Student Story: Charlie De Gale

‘I’m excited for the next chapter’ says cancer survivor and proud graduate Charlie.

Having played competitive sports for many years Charlie, 58, faced the biggest battle of his life to overcome a critical illness during his Open University (OU) Sport, Fitness and Coaching degree. Charlie describes how digging deep and making the most of the OU’s support, gave him the strength to cross the finish line He’s now looking forward to an exciting career as a sports teacher. From a young age, sport was a lifeline for Charlie and something he was always good at.

“School was a challenging time for me. I found the academic side difficult, but I was lucky enough to have a fantastic sports teacher who noticed my potential,” Charlie remembers. “He encouraged me to join all the school sports teams and helped me write about my experiences, which really helped me with other subjects.”

Taking coaching to the next level

While working as a physical training instructor for the Metropolitan Police Service, Charlie was approaching a milestone birthday and wanted to do something special to mark it.

“I’d been coaching football in the community for years, it’s a real passion of mine,” Charlie says. “So I decided to take a couple of months off work and coach football in America.

After receiving amazing feedback on his coaching ability and style, Charlie found the confidence to  embark on the OU’s Sport, Fitness and Coaching degree.

“I was a bit daunted at first, but I was ready to give it my all. I was also setting up my own community soccer school at the time, so everything was falling into place.”

Devastating news

Since returning from America, Charlie had been struggling with hip pain. After consulting his doctor he was told he needed a hip replacement, which led to a devastating discovery.“ I went for my pre-op checks and then several tests and scans later, the doctors discovered tumours on my lungs,” Charlie explains. “To cut a long story short, I had a rare form of cancer, which needed extremely aggressive treatment. It was a horrible time.”

Unsure of his survival chances, Charlie was rushed for treatment but he recovered well and eventually got the new hip he badly needed.

“As you can imagine with all that treatment, multiple operations and then a hip replacement, I had a lot of recovery time on my hands,” Charlie recalls. “[I had paused my degree and ] thought I’d make the most of it and picked up my studies again.”

A new perspective

Surviving the scariest experience of his life made Charlie even more determined to succeed.

“Coming out of something like that gives you a whole new perspective,” Charlie reflects. “I felt I could do anything I set my mind to – including this degree.”

As he progressed through his degree, Charlie surprised himself by carving out time for study after a hard day at work.

“I liked the adrenaline of reaching a submission deadline, I even miss that now. It was like training for a marathon and getting to race day,” says Charlie.

Digging deep

It wasn’t always plain sailing for Charlie. After failing two tutor marked assignments, his self-confidence took a blow and he started to doubt whether he would ever graduate.

“I didn’t just miss out on a few marks, I failed badly,” Charlie admits. “I was finding the level of the work tough in that last year, and I was on the verge of giving up. But I’d come so far, I just had to pick myself back up.”

That’s when Charlie embraced the different avenues of support on offer at the OU.

“I’d recommend the Student Support Service to anyone who’s struggling. The support they gave me was absolutely brilliant,” says Charlie. “I also contacted my tutor, who was really patient and explained where I’d gone wrong.”

Using visualisation techniques he’d honed through sport; Charlie dug deep and took his tutor’s advice on board.

“I imagined myself crossing the stage at my graduation ceremony whenever I was doubting myself, then I absolutely smashed my final assignment,” Charlie recounts. “I was gobsmacked at the mark I got, and I couldn’t have done it without the support I had from the OU.”

Learning about himself

Not only did Charlie exceed his academic expectations after completing his degree, but he also surprised himself in other ways.

“My OU experience was amazing. I learned a lot about myself. I found another gear I never knew was there. I had this strong drive to do better. And for someone who was always late, I got really good at time management!”

Determined to make the most of his achievements and the skills he developed along the way, Charlie has exciting plans for the future.

“I’m 58 now, so I want to make the most of this degree,” Charlie begins. “I’m planning to enrol for teacher training, so I can teach sports in secondary school. What better way to end my career? I know I can make a difference to young people and give back what my sports teacher gave me.”

Charlie, who celebrated at his degree ceremony in Brighton reflects on what it means to achieve his degree.

“Getting this degree is the best thing I’ve ever done. I can’t wait for the next stage of my journey, and it’s all thanks to the OU.”


Student Story: Peter Dunning

Former Royal Marine Peter Dunning was playing wheelchair rugby at the Invictus Games 2018 when a fellow UK Team member told him about The Open University’s Disabled Veterans’ Scholarships Fund (DVSF). Before he knew it, he’d successfully applied and was embarking on a BSc in Sport, Fitness and Coaching degree – something which has always been his passion. After graduation, he dreams of working in sport and coaching fellow veterans.From the Invictus Games to an OU Sport, Fitness and Coaching degree

Former Royal Marine Peter Dunning was playing wheelchair rugby at the Invictus Games 2018 when a fellow UK Team member told him about The Open University’s Disabled Veterans’ Scholarships Fund (DVSF).

Before he knew it, he’d successfully applied and was embarking on a BSc in Sport, Fitness and Coaching degree — something which has always been his passion.

Now in his third year, Peter — who lost both his legs and sustained multiple other injuries on duty in Afghanistan — is on track to complete his degree in 2023. After graduation, he dreams of working in sport, coaching fellow veterans and future Invictus Games participants.

After doing his GCSEs at school, Peter studied Sports Science and Clinical Psychology at a brick university. While he enjoyed playing Rugby Union for the university team, he didn’t enjoy the clinical psychology element and dropped out.

Looking to challenge himself more both physically and mentally, Peter joined the Royal Marines and served for five years before an accident in 2008 changed his life forever. A vehicle he was in went over an improvised explosive device (IED) leaving him badly injured and unable to continue his military career or play the sport he adored.

Years later, Peter began playing wheelchair rugby and was one of eight players selected to represent the UK Team in the Invictus Games in Sydney in 2018.

“Daniel Bingley, a friend of mine who was also competing in the Invictus Games, told me about the OU’s Disabled Veterans’ Scholarships Fund,” he said.

“I knew I needed to do something else, so I looked into it further and thought ‘Why not?’.

“I wanted to choose a course that I would enjoy and that would help my future, so I went for Sport, Fitness and Coaching, and I’m thoroughly enjoying it! The sport arena is what I’d like to do career-wise, and sports is where my big interest has been ever since I was a wee dot.”

Peter got off to a great start with his studies and was nominated for an Inspirational Student Award by his tutor.

“It was a shock to be nominated for the Student Award, and it was even better to win it!” he said.

“Studying with the OU has changed me because it has made me appreciate education. I’ve been out of work and education for a while, and this has got me back into it. It’s good to get the grey matter ticking over again!

“I didn’t know if I would be able to achieve this, but I am. I couldn’t do it without the ongoing help and support of my partner either,” he added.

But studying has not been without its challenges and sacrifices. “It hasn’t always been easy, even though I enjoy it,” he said. “I suspect I have dyslexia — I’ve never had it diagnosed, but sometimes it can take me a long time to get my reading done and I’ll have to read the same line over and over again. Because it’s a topic I’m so interested in, I just keep going, but it can be challenging.

“I’m also buying a house with my partner. Moving house is stressful, so I decided to do my third year part-time instead of full-time so I don’t take on too much at once. Similarly, I was due to play in the Invictus Games in April 2023 but I’ve pulled out because I’ll be working on my end of module assignments around then.”

Peter has shared custody of his two children, so he’s had to find ways to fit in his studies around his family life.

“Having my studies really helped me in lockdown too, especially during the weeks I didn’t have my kids,” he said. “It gave me something to focus on, so it’s been a lifeline. I just made sure I was always a week or two ahead, so I was free when I had my kids to help them with their homeschooling.”

He also appreciates the way OU study is broken down into manageable blocks and said: “I love a to-do list, so I like the way OU work is set out week by week. I like ticking it off at the end of each week!

“You have to be self-motivated, but I haven’t found that hard because I genuinely enjoy the subject I’ve chosen, so I’m inspired by that. I also spoke to a local sports scientist to learn about the job, and thinking about that keeps me motivated as my goal is to work in a related field.”

The DVSF is made possible thanks to the generosity of OU alumni and donors. Each year, the Fund enables veterans like Peter to access life-changing education, so they can rewrite their futures outside of the military.

“To all the donors and everyone who helps with the DVSF scheme I have simply two words to say — thank you! I will always be happy to shout about the DVSF as it’s been of great benefit to me,” said Peter. “Having the opportunity to do the scholarship has been fantastic — I don’t think I’d have considered studying without a scholarship as I couldn’t have funded it.

“My studies have already helped my wheelchair rugby teammates and I when it comes to recovery and nutrition. The teaching materials and tutors have been great — particularly when it comes to assignment feedback and their helpful advice which helps me to perform better next time.

“I am hoping my qualification will really be of immense benefit when it comes to job searching and will make it easier to get into the area that I want to work in. Plus, lots of jobs require you to have a degree, so now I’ll be able to apply for those too. I want to get into a career in exercise physiology, biometrics or coaching — I’d love to coach for the Invictus Games!

“To anyone thinking of studying with the OU I’d say, ‘Good for you!’. My advice would be to: make sure you pick a topic you’re interested in; find a time in the day when you know you’re at their most productive to study; and give yourself plenty of time for assignments. Good luck!”

Student Story: John Owens

Veteran John Owens was at the top of his military career when a stroke left him hospitalised and facing an uncertain future. With support of The Open University’s Disabled Veterans’ Scholarships Fund, he’s now working towards a new career as a personal trainer. chapter in his ongoing recovery.

After facing his own challenges, John, from Kilmarnock is determined to show other disabled veterans that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

“I was operating weapons in a war zone when I was still a teenager,” says John, who signed up for the Army after leaving school at 16. His passion for fitness led him to begin as a personal trainer but was soon seconded into Weapons Support.

“When the First Gulf War started, I was possibly the youngest soldier there aged just 17. I couldn’t help thinking, here I am in a war zone, but when I go home, I won’t be considered old enough to buy a beer in a pub!”

John’s military career took him around the world, where he travelled to conflict zones like Iraq and Afghanistan to provide weapons support to the frontline troops. After his tours, he was promoted and began to teach the next generation of recruits at the Army’s Specialist Weapons School. All while continuing his passion for running whenever he could.

It was then, while at the top of his 24-year service, that John suffered his first stroke.

Adapting to civilian life

“After my MRI scan, the doctors found evidence that I had suffered an earlier stroke whilst serving in conflict zones in the 1990s. I then suffered another stroke in May 2011, which was more serious.

“In my typical fashion, I thought I could just run it off and went for a five-mile run! Very soon afterwards, I collapsed while walking to work. Later tests showed I had been born with a hole in my heart which I had no idea about!

“I was at the pinnacle of my career and now my whole world was collapsing around me.”

After spending his whole life constantly on the move, John was now wheelchair-bound and faced a tough recovery, including speech and language therapy.

“I had to be medically discharged from the Army which was a massive blow. I wasn’t sure what my future might hold and didn’t know what I was going to do. My Resettlement Officer mentioned The Open University, but I thought [the OU would never happen as I have no qualifications and a brain injury.] I was also concerned as to whether I would be fit enough to study.

“But with nothing to lose, I applied for the Disabled Veterans’ Scholarships Fund (DVSF).”

Starting a new journey with the OU

John is just one of hundreds of former servicemen and women studying through a scholarship. The DVSF was specially created to fully support disabled veterans injured in or due to service as they transition to civilian life. It enables veterans to access free education and wraparound support so they can rewrite their futures and unlock new careers.

“I was absolutely overwhelmed when I heard I had been accepted to study for a BSc in Sport, Fitness and Coaching, and was totally over the moon as it gave me a new focus. I was determined to build on my previous experience and become a qualified personal trainer.

“I began studying with the OU in 2020 and they’ve been brilliant. I had been worried about resources for disabled students, but the OU provided me with a laptop computer and a Livescribe pen with tuition on how to use it all.”

Giving back to society

Through sheer determination, John went from being in a wheelchair to completing a 10,000-metre run within a year following his debilitating stroke.

“I thought to myself, what if I can give this [drive] to someone else?

“My aim is to work with other disabled veterans and individuals to show them the benefits of training. And I’m already doing this by coaching young kids to teach them about discipline, commitment and focus.

“It’s my way of giving something back to society. And that’s really my main message to donors [of the Scholarships Fund], as well as saying a huge thank you for helping to give me a new future. I believe teachers and coaches are pivotal to our children’s futures. So the more disabled veterans like me who can be helped to do similar things, the more it benefits our society as a whole.”

Student Story: Constance Devernay-Laurence

Ballet dancer Constance Devernay-Laurence graduated from the OU in 2022 (Credit: Julie Howden)

An acclaimed Scottish Ballet dancer shares how she achieved her first-class Open University degree alongside a full-time career as a professional ballerina.

Constance Devernay-Laurence is used to wowing audiences as a Principal dancer in Scottish Ballet. She’s now added another achievement to her bright career by completing a degree in Sport, Fitness and Coaching.

“It’s great to be able to inspire other people through dance both on and off stage,” says the 32-year-old. “Studying with The Open University has also boosted my confidence and promoted my own inner drive to keep learning.”

Swapping ballet slippers for books

Through the six years she studied part-time for her OU degree, Constance performed in over 17 different productions including The NutcrackerCinderella and The Snow Queen.

Surprisingly, she says that the backstage dressing rooms proved the perfect place to study:

“I studied mainly in the evenings after rehearsals, or during the day, between performances,” she says. “My favourite place to study is in my dressing room in theatres, as it is a quiet place where I can find my focus.

“Touring nationally and internationally with Scottish Ballet meant that I could find time to study during our travel.”

Constance admits that it was a fine balance to complete her studies at the same time as a physically taxing performance schedule. Which is why the flexibility of an Open University qualification was so important.

“It was definitely challenging at times to fit my studies around the company’s heavy rehearsal and performance schedule and its inevitable toll on my body, but, in a way, it allowed me to have an escape from ballet and get some perspective on what is a demanding career,” she says.

“I have also learned valuable psychological and physiological skills with each module, which in turn helped me become a better and stronger dancer.”

Career-boosting skills

Ballet dancer Constance Devernay-Laurence graduated from the OU in 2022 (Credit: Julie Howden)

Credit: Julie Howden

Constance was born in Amiens, France and started dancing at just five years old. After training with the English National Ballet School in London, Constance moved to Glasgow in 2009 to join Scottish Ballet and has been a Principal dancer since 2016.

Reflecting on her journey so far, Constance says that completing a degree has helped her to apply her skills to her current career and set her up for one in the future.

“I now feel better equipped to transition from my career as a professional ballet dancer when the time is right, but also to tackle everyday challenges,” she says.

As a proud graduate, Constance had this advice for anyone looking to invest in their futures and start a qualification with the OU:

“Studying with the OU was the best decision for my future, and I would encourage anyone who is thinking of starting a module or degree to take that step.

“All the tutors and staff were so supportive, I never felt out of my depth, even though English isn’t my first language, and I knew that I could always ask for help or extra time if needed. Graduating felt amazing and I have loved my time with the OU.”

After crossing the stage with fellow graduates at her OU degree ceremony in Glasgow, Constance is now back performing with Scottish Ballet as The Snow Queen.


In the “Isle of Man TT” Zone

By Helen Owton

The Isle of man Tourist Trophy (TT) races have been running since 1907 and is notoriously known as one of the most dangerous in motorsports. The riders must navigate around a 37mile track around the Isle of Man with over 200 twists and corners, many of them blind, with ‘No Room for Error’ and top speeds of 200 mph on narrow country roads littered with street furniture – lampposts, concrete walls, houses, pubs, pavements, cliff edges, and no runoffs . The event has claimed over 150 lives which makes those competing in the event a death-defying act; riders as well as spectators all too aware of the risks.

What’s interesting about the TT is the wide range of personalities and ages; one of the highest achievers is 51yr old John McGuinness with 23 TT wins and is still one to beat. Racers participating in the IOM TT are living their lives on the edge and many wonder why they put their lives at such risk but maybe they’re not as ‘crazy’ as we think they are.

Race Face

Successful athletes develop effective pre-performance routines or ‘rituals’ which can be used to help individuals perform under pressure and concentrate on factors that are in their control  (Openlearn).

You might see the riders turning on their “Race Face” which is a term referring to the mental posture that prepares and readies a motorcyclist for their race (Code, 2009: Rider’s Race Face | Motorcyclist (, (LONDON 2012 VIDEO).

“You may say a race face is a protective mask to prevent outside influences from entering into a rider’s world. Or you may say the mask serves to bridle a rider’s own force, keeping it ready to be unleashed and do his bidding at the appointed time. Either way, it is a valuable tool-another piece of protective apparel we don before heading on-track” (Code, 2009).

Attuning the senses

Extreme sports are often associated with thrill seekers with a ‘death wish’ or adrenaline junkies searching for their next thrill (Brymer and Schweitzer, 2013). However, these individuals can be highly trained with a deep knowledge of themselves, the activity, and the environment, who seek an experience that is life-enhancing and life-changing (Brymer and Schweitzer, 2013). 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, 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; all run by one’s sub-conscious relying heavily on a deep knowledge of the TT circuit.

Muscle memory

Building that deep knowledge of the course takes time and practice; riders don’t immediately ride the course at that speed, and they have a whole practice week before every TT before the racing starts. This can help build up their ‘muscle memory’ which can also be referred to as motor memory, referring to one’s body’s memory to perform certain actions. There are two parts of the brain that help to learn sequences of actions and help to adjust errors in learning to improve one’s ability to perform those movements correctly. Also, a concept known as proprioception can be described as our sense of balance, position, and muscular tension, provided by receptors in muscles, joints, tendons, and the inner ear. These bodily (somatic) senses inform our perception of “inside” and “outside,” of inner and outer space meaning that senses act together to help give us our embodied perceptions of space (Paterson, 2009). Riders who participate in the TT have highly trained and attuned their bodies to that environment – the TT course – through practice, breathing, focus and visualisation. To enable them to optimise their potential and perform at their personal best, they engage in an optimal psychological state known as flow.

Risk and Reward

To induce flow, it is about balancing the level of skill with the challenge we are faced with (Nakamura et al., 2009); balancing risk versus reward and assessing whether a risk is worth taking as James Hiller discusses:


How do you calculate risk VS reward when you’re traveling at over 200mph? James Hillier is no stranger to pushing himself to get into the winners enclosure, and emotions run high when you aren’t in there. No Room for Error, showing Monday 22nd May: 🇬🇧 9pm ITV4 and ITVX 🌎 9pm TT+ #TTPlus #LoveTT #NRFE #NoRoomForError #Motorbike #motorbikesoftiktok #isleofman #motorsport

♬ original sound – Isle of Man TT Races

A TT rider faces intense fears, accepts that control of the future is not always possible and moves 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).

Clutch States

Indeed, switching to what’s known as a ‘Clutch state’ which occurs under particular high-pressure conditions; it is similar to being “in the zone” but 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). 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 120mph round the next corner to overtake the next rider” to achieve that outcome is associated with ‘clutch’ performances. It is likely that there is a shifting or slippage in and out of the states and a blurring between and within the states and may link to how TT riders weigh up risk and reward.

Riding the TT where all the hard work has been done before the race, can induce a quietness of mind while you just breath and focus. While there is a thrill of speed and desire for a win, “One of the things that make motorcycling so great is because it never fails to give you a feeling of freedom and adventure” (Steve McQueen, 1930-1980).

Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson supports OU work on retired athletes

Candice Lingam-Willgoss (The Open University), David Lavallee (Abertay University) and Caroline Heaney (The Open University) recently wrote an OpenLearn article titled ‘Life after sport: giving back‘ exploring how retired athletes can use their transferable skills to ‘give back’ to society. The article supports the free Badged Open Course (BOC) The athlete’s journey: transitions through sport, which examines the psychological impact of the various transitions athletes face on their journey through sport.

As outlined in the article, retirement from sport can be a particularly challenging time for athletes which can have a negative impact on their wellbeing and mental health. Supporting athletes through career transitions and providing them with opportunities to ‘give back’ to society can help minimise the risk of negative responses and has benefits for both the athlete (e.g., self worth) and wider society.

Multiple Paralympic champion Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, a strong advocate for athlete welfare, and author of the 2017 government ‘Duty of care in sport review‘ report, had this to say about the ‘Life after sport: giving back‘ article:

Roger Harris, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

“The OU have teamed up with Abertay University to produce a really valuable piece of work, first of all acknowledging that athletes go through many phases in their career.  When you are on the outside looking in it is not always easy to see it. Retirement is hard for athletes who have dedicated often many years of their childhood and life to the sport so for them to understand how what they have learnt is transferable is really important. Often there is not much notice for an athlete approaching the end of their career and they don’t always have the time or inclination to prepare for it. But it can also be hard for athletes to recognise all the benefits they can bring to themselves and others using what they have learnt in sport. Starting the dialogue of what they can offer and how they can give back and benefit wider society it is a vital first step and is excellent to see such free learning available for athletes in helping them prepare for their life after sport.”

The Sports Desk: Women’s Sport Matters

On International Women’s Day (8/3/2023) the BBC and the OU launched a 4-part podcast series  for The Sports Desk called ‘Women’s Sport Matters’ aimed at exploring important topics affecting female athletes. The podcasts presented by Katie Smith and produced by Jonathan McKeith feature #TeamOUsport academics alongside other experts and several top level female athletes.

Episode 1: We’re not all the same. Period

In this episode the panel of rugby player Daisie Mayes, former distance runner Pippa Woolven, senior lecturer in sport and fitness Simon Rea, Dr Emma Ross from the Well HQ, and sports reporter Fi Tomas discuss how the menstrual cycle affects performance and some of the myths around periods in sport.


Episode 2: Changing what we wear

From wearing the right sports bra to avoiding white shorts women’s sportswear is important. In this episode Ellie Cardwell (England netballer), Dr Jessica Pinchbeck (senior lecturer in sport and fitness), Laura Youngson (co-founder of IDA sports), and Tonje Lerstad (Norwegian beach handball player) examine how women’s sportswear is evolving.


Episode 3: Which heals quicker – the body or the mind?

This episode featuring Paralympian Kadeena Cox, England footballer Esme Morgan, and sport psychologist Dr Caroline Heaney explores the psychological impact of injury and outlines why mental recovery is just as important as physical recovery.


Episode 4: Exercise me, influence me

In this episode the panel of Kat Merchant (former England rugby player and personal trainer), Sabrina Pace-Humphreys (founder of the charity Black Trail Runners), Candice Lingam-Willgoss (senior lecturer in sport and fitness), Becky Grey (BBC Sport), and Alexia Clark (Instagram Fitness Influencer) explore the challenges and benefits of staying active.


Lead academic for the podcast series = Professor Ben Oakley


Walking the line

By Craig Bowker (OU Sport and Fitness Student)

11 years ago, football saved my life, it was August bank holiday 2011 and work were playing a intercompany football competition between its three insurance brands. Express insurance, Kwik Fit Financial services and Ageas Insurance faced off in an unusually sunny stoke. I’d already been to the doctors and was awaiting a scan for what was a heavy/uncomfortable feeling down below. I was on a 6-week waiting list, and probably should not have played that weekend but sometimes we think we are invincible and to this day I don’t regret my decision to play.

After playing 2 matches something didn’t feel right, and I was in quite a bit of pain. There was a considerable feeling of discomfort and heaviness and a walk that John Wayne would be proud of. The next 48 hrs nothing had changed, and an emergency trip to A&E was required, this turned into a night on the ward and within another 24 hours an emergency operation to effectively save my life.

After the operation, I was prescribed 3 months of Chemotherapy and 5 years of monitoring after the diagnosis of testicular cancer. Touch wood since 2012 I’ve been clear of cancer and as of 2016 not had any follow ups. I know I’m one of the lucky ones. since my fight I’ve lost close family to the terrible disease.

When I was undergoing treatment, the support I received from Macmillan helped me financially and support through their nurses were second to none. Currently we are going through the biggest cost of living crisis since 2008, and the support that Macmillan are currently providing financially are helping patients maintain mortgage payments, keep the heating on, whilst off sick and recovering as well as other support.

To raise funds for Macmillan I’ll be walking the length of offa’s dyke, a 177mile trek that will be attempted in 5 days. To prepare for the challenge I will be doing some training walks, and anyone wishing to join me just needs to turn up on the day for moral support.

If you would like to donate, you can do so by following the Just giving link.

You can also visit my website here.

Event 1, Sunday the 16th of April 2023

Coffee and Cake Meet

Summit of Snowdon (1pm-Onwards)

It would be great to meet some of the OU sports team and OU sports students on the day.

Heading for Injury?

Authored by the team ‘Three Degrees’: Tom Willett, Trevor Tiller, and Simon Ludford [E119 22J 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 27 blogs that were produced in January 2023.

man in blue and white jersey shirt playing soccer during daytime

There is nothing quite like a headed goal-line clearance; a player willing to put his head on any ball needed to keep a clean sheet and secure those three points. Following a game against Wolves, Neil Warnock famously said to his Sheffield United players ‘You’ve gotta die to get three points’, he did not mean it literally, but this is the unfortunate reality of heading in football. No job should be at the cost of a life, but sport seems to be the exception. We have had enough warnings and time.

In 1966, Football authorities were warned by doctors that frequently heading the ball could cause brain injuries. A club medic highlighted the issue as well as players complaining of headaches in a magazine (Seward, 2019). Research completed on the link between heading the ball and brain disease showed there is a fivefold increase in the risk of Alzheimer’s, a fourfold increase in motor neurone disease and a twofold in Parkinson’s (Seward, 2019). This shows that heading and brain Injury in football has been a long-term concern to medical staff.

A specific brain condition that footballers have suffered from is chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE); which is linked to repeated injuries or blows to the head and over time can lead to dementia (NHS, 2022). Former footballer Jeff Astle died in 2002 at 59 after suffering from CTE; an inquest following his death confirmed he died of dementia as a result of heading footballs; he was the first British footballer to have done so (Seward, 2019).

Given Astle’s death was 20 years ago, the time for action was long overdue. The repeated heading of the ball can lead to CTE and cause behavioural issues and death from dementia. National governing bodies have a responsibility and duty of care to protect their players. But what is actually been done?

A report from the Department of Digital, culture, media and sport (DCMS) does not make good reading. MP’s found a lack of engagement with the issue of concussion, despite the coroner’s verdict on Astle’s death (UK Parliament, 2021). The report also places blame on the HSE (Health and Safety Executive) and government for allowing unreliable sporting governing bodies to address the issue of brain injury within individual sports, referring to it as ‘marking your own homework’ (UK Parliament, 2021). The UK Government (2021) created an action plan to address the failings of player welfare, stating that the UK government, sporting governing bodies and medical professionals will work more closely together to educate and address any knowledge gaps as well as the usage of tech companies to monitor any impact and whilst this action plan is welcomed, is it 20 years too late?

These actions will take time to implement – time football players do not have. There is an urgent need to act, and act now. Technology is advanced enough to monitor ball size, pressure, weight, mass and water absorption and it is required by football governing bodies such as FIFA. Using this technology, Auger et al., (2020) studied the neurological impacts of heading a ball of different sizes, pressures, and how much water they had absorbed, this study was completed by kicking the balls at a force plate in a laboratory. The study concluded that lowering the pressure inside the balls could reduce potential head injury by 20% and balls that absorbed too much water could be swapped out. A combination of a ball holding too much water and high pressure is like heading a brick (Nauman, cited in Auger et al., 2020).

The International football association board (IFAB), introduced a protocol on February 6th 2021 which allowed teams to make two permanent substitutions if a player was suspected of having a concussion (Dawnay, 2021). The trial was a success, and the protocol was used during the FIFA world cup in 2022. Medical staff had more control over a player’s well-being, they can access video footage to check if an injury has likely resulted in a concussion or not. This protocol has also allowed the opposing team to make an additional substitution for fairness of competition (Johnson, 2022).

The Scottish FA has taken it one step further by banning any heading of the ball on the day before and after a game to try to reduce any potential cumulative effect by reducing the exposure to heading; following on from the heading ban that is already in place at U-12 and below age groups. Interestingly, Hibernian defender of the Scottish Women’s premier league Joelle Murray says that whilst she accepts and understands the latest information on the impacts of heading and brain injuries, it is about the balance and that she doesn’t hesitate to head any ball during a matchday (Mclaughlin, 2022). Perhaps there is a suggestion here for game day rules to be looked at?

What is clear is that world football has failed to protect football players for at least 50 years. Football governing bodies have been reactive rather than proactive for far too long. However, what is also clear is that the world of football is now doing more than what it ever has done to protect the players whilst also considering any changes in the game, but this is only the start. Football must continue to look at how the risk of brain injuries can be reduced; it must be accepted that to remove the risk completely means changing the game as we know it. Could you imagine an elite level of football where there was no heading, or only heading in the 12-yard box? A set piece would seem almost pointless. However, the reality is that football in its current format is still carrying a risk of CTE – although reduced – putting the lives of footballers at risk. Collaborative relationships between footballers, governing bodies and medical staff must be maintained with the protection and well-being of the players as the utmost priority whilst also considering the future format and integrity of the game.


Reference list

Auger, J. Markel, J. Pecoski, D. Leiva-Molano, N. Talavage, T. Leverenz, L. Shen F. Nauman, E. (2020) Soccer players’ head injury risk could be reduced with simple adjustments to the ball, study finds. Available at:,-study-finds.html (Accessed: 25 January 2023)

Dawnay, O. (2021) Concussion substitutes set to be introduced by Premier League on February 6 as Football Association set timetable for new protocol. Available at: (Accessed: 25 January 2023).
Johnson, J. (2022) What is the World Cup concussion protocol? Additional substitution allowed in Qatar. Available at: (Accessed: 25 January 2023).

NHS (2022) Chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Available at: (Accessed: 25 January 2023)

Seward, J. (2019) Football chiefs were warned that frequently heading leather balls could cause serious brain injuries by medics in 1966… 53 years BEFORE landmark report reinforced the link. Available at:  (Accessed: 25 January 2023)
UK Government (2021) Government to develop new protocols around concussion in sport. Available at: (Accessed: 25 January 2023)

UK Parliament (2021) Sport allowed to ‘mark its own homework’ on reducing concussion risks. Available at: