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What Does it Take to Make an Elite Athlete

Athlete balancing on a table with one arm on black background

Lately, the news has spotlighted elite athletes struggling under the pressure of expectations. First we saw Naomi Osaka withdraw from the French Open, and then we witnessed Simone Biles withdrawing from many of the events at the Tokyo Olympics. Both cited mental health issues being at the center of these decisions.

These two experiences alone, both athletes at the top of their game, bring into debate two sides of a discussion. First, and foremost, we must look at what we are doing to any athlete - how they are pushed to limits most of us cannot even conceive of being pushed. The level of focus, training, and commitment to their sport; the sacrifices to relationships, education, emotional development; the adoration of fans, the expectations of coaches and parents, the assumed characteristics associated with being role models for kids. Most adults cannot manage that level of expectation on a daily basis, yet we expect it of our beloved athletes, many of whom have been working their sport from very early ages.

And then, the other side, the ones that believe that those that can achieve the success under all that pressure, are indeed the Elite. The mental toughness is what separates them from other athletes. That the physical adaptation a body endures to excel in any given sport isn't what stands alone in making one elite, but the ability to have a certain mental toughness that allows a razor sharp focus on the end goal - that of winning, no matter the cost to the body or the mind.

The questions become now, when athletes are coming into their sport at such young ages, what are they sacrificing for that success? What are they giving up that may prevent successful development? How does it effect the overall mental health of an individual? How do we create an environment for our athletes that will give them the space to soar, and also the place to land to breathe and balance in a space we all need purely by reason of being human? Does being "Elite" mean being superhuman, able to perform under any circumstance? And most importantly, is that where we want to set the bar for our athletes, to be extraordinary beyond what is human?

Think of your child, outside playing soccer, or at the courts working tennis drills, or at the gym going over and over a routine until they stick it. There are so many things gained from the commitment to the sport. And, it's also important to ask ourselves, what is lost, and does that hold more value than what is gained? Is there a way to have the best of both worlds, healthy commitment and a healthy mind set?


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