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