On Tuesday evening last week, I met Jade, Sameer, Lewis, and Ross, and seventy-two other Hallam students at an event in city campus’ new atrium. Jade, reading for an MA in International Relations and Global Crises, is a heptathlete who won a bronze medal at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games. Sameer is a BSc Nursing student who is a four times Karate World Federation Champion. Lewis, reading for an MSc in Sport Business Management also won a bronze medal at the 2022 Commonwealth Games, and is training with GB Boxing at the English Institute of Sport. Ross won bronze medals at the London, Rio and Tokyo Paralympics in Para Table Tennis. And my list could go on through the other seventy-two athletes on Hallam’s Performance Athlete Support Programme. What an evening we had: they were, all of them, fascinating and engaging, talking about the challenges and the rewards of competing at the highest level alongside their studies.

The Performance Athlete Support Programme (PASP), itself working in partnership with the national Talented Athlete Scholarship Scheme (TASS), provides support for athletes competing at national or international level across thirty different sports – from athletics to American football, from water polo to table tennis, from cycling to figure skating. As the athletes themselves told me, there’s a huge difference in the support available to different sports. For PASP, support is accessed through an application process as with wider University funding opportunities for existing and prospective students where their sporting pedigree and support needs are assessed. TASS scholars are nominated by their National Governing Bodies and determined by the national centre: beyond the seventy-six students on PASP there are a further sixteen TASS registered athletes in the University.

The demands on these elite athletes are obviously considerable: we are looking to them to excel both academically and in their sport. For this reason, the PASP, co-ordinated by Kate Cox, our Head of Physical Activity and Sport, and her team, provide a comprehensive programme of support and training. This includes a bespoke strength and conditioning programme, physiotherapy support, including screening, massage, prehab and reactive services, extensive sport psychology, lifestyle and nutrition workshops and one to one support, anti-doping guidance and financial assistance. The explicit purpose of the programme is not simply to engender successful sport performance but to prepare the participants for all of the challenges which go with performance at the very highest level: the determination and grit to persist, the mental strength required to deal not just with the long, lonely hours of training but also with what Kipling called ‘those two impostors’ – Triumph and Disaster. This means that students of the scheme are assisted during pre-arrival, enrolment and induction to ensure an effective transition into university life, that their aspirations and development needs are thoroughly assessed and to enable the support team build long-term relationships with individual athletes.

The reception on Tuesday evening was an opportunity to celebrate these elite athletes. The University has hugely developed the sophistication and range of its programme over the past few years – despite the challenges of the pandemic. In recognition of this Hallam has been awarded Sport England TASS Dual Career Accreditation, which recognises educational institutions based on their ability to support talented athletes and deliver high quality support, learning and overall outcomes for our student athletes. For me, the evening was also an opportunity to get to know our elite athletes a little better, and to unpack their stories of their journey into their sport, their early days – often being ferried very large distances for training and competition – and the rewards and challenges of success. One previous participant on the programme, returning for the evening, talked to the group movingly about the enormous disappointment which flowed when the pandemic meant the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics, wrecking his carefully planned routines which had been designed to deliver his peak performance in July 2020. Others talked to me about the different strategies they had for balancing study and training, for keeping on top of two demanding schedules simultaneously.

I’m always interested in people and their stories, and the different ways those stories intertwine with how the University shapes its work around the aspirations of its students and staff.  The much greater visibility which Kate and her team have given to PASP is hugely engaging – I’m already cheering on every single one of our performance athletes, whatever their sport. I said to each of them that I hoped they’d keep me in touch with their progress as athletes and as students. I’m delighted that as a university we are so clearly committed to ensuring a dual career pathway for student athletes wishing to combine their sporting aspirations with their academic studies

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