The podium illusion: experiences of social support in elite para-swimmers

Aitchison, Beth (2020). The podium illusion: experiences of social support in elite para-swimmers. University of Birmingham. M.Sc.

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Aims: Little research has investigated social support experiences in sport, with no literature to date exploring these experiences in elite para-sport. The first aim of this thesis was to investigate the experiences and perceived health benefits of sport participation across four disability populations to determine the current literature investigating social support and identify areas for further research. The second aim was to explore the experiences of social support in elite British para-swimmers, determining the members of their support network and exploring the influence of this support on performance and wellbeing.

Methods: A mixed-methods systematic review was conducted to answer the first aim. The researcher and a second reviewer independently undertook the searching of several sources, study selection and quality assessment. Data were extracted based on the JBI data extraction tool and quality assessment was carried out using the QATSDD. Thematic synthesis and narrative synthesis were employed to synthesise qualitative and quantitative studies respectively. Content analysis was used to analyse the perceived health benefits of sport. Confidence in cumulative evidence was determined using GRADE-CERQual and Classes of Evidence.

A hermeneutic phenomenological study was undertaken to answer the second aim of the thesis. Eight elite British para-swimmers (3M/5F, mean age 24.9 years) representing five para-swimming classes participated in semi-structured interviews exploring their social support experiences. Data were analysed following the Framework Method and research quality was ensured through employing techniques including data triangulation, member checking, a reflexive diary and an audit trail. For both studies, a stakeholder group were involved during the analysis stages.

Results: The systematic review highlighted many positive aspects of sport participation across all four of the populations, including socialisation, enjoyment, sense of freedom, and challenging stereotypes. More research is needed to explore the experiences and benefits for veterans. The synthesis highlighted three forms of social support for elite athletes and suggested more research is needed into their support network and experiences of social support.

The qualitative study generated five themes and eleven sub-themes from the interviews, and led to the development of a new model called ‘The Podium Illusion’. The findings demonstrate the magnitude and quality of social support available to the elite paraswimmers to enable them to maximise their performance and maintain wellbeing.

Conclusions: The systematic review was the first of its kind and concluded that sport is an overall positive experience for individuals with a disability and that it should be promoted. However more research is needed to explore the experiences of veterans and to also compare perceived health benefits between populations. The qualitative study highlighted the important role of social support in an athlete’s performance and wellbeing, and led to the development of a new model which reflects this crucial aspect of sport. Further research is required to confirm these findings and to explore the experiences of social support in elite para-athletes from other sports and countries.

Type of Work: Thesis (Masters by Research > M.Sc.)
Award Type: Masters by Research > M.Sc.
Licence: All rights reserved
College/Faculty: Colleges (2008 onwards) > College of Life & Environmental Sciences
School or Department: School of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation Sciences
Funders: None/not applicable
Subjects: G Geography. Anthropology. Recreation > GV Recreation Leisure
H Social Sciences > H Social Sciences (General)
Q Science > Q Science (General)


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