Supporting the Dual Careers of Student Athletes in Ireland – Gary Ryan

Recently one of the greatest Irish athletes of all time wrote an article in the Irish Times, suggesting that, the best route for Irish athletes was still the US Scholarship system Sonia made some good points about the level of competition that is available to young Irish athletes and the skills they can learn from that level of competition. The article was looking at the athlete pathway from one perspective, that of the sport, and not of the academic part of the athletes life. That concept of a Dual Career athlete is something that the University of Limerick is keen to pursue and develop as part of our strategy to become a “world leading campus for the practise and research of sport”. The dual career concept is something wholly supported by the European Union   and is a priority area for the Erasmus + Sport research funding mechanism.

UL launched a new sports scholarship programme in 2016 and while we aren’t there yet we are hoping to develop this into a true dual career support programme that provides the best opportunity for athletes to succeed in both sporting and academic careers. Our track record is already really good in this area but we are hoping to create a more integrated system that sustains that success in the long term. We have already applied, with a broad range of European partners Erasmus + funding for a Dual Career athlete project to support athlete transitions to University and we are developing policy within the University to support our athletes on campus. Ours is a holistic approach, you can have very successful sporting and academic careers side by side. Part of the Dual career concept is partly around flexible approaches to study but mainly about providing support to manage and plan appropriately. It’s important for athletes and coaches to remember that the degree they will earn at the end of their college career will be the same as their classmate and therefore must be of the same value and standard. A swim coach would never expect one of his athletes to do half the training and still make the Olympics, equally there are no shortcuts to academic excellence just smart approaches. This has to be one of the hallmarks of UL and the Irish system if it is to succeed as a pathway for Irish sportspeople, the equal value we place on their dual successes and efforts.

High performance sport is driven by one thing, results. The metrics that Sport Ireland, place on their NGBs are not the medals won by athletes with an first class honours, it is just medals, plain and simple. So coaches and NGBS are going to advise their athletes to go where they have the best chance of winning on the track or in the pool. But here’s a fact to maybe dispel the far away fields In Track and Field Ireland has won 30 senior individual major championship medals since 2000. Of those only 6 came through the American Collegiate system and the vast majority of winners of the 24 other medals, all earned third level degrees in Ireland, and many of them went on to study at postgraduate level. Additionally Ireland has won 12 Olympic medals, in all sports, since Sonia’s fantastic Silver in Sydney, every one of those was from an athlete based in Ireland.

So the evidence is clear, we are capable of living, training, studying and training in Ireland. But we have a lot to do to make the system better to support dual careers in Ireland. That involves a tripartite approach, from the third level sector, Sport Ireland and National Governing Bodies. Each has a role to play but those roles must be played hand in glove and that will enquire a radical shift in thinking and the development of some active and engaged partnerships based around third level institutions. It’s actually a pretty simple calculation. We have to try and retain the talent pool of athletes we do develop at juvenile age groups in all sports, and to do that we need a joined up approach, not only in terms of coaching and academics but in supporting the transitions from home and school to University and from University to career. That first transition can be a wasteland for talent, the changes to coaching, study and personal support systems is seismic and that is where we need to have clear and unified roles for the key influencers in a systematic way for our top young athletes. UL Beo has made submissions to both the Department of Transport Tourism and Sport and to Sport Ireland in the past 6 months which outline our belief that a partnership model between key third level institutions and Sport Ireland and NGB’s is critical to the future of Irish High performance sport and Irish Athletes.

There is a lot to that transition to University, and we will return to that in a future article, but UL Beo believes that the University of Limerick is well positioned to support the academic, social, personal and sporting needs of young athletes coming to University but we do need a stronger partnership with those whose core business is sport performance.

UL Beo is an initiative from the University of Limerick to support projects in Sport Physical Activity and Health.

To find out more about the kind of projects that UL Beo is involved in see our annual report from 2016

Gary Ryan is the UL Beo Project Manager here at the University of Limerick.

Gary’s Email:


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