For many people, a career in sports engineering seems like the perfect way to combine their passion for sport and technology. Those of us who are fortunate enough to have established a career in sports engineering will probably agree that we are very lucky indeed. Of course, the practical realities of this job are sometimes a little less glamorous than you might think, but to be able to work in a sector that holds such a special fascination is a very privileged position indeed.
Over the years, a great many people have asked me how to best gain a foothold in the world of sports engineering. Unfortunately it is not always clear what the various options are, or what career opportunities might lay ahead. This article will attempt to provide a little clarity, and hopefully some helpful advice!
First of all, it is important to understand what sports engineering actually is. Opinions may differ, but in essence, sports engineering is concerned with the research and development of technologies for the sports industry. The field is very broad and encompasses a wide range of activity. Sports engineers can be involved with projects as diverse as designing mountain bike suspension to developing image processing algorithms. The subject is fundamentally technical in its nature and attempts to quantify the performance gains that might be achieved through a particular design or method. It is important to recognise that the sports engineer is not a sports scientist; and whilst there is a good deal of overlap, the two fields are actually quite distinct. I have often remarked that a sports scientist is concerned with what is going on inside an athlete whilst the sports engineer deals with everything on the outside; namely their equipment and environment. Whilst this definition may not be completely robust, there is a modicum of truth in it!
Many sports engineers have a background in a traditional academic discipline such as mechanical engineering. Previous study in an area such as this provides a solid platform to develop the specialist expertise required by industry. However, pursuing a degree in mechanical engineering is certainly not the only route that can be taken; many sports engineers have backgrounds in electrical engineering, material science, medical physics, mathematics or pure physics to name a few. Also, there are an increasing number of sports engineering and sports technology degree programmes; more of which below. Because sports engineering encompasses such a broad church of activity, individuals from a diverse range of backgrounds can be very successful. Nonetheless, a common trait is apparent in all successful sports engineers, and that trait is a love for sport that can only be rivalled by their obsession for science and technology.
Over the past decade, a great many new undergraduate courses in sports engineering have appeared in university prospectuses, particularly in the UK. This trend reflects the maturity of sports engineering as an established academic field and a growing sports equipment industry that is driven by technical performance. Undergraduate courses in sports engineering differ widely in their quality and scope. Some excellent courses are essentially a traditional engineering degree that has been modified to use sporting examples; whist other courses are more focused on product development and are allied to industrial design. If you are thinking of starting an undergraduate degree in sports engineering it is really very important to know what type of course you are looking at. Is the course accredited by a professional engineering body such as the IMechE? Is this important to you? Have graduates been successful in gaining employment within the sports equipment industry? Are the skills that you will be developing on the course transferable to other sectors?
Careers in sports engineering are real but they are less abundant than in other fields of engineering. Unfortunately not all graduates will be able to find their dream job when they graduate and many will transfer to other areas. A good question to ask before you start might be; what would an employer from a different engineering sector think my sports engineering degree?
In my experience, employers look for engineering skill first and knowledge of sport thereafter. This is somewhat obvious, but alas many individuals assume that just because they love sport they have the necessary attributes to become a successful sports engineer. The reality is that sport is a competitive business and just as companies will look to the best athletes to endorse their products, they will also look to the best engineers to conduct research and development.
It is my personal opinion that it is often better to develop a broad and solid grounding in a subject area before specialising in a specific field. One should really try to understand the fundamental science in question before the application. In this respect I think that a post-graduate qualification (MSc) in sports engineering is a sensible option. Developing your core skills in a technical subject during your first degree allows you to keep your options open, and a post-graduate qualification will enhance and apply your existing knowledge base to the sporting environment.
There is no formula for becoming a sports engineer and unfortunately no university course can guarantee you success in your ambitions. Ultimately it comes down to perseverance, making the most of every opportunity, taking a chance and perhaps just a little bit of luck!
Professor David James, Managing Director, Labosport UK & Visiting Professor, Sports Engineering Research Group, Sheffield Hallam University