Significant contribution to the literature, providing unique insight into pertinent issues in elite sport coaching

Benjamin Moreland
University of Gloucestershire

Natalie Barker-Ruchti (ed.)
Athlete Learning in Elite Sport: A Cultural Framework
188 pages, paperback.
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2019 (Routledge Research in Sports Coaching)
ISBN 978-0-367-66147-2

Athlete Learning in Elite Sport: A Cultural Framework provides a unique insight into the learning experiences in the diverse lives of elite athletes. Drawing knowledge from six different sports, it provides an accessible text for academics and students to utilise at a range of study levels seeking to enhance their understanding of athlete development in elite sport.

The book is comprised of an introduction, 3 substantive parts, each consisting of three, nine and two chapters respectively. The strucutre of the parts balances the need for chapters that situate the context and theoretical lens. In part one the elite athlete and sporting terrain is discussed to position the following sections in a theoretical and cultural landscape. Part two provides a rich insight into athlete learning in diverse sporting and cultural contexts. This part takes up a large proportion of the book, yet it is not wasted, providing rich insights into sporting examples of athlete learning that are lacking in mainstream discussion. The final part presents two chapters that focus on the implications of theoretical and practical discussions for research and practice moving forward. The balance struck in this book is central to its success, bringing together the theoretical with the practical opens the book to a broader range of audiences and maximises its inclusivity for academics, students and practitioners alike. Below a short overview of each part is provided, alongside notes on key themes from the chapters to provide an insight into the exciting discussions had.

Part one from the book’s editor is comprised of three chapters and these are developed to provide the reader with the foundations required to explore the case studies. Chapter one offers a scene setting that situates the reader within key contextual discussions related to the commodification of sport since the 1990’s. The impact of commodification on sporting practice is explored and the resulting precarity of elite sport is debated. A lot of what is discussed in this chapter is not new to the sports scholar, yet for those not well versed in sports politics or theoretical explorations of sport, it is a useful, accessible and vital opening to the book. Chapter two focuses on existing theories of learning and specifically three learning conceptualisations that up until this point have guided athlete learning in elite sport. Here Barker-Ruchti focuses on learning as acquisition, learning as participation and learning as storying. Drawing on the strengths and weaknesses of each conceptualisation, the chapter provides a balanced and informative overview of elite athlete learning from prominent theoretical positions. The final chapter proposes a fourth conceptualisation of athlete learning in elite sport, that of a cultural perspective of learning or learning as becoming. Drawing on Theory of Learning Cultures and Cultural Learning Theory influenced by Hodkinson, Dewey and Bourdieu, Barker-Ruchti provides an alternative theory of elite athlete learning that is timely and accessible for the reader.

The balance struck in this book is central to its success, bringing together the theoretical with the practical opens the book to a broader range of audiences and maximises its inclusivity for academics, students and practitioners alike.

Part two is comprised of nine chapters that are case studies of elite athletes and their learning journey. The athletes represent a diverse array of global examples, ranging in gender, current engagement, ethnicity and sport, but all participated in either professional or the highest amateur level of their sport. Each chapter follows a similar framework, driven by the athlete story, providing introduction, career events and phases of learning which is intertwined with author interpretations. The remaining elements of the framework provide room for author driven analytical discussion informed by the cultural perspective of learning and are concluded with a summary. The adoption of this framework provides an authentic opportunity for the reader to engage with the experiences of the athlete. Where needed this is suitably guided by the author and discussed carefully to ensure accessibility remains and key questions are answered. Chapters four to six focus on case studies that range from explorations of learning for a dual career gymnast that encountered learning provoked by injury and a boxer discussing life transformation and the desire to becoming a decent man, to an ice hockey player that encountered deselection and the consequent learning that occurred.

Chapters seven to nine combine to provide accounts of the precarity of elite biathlon in the context of self-survival and care of health, the experience of the tension between the cultural heritage of home and that of destination after migration for a rugby union professional, and the embodied experinece of ageing in basketball and the associated learning that occurs. The final chapters of part two include the learning that occurred for a Muslim, female boxer negotiating competing cultural and religious expectations, a female rugby union player juggling the demands of full-time study, job and deselection, and the autoethnographic experiences of a non-binary boxer and their progression within elite sport. The success of part two is in its ability to drive discussion through the narratives provided by the athletes, carefully scaffolding theoretical and analytical discussions to ensure the reader can deconstruct the insights provided. Additionally, the diversity of sport and athlete is exciting and provides a range of accounts from underrepresented sports and individuals that is welcomed in the sports literature.

Denise Herrmann, leading German biathlete, in Finland, December 2020. She is in no way connected to the book under review here.

Part three is comprised of two chapters that focus on the implications for research and practice. Firstly, Barker-Ruchti provides the reader with a consideration of the implications of adopting the cultural perspective to learning in research. Here the central focus is discerning that if we adopt a position of cultural perspective, how do we develop further research that successfully understands this within sport coaching science contexts. Here the author argues for an interdisciplinary approach to exploring athlete learning to grasp the multitude of contexts. In addition, they suggest this needs to be complimented with an appreciation that findings are not generalisable nor easily applied. Here and following the ethos of this book, they suggest stakeholders and practitioners are vital in understanding and disseminating the knowledge gained. Finally, Barker-Ruchti places time and emphasis on the implications of conducting research in cultural theory of learning providing recommendations centre around five insights.

In conclusion I believe Athlete Learning in Elite Sport: A Cultural Framework is a significant contribution to the sport coaching literature, providing an important balance between academic and practitioner insight. This balance ensures the book is accessible for a wide audience but also represents the sport coaching context in an authentic way. The contributions from practitioners are fascinating and provide a unique insight into pertinent issues in sport coaching that are under-represented in mainstream discussion. Finally, the book provides an interesting and unique insight into the use of particular research designs and methods that I believe will enthuse students in sports coaching and related areas to heighten their aspirations for investigation in this area.

Copyright © Benjamin Moreland 2021

Table of Content

Natalie Barker-Ruchti

Part I: Landscaping Elite Sport and Theorising Athlete Learning

      1. Contemporary Elite Sport Landscape
        Natalie Barker-Ruchti
      2. Existing Theories of Learning
        Natalie Barker-Ruchti
      3. Cultural Perspective of Learning
        Natalie Barker-Ruchti

Part II: Showcasing Athletes’ Learning in Elite Sport

      1. Maintaining a dual career horizon in women’s artistic gymnastics: A case of a female gymnast
        Astrid Schubring, Natalie Barker-Ruchti, Roslyn Kerr, Georgia Cervin, Myrian Nunomura
      2. Learning through boxing: A case of a male boxer
        Christopher Matthews
      3. Learning through a semi-professional career and deselection: A case of a male ice hockey player
        Gretchen Kerr
      4. Career learning in youth elite biathlon: A case of a male biathlete
        Astrid Schubring
      5. Learning through rugby, migration and a professional career: A case of a male rugby player
        Roslyn Kerr and Koji Kobayashi
      6. Aging in professional sport: A case of a professional male basketball player
        Laura Purdy, Geoff Kohe and Rūtenis Paulauskas
      7. The implications of sport attire and culture on Muslim women’s participation in elite boxing: A case of a female boxer
        Anne Tjønndal
      8. The experience of an international female rugby player
        Francesca Cavallerio and Katrina McDonald
      9. An auto-ethnographic account of one athlete’s journey to reconciling gender diversity through elite boxing: A case of a gender non-binary boxer
        Aly Greey and Natalie Barker-Ruchti

Part III: Informing Research and Practice

      1. Insights and Implications for Research and Practice
        Natalie Barker-Ruchti
      2. Final Reflections
        Natalie Barker-Ruchti
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