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Learning and Being in Sport: A Phenomenological Investigation

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The lessons sport offers young people, on and off the pitch

We may be tempted to consider sports as a catalyst for universal values and learning experiences, but these can in fact vary considerably from one athlete to another. The Learn2 project brings about a more refined understanding of learning experiences in sport that considers the learner’s identity, gender, values and socio-cultural environment.

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Sport has many virtues, not least of which is its learning value. But what is learning in the context of sport exactly? If you had to ask this question as you enjoyed a nice dinner with a group of friends, chances are you would get as many different answers as there are people around the table. Some would refer to motor learning, others to various life skills such as fairness, discipline, perseverance, respect or team spirit. So, which is it you might ask? Well you’re in luck, because Tatiana Ryba, senior researcher at the University of Jyväskylä, and Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellow Noora Ronkainen have recently jumped through hoops to answer this question. “This is a very pertinent research field for high-performance young athletes who combine sport and education/vocational training. By developing an existential theoretical framework of informal learning in sport, we could support them in their personal development, provide an alternative interpretation to ‘life skills’, and ultimately facilitate athletes’ transition into the labour market and society at large once their sporting career is over,” Ryba explains. Thanks to funding under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions project Learn2 (Learning and Being in Sport: A Phenomenological Investigation), Ronkainen and Ryba were able to explore the structures of learning experiences in sport. They started by conducting interviews of young athletes. “The Learn2 study was designed as a part of the longitudinal research ‘Winning in the Long Run: towards a psychosocial sustainability of dual careers’. It investigated talented student-athletes’ development, dual career construction, and life design over 4 years as they attended elite sport high schools in Finland. Each participant had already been interviewed five times before Learn2 was kicked off, which means that we could use extensive life stories considering all changes they went through from one interview to another,” says Ryba. With all this data, the team could theorise and study empirically the real learning experiences of young athletes, and Ronkainen was eventually able to conceptualise a framework for existential learning in sport that goes beyond the instrumental life skills discourse. The team also paid attention to cultural assumptions about gender, to define how they drive inequalities and differences in resources for learning and development.

The importance of informal learning

Overall, project findings indicate that Positive Youth Development (PYD) through sport and life skills discourses dominate current understandings about learning in sport. But it all changed when the participants’ busy schedules were interrupted by an unexpected challenging task or an interview question that disrupted dominant cultural narratives. “We obtained powerful insights into informal learning in sport. We could also show how access to counter-stories allows young people to build narrative resources which they can then use to avoid finalising their identities and lives”, Ronkainen notes. “This is not to suggest that young people do not have agency and are not already manoeuvring among various discourses. However, if we think of life as time and energy, when there is no time for self-care to reflect on why I am doing what I’m doing (Is this congruent with the person I aspire to be?), then routine will likely prevail,” Ryba adds. With the project now completed, Ryba, Ronkainen and the rest of the team hope their findings will be used to generate better knowledge and policies. These could tackle, among other things, sustainable and ethical talent development in sport, future employability, and adaptability of talented sportswomen and sportsmen.


Learn2, sport, learning, youth development

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