Can success at Junior Level come at a Cost?

There have been many athletes who have been very successful at junior level; representing their country in big matches, winning many titles and medals and striving to be the best. But how many then translate that to success at senior level? There are some that have, for example Usain Bolt, but for the majority they don’t. I guess the question is why? Is it due to being burnt out, badly injured and can’t ever get fully fit or just being sick of the sport?

This topic has come to the fore again with Athletics Weekly reporting on one of the UK’s top juniors having pushed so hard she has ended up with Osteoporosis. If she wants to try and get back to the sport then a long rehab is likely.

My question – Can success at Junior Level come at a Cost?

Let’s take a moment to reflect. What is every athlete’s dream? To make the Olympics is always the large dream, but for the masses that is often unlikely, so it can often be National Champion, or win a medal at National Championships or even for some be top in their club. The higher the ambition of course the longer it is likely to take to get there. The role of the coach is to have that long term plan mapped out. Of course this map isn’t the one and only path, as with all journeys that map has to be tailored and reassessed along the route it takes, but what it shouldn’t do is find a short cut and assume it will be the solution. As with all short cuts they end up becoming unpredictable and many fall by the wayside plagued by failure of overwork and impatience.
Reading the article about Bobby Clay there were many alarm bells, Bobby herself mentions she was reaching every target set and refused to believe it was enough. She wanted more and despite her coach trying to explain she was pushing too hard, she changed coach to get more stimulus and pushed even harder. This went onto relative energy deficiency (the result of insufficient caloric intake and/or excessive energy expenditure) as well as total obsession with the sport and always wanting more.

This is such a difficult time for the coach when this happens and all good coaches hear those alarm bells and try to stop the athlete pushing too hard. Easy said but how? It’s a big question. It may be you have to drop reps as the athlete is unlikely to accept slower pace. Or if the athlete is doing more on the side which can happen, the coach has to stick to their guns and take a planned session out to counterbalance the extra being done. When they turn up for a session have the athlete help coach instead and explain they’ve already done a session of their own. The athlete then hopefully starts to realise the amount of training is being managed for their own good. The approach is athlete specific and it is about knowing your athlete. It’s never easy but the athlete and their welfare has to come first.

Over my 25 years coaching I have witnessed many a talented athlete grow and due to early success can quickly end up on the path to over-training. This usually leads to being out the sport by age 20 or even earlier. This is both male and female.

The added part to the conundrum is the relative energy deficiency. Sadly this can lead to eating disorders, and again in my time in the sport I have witnessed both young male and female athletes ending up in this situation. This can be very dangerous and for a lot it ends up a lifelong battle after they leave the sport.

The coach has to be aware of all the warning signs, don’t be afraid to stop the athlete, get help from others as not every coach has the skills or confidence to deal with it.

My advice and what I’ve learned over the 35 years as both an athlete and coach is be confident in your plan, don’t compromise and try to find that shortcut to glory. Keep an open forum with your athletes and let them be confident to speak when there are issues. Reach for help from others who have more experience or qualified in things that you aren’t, and always remember talented athletes will reach their goals if they are given the proper, sensible and gradual building blocks to climb at the right time in their development.