Johnny Football… oh, wait

The pressure on young athletes today is crazy

It’s not been that long since sports stars were amateur, or were paid modestly. Just think, it’s not so long since Rugby players had other jobs, Cricketers had beer bellies (some still do…) and cycling and athletics were good honest sports you could trust.

For every Steph Curry, Aaron Rodgers, Virat Kohli, Cathy Freeman and Ronaldo, there are hundreds, probably thousands of ex-players out there who are still wallowing in their fall from grace. But more are falling off the wagon:

Tiger Woods, Wayne Rooney, Mike Tyson, Roy Keane, John McEnroe, Michael Phelps, Aaron Hernandez, Maria Sharapova, Freddie Flintoff, Marian Jones, George Best, Shane Warne, Lance Armstrong, Ben Johnson, Floyd Mayweather, Johnny Manziel…

Why is this happening? Well, for a number of reasons:

Balance — all of these players, who have fallen off the tracks at some point have been ‘guilty’ of being solely focussed upon success in their sport, right until they reached the top. That is not so much a problem, until you weigh in the human element. When is it right for a young person to not socialise during their teenage years? When is it right to focus upon one sport above all the others? Hustle and dedication are critical factors, but not having a release and not having an appreciation for other equally or more important things in life mean that when the money comes fast, many young sportspeople don’t know what to do.

Obsession with stardom — culturally, we now have shows like X-Factor, Top Model, Dragon’s Den, The Apprentice, The Voice (and on and on) that catapult one day a nobody, into a somebody, and throw limelight, money and fame at someone who had never experienced it. It is not easy to deal with. Having media and fans peer into your personal life in a way you had never anticipated can be quite disturbing and increase the pressure of being an athlete who must perform. All of a sudden, the wins get bigger and the losses get steeper.

Johnny Manziel at the 2014 Draft

Money. Lots of it. If you speak to athletes in “elite” / development or academy squads — how many of them say they are playing because they love it? In my experience, not many. Most of them say, “I want to be a professional,” only I’m not sure they really understand what that means. Diet. Training. Discipline. Hustle. Sacrifice (plenty of it). Hotel rooms… and lots of those too. The money that is available at the elite tier of sports is phenomenal. Endorsements, contracts, showbiz, the works. And sports know it — the NFL has done a phenomenal marketing job to turn a scouting and recruiting exercise into millions of columns, thousands of hours of footage and vast opportunities to service their commercial interests, and the cost? The delusion of many young football players, who haven’t played a single down in the NFL, and many thousands who dream that one day, one day they can be like Johnny Football and earn their first million.

Money Mayweather

Parents… as much as we as coaches are hesitant to address this, it is a major issue. For years, we have seen on the sidelines the behaviour that is on display in ‘Trophy Kids’ in one form or another. We’ve seen the parents that are hiding behind a post, or a tree afraid to move because they might affect little Johnny’s performance. Or the parent that carries the kitbag. Or the parent that becomes the team manager for a few years. Or the parent that stands at the back with their arms folded trying to catch their child’s eye… we’ve seen you. Let them get on with it. Let them laugh, let them cry. Let them make their own mistakes and get in a huff. They’ll talk to you if and when they want to. They’ll play, if they want to. It’s not up to you.

Social Media: the good, the bad and the ugly. Isn’t it amazing that we can now chat to athletes, coaches and ‘superstars’ every day? Absolutely. We are closer as fans, as observers to the real thing than ever before. But guess what? The superstars are often just real people — they do stupid things, and they say stupid stuff. And for this, they can get destroyed. No matter how mentally tough you are, or how much resilience you have, it doesn’t sit well if thousands of people are giving you stick. Moreover, god help you if you have a bad performance, or drop a ball! It’ll be there for a lifetime…

The Butt Fumble

Coaches. Don’t let’s kid ourselves. We contribute too. Who’s never thought about the kid that makes it, the kid that shows the world how brilliant we are? Where did they come from? Wow, that coach must be amazing, let’s hire them for Man United. I mean. Seriously. Remember why we coach, think about the joy and the warmth you get from seeing improvement and them ‘getting it.’ Think about the lifetime friends and acquaintances that the children can make while they are in your company, and about the things you can help educate them with — culture, communication, selflessness, honesty, growth mindset, helping others, teamwork. Let’s focus on those things. Yes, if you meet a seriously dedicated athlete, then it is your job and your responsibility to help them as much as you can, but most athletes aren’t like that. They want to enjoy themselves, in a safe environment, and learn something challenging. So do that.

Don’t get me wrong, having the opportunity to play for your country, or winning a national trophy, or being part of a team that wins an Olympic medal are experiences and memories that most of us can only dream of.

However, let’s be aware, and be real, that there is a dark side too, and we need to understand it to control it…

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