Sup­ports needed to en­sure elite ath­letes don’t miss out on ca­reer suc­cess

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - GENERAL / RUGBY - PA­TRICK McGARTY Pa­trick McGarty is a Se­nior Lec­turer in the School of Health and So­cial Sciences at In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy, Tralee

THE Ir­ish sum­mer of 2018 will for­ever be marked by two ma­jor high­lights — un­prece­dented warm weather and a se­ries of out­stand­ing sport­ing per­for­mances. On top of a never-to-be for­got­ten All-Ire­land hurl­ing cham­pi­onship, we have wit­nessed our high-per­form­ing ath­letes in women’s hockey, Par­a­lympic swim­ming, cere­bral palsy soc­cer, row­ing, gym­nas­tics and ath­let­ics cap­ti­vat­ing the coun­try’s at­ten­tion with their sport­ing ex­ploits.

Our suc­cess at the hockey World Cup led to de­bate and dis­cus­sion on lev­els of gov­ern­ment sup­port for our high-per­form­ing ath­letes. While re­cent gov­ern­ment com­mit­ment to in­creased fund­ing is wel­come, of more con­cern is the on­go­ing pres­sure on th­ese ath­letes to bal­ance sports sched­ules with ca­reer and ed­u­ca­tion de­mands. For many sports­peo­ple, a pic­ture emerges of end­less travel, team com­mit­ments and a lack of ca­reer de­vel­op­ment.

Be­hind the scenes of un­bri­dled joy for the win­ners and dis­ap­point­ment for the losers, many ath­letes en­dure fi­nan­cial and ca­reer sac­ri­fices to pur­sue their sport­ing dreams.

Iron­i­cally, as many ath­letes put ca­reers and ed­u­ca­tion on hold, re­search in­di­cates that those ath­letes with a bal­anced life­style that is not en­tirely sports-fo­cused are more likely to achieve both per­sonal and sport­ing goals. A proper struc­ture that in­cor­po­rates ed­u­ca­tion and ca­reer de­vel­op­ment as an im­por­tant el­e­ment of a sport­ing ca­reer not only pre­pares an ath­lete for the post-ath­letic phase of their lives, but it can also en­hance sport­ing per­for­mance.

At in­sti­tu­tional level, the In­ter­na­tional Olympic Com­mit­tee (IOC) has recog­nised the im­por­tance of the need to pro­mote good prac­tice with the de­vel­op­ment of an ini­tia­tive that is specif­i­cally de­signed to pre­pare high-per­form­ing ath­letes for tran­si­tion into a ca­reer af­ter they re­tire from their sport.

At a sports pol­icy de­vel­op­ment level, this need has also been ac­knowl­edged by many na­tions where a wide ar­ray of ed­u­ca­tion sup­port sys­tems have been es­tab­lished. Across EU mem­ber states, th­ese range from clearly de­fined le­gal obli­ga­tions in France and Spain to in­for­mal ed­u­ca­tion ar­range­ments by sports gov­ern­ing bod­ies and ath­lete ad­vo­cates in Bri­tain and Greece.

Un­for­tu­nately, de­spite the work of the In­sti­tute of Sport’s Ath­lete Ad­vi­sory Ser­vice, Ire­land has no for­mal co-or­di­nated sup­port sys­tems in place among its third-level ed­u­ca­tion providers to aid a young ath­lete through the ed­u­ca­tion jour­ney. While some Ir­ish col­leges pro­vide cer­tain lev­els of fi­nan­cial and schol­ar­ship sup­port to high-per­form­ing ath­letes, our ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem is rigid and in­flex­i­ble in the pro­vi­sion of pro­grammes of study for elite ath­letes.

The typ­i­cal ar­range­ment for a high-per­form­ing Ir­ish ath­lete would be to en­gage with ed­u­ca­tion/ca­reer de­vel­op­ment on a part-time ba­sis in an in­di­vid­u­ally ne­go­ti­ated pro­gramme of study. Such ar­range­ments very of­ten de­pend on the good­will of in­di­vid­ual col­leges, in­stead of a trans­par­ent pol­icy ap­proach across our third-level ed­u­ca­tion sec­tor.

In con­trast, many Euro­pean coun­tries have clearly de­fined poli­cies that per­mit stu­dent-ath­letes to main­tain their stu­dent sta­tus for an un­lim­ited amount of time. This ar­range­ment al­lows an elite ath­lete to set aside their stud­ies to train in­ten­sively and take part in com­pe­ti­tion. At cer­tain in­ter­vals in their sport­ing ca­reer, the ath­lete can re­turn to his/her col­lege to con­tinue their pro­gramme of study.

If we wish to recog­nise the com­mit­ment and con­tri­bu­tion of our high-per­form­ing ath­letes, there is an ur­gent re­quire­ment that sup­port struc­tures are fully in­te­grated in the sport, ed­u­ca­tional and life­style sys­tems of Ir­ish ath­letes rather than re­main­ing iso­lated out­side the con­text of sport.

For such an ini­tia­tive to suc­ceed, the en­gage­ment of a wide range of stake­hold­ers from ath­letes, coaches, na­tional gov­ern­ing bod­ies of sport (NGBs), ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions and gov­ern­ment is re­quired. A sim­ple start­ing point would be for Ir­ish third-level col­leges to fol­low the lead of many of their Euro­pean coun­ter­parts in de­vel­op­ing a sec­tor-wide pol­icy for the ed­u­ca­tional and ca­reer de­vel­op­ment of our elite ath­letes.

As a na­tion, we need to en­sure that the sub­stan­tial com­mit­ment made to sport by our ath­letes is not done at the ex­pense of their off-field de­vel­op­ment. Th­ese highly tal­ented men and women not only act as role mod­els, but con­trib­ute so much to the so­cial and eco­nomic fab­ric of our so­ci­ety.

Let us fi­nally fol­low in­ter­na­tional best prac­tice, and take the ini­tia­tive in the recog­ni­tion of their valu­able and unique con­tri­bu­tion.

Other coun­tries have clearly de­fined poli­cies

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