September 4, 2019
Tell me about yourself and how you got involved in the Talented Athlete Scholarship Scheme (TASS).
I grew up in Teesside and I survived school because I was good at sport. I played rugby, cricket and I rowed but, academically, I wasn’t very good. When I finished school, I could have gone to Loughborough – the university for sports people – but decided to attend Newcastle Polytechnic [Northumbria University] to study business. I got involved in the student sports activities and when I finished my course, I got the opportunity to help develop sport at the university. I left to work for a North East-based company that was at the forefront of video analysis in sport. It was 20 years ago when performance analysis was in its infancy and we worked with the England Cricket Board and the British Lions. Unfortunately, when big names such as IBM became interested in performance analysis, we couldn’t compete and the business started to struggle. I came back to Northumbria University for a short period and then the TASS opportunity came up. It spoke to me with regards to the journey I’d been on – being a sports person who wasn’t as strong on the academic side. This was precisely the type of athlete we were looking to support.
How and why was TASS established?
After the 1996 Atlanta Olympics – when Team GB came so far down the medal table with only one gold – the Government decided to do sport properly. There was a lot of investment made and The National Lottery professionalised sport a lot. Before this, it was the universities that supported elite sports men and women. People in the sector recognised the importance of universities because they had the facilities and expertise. The idea of TASS was established in 2004 so that the university sector could be part of the sports system and support up-and-coming athletes.
What was TASS’s primary objective at that time?
The aim 15 years ago was to take the best athletes in universities and support them to combine their sport and their education. It’s a concept that’s now called ‘dual career’. Being an athlete is a fleeting part of someone’s life and they need to have opportunities at the end of that.
How do you help athletes develop a dual career?
Our ethos is simple: the education [institutions] provide the education, the coaches provide the sport and we provide the bit in the middle. We provide a package of supportive services such as strength and conditioning, physiotherapy, psychology and nutrition as well as training around time management, wellness and mental health.
Does TASS deliver these services?
No, the support is delivered by a network of around 400 practitioners based at our partner institutions across the country. TASS works with these institutions to ensure the practitioners are of the right standard and have the right qualifications.
How does someone access your services?
Sports’ governing bodies and the federations will nominate promising athletes. Athletes become TASS scholars and there are different tiers of how they can be helped, depending on what level of athlete they are, what sport they’re in, and the region they’re based. They get access to our support services and some get small financial payments for travel expenses. Each scholar is given a 12-month contract after which they need to reapply to the scheme.
Which athletes have gone through the scheme?
Most of the England women’s football team, including captain Steph Houghton, have been scholars, as have Olympians Tom Daley and Greg Rutherford. Most of the England netball team, who have just won bronze at the world championships, were supported by us, as were a lot of the women’s England basketball team who recently achieved their highest ever finish at the [EuroBasket] European championships. Also most of the men’s and women’s Team GB hockey teams.
What feedback do you get from athletes?
It’s interesting. No one stands on the podium and thanks us; it’s their mum and dad and their coach. But if you talk to them after they’ve retired – when they’re an accountant or a doctor – that’s when they see how important our support was.
Do athletes recognise the importance of developing dual careers?
Athletes live in the moment and aren’t good at thinking about their post-sporting career. They’re too focused on getting faster, stronger or better at their sport. What’s good about TASS is that we force them to think about that. You don’t get our support unless you also do the education.
How has TASS evolved over the past 15 years?
Initially, we worked solely with universities and our athletes worked towards a degree. But not everyone wants a degree. So we’ve broadened the opportunities to incorporate other pathways such as apprenticeships. Our services are still mainly delivered by universities but, for example, you could be at Gateshead College studying for a BTEC but go to Northumbria University for your support services.
In terms of our services, we now take a more holistic approach. In the past, coaching and strength and conditioning have been the core but we now look at the athlete as a whole, combining their physical training with things like wellbeing and mental health support.
What does the future hold for TASS?
Government funding in sport was very good leading up to the London 2012 Olympics but the landscape is far more challenging now. At TASS, we’ve managed to maintain our funding because we’re a cost-effective way to support athletes but we’re conscious we have to be more commercially aware. We’ve started working in partnership with the British Army to look after its up-and-coming athletes – so duel career in terms of sport and work. We’re also working with The Football Association to provide support at the Women’s Super League Academies. Consultancy is an area we’ve recently gone into and we’ve been advising the Brazilian and the Japanese governments and working with federations such as FIBA [International Basketball Federation] and FIFPro World Players’ Union.
We’re also currently looking at possibilities of extending our remit to earlier in the pathway – working with more junior athletes – or further up the pathway to more senior athletes.