Circus skills prove ideal for strength and conditioning

Joel Brannigan heads up Strength and Conditioning at Northumbria University Sport and is a TASS accredited S&C lead in the North East of England. Earlier this year he tapped into the TASS CPD fund to discover how the circus performers of tomorrow learn their trade.

TASS: What prompted you to look at S&C from the perspective of students training to become circus performers?

JOEL BRANNIGAN: As far as S&C is concerned 90% of what we do as practitioners doesn’t really change. Where it can differ is with individual athletes and institutions that don’t necessarily work with ‘athletes’. I’ve got a friend called Arran Peck whose work I really admire. He’s been employed by the Lawn Tennis Association and at the English Institute for Sport and is the current head of physical development at the National Centre for Circus Arts (NCCA). He was happy to host me down there.

TASS: Tell us more about the NCCA…

JB: It’s an academic institution and its students work towards a degree in performing arts. There’s a strong connection with Cirque du Soleil and a lot of their tutors have performed there. They cover all of the different performing arts and I was able to observe trapeze artists, jugglers and performers who work with silks. The courses focus on a wide range of skills from ropes to acrobalance and trapeze to hoop work. Students can learn a wide range of relevant skills but in the past the part that was missing was S&C – like any athletes aspiring circus performers still get injured and need to build up their core strength, learn how to recover more quickly and limit the likelihood of future injuries.

TASS: Did you discover a significant crossover between the performing arts and sport from an S&C perspective?

JB: As an example, I work with a ski cross athlete at Northumbria University and I found a lot of what they do at the NCCA relevant to her sport. There’s definitely a crossover in terms of some of the more jump-based, acrobatic work that the circus performers undertake. It was really interesting to spend time down there – probably more so than if I’d spent a day at another sporting institution. The performers don’t see what they’re doing as an athletic pursuit and yet the parallels are obvious to me. I’ve seen it in the past when dancers or people who work in ballet want to distance themselves from sport and from athletes and yet there’s so much that both groups can learn from each other.

Image by Bertil Nilsson for the National Centre for Circus Arts

TASS: Do the performing arts students tackle their work with a different mindset to athletes?

JB: It was quite interesting to see how the students’ approaches and attitudes differ to those of sportsmen and women even though they face many of the same challenges. What fascinated me was the multiple personalities and abilities all under one roof. With S&C, one size doesn’t fit all but in terms of what these performers need to do with regards to their bodies it’s no different to anywhere else. I suppose I was able to help to fill in some of the areas that they hadn’t necessarily considered. The NCCA is home to many unique individuals with unique personalities and perspectives – rightly or wrongly the sporting environment doesn’t necessarily lend itself to those same personalities.

TASS: How hands-on was your trip to the NCCA?

JB: I managed to do a little bit of everything – from watching the students work and perform in their own environment to talking to them about the academic side of things. I assisted in a few training sessions and gained an invaluable insight into a typical day.

TASS: Is the learning environment conducive to effective coaching?

JB: The groups are relatively small – probably 15-20 at any one time depending on the intake that year. Where the NCCA is based is the former Shoreditch Electric Light Station in Hoxton. It’s a fantastic space for the students and there’s a real range of nationalities based there which, from my perspective, added to the enjoyment factor. Due to the range of students, their abilities, specialisms and backgrounds the NCCA takes a slightly different but more flexible approach to S&C.


TASS: How important is CPD and how valuable is the TASS CPD fund to practitioners within the network?

JB: I’m a big fan of CPD but as you get older and more experienced it should be about more than attending courses. Those courses and qualifications are your bricks and mortar when you start out but increasingly it’s about tapping into different environments and experiencing different approaches using a network of contacts. In the S&C world, effective and meaningful CPD is still a big carrot – people involved in S&C still want to learn and it’s a very open environment in terms of sharing best practice. Practitioners are happy to appraise colleagues and to be appraised by colleagues and the TASS CPD fund facilitates that idea of shared learning.

If you’re a TASS practitioner who would like more information about CPD opportunities, please contact