Mind the GAPS – Para sport training camp opens research support opportunities

The Commonwealth Sport GAPS programme provides a unique means of providing emerging athletes and coaches with the tools to overcome challenges in their careers

Para athletes playing table tennis

Athletes and coaches face many challenges in their careers, but those taking part in Para-sport must vault additional hurdles.

Issues related to classification, scarcity of accessible facilities and equipment, transportation, coaching, discrimination and access to competition all hinder development of the Para-sport pathway to the Commonwealth Games and beyond.

With these barriers in mind, the Commonwealth Sport GAPS programme (Gather, Adjust, Prepare, Sustain) provides a unique multi-sport, multi-disciplinary, and multi-stakeholder way to provide emerging athletes and coaches with the tools to overcome these obstacles.

The Birmingham camp is a partnership between the Commonwealth Sport and the University of Birmingham. The wider GAPS programme includes other universities across the world and has produced some remarkable results – most recently in connection to the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games.

GAPS allows athletes to visualise a ‘life beyond sport’ and start preparing their pathways into a post-competition future, whilst coaches can identify opportunities to support their charges whilst developing their professional skills and resources.

Katie Cronin - Assistant Professor (Education) Physiotherapy, University of Birmingham

Commonwealth Sport and Griffith University launched the Programme in 2016 with a pilot to prepare Pacific Island athletes for the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. The programme has continued to grow - GAPS camps have been held this year on the Gold Coast, Australia in partnership with Griffith University and in Kingston, Jamaica, in partnership with the University of the West Indies. The Birmingham camp is the largest such training event of 2024.

GAPS athletes set world records in Birmingham - securing gold, silver, and bronze medals, and many personal bests. More Commonwealth countries than ever fielded Para athletes with the Para athletes increasing 48% from Gold Coast 2018 (21 nations) to Birmingham 2022 (31 nations).

Chris Jenkins OBE, President, Commonwealth Sport, put it best when he said: “The Commonwealth Sport GAPS programme is an amazing initiative and the embodiment of our commitment to facilitate social change through the power of sport. It drives hope and motivation and builds pride and a powerful sense of identity amongst both athletes and coaches, and critically, it changes perceptions, and the way people view disability and ability throughout the Commonwealth. I know that participation in the global GAPS camp in Birmingham this week, will ensure the para-athletes and coaches, no matter their circumstances, feel empowered to reach their full sporting potential.”

Yet, the barriers to progress for athletes and coaches remain, as does an ongoing lack of research evaluating such a unique experience for all stakeholders. Research into the Commonwealth Sport GAPS camps at the University of Birmingham which led up to the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games provided a good starting point.

Athletes and their coaches described valuable social interactions - attributing these to positive athlete/coach identity. An enriched athletic identity led to increased hope by identifying pathways for future development, creation of goals and empowering participants – opening clearer pathways to a future career in the fiercely competitive arena of professional sport.

GAPS allows athletes to visualise a ‘life beyond sport’ and start preparing their pathways into a post-competition future, whilst coaches can identify opportunities to support their charges whilst developing their professional skills and resources.

The camps also delivered strong benefits for physiotherapy students who took part and were able to gain practical professional experience through working with athletes and coaches.

This year’s GAPS camps offer further unique opportunities to explore the programme’s impact with two research projects planned. My own research involves a two-year study exploring the Programmes’ impact on the athletes as they prepare for the next edition of the Games. What do the training camps mean to them and how are they helping to support preparation for the Games and a life beyond competition?

As a physiotherapist for more than 20 years, The GAPS Programme has undoubtedly been the best thing I have been involved with, but – more importantly – the event provides wonderful connections to a wider community of practice. Allied Health Professionals are keen to contribute their expertise, whilst students from the region’s schools can gain valuable work experience as they take part in a real-life careers event that opens their eyes to what physiotherapy professionals do. We also have University staff joining the camp through our Race Equality Network.

Whilst the NHS professionals are involved in medical screening of the participants, we also have physiotherapy students from the University of Birmingham working with athletes in pitch side injury clinics and helping to alleviate existing injuries.

Another study, led by my colleague Dr Paul Garner, will explore the benefits of ‘person-centred coaching’ in readying athletes for competition. Four physiotherapy Masters students will act as volunteer mentors; trained in the delivery of Dr Garner’s model for humility and person-centred practice, they will work with GAPS coaches to develop their ability to work in a person-centred way. Using structured reflective conversations, they will gather qualitative data from the coaches that will help Dr Garner and his team better understand the value of the model as a tool for coach development.

These research projects will provide valuable data on how the Commonwealth Sport GAPS Programme can be developed and improved in years to come, but the most important impact will undoubtedly be boosting the programme’s contribution to helping athletes and coaches from the Global South overcome the challenges that prevent them from enjoying a long, competitive and fulfilling career.