most folk are), but with some decent boundaries. For example, a common ‘personal’ question is, “What are your weaknesses?” An annoyingly common response is to hear something like, “I am just too motivated, I just love it too much and I am ambitious, it is a terribly woesome burden on my soul”. This type of response is akin to hearing, “I think I am a too beautiful, I think my good looks intimidate people” (cue deep frowning and “Give me a proper weakness please” follow ups).
This type of question explores two main areas.
· Are you self-aware?
· As a line manager, what sort of person do I have in front of me and therefore, what do I need to keep an eye on and support you with?
Now, I’m no psychologist, so don’t get your hopes up (generally on this blog or if you ever meet me too) for some perceptive insight into the inner workings of the human brain or interactions of human behaviour. (With my disclaimer out of the way, I will launch straight into some psyche-based wild sweeping statements, wee-hee). Self-awareness is the bedrock of high-performing people. Before you can take people with you, before you can influence, before you can form strong, meaningful and trusting relationships, you must know where you stand. What is your style? How do you come across? What are you like on a bad day? What are you like when your strengths are overplayed?
A slight variant of the ‘weakness' question, is “What are your weaknesses and how do manage them?” I am not in favour of this secondary query. The reason being is that I would like to see if they have developed this aspect of maturity. To the above, a line manager is considerably assured when a candidate can show, explain and articulate how they are managing themselves. For example;
“One weakness that I am aware of is at times being a little blinkered. This comes to the fore when I am under a bit of pressure and at times I haven’t engaged with other team members enough and I have ploughed on regardless without them on-board. I am actively working on this area. When I go on training camps with my sport, I have asked the physio to cite me if I go to ground or don’t engage enough. This seems to be helping.”
Now you have showed me that you are self aware, you are reflective and self deferent enough to be working on it and I now have a better idea of how I can work with you. Nice. My spidy-senses would get pricked up if a candidate; a) spoke about themselves in the third person (though who doesn’t enjoy listening to such extraordinary ostentaciousness); or b) spoke around the topic, acknowledging the importance of self-awareness, but couldn’t give examples of how they have adapted and learnt.
Other angles of enquiry about you, that you could expect;
· Give me an example of how you have supported another practitioner?
(Exploring your team working, empathy to others, commitment to interdisciplinary team working)
· What makes you frustrated?
(A variant on the weakness and another one for the line manager’s hit list for working with you, but this shines a light on how you like to work)
· What would others say about you?
(Another variant on self-awareness, I would suggest giving a good and bad side)
There are a plethora of alternatives and angles, they should all explore elements of your character and will be viewed through one crucial questioning lens – ‘can I trust this person?’ One cunning tack - is the impossible question. These tend to border on the moral ethical topics and arguments, but could equally be discipline specific, and will involve the interviewer playing the devil’s advocate to whatever point you make, no matter how well you make it. Importantly, these are not traps laid to be a sneaky-trickster, they serve a crucial purpose, but first some examples;
· What is the difference between sophisticated sports science support and performance enhancing drugs (ooh controversial)?
· Why should society invest in high performance sport when 50% of the world’s population don’t have enough to eat? (a monumental and existential question).
· Should a sport be in the Olympics if it isn’t the pinnacle of achievement in that sport? (an esoteric but important question to the aspiring non-Olympic sports)
· How would you contribute to culture change in a sport? (a very complex one, where do you start, behavioural, strategy vision, living the values day-to-day?)
The purpose of these questions is to assess your ability to outline the merits of an argument, establish a view and then crucially how you handle being presented with an opposing view. This would test whether you stay calm under a dash of duress, ideally be able to acknowledge the merits of the opposing view but ultimately to test whether you crumble, hold or press harder. As previously discussed in this blog, the interview is designed to explore your competence for the job role, and here it is the ability to ‘hold the middle ground’ and ‘influence others’. If the role/sport/environment you are applying for is likely to encounter such debating and compromising skills and tendencies, then you could expect such a line of questioning.
We are nearing the end of the interview now. You will typically be asked if you have any questions yourself (job role details, location, typical working day, possibility of fractional role; requirements of successful candidate, professional development; working conditions; chances for progression = Yes: Starting salary, desk, IT, Christmas party details = No, this isn’t the time).
You may well at some point towards the end get asked the tried and tested, trusty old chestnut, “Why do you want this job?” This is a golden opportunity and you should be ready (unlike these smashers that have been unleashed on me, “because I could do with a change” or “it just seemed, er I don’t know, quite good”). I would suggest an impassioned case. You should summarise the case for your abilities, your knowledge and your wherewithal to excel in this role, in so doing outline your interest, motivation and ambitions. You should do this, because if this is your ambition, then this could be the deciding moment when someone takes a leap of faith and chances their company’s money, their time, their opportunity and their reputation to invest in you. This could be when you get that break, this could be the moment your career goes in the direction you want it to, this could be the first step in a long road of helping athletes reach their peak and hopefully succeed. And that is a cool career and that is why you should always prepare for interviews – your life’s work can depend on it.
A final word.