Walking the path between practice and academia

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We are very fortunate to have Nicky Fuller working at UoG as a part-time lecturer, contributing to the postgraduate provision around professional development in sport. Nicky brings invaluable insight from the field and helps students to connect theory and practice in a way that develops sustainable change. Nicky works as a coaching consultant across a range of sports and projects. She is Course Director for The British Equestrian Level 4 Coaching Programme, Chairs the network of equestrian governing bodies for coach development. Is an end point assessor for Coaching Apprenticeships, England Netball coach tutor and assessor. She is also a designer of various coach development programmes including mentoring programmes and verifies the Talented Athlete Lifestyle Support Programme. In 2020 Nicky was one of three finalists for UK Coaching’s Coach Developer of the Year Award.

Nicky’s reflections on delivering in Higher Education

In 2019 I was invited by Paul Garner to work on one of the Masters Sports Coaching modules. I was no stranger to the University; collaboration on a Postgraduate Diploma for coaches is something I had been working on for more than six years, although not involving any direct delivery of academic modules. So, when Paul invited me to step into the world of academia to teach, it was with some trepidation. While I am involved with tutoring and facilitating coach learning programmes, as well as mentoring and assessing, these seemed a world away from Level 7 academic teaching.

I started my career in academia more than 30 years ago, so I was not totally unfamiliar with the expectations of university teaching, just very rusty. In my day we used something called a Micro Fiche in the library to source journals and articles; how things have progressed! Fast forward and I am now getting to grips with Moodle, Teams, APA referencing and the standard of Level 7 academic learning. This foray into academia is certainly influencing my outlook in shaping coach development strategy, projects and programmes. I have heard of the term ‘pracademic’ used in reference to professionals who are active in academia and as practitioners in their subject area. In my case, I am firmly a practitioner who is dabbling in academia, and as a result getting a different perspective of projects and problems. It’s been hard at times to read papers that make direct critical reviews of governing body policy around coaching qualifications and coach development programmes. Particularly the ones that I have had a direct hand in shaping – ouch!

The job of translating academic research findings, theories and concepts and applying them in a given practical context, is by no means straightforward. The environments in which I am attempting to translate and apply academic research can range from volunteer coaches who practice an hour a week, through to full-time professional coaches. Alongside this I am also negotiating budgets, coach development workforces (tutors, mentors, assessors etc), as well as managers who might also need insight to current research in coach learning, development and pedagogy. 

Whilst negotiating these tasks I have been privileged to access the wealth of literature in the University library, as well as indulging in great discussions about the value and relevance of the theory. I still find it exciting to uncover a piece of research that is either new and shines a different light on an existing problem or has the capacity to support something experimental that I might be trying with a group of coaches. It is energising to research and discuss concepts at one end and work up and test the theory at the other. Bringing this back into the University for more discussion with students and staff, is a great way of reviewing practice.

One of my guiding principles is about helping coaches to recognise that performing well and being an excellent coach, is relative to their aspirations and not about coaching high performance. This has empowered many to continue their development to be excellent practitioners. Knowing that context can be unrelated to high performance, has led to far more coaches interested in exploring what it is that helps them to be the best they can be. My practical role is about giving these coaches the opportunity to excel. I do this having engaged with academic literature and subsequent discussion and reflection. In addition, there has been a requirement to juggle budgets, resources and organisational politics. Hands up, I don’t always get it right, but decisions and actions are not taken lightly – or in the dark ages of ignorance – but through the struggle of pracademia.

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