• Jason Wulfsohn // MSc (Med) Exercise Science

Editor's Musings: On Life & Sport

I find myself in an interesting situation at the moment, where I’m working with a boy who has represented his school 1st team in four sports; cricket, tennis, rugby, and soccer. Thankfully for him, he is very bright and is most likely able to achieve academically despite his physical load. I won’t go into any more detail about the situation, but for now the conversation is ongoing and he’s being managed as well as possible between the school, the physio, and myself.

While this case is proving tricky to manage, my thoughts go to those who aren’t as intellectually gifted, and end up sacrificing parts of their lives in the hopes of sporting success. Youngsters pursue the life of a sportsman or sportswoman because it looks glamourous and, “Why not? Sport is great!”. So to some, sport is life. As a sport scientist and editor of this initiative, it might surprise you to learn that sport is not my life. Granted, it is a large portion of my life, but I do have other things going on. Sadly for me, this was not always the case. I recall a time in my life, when I was considerably younger, where my days consisted mostly of school, sport, eat, and sleep. I was playing soccer for school, regional, and provincial teams all in the same season. Sometimes going from one practice in an afternoon to another practice or a game in the evening. I had soccer twice a day, six days a week. I once returned to school from the mid-year holidays having had only two or three days at home due to tours. Soccer had become my life. Naturally, I burned out and shied away from competitive sport for the remainder of my school years.

It is a lesson I have kept with me ever since, and it hugely influences my interactions with the athletes I work with. I have encountered many youngsters besotted with the idea of becoming the next AB de Villiers or Siya Kolisi. I have also encountered a handful of parents who might have been even more besotted with these ideas. I recently came across the term ‘Safeguarding’, which is the “professional obligation to protect all parties from maltreatment or harm”[1]. Last year, in Issue 2, I wrote about the sport scientist’s responsibility to the athlete, yourself, and the profession, mostly within the context of the Meldonium abuse that occurred at the Baku 2015 European Games. Now we can apply this responsibility of safeguarding with regard to athletes, young and old, and their lives apart from sport. As sport scientists we have a deep understanding of sport and I would argue that not considering the athlete’s holistic or long-term well-being, would count as maltreatment in some way. We can safeguard the athlete by being aware that sport should not become someone’s entire life. Some might recall ‘Athletic Identity’ from their undergrad sport psych classes. Athletic Identity is the degree to which an athlete defines him/herself within the athletic role[2]. Overly emphasising an individual as a cricketer or soccer player might lead to a strong athletic identity linked to that sport. If someone is entirely a soccer player in their minds, then there would be little-to-no room to identify as a scholar or perhaps even as a friend. What happens when these athletes hit a slump, get dropped, or sustain a career-ending injury? Where would they find an alternative source edification? It has been shown that involuntary career termination and high athletic identity negatively impacts an athlete’s mental health[2], and mental illness and depression in elite sport has recently come to the fore, and can be as prevalent as 15-21% in certain athletic populations[2].

Because the demands of being an elite are not easily balanced with scholastic performance, I always encourage the athletes I work with to take their studies seriously. Often kicking athletes out of the gym with the phrase, “Go read a book!”. I’ve recently read about Topsport Talent Schools (TTS) in the Netherlands, which is a government initiative intended to improve the level of sporting performance for the country. However, the plan didn’t seem to produce more athletes competing at a higher level than mainstream schools[3]. In fact, the mainstream schools achieved similar levels of sporting success, but had higher levels of scholastic performance[3]. This isn’t a clear-cut situation though, as it might well be that these TTS students might have performed worse had they not been put onto the program. Regardless, it was reported that only one in three athletes would make it to the elite level[3]. Even right here at home, only 24% of boys from the u13 Craven Week rugby festival make it to the u18 festiva[l4]. I don’t know the percentage of those who might then go on to be professional, but I imagine it’s not much.

Ultimately, we should safeguard our athletes by keeping in mind that an overly dominant athletic identity can have negative consequences, especially at the end of a sporting career[2], depression is a reality in high level sport[2], and talented youngsters are not guaranteed success when they are older[3,4]. There’s more to life than sport.

But sport is still great and that’s why we have people willing to give up their time to contribute to SPORT SCIENCE COLLECTIVE. In this issue, Simone do Carmo shows us that healthy eating doesn’t have to be bland. Then, it might seem strange, but I’m very grateful that Dr Jason Tee disagrees with my article from the last issue, and has taken time to make the case for the importance of screening. Finally, we have Michael Ashford writing for us about coaching models, tactics and getting the best out of individuals.

1. Knowles, Z. et al. The BASES Expert Statement on Safeguarding in the Sport and Exercise Sciences. Sport Exerc. Sci. 20–21 (2016).

2. Wolanin, A., Gross, M. & Hong, E. Depression in athletes: Prevalence and risk factors. Curr. Sports Med. Rep. 14, 56–60 (2015).

3. van Rens, F. E., Elling, A. & Reijgersberg, N. Topsport Talent Schools in the Netherlands: A retrospective analysis of the effect on performance in sport and education. Int. Rev. Sociol. Sport 50, 64–82 (2015).

4. Durandt, J., Parker, Z., Masimla, H. & Lambert, M. Rugby-playing history at the national U13 level and subsequent participation at the national U16 and U18 rugby tournaments. South African J. Sport. Med. 23, 103–105 (2011).

#Athletes #Responsiblepractice #AthleticIdentity #School


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