I generally view life from a realist standpoint. Which has its pros and cons, but I’d like to think I can see things for what they are. Being in a result based sports maybe it’s just something I’ve learnt over time.
I’ve been doing athletics now for six years, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have had some junior success. But I am now in the process well known as the ‘Transition’. The term that comes with great hopes and endless possibilities, but in the same breath presents a lot of athletes with a harsh reality. Where am I going? What’s my plan? Can I really make it?
There are many theories I hear from coaches, athletes, parents and even the local newsagents as to why juniors don’t become great seniors. Most of the time it boils down to “They aren’t working hard enough” or “They don’t have what it takes”. And for the most part, I shared the same opinion, until I found myself approaching the same scenario.
How is it possible for someone to show so much promise at a young age and just vanish into the background? It just doesn’t make sense to me. Following a conversation with another talented British sprinter Imani Lansiquot, I was led to write this blog post, where I will list what I feel are the relevant factors in this issue.
Now, this is a really interesting one. Often what you’ll find with young athletes is that there is a huge gulf between what they think and what is really happening. For instance, you’ve got a U20 who consistently runs 10.30–10.40 (which is really good for a junior) then all of sudden it’s a nice sunny day, you’ve had a ‘lit’ warm up, you’ve got a fresh trim (haircut) then BOOM! he now runs 10.19 with a +2.0 wind.
This is a great achievement, but the crucial part is what happens afterwards. You’re judged based off that 10.19, forgetting that you’ve actually consistently been around 10.3/4 all season. Now there’s talk of 10.0 or even sub-10 and over time you start to believe your own hype.
There is the shoe deal, that doesn’t really care about consistency they want the special performances and they want it now! It can be highly detrimental because the term consistency is now overlooked. The role of coaches, friends, family and decisions around shoe contracts are vital in this period.
A lot of the time we’re surrounded by people who just love to ‘hype’ everything up. At the time this can feel good and act as an avenue for confidence, but over time it can lead to complacency, a sense of entitlement and false confidence.
I’ve found that a lot of athletes come from families that don’t understand athletics, the importance of competition, and won’t appreciate the progression being made. A lot of the time it’s “Did you win?”, “Did you run a PB?” Or “When’s the Olympics?”. Now don’t get me wrong, there are many families out there who are supportive and understand how things work, but this narrative does exist… Trust me!
Peer Group Pressure
In most groups, either training groups or friendship groups there will always be a ranking in either times or achievement, sometimes that distinction is evident or it just lingers in the background, but it exists.
It can be very easy to overlook progressions and enjoy your own achievements because you’re too busy comparing yourself to others. I’ve witnessed this on numerous occasions and honestly speaking I’ve been guilty of this myself.
It isn’t easy to suppress this feeling, especially being a sprinter. There’s a lot of bravado, pride and egotistical prowess that comes along with it. I would urge young athletes to always focus on yourself. I recently listened to a podcast from ALTIS, featuring 400m runner Fred Kerley, and he summed it up in a few words “I can’t focus on another man because he doesn’t feed me”. This ethos will never lose value no matter how high up you get.
NCAA/Champs vs UK Conversation
The NCAA system is by far the best in churning out talent yearly, and a lot of them go on to be great athletes. We have also had a rich history of producing world-class junior athletes too, who in some cases have been better than most US talent. But there is clearly a disconnect here.
One goes on to become a World Champion and the other becomes the king of the Lee Valley Diamond League. That doesn’t really make sense. These guys go into a system where their education is paid for, they’re isolated from distractions and can focus solely on training. They’re in the hands of some of the best coaches in the world.
In addition, the competitiveness of the NCAA system is perfect preparation for the ‘pro-life’. Whereas in the UK, once you leave the junior ranks you’re either on the world stage or you find yourself slowly moving into the sunken place. There are real-life factors to take into consideration too. A university degree that has a timetable made by the devil himself, endless deadlines and the ever-present pressure of not wanting to let £27,000+ go to waste.
We have to factor in employment. As much as we like to dream that won’t pay the bills. Now if you’ve got a nice deal coming out of the junior ranks you’ll be okay for a few years, but it doesn’t negate the fact that there are various obstacles other than just training. It isn’t impossible, but the odds are stacked against you.
Contracts are single-handedly the most beneficial but destructive opportunity a junior athlete can have. At a young age it is a huge blessing, you go from having no money to a lot of money in a short space of time, and that can be a mind-boggling thing. It should help make athletics easier financially but it can become a catalyst for mistakes, internal pressure and an eventual implosion.
As I mentioned earlier in my example of the 10.4 turned 10.19, brands expect you to become the next Usain Bolt instantly and this is illustrated by their expectations and reductions in the contract. But if the athlete hasn’t even had time to stabilise at that time, is it even logical to expect another drop by .20 in a season? I’m not sure. It’s okay if you hit your targets, but the margin for success in athletics is small. There’s 8 finalists, 3 medalists and 1 champion.
Do we get contracts too young? Is there too much pressure? Maybe when I’m retired I will have a better view on it.
Lack of Depth
This point is losing value somewhat and I’m really happy about that, but I feel it still needs to be discussed. You’ll have someone who runs quick, then all of a sudden they’re now carrying the weight of a nation on their back to be the next Olympic Champion. No doubt that aspiration will be shared by the athlete, but Rome wasn’t built in a day let alone a year.
People need time to develop and actually go through a self-realisation phase. But instead, there’s the presence of articles, interviews, contracts and an infamous lashing that comes from the BBC when they don’t run well. You need to learn lessons, gain experience from competitions and acquire the skills needed to be a world beater. Now, are there platforms in place to ensure this actually happens? Questionable.
Take Home Message
The transition from a junior to senior is as hard as you want it to be. Although I’m currently in that phase, I’ve had a number of lessons these past few years that have left me with a different perception of this transition thing.
1) Make good decisions – sounds cliche, but it’s the truth. Think twice before doing things, and speak to people who have been there before.
2) Don’t put unnecessary pressure on yourself – Sport comes with pressure already. The last thing you need to do is add to that.
3) Take it one step at a time – As soon as you start thinking about money, times, fame, and notoriety it starts to go left. The only thing you can control is how you apply yourself.
4) Own your journey – It’s very easy to get sidetracked, caught up in everyone elses issues. Worry about yourself, and how you’re going to get better on and off the track.
Signing out. *drops mic*