I grew up in the sport of gymnastics and spent my childhood in the gym. By the time I started secondary school, I was training 15 hours a week. As an athlete who trained on the Isle of Man, this is likely to be fewer hours than my equivalent peers who trained in the UK. It is not unusual for gymnasts as young 10 years old to miss hours or even days of school to get additional time in the gym.
When we think about dual career, our mind skips to athletes in further education or higher education… the thought of a 10-year-old doing a dual career is crazy, right?
Morning training, school, training, homework, bed, repeat – This is the routine I lived through my secondary school days. Going straight from school to the gym, training for 3.5 hours, and completing homework until at least 10pm each evening became a routine that no-one questioned.
By the time I was 15 years old, I was only 4 years away from the peak of my gymnastics career. I completed my A-Levels whilst qualifying and preparing for the Commonwealth Games.
For many athletes, their development years in sport coincide with their school and potentially even their university years, reaching the peak of their sporting career in the years to follow. Young athletes in early specialisation sports are balancing their core school years and adolescence, with the demands of elite sport and the hours of professional adult athletes. Although the average age of female artistic gymnasts is increasing, with many gymnasts staying in the sport well into their 20s, the hours teenage athletes are expected to train is yet to see a significant shift.
Our education system is pretty set in the progression students follow through it – GCSEs at 14-16, further education at 16-18, and higher education, apprenticeships, or work at 18+. The progression of athletes through their sporting careers can, however, be worlds apart… think of a gymnast vs. a rower. These sports collide so differently with the set education periods that individuals are expected to work their way through.
As individuals working within sport and supporting athletes through their dual career journey, what might we need to do differently with a 16-year-old female gymnast, now competing at the senior level in the sport and eligible for all major events… in comparison to a 16-year-old rower who has recently began their potential 15+ years in the sport?
The physical and mental demands placed upon athletes in early specialisation sports are huge… professional-level expectations are placed upon young athletes who are not only training extraordinary amounts, but balancing this alongside their core years in their education and in their adolescent development.
So… what does this all mean? Below are some key questions to consider when thinking about how to best support the dual career progressions of young athletes in early specialisation sports:
· Does lifestyle support need to be embedded into early specialisation sports at younger age groups?
· Do school teachers, particularly at primary school/early secondary school level, have any understanding of the sporting demands placed upon the young athletes within their classes?
· How can support programmes be implemented at the school/college level to best support young athletes and prevent possible educational dropout? Should schools/colleges shift their support mechanisms to meet the needs of early specialisation athletes, i.e., making talented athlete programmes accessible to those in younger age groups?
· What can the NGBs of early specialisation sports do to support their young athlete’s dual careers, whilst optimising talent and keeping athlete wellbeing and welfare at the fore?
· Do international sports organisations need to consider raising the minimum age for athletes to become senior competitors, i.e., raising the women’s artistic gymnastics senior age from 16-years to 18-years?