TASS champions dual career insight with formation of research group

Dr Emma Vickers (R) and Emily Deason (L) presented at the PAADS Conference (Handout)

Emma Vickers is a founder member of the TASS Research Group and delivered a keynote speech to an international audience at New York conference earlier this month. The dual career specialist discusses developments in the area.

TASS: Can you give a brief overview of your PhD and its focus on the dual career approach?

Emma Vickers: My PhD explored the whole student athlete experience of being at university, covering all decisions, transitions and experiences from start to finish. The PhD ended with 11 recommendations for UK dual career provision – that included putting in mental health and wellbeing monitoring systems, upskilling academic staff around dual careers and universities providing enhanced exit programmes. Finally, I developed an adapted model that shows the whole university experience for athletes and the transitions and experiences that they may have in different areas of their lives.

TASS: Dual career options are increasingly important to performance athletes – does the current level of research reflect a growing interest in the area?

EV: Research on the topic of dual careers has grown dramatically over the past ten years. Interest in the topic was stimulated by the publication of the EU Guidelines on the Dual Careers of Athletes in 2012. This policy document encouraged research within different national contexts to further understand structures and experiences across Europe. There are a number of research groups across Europe who are each focusing on different topics and continually trying to develop new ways of undertaking research in the area.

TASS: As a global dual career leader, why is it important that TASS leads on – and encourages – research around the subject?

EV: TASS has an amazing dual career structure in place to deliver high-level support to student athletes. However, until recently we have not conducted much academic research. Research on dual careers will allow us to help develop and improve this system and upskill our practitioners on the latest topics. This can only enhance the overall athlete experience.

TASS: What research is ongoing around the dual career approach and where do you see the focus moving forward?

EV: Currently we have links with 19 ongoing projects. We currently have a match-funded PhD at LJMU exploring whether being in a dual career actually enhances sport and academic performance. We also have links to a number of other PhDs, MSc projects, internal and externally funded projects and we are a partner on three ERASMUS projects, collaborating with researchers across Europe. We have another match-funded PhD with Durham University, due to start in September, that is going to explore inclusion in dual careers and to try to understand what some of the barriers may be for athletes accessing dual career systems. Additional research areas that TASS are currently exploring include para-athlete dual career experiences, experiences of snow sports athletes undertaking a dual career and we are currently in the process of mapping the women’s dual career pathway within football – from the start of the pathway at 14 through to professional level. An example of some of the areas of research from across Europe include an exploration of dual career development environments, the development of a dual career tool kit for the sector level and burnout within youth dual career athletes.

TASS: As a founder of the TASS Research Group can you provide a brief overview of the group’s remit and current progress?

EV: The TASS Research Group was formed in March and the next meeting is planned for August. Ultimately the group’s objective is to use our insight to enhance the dual career support available to student athletes, but we also aim to create opportunities for collaboration on new dual career projects and establish ‘mini’ Masters projects within the TASS network. We’re looking forward to further discussion on what we’ve learnt from recent conferences we have attended and how these learnings might influence our research and practice.

TASS: Where do the members of the TASS Research Group come from and can you give an example of some specific areas of expertise within the group?

EV: Members of the group include Dr Robert Morris from Liverpool John Moores University. He is currently the lead on an ERASMUS + project exploring dual career development environments (ECO-DC). In addition, Emily Deason is about to complete her PhD in the area of dual careers and is also the research assistant on the ERASMUS ECO-DC project with Rob. Our PhD student, Libby Mitchell, also at LJMU, is looking at understanding whether maintaining a balanced lifestyle impacts upon academic and sporting performance. Meanwhile Ralph Appleby’s PhD explores athlete burnout. Ralph is a great member to have in the group, as through his role as Practitioner Development Lead for TASS, he can advise how we can apply our research to help upskill our network of practitioners. The group is also keen to link in with our TASS Lifestyle Advisory Group (LAG) as they have first-hand experience of working with athletes on a day to day basis.

TASS researchers in attendance at the B-Wiser Conference (Credit: Topsport en Studie, Vrije Universiteit Brussel)

TASS: Is there encouragement from NGBs and international federations to press ahead with further research into dual career – if so, what is their motivation?

EV: Yes, there is encouragement because they are now understanding the benefits that a dual career can have for an athlete. Duty of Care is a hot topic at the moment and if NGBs and sports organisations want to get the very best that they can out of their athletes then they need to show that they care about the ‘whole athlete’ and also support their development outside of the sporting context. Having support from their organisation or NGB can really increase the chances of an athlete having a positive dual career experience.

TASS: From an athlete perspective is there an increasing demand for fresh research around the subject of athlete support and the dual career approach?

EV: Athletes are very competitive people. If new research applied to their current environments enhances their provision and opportunity to excel, I am confident they would welcome this.

TASS: What did you talk about at the 2019 PAADS Athlete Development Summit in New York earlier this month?

EV: I presented my research on the transition out of university for UK student athletes, specifically focusing on the pathways athletes take when they leave, driving factors behind why they take these routes, challenges experienced along the way and the support systems available for athletes. It was a very timely presentation as we had listened to similar presentations at the event about the experiences that US athletes have when they leave collegiate sport. My presentation highlighted the very apparent differences between the two cultures in terms of the pathways that athletes take when they leave university.

TASS: Aside from being able to share your work with an international audience, what did you gain from attending the summit?

EV: Being able to network with researchers and professional sports organisations from all over the world to discuss their current research activity with the dual career and talent development areas, and their current practices in supporting talented athletes. We picked up a number of ideas and current practices that made us evaluate what we currently do within TASS and how we can develop this in the future.

TASS: Is the dual career approach already embraced globally or is England/the UK a leading light in delivery and research?

EV: The practice of supporting dual career athletes is common across the globe but there are differences in how cultures view a dual career. At TASS, we view dual career as a pathway of personal development where we strive to get the best out of the individual’s sporting and academic or vocational performance. In terms of the delivery of a high-performance system to dual career athletes, due to the number of delivery sites, number of practitioners, and quality of support provided, England is one of the leaders in this area. In terms of the research, there are other European countries, such as Sweden, Belgium, and Finland who are producing high quality dual career research. Hopefully, now that we have a research group and individuals to drive the research area, we can establish as ourselves as one of, if not the best, research groups across Europe and globally. TASS have the advantage of having a network of different universities to produce and implement high-quality research.

TASS: Can you see a day when the dual career approach becomes the norm and what are the challenges athletes facing athletes to get to that point?

EV: It’s tricky to answer that question. Individuals that work in the area know that it should be recognised as the norm but athletes may need to overcome a number of barriers to get to this point. These may include stakeholders in their environment who see education as a distraction or lack of commitment, a lack of finances and a lack of understanding around the opportunities available to do a dual career. TASS have partnered with Durham University to do a PhD that explores inclusion in dual careers and we are hoping that this will uncover some of the barriers to doing a dual career and help us to get more athletes into dual career systems. The advert for the PhD will be released by June and is due to start on September 1st.