Man Up! The Inclusion of Transgender Men in Sport

Authored by the team ‘Insight’: Denise Hamilton-Mace, Daisy Manuel, Olivia Whitehead and Dina Day [E119 21J students].


This blog was written as part of a collaborative teamwork task by students studying E119. They had to select a topic and then decide on what roles each person would perform in the team, such as researcher, writer, editor, and leader. This blog was chosen as one of the best blogs from around 80 blogs that were produced.


When someone is told to ‘man up’ what comes to mind? Is there an inference that something is lacking? Are they not meeting some sort of masculinity model presented by modern-day society? There are men out there that have done their fair share of ‘manning up’ to become the pillars of men they are today, but the recognition is hard to come by. They are treading paths that very few dare to tread.

So, to whom are we referring? Transgender men. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, transgender men or transmen are individuals that were born biologically female but identify as male. Every fibre in their body tells them they are men through and through. For some, to fulfil their identity, competing in sport is the ultimate dream. Athletes such as Mack Beggs, Shay Price, Verity Smith, and Danny Baker to name a few, are forging armour for the modern transman. But it is not without its kinks.

Rightly so each sport has a set of rules and guidelines to be abided by. But what happens when you do not fit into those age-old parameters? Conflict and turmoil arise. Whilst there is a plethora of legislation for transgender women in sports, transmen athletes are not deemed as having a physiological advantage over their cisgender male counterparts (Burnett, 2021). Therefore, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), as of 2015, stated that “Those who transition from female to male are eligible to compete in the male category without restriction.” Furthermore, The World Athletics Eligibility Regulations for Transgender Athletes (2019) stipulates a transgender “male athlete must provide a written and signed declaration, in a form satisfactory to the Medical Manager, that his gender identity is male.”

One particular trailblazer is Chris Mosier. His work as an athlete, coach and educator has brought about significant changes to how trans athletes can compete. Mosier has made history in several ways: in 2015 he was the first American transgender male athlete to qualify for the duathlon world championship; at the 2016 Olympic games he was the first transman to compete against men; he was even the first transgender athlete to feature in the ESPN Body Issue! He was pivotal in campaigning to the IOC specifically asking for the removal of the requirement for surgery in order for transgender athletes to compete. He fervently continues to educate and campaign for LGBTQ+ inclusion.

However, this does not mean everything is plain sailing. Take for example transman Mack Beggs. In 2017, at just 17 years old, he was Texas state champion wrestler for two consecutive years but competed against girls. Beggs wanted to compete against boys but a state ban in Texas limited transgender athletes to teams aligning with their gender at birth. The girls he competed against wanted him to wrestle men as they felt he had some sort of advantage whilst on low doses of testosterone as part of his transition. All of this took a massive toll on Beggs’ mental health. He says, “You have to wrestle against girls — but you really want to wrestle against guys. You beat girls, but technically you are a girl, but technically you’re not. It was a no-win situation” Because of this experience he admits, “I was in a very dark place. I had to seek out help” (Hartley, 2021).

It is this dark place that many transgender individuals face. In a resource put together by Public Health England (2015), “One study in the UK found that 34.4% of trans adults had attempted suicide at least once,” and “There is a strong evidence base that demonstrates the negative impact of discrimination and stigma on trans young people. The result is increased substance misuse, depression, self-harm and suicide.” Whilst many athletes in general do not make it to elite level, grassroot and community sports play tremendous parts in transmen’s lives.

Shay Price is one transman that relied on bodybuilding to battle his demons. He explains, “Going to the gym is like therapy. I can go there and take my anger and frustration out. It just picks me up.” (Ward, 2021). His success in the industry prompts others to ask him for training tips and advice. He is a walking billboard for other transmen to aspire to. Jordan Jackson, a three-time taekwondo gold medallist fights for inclusion within his self-made fitness centre Stealth Fitness UK. His ethos envelopes more than just training. It is about support for the trans community and having a sense of belonging. Jordan admits, “I know the mental health deterioration that can happen when trans people don’t have a physical outlet… there’s nothing worse than being stuck by yourself and having your thoughts go over and over in your mind” (Ward, 2021). Rugby wheelchair player Verity Smith was the target of abuse for being transgender but relied on sport and his team members to support him. He echoes Jordan’s words saying: “I struggled with my mental health […] Playing sport gave me something to concentrate on. It gave me another family” (Ward, 2021).

Whilst some sporting governing bodies are adjusting rules for transgender athletes, the tides of promise are sometimes still too little, let alone too late. In the meantime, inclusion at the very least should surely be the priority; for some it could mean their life. Verity Smith epitomises all the hopes and dreams for transmen athletes in but a few sentences when he said, ‘Sport is life. Everyone should have the right to play sport as themselves” (Ward, 2021).

 

References:

Burnett, S. (2021) Fact check: Do trans athletes have an advantage in elite sport? [Online] Available at: https://www.dw.com/en/fact-check-do-trans-athletes-have-an-advantage-in-elite-sport/a-58583988 (Accessed 24 January 2022).

Cunningham, S. (2016) Chris Mosier First Trans Athlete to Pose for ESPN’s Body Issue Duathlete Chris Mosier is making history as the first transgender athlete to be profiled for ESPN Magazine’s Body Issue. [Online]. Available at: https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/chris-mosier-first-trans-athlete-pose-espn-s-body-issue-n597146 (Accessed 23 January 2022).

Harding, R. (2020) Mack Beggs Is Still Grappling With Ignorance. After a high school wrestling career muddled with controversy, he’s addressing transgender rights head-on Available at: https://www.menshealth.com/trending-news/a33984383/mack-beggs-transgender-wrestler-interview/ (Accessed 16 January 2022).

Hartley, E. (2021) Mack Beggs, transgender wrestler who rose to prominence for competing against women: ‘It took a toll on me’ [Online]. Available at: https://uk.finance.yahoo.com/news/mack-beggs-transgender-wrestler-who-rose-to-prominence-for-competing-against-women-it-took-a-toll-on-me-191642125.html?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly9kdWNrZHVja2dvLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAKtWap5aNQ8Cxd8_Xx5fXM2TxXBBeSo7EWcN8CRwQlUdZgO51zPYf_k5VNIYZuq7iOo_4bDmSsWJMh2H9hp3Aw8Bhn7xKXCGlbVDbIMi-iWXsWOp-w0OdNiYtuFOqtFeSPjECjmu3XWAFoG_dho8rYi9Ga72wMAVsvXH9WFxpJRG (Accessed 11 January 2022).

IAAF (n.d.), Eligibility Regulations for Transgender Athletes [Online]. Available at: https://www.worldathletics.org/download/download?filename=63067c17-1ab4-4a08-a132-5e36bda5fc61.pdf&urlslug=Eligibility%20Regulations%20for%20Transgender%20Athletes%2C%20in%20force%20from%201%20October%202019 (Accessed 15 January 2022).

Ingram, Benjamin James MD1; Thomas, Connie Lynn (2019) Transgender Policy in Sport, A Review of Current Policy and Commentary of the Challenges of Policy Creation [Online]. Available at: https://journals.lww.com/acsmcsmr/Fulltext/2019/06000/Transgender_Policy_in_Sport,_A_Review_of_Current.10.aspx?fbclid=IwAR2AGlQBfbUmpZBRCLk9PLC0IqA2F7Uu9qkuXslpQrUt0ZxgEjd_etz0DXs (Accessed 17 January 2022).

International Olympic Committee (2015) IOC Consensus Meeting on Sex Reassignment and Hyperandrogenism November 2015 [Online]. Available at: https://stillmed.olympic.org/Documents/Commissions_PDFfiles/Medical_commission/2015-11_ioc_consensus_meeting_on_sex_reassignment_and_hyperandrogenism-en.pdf (Accessed 23 January 2022).

Jones, B et al. (2017) Sport and Transgender People: A Systematic Review of the Literature Relating to Sport Participation and Competitive Sport Policies [Online]. Available at: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40279-016-0621-y (Accessed 12 January 2022).

Mosier, C. (2021) [Online]. Available at: https://www.transathlete.com/ (Accessed 14 January 2022).

Public Health England (2015) Trans suicide prevention toolkit [Online]. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/417707/Trans_suicide_Prevention_Toolkit_Final_26032015.pdf (Accessed 14 January 2022).

QVoiceNews (2019) Transgender boxer Patricio Manuel. Video courtesy Everlast [Online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zaaV3YhwwYk (Accessed 11 January 2022).

Ward, T. (2021) ‘Equal Play’. Men’s Health Magazine, December 2021 Issue, pp. 70-79.

Elite athletes and their struggle with mental health

Authored by the team ‘OU United’: Jonathan Bell, James Mikelson, Mia Savage, and Hannah Wood [E119 21J students].


This blog was written as part of a collaborative teamwork task by students studying E119. They had to select a topic and then decide on what roles each person would perform in the team, such as researcher, writer, editor, and leader. This blog was chosen as one of the best blogs from around 70 blogs that were produced.


Physical activity is commonly shown to improve mental health, as suggested by evidence that shows a 20-30% reduction in depression in adults who participate in physical activity daily (Pierce, et al., 2018). Physical activity can help to improve wellbeing, even a short burst of exercise or a 10-minute walk increases our mental alertness, energy, and positive mood (Mental Health Foundation 2015). However, for athletes involved in elite sports, an improvement in mental health isn’t always the case.

The International Olympic Committee released a consensus statement on mental health in elite athletes (Reardon et al., 2019, p.671). This identified 11 mental health disorders that can be experienced by athletes. These were:

  1. Sleep disorders
  2. Major depressive disorder
  3. Suicide
  4. Anxiety
  5. Post-traumatic stress disorder
  6. Eating disorder
  7. ADHD
  8. Bipolar and psychotic disorders
  9. Sport related concussion
  10. Substance use disorders
  11. Gambling disorder and other behavioural disorders

In the recent Tokyo Olympic Games, the mental health issues faced by elite athletes were highlighted. Gymnast Simone Biles, a four-time Olympic gold medallist, made the decision to not compete in the rest of the games. Simone Biles said “I have to focus on my mental health” after withdrawing from the women’s team final (BBC, 2021). She also stated that ‘Mental health is more important than the pursuit of medals’, this shows that the amount of pressure placed on her to do well had forced her to withdraw and focus on herself.

You can read more about Simone’s decision to pull out of the games by visiting: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/olympics/57982665

Being a successful elite athlete, like herself, can take a toll on mental health due to the pressure from coaches, the media, and fans to be the best. From Biles raising awareness of her struggles with mental health, she has hopefully encouraged others to speak up about their own experiences, as well as highlighting the impact the pressures of elite sport can have on athletes.

She has shown the effects of being in a competitive environment and the struggles of participating in elite sport. Athletes spend years preparing for big events, such as the Olympics, where they are representing their country and showcasing their talent to thousands of people. This can create an enormous amount of pressure due to the feelings of uncertainty, fear of failure and the need to succeed.

In addition to pressure to succeed, there are many reasons for elite athletes to suffer from mental health issues, here are a few of them:

Retirement

Retiring can be a difficult and challenging process for athletes. Mind (2022) say this is because sportspeople who have spent their life being defined as an athlete, now have to get used to and adapt to a life without sport, which can cause a lack of self-identity and missing sport can cause depression.

Injury and performance failure  

One of the most recognised risk factors for psychological distress amongst athletes has been sports injury. A study of 353 male athletes from a mix of sports found that 51% of them showed symptoms of depression after being injured and 12% became moderately to severely depressed (Gonser, 2020). When an athlete is injured, they can no longer use exercise as a form of stress relief, which can be mentally challenging, they may feel frustration and self-helplessness. Performance failure can be demotivating as it may mean goals are not met, this can lead to a decrease in self-belief and a feeling of letting themselves and others down.

Struggling in silence

Athletes who have revealed their own stories of mental health in sport, encourage others to do the same so that they aren’t suffering alone. Natasha Danvers claims that as an athlete you are “supposed to be able to handle things”, which can create a stigma around asking for help and support as it means having to admit you have a weakness (Mind, 2022). This can make mental health issues worse as the athletes are attempting to deal with it themselves without professional help.

Athletes tend to refrain from seeking support for their mental health. This can be due to stigma around mental health, lack of understanding on the subject and the perception that seeking help is a sign of weakness (Pierce et al., 2018). Hopefully, by more athletes speaking up about their mental health issues, others will be inspired to do the same and reach out for support.

In terms of athletes getting help with their mental health, there are many projects and organisations out there to provide support. A charity that is attempting to make a change is State of mind. State of mind is a charity that aims to promote positive mental health, deliver education on the subject, tackle the stigma, and encourage access to support to ultimately prevent suicide. They also provide health resources and adult mental health first aid training which can be used to benefit athletes in distress. Athletes have been quoted saying they support this charity and what it’s doing, for example, Footballer Roy Keane says “I am fully supportive of the State of mind campaign. Mental health issues need to be addressed and doing it through sport should raise the profile”. (State of Mind, 2022)

Although athletes may seem like they are doing well because they are winning medals, behind the scenes they may be struggling with a mental health issue. If you’re reading this and are struggling yourself don’t be afraid to ask for help!

Some links for mental health support:

https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/nhs-voluntary-charity-services/nhs-services/how-to-access-mental-health-services/

https://www.mind.org.uk/about-us/our-policy-work/sport-physical-activity-and-mental-health/

https://www.time-to-change.org.uk/mental-health-and-stigma/help-and-support

 

Reference list

BBC Sport. (2021) Simone Biles says ‘I have to focus on my mental health’ after pulling out of team final. Available at Simone Biles says ‘I have to focus on my mental health’ after pulling out of team final – BBC Sport (Accessed: 24/01/2022).

Gonser, S. (2020) What athletes should know about post-injury depression. Available at What Athletes Should Know About Post-Injury Depression – LRT Sports – College Athletic News and Exclusive Coach Ratings (lrt-sports.com) (Accessed: 25/01/2022).

Mental Health Foundation. (2015) How to look after your mental health using exercise [Online]. Available at How to look after your mental health using exercise | Mental Health Foundation (Accessed: 24/01/2022).

Mind (2022) Performance Matters: Mental Health in Elite Sport. Available at mental-health-and-elite-sport.pdf (mind.org.uk) (Accessed: 25/01/2022).

Peirce, N., Lester, C., Seth, A., Turner, p. (2018) The Role of Physical Activity and Sport in Mental Health [Online]. Available at The Role of Physical Activity and Sport in Mental Health – The Faculty of Sport and Exercise Medicine (fsem.ac.uk) (Accessed: 24/01/2022).

Reardon, C. (2019) Mental Health in elite athletes: International Olympic Committee consensus statement. Available at Mental health in elite athletes: International Olympic Committee consensus statement (2019) (bmj.com) (Accessed: 24/01/2022).

State of Mind. (2022) What we do. Available at https://stateofmindsport.org/what-we-do/ (Accessed: 25/01/2022).

Is taking the knee making a difference to racism in football?

Authored by the team ‘The Masked Bloggers’: Christopher Nash, Corey Ward, Gavin McLeod, Alistair Rigg, Richard Davies, Laurie Adam, Laura Kelly, June Lloyd, and Azur Allison [E119 21J students].


This blog was written as part of a collaborative teamwork task by students studying E119. They had to select a topic and then decide on what roles each person would perform in the team, such as researcher, writer, editor, and leader. This blog was chosen as one of the best blogs from around 70 blogs that were produced.


The media coverage of football players taking the knee before games to make a stand against racial injustice filled our TV’s and newspapers as it became common practice in the latter half of 2020. Reflecting over the last 18 months, has it made any difference to racism in football?

The movement famously began with Colin Kaepernick in the NFL back in 2016, but after the tragic events of 2020 and the death of George Floyd in police custody, footballer’s felt it was their duty to use their public status to show their support for the Black Lives Matter campaign in the stand against racial injustice and police brutality (Sky News, 2021).

Has taking the knee made any difference?

If the sole aim of taking the knee was to raise the conversation around racial injustice, police brutality, and systemic racism in football and wider society, then yes it has done as intended (Sky News, 2021). It has encouraged players to be openly vocal about issues in the game, whether that be racial abuse or a general underrepresentation of black people in the sport. On that point, Tony Burnett, Head of Football’s Anti-Racism Organisation ‘Kick it Out’, states that compared to the number of professional players from a black background, around 30%, the number in senior roles from the same background is ‘nowhere near enough’ (Mercer, 2021). Is this underrepresentation a systemic issue that will require more than taking a knee before games to open opportunities in football to individuals from black communities?

However, while taking the knee may have raised the conversation about racial injustice, there has been little change to the level of racism in football. Professional football players remain targets for racial abuse on social media; Birmingham striker Troy Deeney claims he receives 30-40 incidents of abuse a week (Mercer, 2021). Plans to put an end to this sort of abuse are in motion, legislation that would hold social media companies legally responsible for the online safety of their users would encourage them to crackdown on users sending racial abuse online (Murphy, 2022: Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport et al, 2021).

The problem facing those who wish to bring an end to racism in football is that it’s a problem that transcends football. Former footballer John Barnes believes that the key to dealing with racism is to change “the perception of the average black person” (Mercer, 2021). Making change at societal level is what will lead to removing racism in football. Burnett went on to argue that the conversation around taking the knee has led to distracting society from the real conversations that could bring about change.  Burnett added to this suggesting we need to talk about “where [racism] comes from, how it manifests in our society and what we need to be doing to tackle it” which he believes is not being talked about enough (Mercer, 2021).

Even current players within the game argue that taking the knee has lost its potency, with Chelsea defender Marcus Alonso believing it has “lost its strength’ (Mercer, 2021), while Crystal Palace’s Wilfred Zaha felt it was ‘degrading’ to take the knee (Sky News, 2021). Surely if those taking part struggle to see any benefit of taking the knee, it could be suggested that it is not making any real difference to the cause it was intended to support.

A positive outlook on taking the knee

Although there has been controversy around taking the knee in football and whether this is having a positive effect on the issues revolving around racism in football, there is also research to support the cause. Taking the knee before kick-off can make a difference to the issues highlighted above, and by raising awareness. If taking the knee ceased, would racism in football become an issue that is ignored? Tyrone Mings, Aston Villa defender and England International, contends that taking the knee has been extremely important to keep discussions about racism relevant (Sky News, 2021). According to youGov, 61% of individuals in Great Britain from ethnically diverse backgrounds thought the gesture made an important contribution to tackling racism (Sky News, 2021). From professional athletes to professional surveys, it is apparent to see that there are still many within the population who think that taking the knee holds its importance in helping to tackle the issues around racism within football.

Taking the knee has also been deemed important as it psychologically informs the younger population who may idolise footballers who are participating in the gesture. Petnga-Wallace (2021) states that “For young children, who may idolise Bukayo Saka or Jack Grealish, seeing their football role models taking an active position against racism may encourage them to be anti-racist’. As young children are heavily influenced by their footballing idols, surely there can be no argument that the gesture of taking the knee can only positively impact our future generation.

So, what can be done?

The racial injustice in football will not go away by itself, wholesale changes must be made to increase inclusivity and to punish those who racially abuse players and/or staff. It’s generally being agreed that taking the knee has lost some of its impetus in challenging these issues. What’s left to be seen is how governments use legislation and we in society implement the change necessary to rid the ‘beautiful game’ of its ugly reputation.

 

References:

Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, Home Office, and The Rt Hon Oliver Dowden CBE MP (2021), Landmark laws to keep children safe, stop racial hate and protect democracy online published.  Available at:

https://www.gov.uk/government/news/landmark-laws-to-keep-children-safe-stop-racial-hate-and-protect-democracy-online-published (Accessed: 16 January 2022).

Mercer, D. (2021) Why increasing number of footballers have stopped taking the knee Available at: https://news.sky.com/story/footballers-taking-the-knee-isnt-going-to-change-anything-says-ex-england-star-so-whats-the-future-of-the-protest-12432154 (Accessed: 16 January 2022).

Murphy, A. (2022) How Has Football Tackled Racism. Available at: https://www.masterstudies.com/article/how-has-football-tackled-racism/ (Accessed: 16 January 2022).

Petnga-Wallace, P. (2021) Taking the Knee is No Empty Gesture But a Symbol of Righteous Indignation. Available at: https://www.shoutoutuk.org/2021/07/19/taking-the-knee-is-no-empty-gesture-but-a-symbol-of-righteous-indignation/ (Accessed: 24 January 2022)

Sky News, (2021) Wilfred Zaha to stop taking the knee as ‘degradinggesture ‘no longer enoughAvailable at: https://news.sky.com/story/wilfried-zaha-to-stop-taking-the-knee-as-degrading-gesture-no-longer-enough-12222539 (Accessed: 16 January 2022).

Sky News, (2021) Football fans split on whether taking a knee helps racism – survey. Available at: https://news.sky.com/story/amp/football-fans-split-on-whether-taking-a-knee-helps-tackle-racism-survey-12329006 (Accessed: 23 January 2022).

Concussions in women’s rugby: A cause for concern?

Authored by the ‘Team Unity’: Keaton Ager, Leah Bass, Laura Beet, Ethan Greenway, Meghan Hobbs, Daniel Hutchins and Chris Seymour-Henwood [E119 21J students].


This blog was written as part of a collaborative teamwork task by students studying E119. They had to select a topic and then decide on what roles each person would perform in the team, such as researcher, writer, editor, and leader. This blog was chosen as one of the best blogs from around 70 blogs that were produced.


In 2018, the Telegraph (Ellis, 2018) documented that women’s rugby is soaring in popularity. Almost 30,000 women and girls play rugby at club level, double the amount seen 4 years prior, with women now making up a quarter of players globally.

Increasing popularity brings in revenue, allowing governing bodies to provide additional funding into various aspects of the game, including research. With the higher revenue, research into the men’s game could be considered ‘the norm’, but more researchers are now looking into the women’s game and its positives and negatives – with concussions being one of the negatives.

What is a concussion and what is the research saying?

Physical differences between men and women seem to have an impact on the likelihood of concussions occurring. It is well documented that males are generally physically stronger than females. This point is echoed by Rugbypass’ Jess Hayden (2020), who states that although lower body strength between men and women is quite comparable, male rugby player’s upper body strength can typically be observed as three or four times greater than female players. This includes neck strength, which is a defining factor in concussions.

Dr Elisabeth Williams at Swansea University is a lead researcher into concussion in men’s and women’s rugby. Dr Williams (cited in Hayden, 2020) has found that a ‘whiplash’ motion is a leading cause of concussion in women’s rugby. So, what is a concussion? According to the Concussion Foundation (n.d.)…

A concussion is a brain injury occurring when the brain moves rapidly within the skull usually due to a blow to the head or body.

Research suggests (Neuro-Optometric Rehabilitation Association™ & PINK Concussions, n.d.) that concussions affect women and men differently, with women not only being at a higher risk of sport-related concussions, but also increased severity of symptoms as a result of concussion.

Neuro-Optometric Rehabilitation Association™ & PINK Concussions (n.d.) report that women often experience more severe and prolonged symptoms relating to:

  • Greater cognitive decline
  • Poorer reaction times
  • More frequent headaches
  • Extended periods of depression

Male and female brains differ both anatomically and chemically with female brains containing more delicate axons, a thin ‘cable’ that allows electrical impulses to pass from one neuron to others (The University of Queensland Australia, 2021). Lasting damage to neurons from concussion can lead to multiple issues, such as dizziness, vertigo, slower processing, memory loss, difficulty driving, focusing, and reading. Due to their axons being more delicate, females are more likely to damage these neuron connectors than males. This is one biological aspect that differentiates how each gender’s brains are affected by concussions.

Is neck strengthening the answer?

With biological and chemical differences altering concussions short- and long-term symptoms, is there any way women can help prevent concussion occurring?

Elaborating on Dr Elisabeth Williams’ (cited in Hayden, 2020) earlier point, she believes that there is a disparity in neck strength between men and women, stating that neck strength is “unfathomably low compared to men” resulting in women having less control over their heads during contact. This is one reason why the whiplash motion is so prominent in women’s rugby. According to Dr Williams (cited in Hayden, 2020), women naturally have less muscles and soft tissue in their necks than men. Whiplash initiated by head to ground or head to knee contact causes the brain to violently bounce around inside the skull.

More control over the head during contact can limit the whiplash motion reducing the probability of concussions occurring. Jess Hayden states that a senior player in the England Women’s Team informed her that they have been practising neck exercises to increase stability since 2014. This training has also been implemented by clubs in the Allianz Premier 15s.

Whilst neck strengthening can reduce the probability of a concussion happening as a result of whiplash, it will not prevent concussions altogether. Concussions are still prominent in the male game, with this type of injury being amongst the most common diagnoses. If disparities between neck strength alone defined whether a concussion happened, then in theory concussions should be less frequent in the men’s game. This, however, is not the case.

Dr Williams (cited in Hayden, 2020) believes neck strength needs to be a necessary part of women’s rugby training. With women’s rugby still developing and becoming more popular, many women do not start playing rugby until they reach university. Due to a lack of clubs at lower levels compared to the men’s game, Dr Williams (cited in Hayden, 2020) says that women grow up playing netball or football, even giving up sport, believing there is “nothing for them”. This means adult women often did not have the same opportunity to develop their skills over the years as men, including body positioning during contact. This could also play a part in the whiplash motion of the head, without the developed instinct to safely take contact and land.

Conclusion

For now, concussions pose a serious threat to female rugby players. However, the increasing popularity of women’s rugby will provide additional funding, allowing more research to be carried out on female players such as that being done by Dr Elisabeth Williams (cited in Hayden, 2020). Hopefully more research like hers will highlight areas of concern and make the game safer for all participants, especially since women tend to be more adversely affected by concussions. Also, with the growing popularity of the women’s game, there is potential for additional grassroots clubs to be founded. As a result, women will be able to develop essential awareness skills at a younger age where impacts are less forceful.

 

References

Concussion Foundation (n.d.) What is a Concussion? [Online]. Available at https://concussionfoundation.org/concussion-resources/what-is-concussion (Accessed 24 January 2022).

Ellis, S (2018) ‘How rugby can put a spring in your step’, The Telegraph, 8 June 2018 [Online]. Available at https://www.telegraph.co.uk/property/home-improvement-tips/benefits-of-rugby/ (Accessed 25 January 2022).

Hayden, J (2020) ‘Long-term brain damage likely a significantly bigger issue in women’s rugby than men’s, says lead concussion doctor’, Rugbypass, 14 December 2020 [Online]. https://www.rugbypass.com/news/long-term-brain-damage-could-be-a-significantly-bigger-issue-in-womens-rugby-than-mens-says-lead-concussion-doctor/ (Accessed 25 January 2022).

Neuro-Optometric Rehabilitation Association™ & PINK Concussions (n.d.) Women & Concussions [Online]. Available at http://ecp-uploads.s3.amazonaws.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/2704/2020/12/WomenConcussions_info.pdf (Accessed 24 January 2022).

The University of Queensland Australia (2021) Axons: the cable transmission of neurons [Online]. Available at https://qbi.uq.edu.au/brain/brain-anatomy/axons-cable-transmission-neurons (Accessed 25 January 2022).

Why would British athletes choose winter sports?

By Caroline Heaney

The British terrain and climate are not really designed for winter sports – there are few mountains suitable for skiing and our winters simply aren’t cold enough. Yet Team GB will be taking a 50-strong squad to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. So how do athletes from a green and pleasant land come to be involved in winter sports on snow and ice?

Paths into winter sports are varied and often quite different to the more conventional routes seen in summer Olympic sports. There is also a large variation between winter sports – bobsleigh, skiing, ice skating and snowboard athletes, for example, will all have come to their sport in different ways.

The majority of athletes have a background of junior participation, often having made their entry into the sport at a young age, but in some Winter Olympic sports this is not the case. It is very common for athletes in these sports to start late, having begun their sporting career elsewhere.

Take bobsleigh and skeleton for example: these are sports that you can only start as an adult – you just can’t do them as a child. This makes career paths into these sports very different. Olympic silver medallist Shelly Rudman didn’t try skeleton until the age of 21, which is very late compared to athletes from other Olympic sports. This contradicts some models of athletic development, which suggest that investment in a sport as a junior is a requirement for success.

Many athletes transfer from other sports and many are “spotted” as potential winter sport athletes through so called “talent transfer programmes”, such as UK Sport’s ‘Girls 4 Gold’ programme which started in 2008. Double Olympic gold medallist Lizzy Yarnold was a graduate from the Girls 4 Gold programme, having transferred into the sport from athletics.

The slide from athletics

Transition from athletics seems to be a common route into sliding sports: bobsleigh, skeleton and luge. Olympic skeleton medallists Alex Coomber (bronze in 2002) Shelly Rudman (silver in 2006), Amy Williams (gold in 2010) and Lizzy Yarnold (gold in 2014 and 2018) all had a background in athletics before switching to skeleton. The speed and power elements of athletics transfer well into the push start required in both skeleton and bobsleigh.

Bobsleigh has a long-established tradition of recruiting high calibre track and field athletes into its fold (e.g., British sprinters Mark Lewis-Francis, Craig Pickering, Joel Fearon, Allyn Condon and Marcus Adam have all been part of the British squad in the past). Current GB squad member and former British 100m record holder Montell Douglas is set to become Britain’s first female summer and winter Olympian in Beijing. She stated: “I’m over the moon to be representing women. There have been many male summer and winter Olympians, so I’m more thrilled about leaving a legacy like that behind than anything else.”

The transition from athletics to bobsleigh is not exclusive to the UK. For example, sprinter Alexandra Burghardt (Germany) who competed in the Tokyo Olympics last year will also be competing in the two-woman bobsleigh in Beijing, and previously track and field Olympic/World medallists Lauryn Williams (USA),  Lolo Jones (USA) and Jana Pittman (Australia) have transitioned to bobsleigh.

Live near a ski slope

Paths into winter sports are often dictated by opportunity. Facilities for winter sports participation are few and far between and so location plays an important part. If you live near an ice rink you are more likely to become involved in speed skating or figure skating.

Kate Summerhayes, who will be representing Team GB in freestyle skiing in her third Winter Olympics in Beijing, learned to ski when she was six at the Sheffield Ski Village, which was only ten minutes away from her home. There are certainly geographic patterns in team membership – for example the GB curling and Nordic skiing teams have traditionally been dominated by Scottish athletes. Is this connected to there being better facilities and infrastructure for these sports in Scotland? A lack of winter sport facilities in the UK could certainly be hindering our prospects and the types of facilities available may limit the range of our participation.

Interestingly, Team GB normally only enter athletes into the short track speed skating event and not the long track events. This could be a consequence of limited long track speed skating facilities.

Money and role models

Finance is also strongly related to opportunity – participation in winter sports often requires overseas travel and expensive equipment. At the upper ends lottery funding and sponsorship is available, but the financial aspects may prevent potential athletes starting a winter sport. Learning to ski as a child, for example, is a privilege largely reserved for children whose parents have the income to afford skiing holidays.

Finally, one of the most important factors influencing why an athlete might move into a winter sport is role models. Medals won in the past four Winter Olympics in skeleton have certainly boosted the profile of the sport and may encourage more athletes to consider taking it up.

Any British athletes gaining medal honours in Beijing will certainly be ambassadors for winter sports and have the potential to inspire a generation to take to the slopes, ice rink or track.

 

This article was first published on OpenLearn.

For more Winter Olympics and Paralympics related articles visit our hub on OpenLearn.

A head for heights: How athletes keep calm at altitude

By Candice Lingam-Willgoss

The nature of competitive sport involves athletes putting themselves in high-pressure situations in which they are being constantly appraised, and Beijing is no different.

Subsequently, it is unsurprising that the areas of stress and anxiety are two of the most popular when looking at sport from an academic perspective. While all athletes experience anxiety to some level when they perform, either at a cognitive (mental worry) or somatic (physiological symptoms) level, it is the interpretation of those emotions that can dictate the influence they will have on their performance.

The physiological symptoms associated with anxiety can range from elevated heart rate or sweaty palms, to the classic butterflies in the stomach. The key for an elite athlete is to get those butterflies to fly in formation. The cause of this anxiety is that athletes are having to perform in “appraisal”-driven environments. Will they be good enough? Will they let the team down? Will they remember the set moves? The list of criteria is extensive.

And when we look at winter sports another variable is thrown into the mix – risk.

The Luge has been described as the fastest sport on ice, skiing sees racers get up to speeds close to 100kph, and the ski jump and snowcross carry their own unique elements of risk. Which raises the question: are the performers in these sports less concerned with the appraisal issue and more concerned about staying alive?

Without doubt the psychology related to overcoming fear is an interesting area to consider, and perhaps no one is a better example of this than four times British Olympian Chemmy Alcott (pictured above). Alcott retired after the Sochi 2014 games but in her career suffered 42 broken bones– including her neck – and without doubt knows the risk involved in her chosen sport. The surgeon responsible for her being able to compete in the Sochi games quite bluntly told her  prior to the surgery that saved her career: “There are two operations which may be necessary. Either you’ll never ski again or there’s a fraction of a chance you’ll make the Olympics.” The miracle is that Alcott made the Sochi Olympics, and finished in the top 20 in the women’s downhill skiing .

It’s true Alcott did experience anxiety or in her case something she terms fear. “I respect fear, fear is me caring about my result,” she has said . The terminology Alcott chose to describe her feelings regarding skiing imply she was fully aware of the risks involved but she chose to channel this to her advantage.

This concept of interpretation is further supported by half-pipe snowboarder Elena Hight who said dealing with fear is more mental than physical . “Fear is a very interesting thing,” she said. “It can be a very good motivator but can also be an inhibitor. It just depends on how you go about dealing with it, and I think in our sport you have to push yourself to be able to progress, you have to walk that fine line of using it as a motivator and not letting it inhibit you.” Hight like Alcott is an example of an athlete who was able to channel her emotions in a positive way becoming the first snowboarder to land a double backside alley-oop rodeo!

Many will ask how Alcott found the courage to step back out onto the competitive scene after such horrendous injuries that left her with a body so scarred that her nephews use it as a track for their toy trains. For these high-risk athletes, it has become something of an occupational hazard. As Cohen, senior sport psychologist for the US Olympic Committee has said : “That return to play after an injury requires confidence when an athlete questions whether they have what it takes to get back there.” This leads us to consider another psychological perspective, something that is a necessity for all athletes to possess – mental toughness.

Sports psychologists Peter Clough, Keith Earle and David Sewell identified four components of “mental toughness “: control, commitment, challenge and confidence. They conclude  that mentally tough athletes have “a high sense of self-belief and unshakable faith that they can control their own destiny and can remain relatively unaffected by adversity”. This is how athletes can come to have such positive interpretations of fear.

While Alcott has retired from ski racing, there is a real hope of success for a British skier at Beijing. Dave Ryding (pictured above) is coming off his first world cup win in Kitzbuhel last month. Ryding has prided himself on his hard work, discipline and determination and his ability to keep focused on the task in hand, he is able to use this focus to control the pressure he faces and control his emotions.

All eyes will be fixed on Ryding on February 16th as he takes on the slalom competition and his years of experience should allow him to cope with any anxiety felt at altitude.

 

This article was first published on OpenLearn.

For more Winter Olympics and Paralympics related articles visit our hub on OpenLearn.

Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics – Welcome to the risk takers and the fearless

By Simon Rea

On 4th February 2022 the opening ceremony for the 24th Winter Olympic Games will take place in the iconic Beijing National Stadium, also known as ‘The Birds Nest’. The Games will be opened by President Xi Jinping and will signal Beijing becoming the first city to host both the summer and winter versions of the Olympic Games. The Games will run until 20th February and there will be 109 events in 15 disciplines covering 7 sports.

These Winter Olympics are not without controversary. When the games were awarded to Beijing the former IOC President Jacques Rogge stated that staging the winter Games in China would do a lot to help improve human rights and social relations in the country. However, recent events such as the dismantling of democracy in Hong Kong, the persistent persecution of Uighur Muslims, and the troubling case of tennis player, Peng Shuai, have illustrated that this has been far from the case.

Alongside the hosting of the 2022 Football World Cup in Qatar, which also has a questionable human rights record, questions have been asked about the integrity of and motivation behind the awarding processes for major events. Protests have been restricted to diplomatic boycotts but Andy Anson, the chief executive of British Olympic Association (BOA) has confirmed that any British athletes who wanted to protest against human rights issues would be supported by officials.

What is taking place and where?

The Birds Nest will not host any events but will be the site of the opening and closing ceremonies, and is one of several venues from 2008 that will be reused as part of the sustainability agenda of these Games. There are three zones where the events will take place – the Beijing, Yanqing, and Zhangjiakou zones. Beijing will host events at its aquatic centre, including skating, ice hockey and curling. The sliding centre in the Yanqing zone will be home to spectacular speed events such as bobsleigh, luge, and skeleton and also Alpine ski events. The Zhangjiakou zone is where freestyle skiing, cross country skiing, biathlon and ski jumping will take place.

There are seven new events, designed to appeal to female and younger audiences. They include mixed team events in short-track skating, ski jumping and snowboard cross, as well as freestyle big air skiing.

What are the chances of medals for Team GB?

Because the Winter Olympics take place on snow or ice the spectacle of skiers, skaters, bobsleighers taking on the elements offers more uncertainty and excitement than their summer version. However, the UK is not a country that is known for its winter sports. Training and competitions usually take place in venues across Europe – so do we have any chances to improve on the best performance of 5 medals at Sochi (2014) and PyeongChang (2018)?

UK Sport have provided increased funding since 2018 based on the performances at those Games and have set a target of between 3-7 medals from around 50 athletes who will be competing. But where will these medals come from?

Bobsleigh events always attract attention and in these Games Greg Rutherford, the 2012 Olympic Long Jump champion, will be attempting to become the first Team GB athlete to become a medallist at both winter and summer Games. However, any medals are potentially more likely to come from the other British bobsleighs. At the recent World Cup in Latvia, Mica McNeill and Adele Nicholl won a silver medal in the two-person sled as did Brad Hall and Nick Gleeson. At these Games, Brad Hall will also pilot a four-man crew that also includes Nick Gleeson as brakeman. Greg Rutherford will be a pusher in the other crew piloted by Lamin Deen.

There are also high expectations for snowboarders Charlotte Bankes and Katie Ormerod. Charlotte Bankes competed for France in PyeongChang, won two events at the World Cup, while Katie Ormerod was fourth in the slopestyle event.

Will there be more curling success?

For me the Olympic Games are about becoming obsessed with sports that I have not previously watched, or thought I would be interested in. One such sport is Curling, which has its origins in Scotland, and is one where British athletes have enjoyed success. In fact, Great Britain won the men’s event in 1924 and were the holders of that Olympic title until it was reintroduced into the Olympics in 1998.

The most recent gold medal was when Rhona Martin’s team dramatically won gold in 2002 with the last stone of the competition. In 2014 Eve Muirhead was the skip of Team GB’s women’s curling team who won a bronze medal and after a poor performance in 2018 she is back as skip with three new teammates. Bruce Mouat is the skip of an all-new men’s team and also competes in the mixed doubles with Jennifer Dodds.

One to look out for

Finally, one other British born athlete to look out for is Benjamin Alexander who will become the first athlete to represent Jamaica in an Alpine skiing event. He has an interesting background as he is an engineering graduate and a globetrotting DJ. His mother is English, and his father is Jamaica but most importantly he is mentored by Dudley Stokes, who was the pilot of the Jamaican bobsleigh immortalised in the film Cool Runnings. He has only been skiing since 2015 and will be competing in the daunting giant slalom event.

While it may be tough for Team GB to better its medal tally from 2018 there will be plenty of top-class performances to enjoy and we must feel gratitude that these Games are actually going ahead during this global pandemic.

 

This article was first published on OpenLearn.

For more Winter Olympics and Paralympics related articles visit our hub on OpenLearn.

The Thrill of Motorcycling: Quest for Flow

By Helen Owton

As the British Superbike season comes to an end this month, it’s an opportunity to understand why individuals engage in such ‘risky’ activities. Traditionally, extreme sports are associated with thrill seekers with a ‘death wish’ or adrenaline junkies searching for their next thrill (Brymer and Schweitzer, 2013). Brymer and Schweitzer (2013), however, argue that these individuals can be highly trained individuals with a deep knowledge of themselves, the activity, and the environment, who seek an experience that is life-enhancing and life-changing.  Extreme sport participants face intense fears, accept that control of the future is not always possible and move through these fears to participate fully in the action and make choices to reduce risk and enhance personal control (Brymer and Schweitzer, 2013; Crust et al., 2019). Csikzentmihalyi (1997) noted that “People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy.”

The burble of my exhaust unwound like a long cord behind me. Soon my speed snapped it, and I heard only the cry of the wind… The cry rose with my speed to a shriek: while the air’s coldness streamed like two jets of iced water into my dissolving eyes. I screwed them to slits, and focused my sight ahead of me on the empty mosaic of the tar’s gravelled undulations.

Like arrows the tiny flies pricked my cheeks: and sometimes a heavier body, some housefly or beetle, would crash into face or lips like a spent bullet. A glance at the speedometer: 78. Boanerges[1] is warming up. I pull the throttle right open, on the top of the slope, and we swoop, flying across the dip, and up-down the switchback beyond: the weighty machine launching itself like a projectile with a whirr of wheels into the air at the take-off of each rise, to land lurchingly with such a snatch of the driving chain as jerks my spine like a rictus (Laurence of Arabia, The Mint, Part III, Chpt 16, 1955).

Lawrence of Arabia wrote stories about the thrill of riding motorcycles which captures the sense of freedom, excitement and adventure that many experience. There may be risks attached to pursue those experiences, but new adventures and unique experiences can cultivate joy, fulfilment, enhance confidence and resilience, and provide an opportunity to grow and expand one’s sense of self. Indeed, motorcyclists are often “driven to conquer new challenges and soak up every experience life has to offer” (Carter, 2019; Psychology Today, 2021, para 2). Pirsig (1991) articulates this in the following paragraph:

In a car, you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realise that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is moving by you boringly in a frame. On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.

The thrill, ‘adrenaline rush’ and intense sensory experience motorcyclists may experience from riding (Sato, 1988) can be understood through the concept of ‘flow’. Csíkszentmihályi (1997) has studied the phenomenon of flow extensively and describes it as an optimal psychological state, which enables athletes to optimise their potential and to perform at their personal best. “The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997). Jackson and Csíkszentmihályi (1999) designated nine antecedents of flow, which are termed: challenge-skills balance, action-awareness merging, clear goals, unambiguous feedback, concentration on the task at hand, sense of control, loss of self-consciousness, time transformation and autotelic experience. An ‘autotelic’ person is described as doing things for their own sake, low sense of self-centredness, strong sense of persistence, low need for power, and needing few material possessions.  Such a person tends to experience flow more frequently and there is a positive association between flow and conscientiousness (Ullén et al., 2012). These experiences can be derived in the course of participating in an activity, such as high-risk sports, like motorcycling.

Csikszentmihalyi suggests that for someone to fully enjoy high-risk pursuits, the level of danger must be proportionate to the participants’ level of ability. In order to induce flow, it is about balancing the level of skill with the challenge we are faced with (Nakamura et al., 2009). The capacity to experience flow, however, can differ from person to person and some argue there is a difference between flow state and ‘clutch’ state. Clutch state is similar to being “in the zone” but described as being able to make it happen when you need to switch on during important moments in a performance. Clutch performances occur under particular pressure conditions and where there’s an important outcome. Clutch performances are comprised of focus, heightened awareness, and intense effort whereas flow states are viewed as effortless attention and automatic experiences (Swann and Goddard, 2020). Flow states are more aligned with “letting it happen” whereby confidence develops naturally whereas clutch states are associated with “making it happen” where there is a sudden increase in concentration and effort (Swann et al., 2015). In order to activate flow states or clutch states, there has been an association with certain goal types. For example, open goals such as “do your best” goals are more associated with inducing flow states, whereas specific goals with a fixed outcome such as “winning a race” and setting a task specific goal to “ride at 100mph round the next corner to overtake the next rider” in order to achieve that outcome is associated with ‘clutch’ performances. It is likely that, in reality, there is a shifting or slippage in and out of the states and a blurring between and within the states.

Nonetheless, there are similarities within the two states and Cole (2017) suggests an 80% rule of attention and engagement and cautions against 100% capacity which could result in disaster. As demonstrated on a track day in Owton (in press), attentional shifts when riding a motorcycle means that working at 100% can make one feel overwhelmed, whereas once distractions are reduced, skills improve, and enjoyment is enhanced from moments of being ‘in the zone’. In this way, flow isn’t just an enjoyable state of being, it is about learning to direct your attention, gain independence from exterior rewards, and ultimately, living a happy and fulfilled life. Notably, however, a mistake in motorcycling at speed and pushing one’s abilities too far has fatal consequences (Murphy, 2016). Motorcycling, like other high-risk sports, requires a sharpening of senses, meticulous preparation, high work rates, swift recovery following setbacks and thriving in challenging situations (Crust et al., 2019).  As Cole (2017) notes, therefore, it is important to set ourselves appropriate challenges and be attuned to one’s senses by anticipating, listening to engine sounds, being cool under pressure, being attuned to a constantly moving environment at speed, and positioning the body-motorcycle effectively round the corner such as riding a ‘racing line’ (Owton, in press).

As I feel myself flow through the air, my hand on the throttle squeezing it towards me, picking up speed, feeling the air press against me harder as I gain speed. My lid protects me from the air pressing too hard on my face and the wind making eyes water. I listen to the sound of the engine growling, working hard, getting louder as the right time comes to change gear, then I quickly close the throttle swiftly enough not to feel the motorcycle slow down as I flick my toe up and click into the next gear. Listening acutely to the sound and feel indicates I can squeeze the throttle and gain speed again. This is known as quick shifting manually (not using the clutch). The connection between my hands, my feet, and the motorcycle, works best when I’m not thinking, when I’m just feeling the way and am at one with my motorcycle. Once I’ve reached top gear, there’s a smoothness with the ride; I feel like I’m flying. I’m completely alert but I’m in a trance of speed with endorphins raging through my body (Owton, 2021).

While there can be high risks involved in motorcycling, participation in such activities can facilitate more positive psychological experiences and allow people to experience freedom and re-connect with nature (Brymer and Schweitzer, 2013).

References

Carter, K. (2019). Buzz!: Inside the Minds of Thrill-seekers, Daredevils, and Adrenaline Junkies. Cambridge University Press.

Crust, L. Swann, C. & Allen-Collinson, J. (2019) Mentally tough behaviour in extreme environments: perceptions of elite high-altitude mountaineers, Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, 11(3), 334-347.

Csíkszentmihályi, M. (1997). Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life. New York: HarperCollins.

Jackson, S. & Csíkszentmihályi M. (1999). Flow in sports. Champaign: Human Kinetics.

Nakamura, J., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2009). Flow theory and research. Handbook of positive psychology, 195-206.

Owton, H. (2021). Quest for Freedom: Intense Embodied Experiences of Motorcycling. Cultural Studies: Critical Methodologies, Vol 22, No. 2, p.154-162. Available here.

Pirsig, R. M. (1999). Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance: An inquiry into values. Random House.

Sato, I. (1988). Bosozoku: Flow in Japanese motorcycle gangs. In M. Csikszentmihalyi & I. Csikszentmihalyi (Eds.), Optimal Experience: Psychological Studies of Flow in Consciousness (pp. 92-117). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ullén, F., de Manzano, Ö., Almeida, R., Magnusson, P. K., Pedersen, N. L., Nakamura, J., … & Madison, G. (2012). Proneness for psychological flow in everyday life: Associations with personality and intelligence. Personality and Individual Differences52(2), 167-172.

[1] Lawrence nicknamed his motorcycle a Brough Superior SS100 Boanerges (Boa) meaning “son of thunder” in Aramaic.

Student Story: Dominic Ball

“Mum and dad trained as teachers, so I was always pushed in school. Even when football opportunities came, I was always pushed academically because the average length of a footballer’s career is seven years.

I’ve been lucky enough to be in it for seven years now. Hopefully, I’ll be able to play until I’m 35, but most players have to work so I always thought I need to plan for my future.”

After completing a BTEC in sport, Dominic’s older brother encouraged him to undertake a degree with the university.

“My brother had actually started his degree with the OU a couple of years before me. He said that the course was easy to understand and worked well around football.

We travel a lot, sometimes twice a week for away games, but even in a hotel room you can do your work. I like the fact that I had the flexibility to get on and do my work on flights or at different clubs but keep up with my workload.

My brother’s degree was partly funded by the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA). They provide financial support to young players which is brilliant – it pushes players to do something in education. When it came time for me to do my degree, university fees had gone up but the PFA provided a bursary, which made it a lot more affordable as a young player.”

At first Dominic found the course challenging but found his feet in his final year and really excelled.

“Initially, I didn’t engage with my tutors or get involved in the student community, so I struggled for the first half of a six-year course. In one assignment I received 14 out 100 which made me think, I need to understand where I’m going wrong.

I started to engage with my tutors and other students, it made the experience more enjoyable. In my last year, I finally understood how to structure my essays and assignments – the penny dropped. I was averaging 70 per cent in my results.”

Dominic didn’t experience the traditional graduation ceremony as he completed his degree during lockdown, but it was still a special moment for him and his loved ones.

“I organised a small celebration at home. I hired a photographer to take photos of me in my robes. It was a special moment – my girlfriend, my dog, and my mum and dad were there to help me celebrate.

All my hard work has paid off, which was a big moment for not only me but also for my parents. I would have loved to go to graduation, but we’ve all missed out on something this year, and I was just pleased to get my degree.”

Now with a degree under his belt Dominic is hopeful for the future and plans to go into business after football.

“Football is my passion – I still have dreams of playing in the Premiership. But with my degree, I hope that in time I can set up a business, maybe something to do with football, so that I have a career long after my days on the pitch.”

Student Story: Sandy Johnston

When I left school in Scotland back in the early ‘80s I went to university to study science but after a year I decided it wasn’t for me. I was a real disappointment to my folks – the first of my generation to go to university and the first one to drop out!

After doing menial jobs for a couple of years I decided to go back to college and completed an HND in business studies, with a view to improving my prospects. However, unemployment was high back then, jobs were few and far between and it looked like I was going to have to relocate if I wanted to work, but that wasn’t acceptable to me.

Since I was a kid in the scouts, I’d always been into hillwalking, canoeing and kayaking, all these things you can do outdoors. It’s always been my thing. I decided to do some voluntary work at outdoor centres to become qualified as an outdoor instructor, but political changes at that time closed a lot of outdoor education jobs. I didn’t see a future in that area, so a complete change of career plan followed, and I joined the police.

After a couple of years as a cop I decided to improve my higher education and transferred the credit from my HND to the OU, to do a Social Policy Diploma. I wanted to see what the academics made of the social problems I was confronted with on a daily basis, and I felt a degree would help with promotion. I got support from the police with funding, which helped quite a bit, and studied around my shifts.

After achieving the Diploma in Higher Education, I decided to study further courses in sociology and criminology, and went on to achieve a BSc (Hons) Open degree with the OU. Studying those areas helped me in my police career. I gained a wider knowledge and perspective on the things I was dealing with, because social problems and issues around social welfare are the main thing you’re dealing with as a uniformed cop. The studies gave me more confidence, especially when I moved from dealing with people at street level to being a detective sergeant in the economic crime unit. There, I was often investigating lawyers and bankers committing fraud, you might say a more educated form of criminal.

All the time I was in the police force I kept up my interest in the outdoors and I decided that when I retired from the force I was going to work as a freelance outdoor instructor. You retire from the police at a relatively young age with a decent pension, so the freelancing world is good to work in if you don’t need to depend on finding a regular full-time income. During my last few years in the force I spent a lot of my spare time gaining outdoor sports coaching qualifications and when I did retire I picked up work as a freelancer, mainly at outdoor centres. That kept me busy in summer, but I was conscious that during the winter I wasn’t going to get as much work, so I thought I’d go back to study again. That’s what led me to the course I’m studying now, which is the BSc (Hons) Sport, Fitness & Coaching. I wanted to study the theoretical background of sport, fitness and coaching to support me in my day-to-day work, I suppose similar to what I did when I was in the police. I’m funding my studies from what I make as an outdoor instructor.

I really enjoy the Sports degree because it fits in perfectly with what I do in my current occupation as a freelance outdoor instructor. The studies make me think more about my actual, practical coaching. There’s lots of little nuggets of information I’ve learned. Coaching has always fascinated me, so I’ve studied coaching theory before, but this course is filling in some of the blank areas. You get that satisfying kind of, ‘Oh that’s why!’ realisation when you study and discover the reasons why certain approaches or methods work better than others.

One major thing I’ve learned is that there’s a big difference between a coach and an instructor. For example, it’s very important from a coaching point of view that, especially when you’re going to be working with someone over a period of time, you’re not just providing answers to the questions that they are seeking but leading them to find out the answers for themselves. As a coach, you should be helping them to think, rather than saying, ‘This is what you do. Here’s the answer.’ That, according to coaching theory, is what helps your pupil retain what they’ve learned, rather than them just doing what you tell them to do and then forgetting about it.

The biggest challenge of studying comes whenever I have an assignment deadline! That’s when you say to yourself, ‘Why am I doing this?!’ I just try and avoid the procrastination and get on with it but it’s very easy to find other things to distract you.

This is my second Open University degree, so I know I can do it, it’s just a matter of working away at it. But I think the inspiration for my first OU course was my Mum. When I was about 14, my Mum, who left school with no qualifications, decided to go back to college, earning higher education qualifications and ended up working as a college lecturer.

The main difference between the OU back in the ‘90s and the OU today is not having to set your video recorder for 2am to record a programme you need to see to study your module! Everything’s available online now, which is a great improvement, as it’s easier to access, although the quality of the course materials was just as good then as it is now.

I now have my own little business: Sandy Johnston Coaching. I coach people in kayaking, canoeing and watersports, mostly. It’s a nice way to work, working for myself and freelancing with other organisations, such as the scouts or different outdoor centres. It’s really enjoyable and I’m getting paid for something I love doing.

 

My plans for the future are to expand my own coaching business and to work with long-term students to help them to develop. I’m going to continue my studies in coaching. I’m a performance coach in Whitewater kayaking and I would quite like to do the next step up – British Canoeing Coaching Level 4, which is a postgrad diploma – because I want to improve my standing as a coach. I’ve got another ten to fifteen years of my working life left so it would be nice to work at the very top end of coaching.

My advice to anyone thinking of doing an OU course? Just do it!