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Dr Ian Whyte: How Sport gives you the skills to succeed

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Published: 12 September 2017

We caught up with Dr Ian Whyte, Team Leader of Sport and Exercise Sciences at the University of Sunderland, to find out why Sport is a great subject to study at degree level. 

Two students plying volleyball

What do you teach and what is your academic background?

“My name is Ian Whyte, I’ve been a member of the Sport and Exercise Sciences staff for almost 16 years and Team Leader of that academic area for four years. Before that I was a Principal Lecturer in the department, and taught sports coaching across all of our programmes. Prior to my time at the University of Sunderland I worked in further education and higher education in Scotland and headed multi-disciplinary departments in sport and leisure. I undertook my first undergraduate studies at Dunfermline College of Physical Education before studying for my Masters of Education degree (Physical Education and Exercise Sciences) at the University of Glasgow. My PhD was completed here at the University of Sunderland.

What do you enjoy most about the subject area of Sport and why should students study it?

“I think it is one of the most popular forms of popular culture. It’s something that a lot of people identify with, even if they aren’t very good at it themselves, and it’s something that they can admire when they watch it on the television. It can also bring a city together, Sunderland being a prime example. The support that the football team receives at the Stadium of Light is fantastic and when they stay up (because obviously there’s the annual relegation battle!) the whole city feels better about itself. It certainly has that capacity to unite. I have been fortunate to have attended Commonwealth Games, European and World Championships and Olympic Games and they all have provided very distinct memories that I feel will be lifelong. They are fantastic events, bringing together so many people from so many cultures.

"Students who study Sport are studying a subject that is of immediate interest to themselves, but it also something that is both everyday activity for many and massively high profile at times. Sport is something that students have a passion for. Perhaps, it is a topic that they didn’t even realise offered degree studies.”

Are there any recent developments in the sector that make the subject particularly relevant at the moment?

“I think there’s probably two things going on at the moment in particular. One is a focus on health and wellbeing generally, and individuals taking responsibility for their health and wellbeing. There’s also an issue around the workplace supporting people to take responsibility for their health and wellbeing. So in terms of subject knowledge and opportunities for employment beyond university, I think those are growth areas as sport and physical activities sit at the heart of both prevention and intervention strategies for physical and mental wellbeing.

“I think the other main growth area, in terms of employment, is around physical education, particularly in primary schools. There is recognition now that we need to try and work with children at a young age to instil in them a love of physical activity and the fact that it is important to be physically active for the future, because prevention is much cheaper than the cure.”

“All of the skills that make for a good sportsperson are also the skills that employers are looking for.”

What skills do Sport courses give you, and how can they help students in their careers?

“Sport courses give you a lot of skills. We often think of sports people as being highly motivated, good team players, having ambition, setting goals, being able to respond to changing circumstances, being good problem-solvers, and being able to manage themselves. So all of those skills that make for a good sportsperson are also the sorts of skills that employers are looking for. I think one of the great things about studying Sport at Sunderland is that we spend a lot of time trying to help students develop those qualities, those graduate skills and attributes, and sometimes perhaps without them even realising it. But what we want is for them to be able to leave, not just with the greater knowledge of sport in all its various guises, but to have developed as people. I think sport is a really great way to do this because it immediately resonates in terms of examples that we can use.

“One area on which we focus is to help students to become aware that they need to manage their careers. We try to give them the skills to help them do that from the minute that they enroll as students. Students need to recognise the attributes that they already possess as well as the skills and knowledge that they are developing, all with a view to employment. Our students need to recognise that life, academic and practical skills that they develop at this University are also the same things that employer are seeking across many domains in business and industry. We try to impress on students that that the job they go into when they leave university may be short-term or may be long-term, but there’s a good chance, because of the nature of the employment market now, that they will move on from that. It may take them several steps to get to where they want to be, or they may never get to what they thought they were going to do because something much more interesting has come up.”

What kinds of careers can students look forward to after graduating in a course in Sport?

“To start with, a sport degree is just like any other degree. It’s a baseline that an employer will look at and see that you are educated to a graduate level. So one of the things I would strongly encourage sports student to do is, by all means look at what you can do that is sport-related, so you could look at teaching, coaching, sport performance, GP referral schemes, exercise health and fitness, gym instructing, etc, but also bear in mind those fantastic graduate skills and attributes that we are supporting you to develop can take you into various graduate training schemes. Because you’ve got that generic set of skills, you can make your career into whatever you want it to be. I like to flip the question around and say it’s not what can a sport degree do for you, but it’s what do you want to do with your sport degree?”

Students playing basketball
Students playing basketball in the City Space sports hall

What areas of Sport can students specialise in across the courses?

“It depends upon your interest. If you are more of a person who likes science, then Sport and Exercise Sciences might be the programme for you. If you like applying that knowledge in a health and fitness setting, so you’re not necessarily working with people who want to improve their sport performance, but you’re just working with people who want to be healthier and live a more active life, then you might look at Exercise, Health and Fitness. If you’re working with people where you want to deliver techniques and tactics, so you’re looking at someone who wants to get better at particular sport for instance, then there’s Sports Coaching.

“Then the other programme which we are just starting up, which we will recruit the first cohort for in Sept 2017, is Physical Education and Sports Coaching. It doesn’t qualify you to be a PE teacher, but what it does do is offer opportunities for placements in primary and secondary schools and in coaching settings to ensure that you’ve got the relevant experience to allow you to apply for a postgraduate or schools direct place."

What kind of opportunities are there for students while they are studying?

“It depends what course you’re doing. In first year, all students are required to do some work element of experience, and then linked to that is the Sunderland University Professional Award. You can have that assessed which will go on your record at the end of your degree. The purpose of the award is to get students to reflect on the skills and knowledge they have developed throughout their university experience, which would serve them well in terms of preparation for a job application or interview.

“In the second year, we run a tutorial-based system where we build the content around the student feedback of what they want more information about. We run a series of 1-2 hour tutorials where students come along and we discuss their work-based experience and their learning and skills development. We also encourage them to do the Sport Career Academy which provides the opportunity to volunteer. We hope that students engage with those sorts of activities so we can have discussions with them to see what they’ve learnt and to take them forward.

“The labs are some of the best equipped in the country.”

“In the final year, again it depends which course you’re doing as to what the opportunities are. For instance, for the coaching course, students would be expected to have engaged in some kind of coaching placement and reflection, and there are opportunities for the physiologists to do something similar. We’ve got opportunities with Durham Cricket Club for instance to work around strength and conditioning. Again, as I said, with the PE and coaching course, we would expect students to be going into primary or secondary schools depending on their area of interest.

“On top of that, there’s a whole strand in three of the degrees which embeds Skills Active fitness instructor qualifications. Every student does it either as a core module or as an optional module. In first year, if students complete the module successfully and turn up to all the sessions then they will gain a Gym Instructor award. If they do the same thing in year 2 then there’s a next level qualification that they can get, and in year 3 there’s a Special Populations module. These qualifications would normally cost a considerable sum of money, but we have built them into the modules, teaching the material for free."

Why is the University of Sunderland a great place to study Sport?

“We’re a fairly small section, which means we know our students. We’ve got some really good equipment in the labs – we don’t have separate research labs and teaching labs, the labs are the labs. We do research in them so the students can see that and they can be part of that research and work with us. More importantly, they can also use that kit in the labs for their research. The labs I think are some of the best equipped in the country, and certainly the access that the students get to those facilities and that equipment should be seen as really positive.

“We have staff who are external examiners in other institutions and when they go to those other institutions and see what the students have access to, they come back and openly reflect, wow, we do very well by our students. We spent £70,000 last year buying a piece of kit that enables students to assess strength power output dynamically, so they might be bowling a cricket ball or even doing archery. There’s some really fantastic stuff, when I think when I was a student and where we’re at now it’s just a completely different place."


Student using sports equipment
The University has a fantastic range of equipment for you to use

What resources and facilities do students studying Sport have access to?

“There’s a huge climbing wall and indoor hall at CitySpace for the students to use. When we need to go outside to access facilities, there’s local clubs and local authorities in the area where we can do that. Also, importantly, in terms of doing work for essays, presentations or assessments, we’re subscribed to a large number of journals and the biggest database of sport materials called SPORTDiscus. Everything is very accessible and students can access these remotely, so students can sit at home and write an essay, almost never physically having to come into the library.”

What positive advice would you give to students thinking about studying Sport?

“Do the subject you’re most interested in. When you’re interested in a subject, you’re more likely to work harder and you’re more motivated to study it. Go in for the three years and take advantage of as many opportunities as possible. The University of Sunderland has an awful lot on offer, whether it’s the Sport Career Academy and opportunities to volunteer, whether it’s being part of one of the sports teams and getting to meet different people and be part of a team that way, whether it’s taking advantage of opportunities to work with coaches or with people coming in from outside and listen to what they’ve got to say. See the experience as a bit of a rucksack, and you’re just throwing everything in, as much as you possibly can, so that when you’ve finished your degree you can take off your rucksack and pull out all of those things and think about how you can use those experiences in your life going forward.”