Sporting success can be a curse for young people

For someone to dedicate themselves from an early age to their chosen sport of course has its benefits, some of which are learning about self-discipline, maintaining physical health, and providing opportunities to meet new people and develop friendships.   

But young people, particularly those who show sporting ability, are bombarded with sporting opportunities – from school teams, local teams, county teams, and provincial teams. They may find themselves from an early age juggling multiple sporting commitments, for the love of the games.

It was extremely demanding,” recalls Ronan McGowan, who juggled inter-county GAA and soccer commitments at local and regional level. “ I’m so lucky I didn’t get injured – I was training five times or more a week, with a game or two at the weekend, and the expectation on me was immense.   

“There was my club team, Sligo-Leitrim team, school teams and county panels – there was no day I wasn’t busy with one of them, which sounds so hectic to me now.” 

When sport becomes such a massive part of a young person’s life, it can often become an obsession and affect their sense of identity. For time, at school age with all its obligations, this can be part of a healthy routine and structure. 

But once they leave school, if they’re not in an apprenticeship or other training/education, young sportspeople’s lives may become unstructured and undisciplined. What was once a structure-filled life of order is gone. Many of them experience a drop-off in. Even those pursuing a college education are left to their own devices, with fewer hours of learning, no accountability for attendance, and opportunities for drinking and partying. 

“When I left secondary school I kind of just lost my way, I was out most nights, skipping training, skipping lectures, sleeping in till all hours, no one was checking on me and I started noticing I gained a little bit too much weight and I felt nothing like I used to on the pitch,” McGowan says.

With this combination of lack of structure and  fewer sporting  opportunities, many people who show their sporting ability at an early age often experience a falloff in performance – and this may result in mental health challenges.   

Young athletes have become so used to being praised for their abilities and achievements, that when they experience this deterioration in their performances and ability it can be extremely difficult to come to terms with. Young people with sporting success become heavily associated with their sport by other kids and adults – people who do not know them will ask them about their sport just to make conversation. That can really give young people a harmful misconception of their identity. 

“When you’ve been excelling in your sport since you could remember and then your performances start becoming mediocre, and different teams and coaches tell you you’re not going to be a part of their plans for the future. It’s so hard to be confident in not just your sporting life but yourself as a whole,” McGowan says.

“And even though the football was dropping off for me, the questions weren’t. Whenever I see someone I hadn’t seen for a while their first question is how I’m getting on with football. And every time I hear it it’s like a knife in my chest,” McGowan says. “I started questioning if anyone cared about me outside of football.”

The transition from an elite sporting youth to an adult with new challenges is natural, and for anyone who experiences such hardship as I have described, be kind to yourself – you are good enough. 

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