Sinking pressure to perform

September 4 - 10, 2019

Gulf Weekly Sinking pressure to perform

Young prestigious talent will always be at the forefront of many people’s minds. People are not just able to enjoy the athletes that are on display at any one time, they need to know who the next big thing is within their sport.

I don’t know if I can blame the whole frenzy either. It’s exciting to make predictions and it’s exciting to watch athletes grow and get better, particularly if you are affiliated by supporting their team or nation. Sport will continue to be played throughout the rest of human existence, therefore there will always be new participants trying to become professional, always a star of the future.

In a week where one of the biggest football clubs in the world has had their youngest goalscorer record broken and we saw pictures of a teenager crying after being knocked out of the US Open, should we consider a minimum age in certain sports and should talent be the only barometer of whether an athlete is ‘ready’?

The thought process was sparked in me when an article from 2009 popped up on my social media feed. It was titled: “Top 20 talents about to take football by storm.” Only three or four of the predictions were anywhere near being correct and I wondered if this was a theme. Sure enough, article after article from between 10 and 15 years ago, were way off the mark with their assertions on who was going to make it. I noticed another theme too. Many of the players that didn’t live up to their hype still had a number of club records to their name such as youngest goalscorer, youngest appearance maker, clubs record transfer fees. All of these accolades scream pressure to perform. Some of these players had not made it at the top of football and had also gone from the game completely. One player, who featured in a number of lists, was in jail aged 28. Unfortunately, I cannot give a detailed personal account of why any particular player did not do as well as others had hoped but for me it doesn’t seem to be a massive jump between the psychological pressure put on athletes, some of whom are still legally children, and their failure.

Royston Drenthe, one of the many future stars from the 2000s, couldn’t exactly be classed as failure having spent six years in the top divisions of European football. However, he has admitted himself that he never lived up to the hype that surrounded him due to the enormous pressure. Having signed with Real Madrid at 20 years old, he eventually succumbed, asking the then Real Madrid manager Juande Ramos to leave him out of the team for three games as he was suffering from anxiety due to the booing of the Madrid fans.

Tom Daley, a British diver who held the 2009 FINA World Championship at just 15, had to move schools due to bullying shortly after and hasn’t quite reached the heights predicted off the back of his early talent.

When young people are thrown into the deep end of professional sport it is because they are hugely talented. Real Madrid didn’t pay £15m to give Drenthe a break and other divers didn’t allow Daley to win because they felt sorry for him. In terms of talent, they were more than ‘ready’ for the demands of the sport but were they ready for their new fame, new lifestyle or new pressures?

In my opinion, we need to find a way to analyse slightly more thoroughly as to whether a young athlete is prepared for a substantial life change that comes with high expectations and if we can’t implement something that applies to trainers, clubs and gyms, then governing bodies should look at how they can protect athletes.

I don’t know what will come of Ansu Fati, born in 2002 and Barcelona’s youngest La Liga goalscorer, who two weeks ago had to get written permission from his parents to play in a late kick off. I hope I’m not looking back in 10 years’ time saying: “I wonder what happened to him?”

Coco Gauff, the 15-year-old tennis sensation, may shed more tears during her career. There will always be winners and losers on court, but if she is shedding tears in 20 years’ time at a system that didn’t protect her, a career that was missed, that will be a sadness we will all have to share.

I have no problem with speculation or with prediction. I would hate the idea fans could not get excited by young talent within their sport. When 15 of the 20 talents ready to take football by storm, don’t just not make it, they suffer for it, there is clearly a flaw in our system that desperately needs to be fixed.

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