Sport attainment and education sustainment of talented female secondary school athletes in New Zealand
Excelling at sport between the ages of thirteen and eighteen years has profound implications not only for the athlete, but also for her educators, family, friends and sporting associates. Balancing a multitude of commitments, expectations, time frames, and outputs is a daily challenge for a growing number of young athletes in New Zealand today. An increased understanding of the needs and challenges of this group will aid educators and sporting organisations to support and manage these student-athletes, in an appropriate and insightful manner.
My research focused on the sporting attainment and academic sustainment of three female athletes (13-18 years) who were concurrently competing in sport at regional or national level, whilst attending an Auckland secondary school to gain academic qualifications. Due to the complex nature of young people’s lives, many factors and influences were investigated to provide insights and to increase understanding about the multi-layered, dynamic, self-organising, and unpredictable yet stable interconnected systems each student-athlete operated within. Key themes such as complexity, talent, gender and gender identity, socio-economic, socio-cultural and socio-ecological factors, as well as national and international policies and programmes, were investigated.
A qualitative research methodology using individual narrative case studies and an interpretative perspective informed this research. The adoption of a complexitivist posthumanist approach informed a paradigm shift from a purely constructivist-interpretivist view of each student-athlete’s life. Bound by individual parameters (sporting and schooling experiences during a two-year period), each case study was presented in the form of a personal biography, or story. Each participant’s perceptions and meanings, supported by comments from a nominated significant other (parent or coach), emerged from the detailed analysis and interpretation of collected data.
A short longitudinal design (over two years) using a four-phase strategy of data collection was employed to investigate each student-athlete’s transition from non-examination assessment to studying for external academic qualifications (New Zealand Qualifications Authority, 2017). During this educational phase, the participants in my research were simultaneously training and competing at a representative level in sport.
The health and well-being of this specific cohort of excelling young sportswomen was a key focus of this research project, as the interface between sport and education has implications for other areas of a young athlete’s life (for example, puberty, adolescence, socialisation, qualification attainment, career pathway and maturation). At present, in-depth educational research in this area of giftedness and talent does not exist in New Zealand. Therefore, my research aimed to generate insights, understandings and recommendations, which are educative to a variety of stakeholders (athletes, parents, coaches, educators, policy-makers, government agencies, national sports organisations, etc.). The purpose of this inquiry was to understand a particular phenomenon, not to generalise to a general population (Farzanfar, 2005). Findings from my research revealed that each case was unique, individual and dynamic. Each student-athlete faced a range of challenges and barriers that had the potential to undermine her sustained attainment in sport, education and/or both; however, each student-athlete demonstrated a high level of resilience and often a mature appreciation of what was required to achieve goals simultaneously, in both fields. Stable support structures within each student-athlete’s complex systems, in particular in sport, at school and in her family domain, were key to sustained achievement, as were appropriate opportunities to progress incrementally. Concerns with regard to each student-athlete’s health and well-being were highlighted, with significant injury and stress perceived as inevitable. My research recommends that adults in responsible roles, such as educators, senior management, parents, whanau, administrators, policy-makers, regional and national organisations and government agencies need to view ‘talent’ as individual, multi-layered, complex and evolving. The needs of each student-athlete must be focal to and commensurate with reasonable, realistic training, competition and academic workloads, to sustain attainment and enjoyment in both arenas.