Sport & Fitness

Dame Kelly Holmes is the most recent example of a high-profile British athlete whose sporting career began in the Armed Forces. What career opportunities arise from the military emphasis on fitness and sport?

Fitness is at the heart of the UK’s Armed Forces. To do their job efficiently and effectively, all military personnel need to embody “mens sana in corpore sano” – a sound mind in a sound body. So, it’s surely no surprise that sport plays a great part in military lives – not only as a fun way of unwinding and improving physical fitness, but also as a means of honing teamwork skills.

For a select few, the Armed Forces can even provide the foundation for a civilian sporting career played out at the highest international level. For many more, however, the Armed Forces can lead to a successful civilian career in sports and fitness. Indeed, according to Major Robin Cope, the founder of British Military Fitness – a company which organises military-style fitness classes in local parks across the UK – the path from Armed Forces to sports and fitness is “a well known route for people to go”.

Andree Dean of the Fitness Industry Association (FIA) agrees, insisting that “in terms of leadership quality, either in large classes or one-to-one as a personal trainer, military-honed skills are absolutely and ideally compatible with the fitness industry”. So, prospects look good if you’re thinking about this kind of civilian career; sport and fitness are increasingly big business!

According to the FIA, more than one in eight adults (that’s over seven million people) are registered gym members. Indeed, sports and fitness already employ some 621,000 people, a figure which SkillsActive – the Sector Skills Council for Active Leisure and Learning – fully expects to rise to 750,000 by 2008. In addition millions of pounds of public funds continue to be poured into sports and physical exercise every year. Partly, this is investment designed to find and nurture the UK’s elite athletes of the future, but it is also part of the Government’s ongoing goal to improve the general health of the nation – the last 25 years have seen significant increases in the frequency of obesity-related diseases!

Following in the footsteps of the likes of Kelly Holmes is, of course, the reality for only a very small minority of people who have the dedication, passion and innate talent and ability required to be an athlete competing at the top levels of their sport. Even with all those elements, however, a successful sporting career is by no means guaranteed: even Kelly Holmes’ path to double Gold at the Athens Olympics was marred by injury and illness. That’s why, regardless of your competitive goals, it’s a good idea to earn the kind of civilian-recognised qualifications that lead to a longer-term career – such as the many roles that provide the vital support any athlete needs to reach their fullest potential – coaches, physiotherapists, psychologists, dieticians, etc.

Certainly, if you’ve already enjoyed notable success in sporting competition whilst in the Armed Forces, don’t dismiss taking it further in civilian life, though it might be difficult if you don’t have a sympathetic employer that allows you to keep to your training regime. For more information about player development and ‘talent identification’, contact UK Sport or the National Governing Bodies of your particular sport.

The Health and Fitness Sector focuses on the supervision of exercise and physical activity in a controlled environment, with now thousands of public and private fitness clubs, leisure centres and gyms now open for business. As a result, there is an increasing demand for skilled exercise professionals to fill the growing number of vacancies in this dynamic sector.

In the last few years, the establishment of the Register of Exercise Professionals (REP) has helped establish new standards of qualifications, practical competency, an emphasis on continuing professional development (CPD) and an agreed code of ethical practice. The REP – which currently has three different levels of membership, closely aligned with standards of vocational qualification – already has over 26,000 members. Indeed, according to Register Manager Alison Frater, “All the major employers in the sector want their instructors to be registered with us. In some it’s a prerequisite of employment within a large gym or fitness facility.”

Each of the Armed Forces, including the Royal Marines, are responsible for the training of their own Physical Training Instructors (PTIs), Physical Education Officers (PEdOs), coaches and other officials. In recent years, there has been a concerted effort made to ensure that fitness instruction qualifications earned whilst in the Services are matched with the national occupational standards now agreed and set by civilian sporting and fitness bodies.

So, for instance, any qualified PTI in the Services who is considering remaining a PTI in civvy street will have no difficulty when it comes to registering themselves with the REP. Indeed, while Army, Marine and Navy still go by their own qualifications, all PTIs in the RAF actually undertake City & Guild qualifications no different from those set for civilians. Alison told us, “We certainly recognise military-earned fitness qualifications. The Registrar Cliff Collins has done a lot of work with the British Army, the RAF and the Royal Marines. So, if somebody is a PTI Class 1 in the Army – is an advanced instructor – they’ll come onto the Register at the top level, what we call Level 3 – equivalent of a Level 3 National or Scottish Vocational Qualification. At the moment, the Royal Navy has not yet been formally endorsed by the REP, although we would certainly give any Naval PTI a provisional entry onto the Register.”

If you’re only now considering beginning to work in the fitness sector, Alison recommends that you first of all contact the Register or check out its website. “We list training providers who have had their training endorsed by Skillactive, the relevant Sector Skills Council for the fitness industry. The endorsed qualifications are the ones that employers will recognise.”

To ensure successful registration with the REP, however, you will need to provide them with three things: evidence of a qualification from an approved training provider; a certificate proving competency in Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and first aid; and evidence of public liability insurance (covering your legal liability for death, injury or illness to others and loss or damage to, third party property). According to Alison, anyone with a military background will have no problem with certainly the second element, as all military personnel will have some current CPR training. Insurance cover, meantime, is often provided by larger employers or is available through many companies and, of course, the Register itself. Please note that Membership of the Register is annual, and the renewal process will require evidence that you have completed some degree of continuing professional development.

Sports coaching can focus on the needs of anyone from a beginner to an elite performer; indeed, it covers people of all ages and abilities, both within team and individual sports. Regardless of the context, however – be it a kids club at the local sports centre or an athlete aiming at Olympic selection – coaches work closely with individuals and groups to ensure they have the best physical, psychological and practical conditions to allow them to perform their best. Clearly, this is a role that demands good interpersonal skills and a strong interest in helping others to succeed – both often prized skills held by those leaving the Armed Forces.

Although most coaching in the UK is still on a voluntary basis, there is a growth in paid part-time or freelance opportunities as attempts are made to increase the quality of coaching now available. The new UK Coaching Certificate (UKCC) being introduced this year is a new civilian, Government-sponsored initiative which aims to “improve the quality and standing of coaching” that is “vital to the development of sport and individuals”. Its criteria include:

The endorsement of the coaching qualification a coach will take;

The development of appropriate resources to deliver effective and high quality coach education programmes;

Quality assured administration and management structure of coach education provision provided by sports; and

Quality assured training provision of coach education.

Given the wide range of sports around, it’s only to be expected that each individual Governing Body of Sport will have their own coach training and education system. However, the overall aim of the UKCC is to both build on existing good practice in coaching training and to ensure equivalence of qualifications across a wide range of sports.

There are also an increasing range of opportunities for active coaches working in schools, clubs and community projects.

Sports and fitness are by no means the highest paid professions in the world – a fitness instructor may only earn around £12K, while a gym manager may only be on £14K. However, according to the FIA’s Andree Dean, sports and fitness offer some compensation in being “an incredibly flexible career”; in common with other customer-orientated parts of the leisure industries, there are “plenty of opportunities for part-time work as well as those wishing to build a full-time career, whether it’s as a sports therapist or gym manager”.

There remains a real trust in a military background, at least when it comes to matters of sport and fitness. So, why not take advantage of the “discipline, motivation and good leadership” honed by your time in HM Armed Forces, and get your share of one of the UK’s biggest industries!


Sport England
Tel: 08458 508508

Tel: 0131 317 7200

Sports Council for Wales
Tel: 029 2030 0500

Sports Council for Northern Ireland
Tel: 028 9038 1222

Register of Exercise Professionals
Tel: 020 8686 6464

Sportscoach UK
Tel: 0113 274 4802

Fitness Industry Association
Tel: 020 7202 4700

Talented Athlete Scholarship Scheme (TASS)
Tel: 0191 243 7356

UK Sport
Tel: 020 7211 5100