More than investment is needed to develop Trinity’s sports stars

In the face of a rigid academic schedule, Rory Cousins assesses whether Trinity can provide an environment for elite athletes to excel

As a new wave of fresh-faced students march into Front Square and embark on their college adventure, one wonders what unique and exceptional talents they possess. Along with the regular mix of soulful musicians and outstanding academics, among the new crowd will be some exciting sporting prospects. With this annual influx comes the sobering reality that, for the most part, many of these promising individuals may not realise their full potential. This is partly due to the facilities and initiatives that Trinity provides to its sports scholars, which unfortunately are not as beneficial as they should be. While there have been some effective changes made to Trinity’s sports scholarship programme, there is still much to be done in order to assist athletes in reaching proper elite standards. Perhaps by looking at US colleges and how they produce world-class sportspeople, Trinity’s sporting bodies can increase the chances of students succeeding thanks to their programmes, rather than in spite of them.

Consider that US college sports have their own governing body, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) that provides funding for sports scholarships to the tune of $2.9 billion, equating to around 1% of Ireland’s GDP. Moreover, quite often, US sports scholars receive private tutors, counsellors and athlete-only study spaces to ensure that they satisfactorily fulfill their academic obligations. Compare this to the infrastructure in Trinity, where counselling services are stretched to breaking point, one must acknowledge that on some level Trinity simply does not have the resources to compete with the same pathways of care that exist for top athletes in US college sport scholarships. However, all is not lost, and despite incessant financial pressures, recent investments have shone a positive light on the vision Trinity has for its elite athletes.

Let us consider that in 2017, College recorded an annual deficit of €4.9 million. Furthermore, state-sponsored funding of College has declined year on year since 2012. Therefore, the installation of a new high-performance gym in 2016, paired with the purchase of Iveagh Training Grounds for €2 million in 2017, have undoubtedly been significant investments by the College in sport. More notable is the recent introduction of the ‘’Raising Our Game’’ initiative, a €13 million investment aimed at improving elite sports scholarships and programmes. The strategy is an outward demonstration of Trinity’s commitment to providing world-class facilities for its top athletes.

But can Trinity do more for elite athletes who struggle with the rigidity of a hectic college timetable? Is there a symbiosis to be discovered in which top athletes can compete at the best of their ability whilst attending lectures and tutorials?

In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell coined the “10,000 hour rule”. The idea, based on K. Anders Ericsson’s research into training and elite sports performance, suggests that in any given field, true mastery is achieved through 20 hours of practice a week for ten years. Therefore, it follows that, in order for an academic institution to do its utmost for its top athletes, an environment must be provided whereby sport scholars can knock some solid time off the proverbial 10,000 hour clock. Ideally, Trinity or any academic institution is seeking to achieve some kind of accord between top athletes’ sporting and academic pursuits. However, there are many challenges and issues that prevent a healthy relationship between academic and sporting interests among our top athletes.

The challenge for Trinity may be adequately explained through cognitive dissonance. Allow the first issue to be the idea of Trinity as an internationally renowned academic institution. Allow the second issue to be the idea of Trinity as a positive influence on the actualisation of elite athletes’ sporting potential.

The discomfort arises as the first and second issues directly contradict each other. Consider that missing some lectures or tutorials is necessary in order to become a great athlete. However, with no attempts to accommodate for an athlete’s packed schedule, College allows its students to miss out on a comprehensive third-level education. And this is the challenge that Trinity faces: Can special exceptions be made for our elite athletes, and should they?

Something like the system in UCD would be a fruitful avenue to pursue. Elite athletes are given the opportunity to split up modules to take the pressure off when competing for an event. This system results in one regular year of college taking two years, and consequently provides the athlete with more time and headspace to focus exclusively on sports.

Despite its shortcomings, it would be harsh to be too critical of Trinity’s efforts to nurture their talented athletes. US sports scholarships receive such high funding that they are almost incomparable to Trinity’s sports scholarships programmes. However, athletes are not born great, they are sculpted through habitual training, practice, and strict routine. If a rigid academic timetable is an obstacle for elite athletes, then more must be done to facilitate and accommodate those current and future sporting heroes that walk among us.