Education Model for Parents of Athletes In Academics (EMPATIA) – Gary Ryan

In January of this year, the Department of Transport Tourism and Sport sought contributions from organisations and the public to a consultation paper on a framework for a National Sports Policy.  A team from PESS and UL Beo made a detailed contribution (which will be the subject of another blog) part of which spoke about the importance of the HEI sector in the development of elite athletes. In recent years we have seen that the majority of athletes, across all sports, on Irish Olympic teams were domestically based and were either current or recent students of an Irish third level. Anecdotally this would also be the experience of most European High Performance sports systems. While we await the development of a National Sports policy, it remains clear to UL Beo that stronger partnerships between national sporting organisations and governing bodies with HEI’s in supporting students and coaches as well as research and teaching, would contribute enormously to individuals within the system as well as the overall outcomes for Irish Sport with our limited capacity and resources.

Just one aspect of this, is supporting the holistic development of athletes, and supporting both aspects of, what is known as, their dual career. In 2007 the European Commission recognised the importance of the dual careers of European talented elite athletes by issuing guidelines for athletes, educational institutions and employers in the area.  See guidelines here.

Europe’s commitment to supporting dual careers further manifests itself in the fact that this area is one of the priority areas for the Erasmus + funding (Sport Collaborative Programmes). PESS and UL Beo (Dr. Ciarán MacDonnacha, Dr. Giles Warrington, Gary Ryan and adjunct Prof. David Lavelle) were invited to join a consortium to apply for Erasmus + funding last May along with nine other partners from 6 European states. The partners are a mix of national sporting institutes and Universities who proposed developing an Educational programme for the parents of elite athletes approaching and through the critical transition from 2nd to 3rd level education.

The application was successful and €400,000 has been awarded for a 3-year period to develop and disseminate the educational and research programme.

Essentially, the premise of the research is that while the support of dual careers is a multi- faceted domain with a multiplicity of stakeholders, the most critical and consistent influencers are most likely to be parents in this period of an athlete’s life. Positive parental influence might be emotional, financial, social support and encouragement that  is deemed crucial to athlete’s motivation and success in combining sport and education, whereas negative parental attitudes might put athletes at risk of psychosocial challenges, and sport or academic dropouts (Tamminen, Holt, & Crocker, 2012; Wuerth, Lee, & Alfermann, 2004; Wylleman, DeKnop, Ewing, & Cumming, 2000).

The EMPATIA programme will be based on research data on dual career parenting in Europe which the team will collect through a process of concept mapping, workshops and focus groups that will;

  • Highlight the actual knowledge gap amongst parents in the area and collect eminence-base knowledge on parents’ experiences, perceptions opinions and needs in supporting athletes as students, as well as competences acquired through formal, non-formal and informal (sports) education career.
  • develop a conceptual framework of dual career parenting.
  • develop a dual career parenting education programme.

This will the allow the international team to:

  • target a high number of parents of dual career athletes from different sports and academic contexts, enabling them a dual career parenting education via a distance and self-regulated learning as well as a pilot workshop programme
  • raise the awareness of parents, academic and sport staff and policy makers on the promotion of dual career education

A sound dual career parenting education programme will help parents understanding and managing their roles in dual career of athletes, and to lay the foundation for their proactive, manageable and effective alliances with other relevant stakeholders such as coaches and teachers.

We would hope that this educational programme will lead to better informed students and parents in planning and supporting dual careers and lead to better sporting and academic outcomes for dual career athletes. We would also believe that this programme will lead to greater trust and integration between sporting organisations and Universities in supporting these athletes.

One of the great strengths of the project is the partners involved which are eminent Universities in the area and some of Europes leading Sports institutes. The full list of partners is:

  • University of Ljubljana (Univerza v Ljubljani), Slovenia
  • Università di Roma Foro Italico, Italy
  • University of Limerick, Ireland
  • University of Coimbra, Portugal
  • Institut National du Sport, de l’Expertise et de la Performance (INSEP), France
  • European Athlete as Student (EAS) Network, Malta
  • Italian National Olympic Committee (CONI), Italy
  • European University Sports Association (EUSA) Institute, Slovenia
  • Sport Ireland Institute, Ireland
  • Ginásio Clube Figueirense, Portugal

The University of Limerick has always had a positive approach to supporting talented athletes and is adopting new guidelines and processes to provide greater clarity and ease of use to staff and students alike. The EMPATIA programme is just one part of the development of UL Beo’s approach to developing a world leading campus for sport and physical activity. Creating an environment that supports students needs will we believe lead to greater investment in coaching research and support by NGBs in particular with UL.

Tamminen, K. A., Holt, N. L., & Crocker, P. R. (2012). Adolescent athletes: psychosocial challenges and clinical    concerns. Current opinion in psychiatry, 25(4), 293-300.
Wuerth, S., Lee, M. J., & Alfermann, D. (2004). Parental involvement and athletes’ career in youth sport.
Psychology of sport and Exercise, 5(1), 21-33.
Wylleman, P., De Knop, P., Ewing, M., & Cumming, S. P. (2000). Transitions in youth sport: A developmental perspective on parental involvement. Career transitions in sport: International perspectives, 143-160


Gary Ryan is the UL Beo Project Manager at the Physical Education & Sport Sciences Dept, University of Limerick. Contact Gary at


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