The impacts of sport schools on holistic athlete development

PhD spotlight | Ffion Thompson


Ffion Thompson with family at graduation

Carnegie School of Sport PhD student, Ffion Thompson, is researching The Impacts of Sport Schools on Holistic Athlete Development within the Centre for Sport Coaching at Leeds Beckett University whilst combining her PhD studies with working as a strength and conditioning coach at Queen Ethelburga’s (QE) College.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your path to completing a PhD

As a young athlete myself, playing international hockey alongside gaining my GCSE and A level qualifications, I had first-hand experience of balancing education with sport. After college, I went on to study sport and exercise science, where my passion for sport science research and enhancing sport performance really began.

I always knew I wanted to work within performance sport to help athletes achieve their ambitions and maximise their athletic potential through sport science, and strength and conditioning (S&C). After a discussion with Scott Drawer (former Head of Research and Innovation at the English Institute of Sport and Head of the Team Sky Performance Hub), I realised the potential of conducting a PhD and the avenues, skills and challenges I would learn through the process.

This PhD really appealed to me because I had always had a passion for youth athletic development, having been fortunate to have an amazing youth athletic development experience myself at Millfield School. It also allowed me to combine research with practice through combining my studies with a practical role as an S&C coach at Queen Ethelburga’s College, where the Carnegie School of Sport has a long relationship in supporting the sport science provision at the school. This has allowed me to directly apply my research findings into my day-to-day role as a coach, while contributing to the field of long-term athletic development, and also allows me to continue to develop as a practitioner as well as a researcher.

In addition to my PhD, and working at QE school, I am also the S&C Coach / Sport Scientist for the Wales Women’s National Lacrosse and Wasps Vitality Superleague Netball teams. In these two roles, I not only work with amazing coaches and medical staff, but with inspiring, powerful women athletes.

Why did you choose to study a PhD at Leeds Beckett University?

I was already aware of the reputation the Carnegie School of Sport had for innovative research within the field of sport coaching and sport science, but what appealed to me the most about studying here was the partnerships the School had with external organisations, and the opportunities for PhD students to not only contribute to new, innovative research but to work practically with high-level sporting organisations and athletes.

What is your research about and what makes you passionate about it?

I am passionate about ensuring that youth athletes have a well-rounded experience during their school development, to guarantee their athletic development, educational / vocational rights and opportunities to develop in society and integrate into the workplace at the end of their sporting career.

Therefore, my research is about exploring the impacts (positive / negative, intended / unintended and long / short term) of sport schools on the holistic athlete development (e.g. athletic, psychological, psychosocial and academic / vocational) of youth athletes.

The present-day outlook of Olympic and professional sport is now more competitive than ever, which has led to an increased intensity and professionalisation of youth sport programmes. This increased professionalisation introduces a number of characteristics, such as early specialisation, increased volume and intensity of training, prioritisation of sports over other aspects of life, and distinct cultures of eliteness raising potential issues with the healthiness of intensified youth sports programmes. Therefore, with a multiple and wide-ranging positive and negative impact associated with youth sport programmes, and the likelihood that most youth athletes do not ultimately succeed in their sport, I am passionate to understand the holistic development impact and outcomes for youth athletes in sport school programmes, to ensure that practitioners are promoting healthy, all-round development. 

Sport schools are seen as an environment that provides a structural coupling of competitive sports and education. Coming from a sport school myself, I was passionate about and interested in exploring these environments further and their impact on youth athlete holistic development to ensure they are promoting healthy, all-round athletes.

With the effective combination of competitive sports, education and accommodation, sport schools could guarantee conditions that favour future top sporting performances while safeguarding opportunities for primary and secondary education, which I am passionate about.

How have you applied what you’ve learned from your work at Carnegie School of Sport?

When I started my PhD at Leeds Beckett, I arrived with a very quantitative research background with little experience in qualitative research. With my project being around holistic development, incorporating psychosocial and psychological assessments, qualitative research methodology was required and essential.

The network at Leeds Beckett (fellow PhD students, lecturers, researchers and professors), my supervisory team, as well as online seminars and workshops put on by the university, have been invaluable in helping me learn these qualitative skills and then apply them to my research projects, data collection and analysis.

Furthermore, it has been great to get involved with projects such as the International Sport Coaching Journal Digest, which has helped me refine my writing skills and write more concisely. I have also been able to apply what I have learned to help other PhD research students with their projects.

How would you reflect on your time as a postgraduate researcher at Leeds Beckett?

I would commend Leeds Beckett University for the staff, engagement, intellectual curiosity, fellow postgraduate students and networking opportunities with other academics and educational professionals. The guidance by my supervisory team has been exemplary in terms of practical areas such as academic writing, conducting a literature review and their decades of experience in the field of sport science and sport coaching research.

I’ve loved being able to work with such a multidisciplinary research team within the Carnegie School of Sport, such as psychologists, physiologists, S&C coaches and nutritionists.

It is a great community to be a part of and I look forward to creating more memories as I continue my PhD journey at Leeds Beckett University.

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Centre for Sport Coaching

Promoting and advancing effective and ethical sport coaching.

We are committed to influencing effective and ethical sport coaching practice to improve participant and performer development experiences and outcomes, and supporting coach learning, development, and education.

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