There are thousands who dream of becoming a professional athlete. There are even more whose parents dream of their child becoming a professional athlete. Yet the chances of making it are slim.
Just a few months ago in the USA figures were released to show just how slim a child playing Basketball at high school’s chances were of making it into the NBA. The report revealed that in men’s basketball, there was only a 0.03% chance of a pro career. Which when broken down meant that of the almost 156,000 male, high school senior basketball players only 44 will be drafted to play in the NBA after college. When it came to women, and only 32 or 0.02% out of just over 127,000 female, high school senior players would make it.
If we look at football in England, again this year it was revealed that only 180 children of the 1.5 million players playing organised youth football will make it as a Premier League professional. A success rate of 0.012% according to football writer Michael Calvin, who looked into this issue for his book “No Hunger in Paradise: The Players. The Journey. The Dream”
We have all heard the words ‘Commitment’ and ‘Dedication’ used to tell young players that this is what you need to succeed. However the truth is to make it to the elite level it is not only these two attributes that you will need, as today it also requires hard work, time, money and bags of talent. Even then, there is no guarantee that a player will achieve their goal.
So those who make it to the top are a very small and exclusive group.
For the rest of us sport is a release from our everyday jobs. Something we enjoy with friends. Something that gives us physical activity, keeps us fit or simply gives us social engagement by being part of a club or a team.
So what release do our top athletes have?
When many are not playing they are training, doing gym sessions, sitting with team psychologists, or going over coding of their last performance and looking at how they can improve personally and as a team. It is a full time commitment.
If their form dips or the review of the squad is coming up they will struggle to sleep as all of a sudden the journey comes to an abrupt end and they are cast aside. Unlike many in a regular nine-to-five job, they have no practical skills that can be transferred into an office environment that gives them an opportunity of employment.
Some clubs and some coaches demand that the players under their control, ‘live, eat, drink and dream their sport.’ Yet is that really the way to go? Just as everyday people need a release from the rigours of their jobs surely athletes also need a break, the chance to take their mind off the game and enjoy life away from the sport in their down time?
Sure, some will tell you that they sit at home and play on their X Box or Playstation, but is that really the escape they need? Some will tell you that they cannot do normal things because members of the public may recognise them and so they cannot ever get away from the sport they play; these are obviously athletes in high profile sports.
One high profile athlete who went straight from school into a professional sporting environment explained that being part of that club was like extending his time at school. He was told what time to be everywhere, what to wear, what to eat, and when interviewed what to say. He felt he lost his own identity.
Another player who was fortunate to gain employment overseas admitted that before leaving once training was over he was at a loss as to what to do with his time. His friends were working regular jobs and so he would sit at home alone and simply watch TV. When his friends finished work they would have a beer so he would join them, often out of sheer boredom. He knew that it wasn’t good for his sporting career, but he needed that release as sitting at home alone all he did was think about the game. With maturity later in his career he accepted that he had been weak, and that alcohol could have derailed his career, had the opportunity to move on not come when it did.
So do clubs and sporting bodies do enough to make sure that the athletes under their control have a life away from sport? Do they do enough to ensure that they will be prepared for a life after sport?
To be fair some sports, and clubs set up career advice programs, as have the players unions. However as the economic strain on clubs begins to show these are often the first programs cut.
Are these elite athletes being forced to show an unrealistic level of commitment and dedication to the level where they have no other life?
Some will tell you that they are paid – in many cases – the big money and that is the sacrifice they must make. Yet when these same people struggle when their sporting journey comes to an end and they have difficulty assimilating back into a regular life we seem surprised.
Everybody deserves the opportunity to take “time-out,” to have time to follow their interests away from work. To be able to forget work for a certain period a week and focus on something else. So why shouldn’t our top athletes be given that opportunity?
It is one thing to expect our top athletes to behave a certain way as role models, but should they have to live their lives dedicated to their sport every waking moment? What kind of people are we making them?
Has professional sport simply gone too far? Have these athletes simply become commodities, and the human side been forgotten? If so that is a very sad, and maybe parents should think twice before encouraging their child down such a career path.
As one athlete explained “It is just a job.” Admitting that the enjoyment he garnered from playing the sport of his choice at the elite level had long disappeared. So why did he stay? Sadly purely and simply because of the money, and as he said once you are on that path it is very hard to get off. As he said ‘How many athletes simply quit because they no longer enjoy playing at the top level?’