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The Teens Slipping Through The Cracks of Elite Sport and Performance

The journey of a young high achiever is often marked by discipline, determination, and unwavering dedication. The students and their families invest hearts and souls into their chosen specialties, driven by dreams of success. However, not all these young people end up thriving on the podiums they are striving for. What about the ones who don’t quite make it? Are they acceptable collateral in pursuit of the few who do succeed? In this blog post, I'll explore the challenges that the masses of young athletes and performers face during and after quitting their chosen specialty and the importance of proactively addressing these issues. The responsibility falls on parents, coaches and institutions to ensure these young people are not left worse off after they finish their training.

The Highs and Lows of Pursuing Excellence

Young athletes and performers experience a unique set of circumstances that shape their lives. From a young age, they are pushed to excel, training for countless hours, and sacrificing much of their free time. These pursuits provide structure, discipline, and identity, offering a path to success and recognition. The extrinsic rewards often create a deep well of intrinsic motivation for these young people. But at the end of the day, they are adolescents. These students face the same challenges as all teens going through the vast changes of the pubescent years. Sport and performance, relying almost exclusively on the physical abilities and appearance of the body, creates a minefield for injury, disappointment and unique challenges for these students. The competitive nature of elite sport and performance often means those who experience minimal amounts of upheaval during this time are at an advantage.

Those that succeed experience the reality sought after by all their peers. But what about the majority of young people who are left behind? The young people in programs who are not the ‘winners’, who may not have adults around them informed and equipped to help them through this time?

The culture of high performance often blames the young person for their inability to stay small, fast, sharp, strong. Often resulting in quitting the sport or pushing through deeply negative mental health outcomes.

For most young athletes and performers, their journey will come to an end due to injuries, changing interests, or simply not having the tools to deal with their mental and physical health changes while in training. When they face the decision to quit, they must come to terms with a sudden void that disrupts their well-established routine. The loss of a central source of identity can be deeply unsettling.

The Mental Health Toll

Quitting a sport or performing art can lead to a range of adverse mental and physical health outcomes, including:

Identity Crisis: The abrupt shift from being an athlete or performer to an ordinary individual can result in a significant identity crisis. Many struggle with questions like, "Who am I without my sport or art?"

Depression: The loss of a passion that once brought joy and purpose can lead to feelings of sadness and hopelessness. Young athletes and performers may struggle to find new sources of happiness.

Anxiety: Uncertainty about the future, financial worries, and the fear of being forgotten can contribute to anxiety disorders in those transitioning out of their field.

Self-esteem Issues: Many struggle with a loss of self-esteem, especially if their sense of self-worth was closely tied to their achievements in their sport or art.

Isolation: Being separated from a close-knit community of fellow athletes or performers can result in feelings of isolation, leading to loneliness and a sense of not belonging. Exacerbated by a sudden disconnect to coaches and teachers who have previously been key people in their support system.

Physical Changes: Established unhealthy eating patterns created during years of high activity often leave the body in flight or fight. The sudden change in activity levels creates an ideal environment for the body to try and repair, sometimes to the detriment of the young person. With young people often struggling to adjust to physical changes and new energy intake needs.

It is crucial to recognise that these struggles are not uncommon, and young athletes and performers need support as they navigate this challenging transition. Coaches, parents and organisations must lead the way in supporting these young people to transition out of their training. With over half (adult) athletes surveyed by AIS experiencing mental health problems at a level that would warrant professional help (The AIS Mental Health Audit, 2022). A proactive approach will be the only way to impact this group and those who don't make it to the professional level.

Duty of care from coaches, parents and institutions must extend past these young people's performance and into their ability to thrive both in their sport and when they finish. Without this we leave behind a trail of broken young people for every success story. It is crucial that we recognise the challenges these individuals face and provide them with the support and resources necessary to transition to a fulfilling life beyond their former passions. By doing so, we can help them find new purpose, regain their mental well-being, and thrive in their new lives.

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