R M Cullen
MD MSc MFM BA DipStats DipProfEthics
|elite athlete development||diabetes reversal||genome topology||evolution|
|tamaki sports academy||diabetes blog|
Gijs Van Hoecke, Belgian cyclist sent home from the London Olympics
Promising teenagers drink, have sex, get into fights, use marijuana, and perhaps experiment with other recreational drugs. Most athletes grow out of this. Some do not.
At senior level, these are all player issues that, more often than not, both national governing bodies (where the driving concerns are funding, and pleasing the media) and professional franchises find very difficult. It is hard to treat an established problem, especially when its owner displays that problem in public. There seems to be an increasing trend, driven by the media, to 'tear up his contract' and sign up another piece of meat. This allows the national body, which may well have had the player in its development system for ten years, and the franchise, which may well have had the player in its development system for five years, to pretend they have no responsibility at all for the outcome of all that development.
The professional sports I am most familiar with, rugby union and rugby league, throw up examples on what seems to be a monthly basis of players displaying, to the camera, alcohol problems, drug problems, problems with violence, and problems with narcissism. Unlike the others, narcissism in elite sportsmen tends to be generally benign (nude selfies and sex tapes) and embarrassing rather than career ending.
The prevention, early detection, and management of problem drinking, drug abuse, violence, and narcissistic promiscuity is properly the responsibility of elite athlete development programmes. Unfortunately, these programmes do not often accept that responsibility and, in any case, do not often have the necessary skills in-house.
I wrote, in an earlier opinion piece "In general terms the promising Auckland based 18 year old rugby league player comes with a predictable set of problems – his mates, alcohol and parties, his living arrangements, his skill deficits, he is not used to being under pressure for every minute of every game, he has not had his weaknesses targeted by opposing teams, his training programme is haphazard, and his path to the top has been based on the temporary advantage of early physical development."
The changing of social risk-taking behaviour in young elite athletes is a developing area. There is no agreed 'best practice'. The academy I am involved in was set up in 2007 to combat these social problems in promising athletes. We can offer our experience, and although we have had members who have gone on to play at first grade and even test level, we have also had members who have gone on to spend time in jail, who now make their money dealing drugs, who live for the weekend parties. A mixed set of results.
For what it is worth, here are our ten rules.
1. The first thing we have learned is to keep 'experts' and their one size fits all presentations away from our boys. Time and again we have seen others bring in someone to talk to a group. Almost always this misfires. The most common conversation between the boys afterwards goes 'What was he on about?'...'Dunno, I was napping'. It's a very difficult thing to get right. We have seen it done right once, by Steve Price, former Bulldogs captain and at the time Warriors captain. He talked to a group of threshold players about why none of them would be the one to take his jersey!2. The elite athlete development programme must get to know the person, not just the athlete at training and on game day. What are the personal strengths and weaknesses? Are the living arrangements stable? Are they conducive to high level achievement? Alcohol? Drugs? Violence? Family pressures? Educational attainment? Preparation for life after/alongside sport? The aim of this is two fold - to identify off-field barriers to a professional career, and to identify barriers to this sportsman evenutally owning his own home and providing for a family.
3. Surround athletes with good people. Distance them from previous peer group. It is amazing. Some young men gravitate one way, others another. It is our role to influence this. As a matter of policy we allow athletes to involve their friends in our activities. This can change, or chase away, those friends. A number of careers have been lost, or terminated early, because no senior figure was able to distance the promising athlete from a negative set of friends.
4. It is important to instil into young men a set of values by immersing them into a culture which expresses those values in everything its members do. It is values that allow young men to deal with the social risks - parties, pills, parents, peers, police, press, and so on that come with their ability to turn heads and confer status on others.
5. We offer structure and keep the boys busy, maybe even too tired to get into trouble. It's all about denying these young men the opportunity to make bad choices with big consequences.
6. At the same time it is important to provide these young men with the opportunity to make choices. The trick is to control the time and place so that when poor choices are made, the consequences are minor. We try to ensure that mistakes are made in private - at the club not at the pub.
7. It's important to give young men an easy way out of making bad choices. 'We get drug tested on a Monday morning', 'Got training early tomorrow'. At the same time we try to give our young men the confidence to say things like 'I don't do drugs' and the skills to deal with any taunting that might follow, without punching the loser with the big mouth straight away.
8. In the end though, it all comes down to one thing. Our boys know we have their back. We don't always agree. Sometimes we shout. Each of us might believe the other is stupid beyond belief. But when they need a hand we will be there. Professional clubs and sporting bodies have their own interests to consider. They can't offer players loyalty, and for this reason alone the club or the national body can only impose values and a culture.
9. One of the hardest things for the young elite player to learn is the difference between the bloke who wants to buy him a beer to show his support, and the bloke who wants to buy him a beer so he can post a selfie on Facebook. We need to teach players not to trust the motives of those they come in contact with. A reporter's goal is to sell more newspapers. A cop who arrests an up and coming league player will boast about it in the police bar. The lippy guy who wants to fight will cry to the police and the media once he gets what he asked for. That bloke with the camera, or that girl who's looking at you are interested in being famous for a day or two. They are using you.
10. There is no shortage of stories to tell about guys whose careers have ended, or whose careers never started, because some one thing they did off the field became public.