Should I do a sport and exercise science degree?

Young woman having lung capacity tested on bicycle
On a sport science degree you’ll study how the body and mind function during exercise and, after graduating, you can apply your specialist knowledge to a range of careers. You don’t need to be top of your PE class; what matters is an interest in sport and the science behind it.

A sport and exercise science degree isn’t like PE at school. You can expect practical sessions and lab work but be prepared to ditch the trainers and learn the theory that you can then apply to sport and exercise.

While most universities, including Loughborough University and the University of Bath, call it a sport and exercise science degree, the degree title might be slightly different at other universities. Durham University calls it a sport, exercise and physical activity degree, for example, while others go for sport science degree or applied sports science degree.

Sports science degree entry requirements

Most universities ask for at least one science A level or Scottish Higher out of biology, human biology, chemistry, maths and physics, and some prefer biology or chemistry. Some universities accept physical education and others count psychology, as long as you studied physical education as well.

Grade-wise, a typical offer from a top university ranges from ABB to AAA for A levels. For Scottish Highers, you’ll typically need As and Bs across the board too. However, specific requirements vary a lot between universities. Some ask for five Highers whereas others only ask for four. Others simply ask for your grades to add up to between 112 and 128 UCAS points (BBBCC in your Highers would equal 123 UCAS points). Some universities, such as the University of Portsmouth and the University of Leeds, also ask for Advanced Highers.

Sport science degree modules

A sport and exercise science degree covers three core areas:

  • biomechanics – the study of body movements, involving principles of physics and maths
  • physiology – the study of how the body and its systems, such as the cardiovascular system, function during exercise
  • psychology – the study of how thinking affects performance.

The first year of your degree will be a broad overview of sport and exercise science and you will typically study between six and eight compulsory modules. These will include introductions to biomechanics, physiology and psychology, alongside topics such as:

  • coaching and teaching
  • sports management
  • the sociology of sport
  • physical activity and health
  • diet and nutrition
  • motor control
  • an introduction to anatomy.

Every sport science degree will cover the three core areas but the additional topics covered vary between universities. To make sure you pick a course that suits you and that you’ll enjoy, you’ll need to compare the degree content on offer at different universities.

Most sport science degrees also include a compulsory research skills module in either your first or second year. This will cover topics such as research methods and data analysis to help prepare you for your final-year project (more on this later). Some universities such as the University of Exeter, also get their students to sit a maths or statistics module.

Tailoring your sports science module choice to your career interests

As you get into your second and third year, you’ll be able to choose some modules from a list of options. The modules on offer will become more specific and in-depth. Most courses will cover similar areas (such as coaching, sport psychology, strength and conditioning, injury rehabilitation and nutrition) but beware that they will all call their modules something slightly different. For example, while one university might simply have a module called coaching, another might call theirs coaching and skill acquisition.

At this point you can start to specialise in a certain area depending on a) where your interests lie and b) your future career ambitions. If you want a career in nutrition, for example, you would take physiology and nutrition modules. Equally, if you would prefer to follow a broader programme to keep your options open, you could do so by selecting a variety of biomechanics, physiology and psychology modules.

What teaching methods are used on sport courses at university?

A sport science degree isn’t taught like PE at school. It’s much more theory-based so don’t expect to spend an hour every week playing footie or rounders with your mates. You’ll be taught through:

  • lectures – listening to talks and taking notes
  • seminars – interactive group sessions, often including discussions and exercises
  • lab sessions – after learning the theory in the lecture, you will then apply this knowledge to practical work in the lab, often on people who have volunteered to participate. For example, Claire Potter, a sport science graduate from the University of Bedfordshire, recalls going into the university’s environmental chamber and working with volunteers to try different methods of improving an athlete’s performance in hot conditions, such as pre-cooling (having a cold bath beforehand).
  • practical sessions – you might take on a performer, leader or observer role, usually in a sports hall, gym, swimming pool or on a sports field or court. Andy Seddon, a sport science graduate from Loughborough University, took part in sports that he was less familiar with, such as dance and gymnastics, as part of a coaching module so he could understand how to coach a beginner in the sport.

Generally, applied modules (such as coaching and strength and conditioning) will involve more practical sessions, whereas theory-based modules (such as biomechanics and psychology) will involve more lectures and seminars.

What assessment methods are used on a sport and exercise science degree?

You will not be assessed on your fitness level or sporting ability, but on your knowledge of sport science and your ability to apply that knowledge to sport and exercise. You might be assessed through written exams, coursework, oral presentations and practical assessments (such as completing a fitness test with a volunteer in the lab).

You might also complete a dissertation in your final year, which usually takes the form of an independent research project.

Andy completed a psychology-based dissertation: ‘My dissertation was based on the coach-athlete relationship and how that relationship affects the athlete psychologically. My research involved sending out roughly 200 questionnaires and conducting a few interviews.’

Claire, on the other hand, completed a physiology-based dissertation: ‘My dissertation looked at the combination of giving somebody a cold bath and making sure they’re properly hydrated before exercise to see if it improved performance in the heat. It involved recruiting volunteers to participate in my tests.’

How many contact hours will I have on a sport and exercise science degree?

Depending on the university, you will have between 12 and 20 hours of contact time a week in your first year. However, sport science students are expected to become more and more independent as time goes on so you can expect your contact hours to decrease.

As the contact time drops, you’ll spend more time studying independently, such as doing some further reading or research, coursework or revision for exams. By your final year, you can expect to spend around 20 hours a week studying independently and fewer than ten hours in formal sessions.

Playing sports: universities with lots to offer outside lectures

If you’re keen to play sport at university, you’ll need to do so in your spare time by getting involved with sports clubs.

Polly Orgill, a former sport science student at the University of Lincoln, played rugby for the women’s rugby union team, which helped her with her studies. ‘I was able to apply what I learned on my degree, such as training methods and sport psychology, to playing rugby. This made the degree easier for me to understand as I could see the practical application of the theory I was taught in lectures,’ she explains.

If playing sport is one of your priorities, you might want to look at which universities have the strongest reputations for sport. British Universities & Colleges Sport, known by most students as BUCS, is the governing body for higher education sport in the UK. It organises numerous sport competitions and leagues across the academic year and ranks universities based on these events. In 2015/16 the top five universities were:

  1. Loughborough University
  2. Durham University
  3. University of Edinburgh
  4. University of Nottingham
  5. University of Exeter.

If you’re committed to a particular sport, you might also want to factor in which universities have the best facilities for, and perform well in, that sport. You can start by reading our articles on:

BUCS’ website also has a league table that can be filtered by sport.

Sports science careers

As a sports science graduate, you’d be joining the ranks of Alistair Brownlee, Victoria Pendleton and José Mourinho. The areas you could work in include:

  • academic research
  • personal training
  • physiotherapy
  • professional coaching
  • sport management
  • sport nutrition
  • sport psychology
  • strength and conditioning.

Other careers for sport and exercise science degree graduates

As a sport science graduate, you could also go down a non-scientific sport route, such as teaching PE, sport journalism, marketing or advertising, or youth work (eg working as a sport development officer in a local community). In some cases, such as journalism, you might need to take a relevant postgraduate course. To become a PE teacher, you will need to take a teacher training course such as the one-year Postgraduate Certificate of Education (PGCE).

There are also plenty of sectors that recruit graduates from all degree disciplines including:

Becoming more employable – sport science internships, volunteer placements and postgraduate study

To get a job as a sport scientist, you’ll need either extensive work experience or postgraduate study. For jobs in research, physiotherapy and teaching, a postgraduate course will be necessary. You might also need a postgraduate degree for jobs in sport psychology or nutrition.

If you think you might want or need a postgraduate degree, several universities run an MSci degree in sport and exercise science. This is an integrated masters degree that involves an extra year of study compared to a bachelors degree. An MSci is a four-year course in England and Wales and typically a five-year course in Scotland.

For applied jobs, such as coaching, practical experience is a must. You can do this while you’re at university through internships and volunteering but lots of sport science students will also complete an internship or two after graduation to build up enough experience.

Matthew Milsom, a former sport science student at the University of Derby, spent his second and third years as a strength and conditioning intern at Derbyshire County Cricket Club. He worked with the youth teams and observed the lead strength and conditioning coach.

He says: ‘The more experiences you get under your belt and the more coaches you learn from, the better. Your university will most likely have industry connections so make the most of them; mine linked up with Derby County Football Club, Burton Albion Football Club and Derbyshire County Cricket Club, for example. I’d also recommend that you start as early as possible. A lot of first-year students don’t realise what they could be doing and my university only told me about the opportunities in my second year. I wish I’d started doing things in my first year, even if it was just volunteering for a week.’

Skills you’ll gain from a sport science degree that will help your career

As well as developing an understanding of the science behind sport and exercise and how to apply it, a sport science graduate will gain a number of useful skills, particularly research and analytical skills. You’ll become accustomed to critically evaluating information, designing research studies, collecting data and dissecting the results. Other skills a sport science degree will help you develop include:

  • problem solving
  • decision making
  • leadership
  • working with a variety of people
  • organisation and time management
  • written and oral communication.

Alternative sports university courses to consider

It’s possible to choose a degree that focuses on just one of the areas a sport science degree would cover. A few options include:

  • a strength and conditioning degree
  • a sport, health and nutrition degree
  • a sport therapy degree
  • a sports coaching degree
  • a sport psychology degree.

If you’re more interested in the business side of things, you could consider:

  • a sport management degree
  • a sport development degree
  • a sport marketing degree.

Or, if you’d like to combine your love of sport with writing, you could opt for a sport journalism degree.

If you think you’d enjoy studying sport science but would like to combine it with something else, several universities give you the option to study sport science alongside another subject such as English, geography, education studies or maths.

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