This was the first study to explore elite para-swimmers’ experiences with social support and the influence it has on wellbeing and performance. Findings led to the development of a new model ‘The Podium Illusion’ that visually reflects the support available to these athletes. Key insights gained from this study suggest the importance of the coach-athlete relationship, teammates, financial aid, performance support staff and personal support from family and friends.
Coaches provided emotional, esteem and informational support. A strong coach-athlete relationship has been associated with successful performance [18, 24, 47]. The elements of closeness, respect, trust, intimacy and friendship experienced by our participants are important components of an effective coach-athlete relationship [18, 23, 24, 47, 48].
Coaches provided emotional support through being approachable, a good listener and expressing caring, which are indispensable components of the coach-athlete relationship . A coach’s ability to inspire and motivate their athletes was valued, with participants experiencing increased levels of self-esteem, and improved overall wellbeing and performance with a supportive coach. This support was vital, as high confidence levels are linked with improved performance in Olympic athletes . Participants received informational support which contributed to the execution of a successful race, suggesting that coaches had a good understanding of sport-specific tactical and technical elements .
A unique bond and a sense of closeness was shared between teammates, attributable to the nature of the sport and shared early morning training sessions . Many studies have reported the value that teammates bring to athlete wellbeing and performance, with our participants reporting emotional, esteem and informational support.
Teammates acted as confidants and provided a sense of camaraderie, making training sessions more enjoyable. This reflects findings from other elite para-sports including cricket, sitting volleyball, badminton, wheelchair rugby and wheelchair basketball [51,52,53,54,55,56]. Advice provided by teammates was invaluable, enabling participants to maximise performance, and is reflective of existing evidence regarding managing disability and personal problem-solving [51, 53,54,55]. Positive remarks and complements from teammates boosted participants’ self-esteem. In contrast, negative attitudes of teammates are considered a stressor and impact performance, although not supported by our findings .
Support provided by teammates is particularly interesting as swimming is essentially an individual sport, with the aim being to improve individual personal best times, win medals and achieve team selections. Furthermore, team relays comprise < 5% of events at the Paralympic Games, further implying the individual nature of the sport . Despite this, the impact of teammates on performance cannot be understated, suggesting that there is a squad of teammates behind every single swimmer and their individual performances.
Sports medicine support helped with recovery, maintenance and injury management, enabling both physical and mental recovery. The physiotherapist’s role is diverse, involving the provision of specific interventions to aid recovery and guidance on injury prevention . Harnessing the educational power of physiotherapy to inform athletes and coaches about pre- and post-pool activities was suggested to aid injury prevention.
Funding is an integral aspect of elite para-sport, enabling participants to focus fully on their sport. Literature has suggested certain stressors that accompany the receipt of financial support, such as the expectation to perform and responsibility of national pride [57, 60, 61]. However no participants recalled any funding-associated stressors, possibly due to security in funding status due to their high global rankings. Some sought additional financial support to supplement finances and cover living costs, which has been the case for other previous British para-athletes . A standardised amount of funding may not be sufficient to meet the specific individual athlete’s needs.
Participants were appreciative of the many facilities available at the NPC, such as the Kistler Performance Analysis System to analyse starts, turns and relay takeovers [62,63,64]. Despite this, many were happy in their home programmes, suggesting that the coach and training environment are more important. Some participants thought their home club location negatively influenced the frequency of contact with support staff. If the support and resources were more accessible then participants may seek this more frequently, potentially resulting in an improved performance.
To create more stability, staff retention should be reviewed. The need for good communication was highlighted, keeping athletes up to date to remove any unnecessary stressors . The lack of support from support staff in certain situations, such as following poor race performances, was also raised. Elite para-athletes can experience both sport and disability-specific stressors which can affect wellbeing and performance, with the process of re-classification being particularly traumatic and isolating, further demonstrating the need for appropriate mental health support from British para-swimming staff [2, 14, 66,67,68].
The Podium illusion
Study findings led to the development of a new model ‘The Podium Illusion’ which reflects the immensity of support provided to elite para-swimmers and the influence on their performance and wellbeing (Fig. 3). This model is potentially transferrable to all sports as all elite athletes receive at least some of the forms of support depicted in this model. It was apparent that more support was sought around competition times, for example to prime the body with S&C related activities before races, to measure race-specific parameters and to receive race day nutritional advice. This suggests that the support provided by practitioners to para-swimmers should be greater and more readily available around competition periods.
Strength and conditioning coaches prescribed swimming-specific on-land exercises, which directly translated into perceived swimming improvements, and is linked to enhanced performance and injury reduction [69,70,71,72,73]. Participants sought more psychology support when overcoming mental challenges, such as when experiencing post-Paralympic blues or a plateau year [74,75,76]. Support provided by psychologists can help athletes prepare mentally for the demands of elite sport, and has been shown to improve swimming performance . Physiologists conducted tests and measured swimming specific parameters (e.g. heart rate, stroke rate, lactate levels), which enables the provision of advice to inform training . Nutritionists provided informational support, giving advice on diets, fuelling for training sessions and race day nutrition, ensuring an effective performance, and reducing injury and illness risk . Skinfold measurements taken by nutritionists may provide insight into optimal body composition specific to each athlete, maximising performance . Performance analysis enabled the evaluation and improvement of technique, pacing and specific race components, and has been found to improve Paralympic swimming performance through race strategy adjustment [81, 82].
Personal support was viewed as vital to success and happiness. Family and friends provided emotional support to participants, who experienced a sense of closeness, trust and understanding. Emotional support is vital to help athletes cope with stressors, recover from injury and aid retirement from sport [24, 83, 84]. PL advisors mentored participants to facilitate their personal development and plan for life after swimming. This role is important in ensuring the balance between athlete wellbeing and the pursuit of high-performance sport [85, 86].
Strengths and weaknesses
The sample was representative of British para-swimming allowing an in-depth exploration of social support [34, 35]. Measures were undertaken to optimise rigour including reflexivity, triangulation and member checking, ensuring trustworthiness of the results [44, 87, 88]. Finally, the research team comprised experienced qualitative researchers and an elite-para sport practitioner, aiding the interpretation and analysis process.
If method triangulation had been employed (i.e. observations), there may have been a deeper understanding of social support experiences [89, 90]. Secondly, there was no variation in participant nationality or ethnicity meaning that the findings are only applicable to white British athletes. Thirdly, the Framework Method states that an experienced qualitative researcher should ideally lead the analysis and be involved at every stage . In our case the study was led by a relatively novice researcher although oversight and active participation from those with considerable methodological and subject-specific expertise was ensured throughout.
Implications for practice
Findings suggest that a whole contingency of specialised, knowledgeable support staff contributes substantially to athletic success due to the range of social support provided covering all aspects of performance. The new model created, ‘The Podium Illusion’, is potentially transferable to all elite sports and visually reflects the support an elite athlete receives. More support was sought around competitions, suggesting that the support offered should be increased before, during and post-competition to reflect this.
The coach-athlete relationship is an essential component of elite sport and an athlete should seek a coach with whom they can form a close, trusting relationship. Teammates provided camaraderie and motivational support, suggesting they also are vital to success. The high-level performances would not have been possible without funding and the subsequent impact of reduced funding on performance outcomes should be considered by a National Governing Body (NGB). Personal support was also of vital importance, implying that an athlete is unlikely to perform to such high levels without good overall wellbeing. The suggestions made for British para-swimming could be considered by other NGBs should they desire to improve the support provided.
Further research is needed to build on these findings and provide a greater depth of knowledge in this field. This phenomenon should be explored in elite para-swimming populations in other countries, allowing the comparison of the availability and quality of social support across swimming nations. The experiences of social support should also be explored in other para-sports within GB to investigate and compare the support available to athletes between sports. These explorations and comparisons would enable identification of the areas for improvement in specific sports and allow sports to build on their successes, maximising the performance and wellbeing of their athletes. Future studies could also focus specifically on the two different types of support available to athletes: performance and personal, allowing a more in-depth investigation into the role of these forms of support on athlete success and wellbeing. Studies could also consider specifically the role of financial support as it appears to be multi-faceted, with athletes receiving support from funding, sponsorship, donations and family.