Review of BSc Strength and Conditioning Science at St Mary’s University
Review/Insight – BSc Strength and Conditioning Science at St Mary’ s University
I’m now approaching the final couple of weeks of my undergraduate degree (weird feeling) and I think it’s productive to reflect on my time and review the course I’ve done for anyone wanting to do it in the future.
I study a BSc in Strength and Conditioning Science at St Mary’s University in Twickenham, a course that, after three years, I will graduate from (officially) in July ’14. St Mary’s itself is in Twickenham (as I said) which is between Kingston and Richmond, it has links to pretty much anywhere you’d want to go in London, and the area itself is very close to a lot of professional rugby clubs, high performance rowing clubs, and of course most other sports you can think of. The university itself is small, with everything very close together, we have halls of residence, a gym (with several olympic weightlifting platforms and squat racks), a library, a students union (bar) and a canteen – so everything you need is on campus. The university is very big on sports, with other courses including sports rehab, coaching science and sports science, and it also functions as a hub for EPACC and the EIS (English Institute of Sport) – meaning there are often a number of elite athletes around campus (including Mo Farah and Usain Bolt!).
The strength and conditioning degree is ran by Richard Blagrove who is an accredited and certified S&C coach through the UK strength and conditioning association (UKSCA) and national strength and conditioning association (NSCA) respectively. Rich was a former international rower and has coached numerous elite (olympic and paralympic) athletes. Other lecturers on the course include Jon Goodwin, Jonathan Griffin, Phil Price, Louis Howe, Paul Read, Rik Mellor, Adam Spence and Dan Cleather – all of whom are highly qualified S&C coaches, each with their own specialist area. The course website can be found here. The entire degree is mapped out in order to prepare you to undertake UKSCA and NSCA exams (the professional/vocational S&C governing bodies), these (along with the degree) are the BARE MINIMUM you need if you want to work in professional/elite sport in the UK/USA.
I began the course when I was 21, having worked as a personal trainer and fitness instructor for several years prior – however the course ranged massively in age and background, with some students coming straight from school at 18, and others having a career change at age 28. The first year of the degree (as with all degrees) doesn’t count towards your final classification, however, it’s an EASY year (compared to the others!) and it’s the most important in terms of making a good impression (the lecturers WILL be the ones who get you internships and jobs, and write your references) and getting the hang of how to write academically and do research. Also, if you do really well there’s a chance of getting an academic scholarship (£1000!).
Modules in the first year include (although these have changed slightly since my first year!):
- Anatomy and Biomechanics – full body anatomy (muscles, bones, ligaments, tendons, nerves) and movement; and an introduction to biomechanics (mostly maths – but it’s not too bad and most people suck at it to start with – I did)
- Movement Coaching – Basic theoretical concepts of S&C, basically the theory behind the training techniques we use
- Practical Techniques in Strength and Conditioning – To begin with this is a three-month olympic weightliftiing course where all students learn how to snatch and clean and jerk, culminating in a inter-cohort competition. This then changes into a mix of practical and theory lectures about training techniques and technical models.
- Skill Acquisition and Sports Psychology – All about how we learn movements/skills, and an introduction in basic sports psychology
- Exercise Physiology – Starting very basic (A level PE/biology level) into slightly more in depth, everything from respiratory system, cardiovascular system and muscle physiology.
This is where my experiences differ from that of the majority of the course – the first semester of my second year was spent studying exercise science abroad in the USA at DeSales University, Pennsylvania.
At the beginning of the degree you will be told about the opportunity to study abroad (you need a minimum of a 2:1 grade in first year!), my advice is to DO IT, without a shadow of a doubt, my reasons being:
– It differentiates you from the 30+ others on the degree (you all graduate at the same time with the same degree in the same area, so make yourself stand out!)
– It doesn’t cost much more than a semester in the UK, you’ll be out of pocket for spending money mostly – get another loan if you have to!
– You’ll learn a ton, and get a ton of coaching experience – I coached the DeSales University lacrosse team and interned at a NCAA division 1 university (Lehigh) coaching everything from American football and baseball, to tennis and golf.
– The first semester of second year at St Mary’s is the least exciting, it’s entirely sports science (so biomechanics, physiology, skill acquisition and research methods), so why not do the boring modules in an awesome new place?!?!
When you get back the modules are all S&C, and probably some of the best on the degree (in my opinion).
- Muscle Physiology – A hard module, but one of the most interesting on the degree and very relevant to the job
- Ergogenic Aids – All about sports supplements, including creatine, protein, caffeine, anabolic steroids, EPO and so on. You do a mini research study (in a group) also.
- Coaching Process – Basically a taster of the coaching science course; this is almost all practical and lots of hands on coaching
- Application of Science – Another one of the very applied modules. You critique various training methods (vibration training, unstable surfaces), learn about dynamic correspondence, have in-class debates and do a presentation on a training method.
- Research Design – This whole module is preparation for your third year dissertation research project. You learn how to find and read research, how to use SPSS (statistics) and how to write lab reports.
Third (final) Year
This is the hardest year of the degree for most people, the workload is high and you’re left to your own interpretation of a lot of the tasks. You’re expected to be capable of organising yourself and carrying out research on your own. It’s also where most of the unanswered questions you’ll inevitable have get answered.
- Research Project (Dissertation) – Everyone knows what this is and everyone dreads it. But if you’re organised, efficient and are interested in the topic you pick to study, then its not all that hard. The first half of this module is a proposal and ethical approval for your research study. The second half is actually carrying out the study – this is all done by yourself, with the support of a staff supervisor.
- The Dysfunctional Athlete – This is, to start with, all about fatigue management and the prevention of overtraining in sport. In the second semester it becomes a sports rehab ‘taster’, where you’ll learn about how to diagnose and treat/rehab sports injuries – lots of anatomy again but very very applied and really interesting.
- Biomechanics II – This module is the only choice you get in the degree, if your dissertation is biomechanics based you do biomechanics (obviously), if it’s physiology then you do phys. You’ll learn how to use the biomechanics equipment (force plate, EMG, video etc.) to collect data, and then learn how to analyse that data and understand it. Don’t worry, there’s next to no maths involved.
- Programme Design and Professional Observation – Here you learn all about periodisation, programming and coaching special populations (young, old, disabled and female). Most of the lectures are case study presentations from the lecturers about athletes they’ve coached, and the rest are the theoretical principles behind them. You’ll also have to do a 40-hour professional observation placement (of your choice) on a S&C coach, and write a reflective logbook on your experiences.
That, in a nutshell, is the degree. It sounds like a long three years, but trust me it isn’t! Some of it will suck (as with anything you do) and you’ll not understand why you’re learning it, but in hindsight at the end of the three years (when it’s all come together) you’ll understand and be thankful for it. You’ll undoubtedly learn more about the science of exercise than you’d have thought possible, and you’ll realise just how much there is left to learn.
From day one you’ll be given opportunities to get internships (unpaid, but sometimes compensated, experience), you’re not guaranteed these, so obviously you need to be good academically, and prove yourself to the lecturers/network with other students in other year groups. To give you an insight, I’ve interned at/with:
- Cambridge University Lightweight Rowing Club
- St Marys Soccer Team
- Great Britain Lions American Football Team
- Trained an individual rugby league player
- DeSales University Mens Lacrosse
- Lehigh University
- London Rowing Club
- London Irish Rugby Club (first team and EPDG)
My advice here is to apply for EVERYTHING, just get experience coaching ATHLETES, even if you don’t feel qualified, just do it (you’ll never feel completely ready!) – even if you just write a programme for, and train, a mate who lives in your halls.
My advice for anyone starting the degree:
- Before you come, read up on anatomy (any old book, this is a good one) – it’ll make your life so much easier
- Similarly, brush up on your GCSE level maths/physics – algebra, equations, pythagoras. If you suck, get a tutor over the summer.
- If you really want to get stuck into some S&C stuff, have a read through these – Science and Practice, Periodisation, NSCA Essentials, NSCA Exercise Manual, Supple Leopard
- Have a crack at learning the intricacies of microsoft excel (it’ll save you a headache in third year, and make programme writing and data analysis so much faster)
- Write a decent CV if you don’t already have one, and maybe a cover letter ready to apply for internships
- When you arrive – join St Mary’s Strength (weightlifting & powerlifting club), firstly it’ll help your grade in the weightlifting competition, secondly you’ll get strong (!!!!), thirdly you’ll get confident in the weights room, and finally you’ll meet people (see next point)
- NETWORK! – talk to everyone, firstly the people on your course and then get to know the lecturers (answer questions, ask questions – within reason, and stick around after classes for a chat – make sure they know your name but for good reasons). Then get to know the students in second and third year – they have internships, they know people, they have advice and might even share their notes from modules your doing at the moment. Networking is the MOST important thing you will do at university.
Hopefully this has given you an insight into the S&C degree at St Marys, and maybe even persuaded you to consider doing it. Personally I’d recommend it and as far as I’m concerned it’s the best undergraduate S&C degree in the country – you’ll learn loads and end up leaving with a huge amount of industry experience and (hopefully) a large network of contacts!