Peak performance: An insight into the world of performance sport

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By Eddie McAteer, Sports Editor

Sport plays a pretty big part in the lives of a lot of students during their time at university. Whether it is watching the Six Nations in spring, visiting the gym mere hours before going out or Wednesday coach journeys for BUCS, most of us are ‘sporty’ in some way.

Some incredibly gifted students, however, take sporty to another level. These students are part of the performance sport squad, Bristol University’s elite athletes programme, and they are amongst the most promising young sportspeople in the country.

Their predecessors include Olympic gold medallists, MBE recipients and international sevens rugby players. With alumni like this it could be very easy to feel the weight of expectation, but students are well supported by a University that now consistently finishes in the top 10 in the BUCS championship.

In addition to the all-round improvements in BUCS sport, the performance squad get certain benefits that would make any young athlete jealous. For example, not only do these gifted students receive a free top-level sports membership, but they also have one-to-one strength and conditioning, nutritional and psychological guidance and their own development plan. Who wouldn’t want that sort of structure to their life?

Well, with so much structure there comes a level of commitment that many of us would struggle with. Can you imagine having to train every weekday on top of doing your degree and maintaining a social life?

During first year most students are busy going out, sleeping in and ordering dominos. Not if you are in the performance squad. Sophie Peake was in the squad last year thanks to her skill with a foil and has represented Great Britain at various fencing competitions across different age grades. The commitments of performance sport meant that she did not fit into the category of ‘most students’.

As the work starts to pile up and the training sessions get harder, the stress levels can easily start to rise.

When discussing the amount of training involved Sophie said that ‘I could be fencing until 9:30 and then get home at 10’ which meant she ‘definitely missed out on the going out side of things’. Put this into perspective; no Lounge, no Gravity and no SWX (or whatever floats your boat, maybe Thekla?). Personally, my first year would have looked very different without these clubs.

One of the additional benefits of being in the squad is that you get your own personal mentor for academic and sporting support. Full of praise for these mentors, Sophie said that they were ‘really really helpful’ because ‘they understood that your studies came first’.

Nonetheless the workload can still become too much, especially when you are someone who feels obligated to do the things on offer to you. This was where Sophie said she ‘found it pretty impossible to do both’. As the work starts to pile up and the training sessions get harder, the stress levels can easily start to rise.

Despite the stress that comes with performance sport, there clearly comes a level of self-control with it. Without this self-control it would have been very hard to even make the squad, however ‘when you know that you have a commitment, you are very disciplined’.

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That applies to the nutritional side of sport too. We all know just how important our diet is and how integral it is to athletes, so having a qualified nutritionist to guide you is a real help. Even the catered food was a weight off Sophie’s shoulders because it ‘ticked all the nutrition boxes’, allowing her a little relaxation in a relatively unrelaxed world.

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Despite the aid provided by the programme, Sophie decided to step back from performance sport and now only competes at a BUCS level. Her experiences give us just a small insight into the dedication, time and skill required to participate at this level. I for one know that I would struggle to do what the performance squad do on a daily basis.

Featured image: Keanu Koekemoer

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