Dr Daragh Sheridan
- Written by Ben Croucher
Dr Daragh Sheridan had a professional football career spanning 8 years. Since then, he has researched why we love sport as children and how this can be used to retain and motivate young people to remain engaged in sport as they grow up. This research is now being applied at the elite level to promote good wellbeing and improve psychological welfare.
Not every kid wants to win medals. Some just want to make friends and enjoy themselves.”
Sport in a nutshell.
Sure we read about the medals, the glory, the superstars. For every aspiring Jess Ennis-Hill, Lewis Hamilton and Chris Hoy, there are hundreds if not thousands of young people for whom the competitive nature of sport isn’t appealing.
As such, many in their teens find other ways to enjoy themselves. But how do you best engage youngsters in danger of falling out of sport? And what lessons can you take from mass participation to the elite level? In other words, how do you best coach the coaches?
Enter Daragh Sheridan.
An Ireland youth international footballer, Daragh was released by Aston Villa before making a first team appearance. After five successful seasons in his homeland with Galway United and Longford Town, he retired, and began helping other athletes fulfil their potential.
Having worked with Irish athletes and coaches in the build up to London 2012, he saw first hand the special relationship that exists between the two. If that relationship breaks down, at professional or mass participation level, problems arise - leading Daragh to his next and most defining role yet for the Gaelic Athletic Association.
“I went back to college at the age of 33,” he says.
“In 2013, the Irish government produced a pretty damning report on why kids leave sport. They highlighted team sports as being key to enabling drop out.
“We’ve got massive engagement between four and 12 years old but when games become competitive, a big crack opens and kids pour out.
“I got the opportunity to solve a complex problem and create a structure to keep these kids involved.”
With the outcome of the study decided for him, Daragh essentially had to work backwards, defining a pathway to engage more young sportspeople.
“The first week of my PhD, my supervisor tasked me to write a pathway to impact strategy for the research and this exercise completely reframed my sense of direction and possibility.
“I learned that I could create knowledge that has the potential to create new ways for teenagers to sustain their engagement in sport.”
Over the course of 30 months, he discovered that replicating certain things in an athlete’s environment encourages adolescent athletes to stay involved.
They’re called ‘Play to Stay’ values.
What do these actually look like when coaches put them into practice?
Daragh explains: “I went about socially engineering the games environment to bring those values to life.
“Things like small sided games, and different rules like scoring only counting if the entire team, goalkeeper included, crosses the halfway line (effort).”
“If you enhance these players’ social identity, it will have a knock on effect to a load of other variables which are really important to engage within sport and psychological welfare.”
It worked too, with the initial trial across ten sites and 300 participants in Ireland increasing to 90 centres and 7,500 children.
“I’m proud of that,” Daragh beams. “It’s created an acceptable way for the youth to experience our indigenous games.”
Alongside his research, Daragh was responsible for the Irish Institute of Sport’s ‘Pursuit of Excellence’ programme, supporting over 40 different high performance coaches across a variety of sports.
In 2018, he took up a role within High Performance Sport New Zealand, managing over 100 elite coaches and implementing an infrastructure to enable the athletes to deliver medals. It’s a country he says recognises quality coaching gives a competitive advantage.
And the principles and lessons learned from Ireland, in both his doctoral research and his time working in Olympic and Paralympic sport, can be transferred globally
“A values based approach can give relevance and application into different contexts,” he continues.
“Look at the values that enable you to deliver your best performance and deliver the environment that is the best it needs to be for everyone to perform and have great wellbeing. It’s directly linked with culture and environment.
“By supporting the coach, everyone in that ecosystem benefits.”
The athlete too has a responsibility when it come to how a coach performs.
Linked back to these shared values, whatever the athlete and coach decide works best for them both can maximise the impact of training techniques.
“Some athletes just passively receive what coaches do,” Daragh says. “They don’t have a clear expectation of what to expect from a coach.
“An athlete can look at this research with their coach and identify values that are important to their performance but also their coach and their ability to coach. In doing that, we increase support and it creates an opportunity for the relationship to grow.
“What the values do brilliantly is they sit as a set of principles in the middle of the relationship to guide and inform how the relationship needs to be.”
Results can vary but invariably will not be instant. Daragh estimates, with a supportive framework in place, an athlete coming onto a radar to becoming an Olympic champion can be up to eight years, if not longer.
But not every kid wants to win medals. And thanks to lessons learned in Ireland, young sportspeople around the world and elite athletes can now benefit from a values based coach education system.
Whether ‘Play to Stay’ or athlete/coach defined, the path for success should be a little clearer.
Last updated December 2020.