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Learning and Being in Sport: A Phenomenological Investigation

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - Learn2 (Learning and Being in Sport: A Phenomenological Investigation)

Reporting period: 2019-03-01 to 2021-02-28

It is widely assumed that organised youth sport programmes can play an important role in shaping young people’s broader development, and offers a valuable learning experience. The European Commission’s (2007) White Paper on Sport, for example, suggests that ‘sport has an educational dimension and plays a social, cultural and recreational role’ (p. 3), and that ‘through its role in formal and non-formal education, sport reinforces Europe’s human capital’ (p. 5). However, some scholars in physical education have argued that there is a striking lack of clarity on what this educational dimension of sport and physical activities actually is and what exactly is being learned. Similarly, in youth sport programmes it has been suggested that positive developmental outcomes are far from automatic outcome from participation and also negative developmental experiences can occur. However, much of the research on learning in youth sport has been drawing on a Positive Youth Development framework that focuses exclusively on the positive and productive forms of learning. In this project, we theorised and studied existential learning as an alternative framework to understand youth learning in sport.

Importance for society
Informal learning in and through sport could be especially important for talented and elite athletes, because they have to be making a significant investment in sport from a young age, in some cases at the expense of formal education and work experience. The European Commission has taken an active role in the promotion of sustainable sport development and highlighted the need to invest in the education and training of talented athletes to be able to flourish during and after their athletic careers. At the same time, it is acknowledged that increasingly competitive and professionalised sport can place at-risk athletes’ education and employability. European researchers have found that many talented athletes find it challenging to realise their potential both in sport and education. Athletes also often lack work experience to support the transition to the labour market during/after their athletic careers. Being able to recognise informal learning in and through sport can be a vital aspect of helping athletes recognise how their identity, values, and skills learned through their sporting experiences can help them orient to life beyond sport.

The Learn2 project had the aim of theorising and studying informal learning in sport through an existentialist theory of education. We aimed to (1) To study the phenomenological structures of learning in sport within student-athletes’ lived experiences; (2) To explore gendered patterns of meaning in learning and development in and through sport; and (3) To create knowledge that can form a theoretical basis for future research and inform policy on validating informal learning.
In order to develop the new theoretical approach (existential learning) for studying learning in youth sport, a comprehensive literature review and critical analysis of current state of art was undertaken. To argue for the need for a new theoretical approach, we first reviewed the dominant perspective of life-skills development which informs much of current research and interventions. We then developed existential learning as a way to address some of the challenges in the currently dominant perspectives and to broaden the research focus to those types of learning that are not theorised in the current models. The theoretical account was especially drawing on the ideas of learning as a discontinuous process and something triggered by encountering discontinuity.

In the empirical study, the experienced researcher conducted interviews with 16 participants (7 men, 9 women) aged 19-20 who were or had been part of the national athletic talent development programmes in Finland. The data were collected as a part of the project supervisor’s broader project “Finnish Longitudinal Dual Career Study”. The previous data collected within the broader project was used to gain an in-depth understanding of participants’ life-worlds and to design individualised interviews. We conducted the empirical research within the particularly challenging junior-to-senior transition period. Developmentally, they were also transitioning to adulthood, which is a critical life transition. Since our theoretical approach was focused on learning through discontinuity, the interview timing was particularly suitable for our analytic framework.

The empirical data were analysed for three separate research questions. Firstly, we conducted an in-depth case study with one participant, drawing on all data gathered within the Longitudinal Study, to understand how a youth athlete learns to inhabit a different life-world and reconstructs meaning in sport and embodiment after disengagement from the talent pathway. Secondly, we focused on how gender shapes learning in sport and analysed young sporting women’s experiences and how they either learned to live up to the “superwoman” ideal of contemporary society or abandoned the ideal and developed an alternative sense of self. Thirdly, we used the existential learning framework in the dataset with all 16 participants to uncover what youth athletes learned through their experiences of discontinuity.

During the project, the experienced researcher had a 6-month secondment at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences and frequently presented the project findings in both host institutions. The project findings were presented in five international conferences and in symposia/webinars/invited lectures, a popular magazine article, and a podcast.
The project contributed to establishing a new line of research to understand youth development and informal learning in sport through an existential framework of learning. It provided novel empirical findings of learning experiences in sport that have not been covered in previous work and provided recommendations for sports coaches, sport psychology practitioners and others working with talented athletes. The findings were disseminated through both academic (journal articles, conference presentations, webinars, lectures) and non-academic (popular magazine, podcast, social media, videos, Researcher’s Night) channels to ensure a wide reach and impact.

The project theorising and empirical findings have been used to develop an online course for student-athletes in upper secondary sport schools in Finland. A pilot application of the online course is on-going and it is expected that the course will be used in upper secondary sport schools across Finland to help athletes reflect on and recognise the informal learning experiences they have accumulated through their involvement in sport.
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