‘Golden needle in the haystack’: Potential Paralympians face more challenges in being talent spotted

By Colm Gorey, Frontiers science writer/Dr Nima Dehghansai, York University and Paralympic Innovation

Dr Nima Dehghansai. Image: Dr Nima Dehghansai

Potential Paralympian superstars may slip through developmental cracks more often than athletes without a disability, according to new research. Dr Nima Dehghansai of York University in Canada was the corresponding author of a paper published to Frontiers in Sports and Active Living that reported a lack poor funding and representation is preventing some athletes who have a disability from becoming potential Paralympians.  

Potential Paralympian athletes face a significantly greater challenge in being talent-spotted versus athletes who do not have disability, a new study has found. Writing in Frontiers in Sports and Active Living, the researchers identified issues such as poor representation among women athletes and a lack of resources among high-performance trainers means many potential medal winners can easily fall through the cracks.

One of those researchers was Dr Nima Dehghansai of York University in Canada and Paralympic Innovation in Adelaide, Australia, who works in athlete development and talent identification with a specialization in Paralympic sports.

His PhD research program examined the Australian and Canadian Paralympic systems to develop a deeper understanding of the myriad of variables that impact athlete selection and development in Paralympic sport.

He has also worked as a skill acquisition specialist, consulting Paralympic sports on a variety of development and performance topics including optimal training environments.

Because open access and sharing research is part of Frontiers’ mission, we want to give researchers the voice to express themselves and their research with more creativity and freedom than they otherwise would have in publishing an academic paper.

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What inspired you to become a researcher?

On reflection, the third year of my undergraduate studies was a big turning point. I have always been a curious learner with a keen interest in human behavior and sports.

In my behavioural psychology course, taught by my brilliant teacher Dr Peter Papadogiannis, I found out about the line of research that explores facets of human behavior in sports.

It was then that I knew I had found my career path. Soon after I started working in Dr Joe Baker’s lab, which affirmed all that I had anticipated regarding this field, I knew I was hooked. Coincidentally, I kept on working with Dr Baker for my master’s and PhD work! 

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

Despite there being a surge in research on talent identification and development in able-bodied sports, there remains limited knowledge regarding how talent is identified and developed in Paralympic sports. The purpose of this study was to capture the perspectives of experts – coaches, high-performance managers, and pathway specialists – working in elite Paralympic sport to better understand how they measure and develop talent.

This revealed concerns regarding the disproportionately low number of female athletes in the system, suggesting a need for new initiatives to support early-entry points for female athletes.

High-performance staff also lacked resources to better understand the nuances associated with different impairments and their implications, such as the physiological response to training, associated psychological stresses from injury and identity change.

Recruitment strategies included ‘talent search’ days, collaborations with school programs and rehabilitation centers, and helping local clubs support ‘drop-in’ athletes.

However, limited funding impacted the sustainability of programs, resulting in a regular turnover of staff, loss of intellectual property, and a weakened pathway system.

In collaboration with Wheelchair Basketball Canada, we wanted to examine the developmental trajectories and training histories of their academy athletes.

Through presentation of this work at an international conference, Dr Ross Pinder of Paralympics Australia and Jenny Davey of the Canadian Paralympic Committee were interested in furthering this work.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

A 2017 systematic review demonstrated limited work in this area as there has been only a handful of research contributions that mainly stem from a few research groups around the world.

This shortcoming is paramount from a practical perspective, as practitioners and coaches have limited resources to support their best practices and most often borrow ideas and resources from the able-bodied literature.

There are limitations to this approach as there are understandably differences between the cohorts which necessitates Paralympic sport-specific research to examine nuances associated with Paralympic athletes’ development.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

Yes, as alluded to above, while the aim is not to ‘re-invent the wheel’, current research from able-bodied literature is still used as foundational work. However, there are complexities associated with athlete development that are specific to Paralympic athletes, such as the timing of impairment-onset, variations of impairments, and degree of impairment severity. This indicates a ‘one size fits all’ approach doesn’t work.

Even within Paralympic sport, we are currently trying to promote a more complex approach as our research suggests there are great differences between Paralympic athletes when we considering their sporting development. 

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

For me and our research group, it is expanding on this individuality of development. More specifically, looking at the wide range of factors that impact athletes’ development. As this article highlighted, impairment-related factors impact athletes’ selection and development in their respective sports.

From an athlete’s perspective, their impairment is also a key factor to consider as they negotiate their day-to-day environments. Therefore, adding additional layers to this complex system to better understand athletes within their developmental environments will be key to further advancing our individual-specific approach to supporting athletes.

How has open science benefited the reach and impact of your research?

Our research is designed to drive practical implications and much of our audience are immersed in sports rather than academia meaning they have limited access to subscription-based journals.

Having open science where any person can access our research has allowed our networks to easily share our findings. This helps spread our messages across to key members of our society which, ultimately, continues to impact our social networks who can benefit from the findings of our research.

If you have recently published your research with Frontiers and believe you have a story to tell, then you might feature as part of our new Frontier Scientists series! Send an email with the subject line ‘Frontier Scientists’ and your name to press@frontiersin.org , as well as details on what your most recent research was about.