Former GB swimmer aims to change attitudes to dual careers

PhD researcher Libby Mitchell (Credit: LJMU)

The debate around the challenges of a dual career approach continues. TASS talked to former elite swimmer Libby Mitchell as she embarks on fresh research aimed at proving the positives can outweigh any negatives.

TASS: What persuaded you to commit the next three years to research into dual careers in performance sport?

LIBBY MITCHELL: As a former student athlete, it’s an area of research that I’m passionate about and can relate to easily. My dual career experience was a positive learning process and I’m intrigued to learn more about other student athletes’ dual career experiences. I thoroughly enjoyed the research process during my Master’s degree and when this PhD at Liverpool John Moores University was advertised with TASS, it was too good an opportunity to miss. I fully support everything that TASS strives for as an organisation and I think that their work to support student athletes is fantastic. I feel very privileged to be working alongside them for the next three years!

TASS: Is there potential for the dual career approach to become the norm for elite athletes unable to access the funding required to pursue their sport full-time?

LM: I think so, yes! One of the main reasons why I went to university was to continue with my swimming career at a high level. I was able to access financial support through student loans and sporting or academic scholarships. As funding is so difficult to access in a variety of sports, studying for a degree alongside competing in sport is becoming more popular with athletes. From a research perspective, we know that a dual career approach can have its benefits and negatives. I feel that within society there is a bigger emphasis on the negatives when combining sport with education and vocational commitments. There is a general consensus that a dual career can hinder an athlete’s performance. As a result, there needs to be a shift in perspective when evaluating dual careers in sport before it becomes the norm for elite athletes.

TASS: What were the key findings of your MSc Sport Psychology research in relation to the pressures facing dual career athletes and the potential benefits the dual career approach may bring?

LM: My Master’s research explored the experiences of transitions within elite swimming and included swimmers, coaches, and parents’ perspectives. It was clear that the athletes struggled to maintain a balance in their lives while also aiming to be an elite performer. The student athletes voiced concerns about living up to their coaches’ expectations – they expected the swimmers to dedicate their lives solely to swimming. This lack of support and understanding triggered demands relating to a lack of acceptance for the athletes’ academic commitments and lives outside of sport. The student athletes also mentioned challenges relating to managing their time during exam and coursework periods, the pressure of overloaded training weeks and coping with the physical requirements of their training schedules. However, the athletes also mentioned that their dual careers acted as a stress reliever because it allowed them to refocus on a different outlet (education) and consequently made them feel more prepared for retirement from sport.

TASS: Which aspect(s) of the dual career approach will your PhD focus on?

LM: I’m currently in the process of piecing my PhD project together but the main aim is to examine the perceptions of UK athletes and support staff when it comes to the link between maintaining a balanced lifestyle and maintaining a level of elite performance.

I hope that my research will provide more conclusive evidence about whether or not an individual will perform better and be a more well-rounded individual if they participate in a dual career.

TASS: Where do you envisage your research making a positive difference and have you considered where best to use your findings?

LM: In general, my research will aim to bring about increased awareness of dual careers in sport and will hopefully educate and inform various organisations (i.e. academic schools, sporting organisations and national governing bodies) about the benefits and demands associated with dual careers. From previous research, we know that these groups strongly influence how an athlete perceives their dual career experiences, so it’s appropriate to increase their understanding about dual careers. I hope my research will help student athletes prioritise and time manage effectively, engage and collaborate with appropriate support staff as required, plan and prepare effectively for future events and transitions, actively manage rest and recuperation and be able to make informed decisions by utilising accurate information from all areas.

Libby Mitchell competing at the British Gas Swimming Championships in 2013

TASS: What is your own experience of combining education with elite swimming and how invaluable will that insight be as you embark upon your PhD?

LM: During my undergraduate and postgraduate degree at Swansea University, I was competing at an international level in swimming and was training up to 30 hours in the pool and gym each week. I believe that my dual career experiences have allowed me to develop various transferable skills, not only applicable to my role as a researcher, but also within a vocational setting after my university studies. I can apply my own dual career knowledge to my research because I also had to overcome various demands as a student athlete. I will be interviewing several student athletes about their experiences and I can, therefore, offer guidance and advice about any issues that they may highlight during these conversations.

TASS: How excited are you about working towards your TALS (Talented Athlete Lifestyle Support) qualification and how important is the role of a lifestyle practitioner to dual career athletes accessing TASS support?

LM: I’m very excited to achieve my TALS qualification and apply the knowledge I’ve learnt from the course into applied practice. I’ve always been passionate about adopting a holistic approach to my own athletic development. That is, not only being aware of the demands and transitions that an athlete will encounter at an athletic level, but also at a psychological, social, academic or vocational, and financial level. For example, changes may occur in an athlete’s social development relative to their athletic involvement (e.g. relationships with coaches, parents) and outside of their sporting environment (e.g. moving from college to university). These changes in an athlete’s career are often concurrent and will require an athlete to utilise various resources to successfully cope and progress within their personal development. For these reasons, a lifestyle practitioner’s role is critical in educating student athletes about the potential challenges they may encounter during these transitions and how they can be efficiently managed, without being detrimental to their sporting performance. I also believe that any practitioner involved in sport has a professional duty of care to support athletes and their wellbeing throughout, and after, their sporting careers.