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Career profile: Sports engineer

Career profile: Sports engineerFootwear built for speed, tennis rackets that produce the perfect spin and ‘fastskin’ swimming costumes – top athletes rely on cutting edge equipment created by engineers and scientists.

A what?

Sports engineering is about the design and optimisation of the equipment that athletes use. The field is very broad and encompasses many different disciplines. From improving the hull design of a racing yacht, to understanding the mechanics of cricket ball bounce.

Being good at sport is not necessary, but a good aptitude for science is essential. The sports engineer requires expertise in many technical skills; from mechanical design to aerodynamics, material science to computer modelling. Most of these skills are very similar to those of a mechanical engineer; indeed many successful sports engineers take their first degree in mechanical engineering. However, there are now over 20 different universities in the UK that offer specific degree programmes in sports engineering or sports technology. These degree programmes equip the student with both general engineering skills and the essential experience of sporting case studies. You may study biomechanics, anatomy, exercise physiology and sports psychology and you’ll certainly have to develop analytical skills and expertise in scientific enquiry.

You could end up designing equipment or working with athletes to understand their interaction with the equipment and help them improve their performance. You could even work with governing bodies to assess the effects of a change in the rules or understand injury risks and how to reduce them.

Sport engineers are responsible, for example, for the introduction of a new type of goalkeeper’s glove. It is made using a complex elastomeric compound discovered and developed at the University of Hertfordshire, called d3o. It is a shear-thickening material which is soft and flexible when moved slowly, but when it is moved fast — for example, when compressed by an impact — its molecules lock together. The material stiffens, absorbing the impact thus providing shock absorption which protects the goalies hands without compromising the flexibility of the glove.

How do I get there?

One way to get into this sort of work is to do an engineering degree. To get into this type of course at university, you normally need five GCSEs/S grades (A-C/1-3), and a minimum of two A levels or the equivalent, including maths and/or engineering science/physics.

Another option is to go in at technician level. To do this you need to do an apprenticeship or a National diploma in engineering. Students may then be offered the opportunity to train at a higher level.

Future prospects

Sports engineering is a constantly growing area, as people look to technology to improve performance, so someone with the right skills and qualifications should have a good chance of getting a job. Salaries range between £18,000 a year and over £50,000 depending on where you live and your level of experience.

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