Why placements have become key

THE audition is daunting enough, let alone when you’re 20 years of age - a presentation in front of a panel, before you're quizzed. And the reward? A year working on the bottom rung of the ladder, often without being paid.

That is one way of framing undergraduate placements at football clubs, although they can also be the key to a career in the professional game.

The competition is fierce. Just consider the stats, laid out by Tony Strudwick, Manchester United’s head of athletic development.

“Sports science is now the most popular degree course in the UK, with 82 institutions offering subject-related courses,” he says. “Estimates are that between 9,000 and 15,000 students exit sports science undergraduate courses each year.”

The figures tally with those of James Bunce, the new director of high performance at US Soccer, who told TGG that 150,000 sports science students had graduated between the time he did, in 2007, and now.

With so many strong candidates to choose from (the entry requirements for the sports and exercise sciences course at Bath University are AAA), a successful work placement can - and often does - make the difference.

Dr Sean Cumming, senior lecturer in sport and exercise sciences at Bath University, which is famed for the way it organises placements, told TGG: “When they recruit, clubs look for good degrees, of course. But they also look for experience in the field.

“A placement is like a year-long interview. It’s a safer bet to go for someone you know is good, or someone a contact tells you is good, rather than someone unknown at a recruitment fair. The placement student will need a lot less training than their contemporary as well.”

The placements are structured and focused, so there is no risk of the student being used as a skivvy, Cumming adds.“Bath prides itself on its placements," he says. "Students do a series of assignments. We have a tutor for administration and a liaison officer too, to be the go-between with the student and the club.

"There are learning objectives and we meet the student halfway through the placement to evaluate their experience. They will also have a line manager at the institution they go to, to make sure there is regular assessment.

There is a placement conference in the third week of October, at which students returning from their own placements present. Then there will be applications to clubs and interviews (including that aforementioned presentation) before Christmas. The placement will begin at the start of the following academic year.

Some clubs do not pay their interns - which is obviously controversial when you consider the turnover of the Premier League clubs in particular and the amounts they pay their players - but Cumming says he encourages them to do so.

"More and more of the placements are paid," he says, "it could be expenses, and sometimes salary. We encourage them to pay, because it means the student will be less stressed out and better quality."

Even if the work is done gratis, Cumming insists the students will get a lot out of it.

"They learn communication, time management and organization," he says, "they return to the University so much more confident, like a different person and we usually see a rising profile in term of grades."

Bath is one of the few Universities to offer one-year full-time placements, and this could be one of the reasons why their sports science students earn, on average, £21,000 per year - or £3,000 higher than the average student who does the course elsewhere.

And 75% of them are employed within six months, which is at the top end of average too, which does back up the importance of placements.

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