Exploring the dynamics of the talent development environment in professional rugby academies

Wilkinson, Stuart G orcid iconORCID: 0000-0003-0453-0407 (2023) Exploring the dynamics of the talent development environment in professional rugby academies. Doctoral thesis, University of Central Lancashire.

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This thesis aims to investigate the factors that determine the impact that Academy Managers in Rugby League have upon the youth-to-senior transition of talent in an elite professional academy. Various methods, models, and processes for supporting national strategies have been identified in previous research, which has informed the success of an academy talent pathway. However, relatively little is known about how academies develop their players and coaching staff in these challenging professional environments. Therefore, this research further develops knowledge in this area, specifically concerning the growth and development of academy staff.

The actions of these Academy Managers and their key stakeholders are a major area of interest within this research project with explicit attention paid to those in charge of the day-to-day player-coach interactions, especially the Academy Manager. Talent development research to date has not yet determined the impact the Academy Manager has on these stakeholders and there remains a paucity of evidence on ‘the what, the how, and the why’ of their practice. Therefore, a more specific overview of the ‘talent development challenge’ needs to be provided. In short, the intricate, dynamic environments in which the Academy Manager exists and what they are working to achieve, will be described through a series of empirical studies illustrating how these are operationalised within the academy context. Various phased qualitative data collection methods were deployed in this investigation, allowing an exploration of the environment, the considerations, and the experiences of the stakeholders within the Academy Manager’s domain.
Critical Realism is adopted as the underpinning conceptual lens which in turn led the researcher to cross a threshold of understanding, by identifying with the concept of Embodied Pedagogy in physical decision-making, opening a new way of thinking around investigatory research. Notably, creating an innovative, cogent, and supportive bond between Embodied Pedagogy methods and the Critical Realism paradigm. Indeed, this research has been exploratory and aimed to develop and assess this theory-driven partnership by using methods, such as reflective narrative, narrative interviews, focus groups, case studies, and narrative inquiry, all of which elicit further understanding within the lived experiences and rich insights of the target demographic. In addition, these methods made evident some of the various barriers and enablers that influenced the agency in the Academy Manager’s daily interactions between the stakeholders and the environment.

The findings from this sequence of studies identified the need for a practical tool with structures that might better enable Academy Managers to recognise and deal with the mixed influences of the social milieu on informal learning. This resulted in the design of a new and ground-breaking multidimensional model called the Talent Development Self-Navigation Framework (TDSNF). National Governing Bodies and Academy Managers can use this new model to facilitate and encourage a critical approach to collaborative learning within an Academy workforce. Amongst the key findings, was a disconnect between the skills that Academy Managers require for the role and the reality of what they felt confident and competent in. Therefore, resources developed within the TDSNF tasks displayed results that were a positive social validation of the framework and that the associated tools have merit.

Looking to the future, discussing the bio-ecological role Academy Managers have in their environment is essential. This research yielded results that demonstrate it is imperative to examine the Academy Manager’s interplay with the rest of the stakeholders from a pathway that needs perspective. Consequently, these Academy Managers will be able to offer more practical ways of presenting the Academy’s foundational wants and the stakeholders’ fundamental needs. These are relevant considerations for all people involved in the talent development system including the Academy’s Chief Executives, National Coach Developers, National Academy Leads, and National Governing Bodies. The key messages around the impact of bespoke strategies on developing talent in a professional academy highlight the need to continue to explore these relationships.

The results of this research tentatively indicate how future research directions could assist professional clubs or governing bodies and academic institutions to work together to disseminate knowledge on relevant topics and theories in the development of an Academy Manager. The most obvious finding to emerge from this study is that Academy Managers (in Rugby League) can best learn to perform their difficult work of navigating the chaotic academy environment, while in parallel, helping to inform how National Governing Bodies might best optimise outcomes for their sporting communities.

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