Even model students need our help. It is easy to get caught up with those who struggle and it is equally easy to assume that those who are thriving don’t need as much help. In physical education and sport we often focus on the model students or the elite but, as William’s pedagogical case shows, there is a need to achieve balance. After all, “all work and no play” makes William want to quit. 


Volume 2.14 (Blog 109):

Chambers, F., Murphy, N, Nolan, Y., & Murphy, O. (2014). William: A 15-year-old sport-crazy Millennial in Ireland. In K.M. Armour (ed.) Pedagogical cases in physical education and youth sport (pp. 184-197). London: Routledge.



There’s barely a day when William doesn’t get up early, despite the fact that he’s not a fan of mornings. There’s also barely a moment, it seems, when he’s not hungry. He’d love to stay in bed (and not be hungry) and maybe not be tired but that would mean not doing all the stuff he loves to do: rowing, hurling at the GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association), walking the dogs, having a craic with his friends etc. It would also mean that he wasn’t playing music or doing the chores that he wants to do to be able to buy himself an indoor rowing machine.

William’s caught between many worlds but the two that dominate are his rowing and his hurling. He’s on the river three times a week (and soon after his 5am wake up call) and he’s rowing at school – both on the water and on the indoor rower. Despite being the only rower in his village he just finished second in the county competition and the school is currently 16th in the national on-line rowing competition. He wants to get good at this but knows it will take considerable effort and he’ll have to train. At six foot four he has the height to be a rower but he’s ‘skinny’ and needs to ‘bulk up’. He’s found out that to help ‘bulk up’ his friend Joey is taking protein shakes and creatine. He heard on the grapevine that some guys at the rugby club were using their parents’ credit cards to buy supplements online. Consequently, William has now started looking on the Internet to find out about the supplements he could use to help with the bulking.

Being bigger would help with the other love of his life (and his family’s life) – hurling. He plays for the local GAA where his father and granddad played before him. In fact his Granddad won an All-Ireland hurling medal for Cork in the 50s and he’s still revered in the village. William loves the games but the training isn’t always testing and his coach can’t answer his questions – thank goodness for the internet.

He’s not just about sport though. He thinks school is “deadly” and PE does his “head in” because other kids won’t take part in the games they play. That said he likes all his subjects – except religion. He’s also mad on music and could do it all day if allowed: piano, ukulele, classical guitar and he’d love a saxophone. That said he doesn’t always know how he fits everything in: rowing at 5am, school, GAA, training, homework, having a craic with the lads (every night with their hurleys), and Facebook…oh and eating.


The Pedagogical Case

Chambers and colleagues “view William’s case through three lenses: physical activity, neuroscience and digital humanities” before exploring pedagogical strategies and understandings that might help his teachers and coaches support him in managing his busy life. In what follows I will do the same.

From a physical activity perspective, William is a “model subject”. He meets and exceeds guidelines and is engaging in the recommended range of muscle and bone strengthening and flexibility exercises. While his experiences can be “judged as overwhelmingly positive” there are a number of things to be aware of – not least his growing interest in ways of enhancing his performance and “bulking up”.

William really needs a mentor – one external from his rowing and GAA interests – who can help him to develop his growing talent for rowing, navigate his curiosity for performance-enhancing and internet bought products, help him avoid over-training (it does seem like his rowing and hurling coaches don’t talk), and, importantly, ensure that fun is central to all he does. His coaches and mentors will be vital in his future but his hurling and rowing coaches need to come to an agreement about how they will collaborate to ensure he is always developing but without risk of injury or disinterest.

From the perspective of neuroscience research William is giving himself lots of advantages in terms of his learning. Research suggests, “exercise promotes a process call neurogenesis in the hippocampus of the brain, which is the region of the brain responsible for learning and memory”. It is thought that neurogenesis underpins our learning of new tasks and recollection of new information. Exercise has also been linked to “increases [in] the concentration of brain neurotransmitters which facilitate information processing.” The relationship between exercise and academic performance, Chambers and colleagues suggest, is becoming an increasingly intense area of research. Recent studies have shown a “beneficial relationship” between exercise and cognitive performance.

Exercise also has a positive impact on mood and is known to reduce the harmful effects of stress. This might be a reason why William is able to manage the stress of home (including his previously unmentioned but annoying younger siblings – especially his brothers who get into everything he has and break it) and school. Furthermore, exercise, diet and brain health have all been positively linked and it is important that William eats well – rather than just eating lots – if he is to make the most, in the way of benefits, from his exercise.

Outside of his Internet searches and Facebook friendships little is mentioned in this chapter about William’s use of digital technology. From a digital humanities perspective, it is right to assume that as a teenager he participates in digital media and deals with vast audiences outside of his immediate context. His Internet searches, Facebook, and his involvement in the online rowing championships are all sneak peaks into his digital life.

It is important that all his online engagement is positive – be it in the “competitive (rowing) gaming community” or his search for performance enhancers. It doesn’t appear that William is too caught up with his online world – after all he always find time to have a craic with his friends at the local pitch – but there are dangers. The “unwillingness or inability of his coaches to answer questions” is driving him to ask them elsewhere and this could lead to ingesting substances that could have “fatal repercussions for a young person”. While creatine might be beneficial William’s need “for answers to training questions are important reasons for digital literacy to be a keystone in all aspects [of education] for contemporary youth”.  

Pedagogically, Chambers and colleagues, ask us to consider William as a learner, his work-sport balance and his position as a Millennial (i.e. someone born between the 1980s and 2000). Particularly they ask their readers to consider the pedagogical-encounter (“the precise moment where a teacher, coach or instructor seeks to support a learner in sport, physical activity or exercise settings”). They argue that each encounter is an interaction. As such it requires the pedagogue to consider not only what his or her experiences bring to each encounter (in other words what preconceptions and beliefs they hold as the adult) but also consider what they know about William as a learner. In other words they (the pedagogue) need to use a “relational knowledge of children” and understand that what worked for them won’t necessarily work for others. This means that we need to acknowledge that each child is unique and, as pedagogues, we need to develop a bigger “palette of pedagogical possibilities”. 

With regards to students like William this means that we would need to help him strike a balance between his activities and help him build in times to relax. What with dog walking, hurling, rowing, school and chores he doesn’t seem to have too much time for relaxation. He does find time, daily, to have a craic with his friends (but this is hurling related). Having one “relatively independent person” to help him achieve this would help him “to be able to maintain a high level of motivation for sport training while also developing other transferable skills”. Part of this could be achieved through his online presence and as a millennial he has advantages that others don’t or didn’t. That said, he needs help to be a “critical consumer” of unregulated knowledge that is ‘out there’ and this means creating a balance between what he is learning in school and doing outside of school. 

While William might sound like both a typical teenager and a dedicated sportsman he (and others like him) need support to achieve the very best they can. The demands of growing up are taxing enough without the demands and drive to become an elite athlete – especially when you are taking part in different sports. The key is communication and ensuring that all parties are talking to each other and putting the young person’s interests first.

What’s next? As part of this blogs I propose the following as a way of considering the implications of this research on your teaching- Think, Act, Change (or TAC for short).

Think about findings of the paper – do they resonate with you? Use the comment box below to ask a question, seek clarification, may be challenge the findings.

Act on what you’ve read. What do you believe? Is it your responsibility to make changes or is this just something else that I’ve put on your plate? Is there action to take? If so, what might it be?

Change what you do in response to your thoughts and actions? Is this a personal undertaking? If you want to do something or are looking for help then please let the community know about it.

I wouldn’t expect every paper to get beyond the T or even the A of TAC but if one paper resonates enough to get to C then hopefully all this is worthwhile. Good luck.


Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Vicky Goodyear for her work behind the scene as copy editor. Her help certainly forms a vital part of the production of this blog, and in getting out on time and in a semblance of coherence. However it is important to note that any mistakes that remain are mine.