Thursday 22 February 2018

Social input of athletes should be recognised

Ireland needs a formal support system for players in all codes

The damning report by the investigative committee of the Ladies’ Gaelic Football Association was presented to delegates at a meeting of its Central Council in Tullamore this week
The damning report by the investigative committee of the Ladies’ Gaelic Football Association was presented to delegates at a meeting of its Central Council in Tullamore this week

Patrick McGarty

Every year, the start of the GAA championships reminds us how the importance of sport to Ireland's culture is demonstrated each weekend from May to late September.

Sport, from foundation to elite level, plays a fundamental role in the development of all civil societies across the world. But despite the sense of enjoyment, achievement and pride that it brings to participants and spectators alike, many young elite athletes in Ireland are placed under increasing pressure to balance a demanding sports schedule with preparation for a career outside of the sporting arena.

Behind the joys and sorrows of achievement on the field of play, there is increasing evidence of the sacrifice that young elite athletes endure for the love of their sport. Unfortunately, many athletes sacrifice career and education in their quest for sporting success without looking at their long-term personal and professional development. Research has consistently demonstrated that athletes with a balanced lifestyle that is not entirely sports-focused are more likely to achieve personal and sporting goals, and are able to deal with stress encountered on a periodic basis throughout their sporting careers.

In essence, education and career development running concurrently with a sporting career not only prepares an athlete for the post-athletic phase of their life, but it can also enhance sporting performance. Unlike many international countries, Ireland has no formal co-ordinated support systems in place among its education providers to aid the journey of a young athlete.

Across the 27 EU member states a wide array of elite athlete education support systems exist, ranging from defined legal obligations in France and Spain to informal negotiated education arrangements by sports governing bodies and athlete advocates in Britain and Greece. Many countries have few or no formal structures in place, and any arrangements are individually negotiated between an athlete and an education provider.

This laissez faire category is broad, ranging from education providers with very proactive policies and support systems, to those with rigid and inflexible systems. While many colleges provide some level of financial support to some athletes who compete on the national and international stage, it is minimal compared to their European counterparts. A small number of colleges also provide comprehensive support systems to carded elite athletes that includes academic, medical and nutrition support. Unfortunately, this number will remain small, as Irish education policy has failed to develop a co-ordinated system of supports across its third-level sector for young student elite athletes.

Some of the reasons may include the Irish definition of an elite athlete. In most countries, elite athletes are defined as athletes who compete at the highest level in their chosen sport, and who possess identifiable potential for further improvement. In Ireland, many athletes in this category are carded by the Irish Sports Council and compete at European, World, Olympic and Paralympic level. Typically, these sportsmen and women receive grant aid, and engage with education/career development on a part-time basis in individually negotiated programmes of study.

Ireland has a unique sporting landscape with inter-county footballers and hurlers who are amateur elite athletes competing at the highest available level in their chosen sport. As everyone knows, we see them now adhering to a training and lifestyle regime that often resembles the schedule of full-time professional sportsmen and women. But unlike full-time professionals, this cohort have employment and education responsibilities that they must manage alongside a demanding playing career.

Such a context places increasing pressure on this group. The recently published report Never Enough Time by the Gaelic Players' Association demonstrates that a large cohort of its members are overwhelmed by their multiple commitments to education and sport. A picture emerges of endless travel, team commitments and academic underachievement. These young athletes are forced to choose between maximising their sporting and education potential.

Anecdotal evidence would suggest that this trend is also evident among elite amateur athletes playing soccer, rugby and basketball at national level. These patterns raise serious questions about the lifestyles of our young elite athletes, and the expectations of the sporting public and wider society.

Instead of paying lip service, there is an urgent need for a co-ordinated policy initiative between education providers, sports governing bodies and player representative associations. In following international best practice, the goal should be to provide a co-ordinated system of supports in colleges for all elite athletes who compete at the highest levels in their respective sports. Low-cost/no-cost policy initiatives such as no financial penalisation of students who complete a programme of study over an extended period is an example of a simple solution that would alleviate pressure and dramatically reduce exam failure and non-completion rates.

Policy-makers must realise that athletes act on a continuous basis as role models for young people, and their contribution to the social and economic fabric of Irish society is underestimated. Of fundamental importance is the need to ensure that the substantial commitment made to sport by young elite athletes is not done at the expense of their off-field development. Let us finally take the initiative in Ireland, and recognise the contribution that this unique group of young men and women make to Irish society.

Patrick McGarty is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Health and Social Sciences at the Institute of Technology Tralee

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