The benefits of giving students a sporting chance

Steve Wright hears how four universities have recently augmented their sporting offer – with immediate and eye-catching results

They are serious about sport at the University of South Wales (USW). So serious, in fact, that USW recently invested in a first-class performance facility to boost what was already an impressive sports offering.

With 12 pitches on site at its existing facility, USW did not take the decision to expand lightly. But the new, rugby- and football-focused Sport Park, with its specialist centre for strength and conditioning and full-size indoor 3G pitch built to both Fifa Pro and World Rugby 22 standards, has had an immediate impact.

“We need to keep our portfolio of facilities up to date, to ensure students get the best learning environment,” explained Steve Savage, USW Sport Park Manager. “The new Sport Park guarantees training all year round for our rugby, football and coaching students. We are the only university in England and Wales to offer this facility.”

The facility also features a notational analysis suite and over 30 acres of playing fields, including five floodlit pitches. Elsewhere, its architectural membrane roof allows natural light to filter inside. As Steve said: “It’s almost like training outdoors, only without the bad weather.”

The indoor pitch (above) was created by national sports facility specialists Collinson. Spanning 69 metres by 105 metres in length, it was Collinson’s biggest structural footprint to date. “Part of my role was to make the facility aspirational,” Steve explained.

“We’ve got to inspire students to come in and go away feeling positive about sport. That’s the whole point of great facilities, to get them to engage more in their studies and do well in education, then go and get jobs in the industry.”

USW already enjoys a fine reputation for sporting excellence, with key partnerships with the Welsh FA and Welsh Football Trust. “We’ve got a good reputation in the UK, particularly for football, because of the amount of students who originate from us that are now working for professional teams as managers and assistant managers,” Steve explained.

Continuing this tradition, the new facility has already become the training base for the Wales women’s football under-17s, under-19s, and senior teams’ performance squads. The facilities are also regularly used by professional teams such as Cardiff City FC.

Some 170 miles further north is Platfform 81, Bangor University’s new performance centre, home to both young and seasoned weightlifting champions. The state-of-the-art facility is bringing members of the local community into Bangor University’s sports facilities at Canolfan Brailsford, as well as providing a valuable resource to the University’s own sports clubs and societies, students and local competing athletes.

Among the weightlifters using Platfform 81 are several preparing for the Commonwealth Games, including British youth record holder and Welsh champion Catrin Jones. Other regulars include British record holder and Olympian Gareth Evans and Welsh champion Seth Casidsid (both staff members), plus British record holder Hannah Powell and Bangor University Sports Science student and Welsh record holder Harry Misangyi.

Fitness Manager Dave Jones believes that Bangor’s is the best-resourced performance gym in North Wales (above). It features six weightlifting platforms integrated into the floor, another 9-metre x 1-metre platform also integrated into the floor, and three more standalone weightlifting platforms, although the cushioned flooring in fact renders the entire space suitable for using weights. The facility also includes a 20-metre track, wall-mounted rig, assault bikes, power racks and Olympic bars and weights.

When all this is added to the existing resources (two main halls, four fitness rooms plus one satellite gym, spin studio, fitness class studio, squash courts, climbing wall and two tennis and netball courts), Dave and his team believe that their resources are unrivalled in Wales.

No surprise, then, that Platfform 81 has already – in its first year – become the recognised National Training Centre for Welsh weightlifting.

Bangor students living in University Halls receive a gym membership as part of their rent, while all Bangor students benefit from free membership to student clubs and societies. Richard Bennett, Director of Commercial Services, explained: “Following the launch of free clubs and societies for students in 2012, we have continued to invest in top-class facilities to ensure that students and staff can access physical activity in a format that suits them – from competitive sport through to no-commitment turn-up and play sessions.”

The biggest recent change to the sporting offer at the University of Sussex has been one of ideas and initiatives, not bricks and mortar. Sussexsport’s This Sussex Girl Can (TSGC) campaign began back in 2015 as a week-long campaign to engage more women (students and staff) on campus to get active. The scheme has now matured into a year-round programme that includes twice-weekly women-only circuits classes. It’s proving extremely popular, too: more than 500 women participated in a special suite of TSGC activities during a campaign week in November 2017.

Drawing on the success of Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign (above), TSGC aims to address a gender participation gap in physical activity, in evidence both at the University and across the UK. “The gap in participation mirrors the gap nationally in the levels of engagement in sport, fitness and wellbeing activities between men and women, with some 7.4% fewer women active on campus,” said Sussexsport’s Active US Participation Coordinator, Marc Slowey.

“So the question was, ‘how can we empower, motivate and encourage more women on campus? How can we make this local to Sussex and bring in our campus values, aesthetic and understanding of our students and staff to create our own local version of the campaign?’

“Sussex is known for being different – so This Sussex Girl Can was looking to embody our University values and be bold, authentic, spirited and diverse too. We deliberately chose non-traditional sporting activities that didn’t conform to gender expectations or challenged typical ideas of ‘sport’ – weightlifting, UV Zumba Rave and UV Indoor Cycling (Spin), Outdoor Fit sessions, Triple Trial Boxercise Masterclass – in addition to many more free sessions of martial arts, basketball, running, trampoline, bouldering, cricket and so forth. We also deliberately avoided an overt ‘sport’ language, focusing instead on activity, fun and friendship.

“‘Feeling good’, over looking good or developing skills, was given as the main motivator for exercise by respondents to our survey, indicating that a sense of physical and mental wellbeing was most important to our target group. This will feed into our future delivery. This Sussex Girl Can has enabled us to bridge the gender participation gap at the University, while helping our female elite athletes promote the success they achieve throughout the year and inspire others. This programme is only going to keep growing – and Sussex is now helping other universities with their engagement programmes for women.”

Elsewhere, Birmingham City University (BCU) has also augmented its sporting offer of late, both in terms of the built environment and the activities it can offer within those new buildings. BCU has recently unveiled a suite of new courses in sports and exercise science, as it prepares to open the doors to a new £41m Health Sciences and Education building (below).

The new programmes, all on stream since September 2017, include BSc Sports Therapy, Physical Education and School Sport, Sport and Exercise Nutrition and Sport and Exercise Science.

The popular courses form part of the University’s School of Health Sciences and are based at the institution’s City South Campus located in Edgbaston, on the border of central Birmingham. City South Campus has also been extending its size to make room for additional provision, with new purpose-built teaching rooms created for these new academic subjects. The facilities in the 10,500 sq m extension include a sports therapy teaching space, sports therapy clinic, nutrition science labs for practical experience, sport science laboratories – including an environmental chamber – and a three-court sports hall.

Dr Natalie Walker, Head of Department for Sport and Exercise in the School of Health Sciences, said: “We are working to make sure that these new courses deliver the highest possible teaching and learning quality with the ultimate aim of enhancing the student experience and employability opportunities.

“By expanding our provision to these new areas, we will be helping to tackle some of the biggest challenges facing society today, such as a lack of adherence to physical activity and engaging in unhealthy lifestyles. We will also be producing graduates who can support elite performers in meeting the UK’s ambitions for sporting success at events such as the Olympics.”

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