Long term athlete and personal development

I read today about Harry Ellis, the Leicester Tigers and England scrum half who was forced to retire from rugby due to a succession of knee injuries. It must be a huge emotional blow to know that you can no longer do what you’ve been training to do for the majority of your life. I also read a piece on an interview with Barry Everitt (here) who expressed his feelings on the lack of preparation of young athletes for how to cope if the worst does happen.

Professional football and rugby clubs nationwide run academy structures, many of which will take on athletes full time with an eye to developing them for an eventual place in the 1st team or selling on to bigger clubs. Many of these athletes commit full time and withdraw themselves from education, often encouraged by family and friends, to pursue this goal. Inevitably, a number don’t make the grade or become injured and as such have to adjust to life without their sport, try to forge a career in the lower leagues or, in the case of UKsport’s pitch to podium scheme, attempt to make it in another sport. It got me thinking about the ethical considerations surrounding working with youth athletes and the responsibilities attached to their long term development.

Is it the responsibility of the club to attend to the educational and personal development of their athletes? Should the athlete shoulder the responsibility as, ultimately, the decision to sign a professional contract is their own? Is the full time academy environment even the best for developing professional athletes? The conveyor belt of talent from the American collegiate system where athletes have to maintain a certain grade point average suggests that other models exist that could produce a more rounded athlete and provide a guard against failure or injury.

My view? I think that those involved in training elite level youth athletes, myself included, have a responsibility to extol the benefits of education for the long term. In the LTAD model, retirement and retainment occurs neatly at the end of the model, retirement can happen anywhere throughout an athlete’s career and that eventuality needs to be addressed. In short, plan for the worst, hope for the best.

Neil Welch

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