Posted inSports

Pressure on Prodigies

Ayomilekan Adegunwa questions whether the media and the sporting community expect too much, too early from young talents?

In sports, perhaps more than in most other areas in life, there is great appreciation for youth. Often, youth can represent hope and potential, and these two things play a massive part in people’s appreciation for sports. It’s part of the reason why fans continue to watch mediocre teams – the hope and excitement sparked by the emergence of a potential superstar keep them coming back. There is no greater example of hope in sports than the careers of young athletes. When we see a young athlete showcase their potential, we get excited about what could be.

This frequently leads to excessive hype. It sometimes feels like any promising football player is deemed ‘the next Messi’ or a promising basketball player ‘the next Jordan’. As anyone with a superficial level of knowledge of either of these sports knows, this is high praise. Mentally, this inspires unhelpful thoughts for impressionable teenagers. 

After all, being a promising young athlete is exciting for the individual themselves. Everyone seems to like them. Brands offer them large amounts of money, and they start to live a reality that they have dreamed about since childhood. However, all these things eventually fade away. Initially, people adore them, but almost all young athletes reach a point where that begins to turn. The media make their money out of building up a young athlete. But if that young athlete makes a mistake, then they come crashing down on them – a pattern seen in the careers of Raheem Sterling and Paul Pogba. This is consistent with how celebrities are treated – they are built up so they can be knocked down. The large amounts of money which come in from brand deals, salaries or prize money come bundled together with extraordinary pressure. In sports like football, many top athletes are not necessarily from affluent backgrounds. It is not uncommon to see a 20-year-old have multiple family members relying on them. This means that they have the added pressure of providing for their family on top of the aforementioned media pressure- all on top of the general anxiety of being one of a tiny percentile of people who managed to become professional athletes. The difficulty in arriving at the top level and then maintaining that position is noteworthy. For example, Emma Raducanu went from an unknown teenager to tennis’ next big thing when she won the US Open. Immediately she went from relative anonymity whilst playing the sport that she loves to deal with increased media attention and life-changing money from lucrative brand deals. 

When we see it like this, it is amazing how much pressure is on young athletes. It begs the question: what effect does this have on them, psychologically? An excellent example of the impact of this pressure is the ‘genre’ of footballer apologies. As a Manchester United fan, I’ve become all too aware of these over the past few years. After any bad game, players often feel the need to apologise on social media – which can’t be a healthy response. Reasonable fans accept that sometimes you lose games and people make mistakes, but the pressure on players makes them feel guilty when they really shouldn’t. Returning to the example of Emma Raducanu, her success as a British woman in a sport where British success is so sporadic means that her ‘fans’ seem to comprise the whole country.  Her struggles are always analysed on a national scale. When she had to withdraw from a 4th round game at Wimbledon – her first-ever Grand Slam – due to sickness and breathing difficulties, this became a national topic.

There are attempts to remove some of this pressure from young athletes by treating youth athletes as amateurs. The most prominent example of this occurs in the NCAA. The NCAA is the organising body for college athletics in the USA. In America, college sports are a big deal: the college football final receives similar, if not larger, viewing numbers than many professional events – even the NBA Finals. Despite this, college athletes are not allowed to be paid by their teams (and until very recently, weren’t even allowed sponsorships). Some may argue that this protects young athletes as some pressure is off. They have the opportunity to focus on the pressures of being an athlete and dealing with that alone, rather than having the financial pressures. I think this argument is unfair. Athletes should be fairly compensated for their efforts. Deciding not to pay them, especially when some college football teams have coaches making millions, is just an excuse to keep the money. 

If treating them as amateurs is not the solution, then what is? I would argue that the best way to treat young athletes is with respect. Young athletes would benefit from more respect for their humanity, as people often seem to forget that athletes are people too– not just avatars for us to project our hopes onto.

Image Credits: Matt Brown, Flickr