2023 was always going to be a busy one for Paralympics Ireland with Paris 2024 looming large.
While the 2024 Paralympic Games is one of our main points of focus, our team are constantly striving to promote para sport in Ireland and find new ways to encourage participation in young athletes across the country. With this in mind, last year the PTSB NextGen athlete recruitment campaign was born.
Paralympics Ireland Pathway Lead Brian Hughes put pen to paper to reflect on the takeaways from the first successful season of the PTSB Next Gen athlete recruitment campaign which took place last year:
“Shifting the focus from identification to development.”
Recent research has highlighted that most successful junior athletes do not go on to achieve an equivalent competitive level when they are senior athletes, so we must ask why is so much emphasis put on talent identification and selection from a young age? The evidence suggests that we are not particularly good at identifying “talent” or predicting future potential based on current indicators so, at Paralympics Ireland, we wanted to change how we approached athlete recruitment.
With Los Angeles 2028 looming and qualification for Paris 2024 well underway the window of opportunity to launch our first regional athlete recruitment campaign was rapidly closing. In our first few planning meetings it became clear that the recruitment campaign was to be underpinned by a regional approach, providing a positive athlete experience and signposting to opportunities at national governing bodies for athletes to engage in para sport at an appropriate level. Like most campaigns we were faced with the challenge of naming and creating a tagline, with language being so important to us this was not going to be a straightforward process. The easy option would have been to call it “talent identification” but from experience and evidence we knew that athlete potential is multidimensional and that we must be mindful that talent identification and selection can have consequences. Talent identification is difficult because talent isn’t one thing, it’s complex – it’s physical, mental, psychological and includes a cognitive-perceptual dimension. Even research struggles to provide a consistent definition of the word ‘talent’, so the idea of being able to assess talent in one day oversimplifies how we think about athlete potential. What the research is consistent on is that there is plenty of evidence that tells us there is an absence of early indicators of talent, that we don’t know how talent changes across development, and that we are not very good at assessing long term potential. We therefore focused our efforts on creating opportunities for athletes to thrive, not making a decision on what someone believes is ‘talent’. This campaign is the first attempt to shift the focus away from identification and putting the emphasis on athlete development, with the aim of matching training environments with developmental needs of the individual.
After several permutations we arrived at NextGen highlighting this was about creating opportunities for the next generation of Irish Para athletes to engage at the appropriate level. The tagline ‘discover your paralympic potential’ was aimed at empowering athletes to take ownership of their sporting journey and discover their own potential. After an early meeting with PTSB and synergy on the project aims, the campaign was renamed PTSB NextGen increasing the reach and impact of the campaign across Ireland.
For me this athlete recruitment campaign was a lot more than just running a programme to attract athletes, it was never just a numbers game about recruiting as many as possible, it was about providing high-quality athlete experience. Recruitment at all levels is essential to creating a sustainable and thriving para sport system in Ireland. Paralympic athletes’ journeys are very individual, and we wanted our recruitment days to reflect this. In our opinion, the best way to increase future engagement and retention was to improve the quality of the athlete engagement. The initial interaction between athletes and sport both directly and indirectly can significantly impact whether they begin a journey in that sport. Each recruitment day consisted of physical challenges (Speed, Agility, Power) allowing athletes to engage at a level that they felt comfortable, come and try sports that varied depending on regional opportunities and sport information stands that gave athletes the opportunities to connect one to one with local sports clubs. Central to creating opportunities for reengagement of athletes is collaboration with national governing bodies and disability sport organizations that provide athlete development across Ireland. Through the Irish para sport system coming together at these events there was more opportunities for athletes to learn about the different sports and have direct interactions with representatives of the sports. This was all supported by PTSB, numerous staff, volunteers as well as past and present paralympic athletes inspiring the next generation through sharing their lived experiences. Embedded throughout the athlete experience was fun, creating a welcoming, inspiring, and engaging environment!
Athlete recruitment at the PTSB NextGen is only the first step in what will ideally become a long-term engagement in sport participation. We also want to make it easier for athletes to re-engage with the system throughout their sporting career. Research has identified that athletes with congenital impairments have marked differences in developmental trajectories compared with athletes with acquired impairments, so we are aware that there needs to be multiple entry points as well as opportunity for athlete transfer across the system.
As we enter phase two of PTSB NextGen to support and better understand reengagement levels across Ireland after the events, I am reminded of the athlete voice and the importance of sport.
“To live a full, independent and fulfilled life and to be confident in my abilities and happy in my own skin. I think sport is an important means of helping me fulfil this personal ambition as well as opening up important social opportunities”.
“To not let my disability define me or defeat me. To perform at the highest possible level and compete using my previous sporting skills”
With six different recruitment events being successfully delivered over a five-month period and over 130 athletes engaging in the campaign, we aim to continue to evolve how we support the athlete development journey from first exposure to lifelong engagement in sport which may include performing at a future Paralympic Games.
For more information on Permanent tsb NextGen please visit https://paralympics.ie/nextgen/
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