What are the priorities for research into youth sport in Ireland? – Dr. Phil Kearney


At the PEPAYS forum hosted at the University of Limerick on June 11th, I facilitated a session discussing Priorities for Research in Youth Sport in Ireland. Consistent with the theme of the conference, which was (re)Connecting as a Research Community, my aim was to run an interactive workshop with stakeholders from a range of Institutions and National Governing Bodies for Sport identifying the current research priorities within their contexts. The workshop aimed to build connections and to identify potential collaborations amongst those with similar experiences or questions. In this blog, I will provide an insight into the discussions of those who participated, and the priorities that were identified.

How did we identify the priorities?

As there was only a short time window to facilitate the discussion, I utilised four steps of a Lightning Decision Jam format and a large picture of a boat to organize the responses. To start on a positive, I asked participants to discuss and suggest (on post its): ‘What was Ireland currently doing well in relation to youth sport – what was putting the wind in our sails?’ The second question asked: ‘Where do we need to improve – what are the anchors holding us back?’. Once again, answers were placed on post its and organized on the picture. One of the advantages of running this type of exercise in a room with many different organizations present is that there may be solutions in the room. Some individuals or organizations may be experiencing an issue for the first time, but someone else / some other organization may have been dealing with this for some time now (you’ll see an example of that later).


What strengths were identified?

In all, almost 50 different strengths were identified, from creating a positive, welcoming environment for children starting sport, to the researching and inclusion of injury-reducing warm-up protocols for teenagers; from providing opportunities for all to participate to online resources for coaches.


What were the priority challenges identified?

Once all of the challenges had been explained, the group was provided with a final task: to identify a reduced set of priorities. The group settled on four broad areas, and seven more specific questions:

Developing coaching    

  • What are the most effective strategies for coaching teenage girls, and how do we best disseminate these?
  • How do we combat the influence of poor coaching or unqualified coaching?
  • How do we meet the coach and player where they are?

Understanding specialisation

  • Does early specialisation effect physical, social, sporting outcomes long term?
  • Development Squads – are they required? If so, when, and what exactly should they entail?

Optimising children’s sport

  • Team numbers – how many players a side at each age grade? Individual sports – what is the equivalent manipulation to team numbers to optimise the individual’s experience?

Understanding social, economic and cultural factors

  • How do the social/economic and culture aspects influence both participation and performance (financial support, education)?

I will just comment on two of these priorities. In relation to specialisation in sport, some findings are clear; for example, restricting participation to a single sport from childhood is not essential to achieving sporting excellence. However, the consensus among researchers is that a thorough understanding of the phenomenon of youth sport specialization is still lacking; there is much nuanced detail to be resolved so that researchers provide appropriate advice to coaches and administrators on more complex questions.

As mentioned earlier, one of the great advantages of having multiple groups in the room is the sharing of knowledge. In relation to the priority question around coaching teenage girls, multiple researchers and coaches/coach developers praised the Gaelic4Teens initiative from the Ladies Gaelic Football Association as an initiative that could inspire others.


What is PEPAYS?

PEPAYS is a research centre that seeks to influence policy and practice at a national and international level in advancing the health and well-being of populations in the areas of physical education, sport, physical activity and health. Further information about PEPAYS is available at their website, or by following them on social media. You can find a review of the 2022 conference on the PESS Blog. To engage with PEPAYS, please email: pepaysireland1@gmail.com

Dr. Phil Kearney is the Course Director of the MSc Applied Sports Coaching within the Department of Physical Education & Sport Sciences here at the University of Limerick.

View Phil’s profile:  https://www.ul.ie/pess/iframe-staff/dr-philip-kearney. Contact: philip.kearney@ul.ie. Follow on twitter: @kearney_phil.  Research Profiles: GoogleScholar, Researchgate, ORCID, Linked-In

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