Wednesday, 27 July 2016

The Olympic Creed: Living it out in your sporting lives

Amid a backdrop of corruption allegations, selection controversies and doping scandals, the latest edition of 'the greatest show on earth' is fast approaching. When Pierre de Coubertin set up the modern Olympic Games 120 years ago, he could hardly have imagined, firstly, how big the Games would become and, secondly, just how far removed the modern day ethos of the Olympics would appear to be from that he originally envisaged.

The Olympic creed come's from de Coubertin's words spoken at a reception in 1908, words which had been inspired by those of Ethelbert Talbot, Bishop of Pennsylvania.
"The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well",
No matter how commercialised the games have become, or how much the desire to win at all costs removes us from de Coubertin's original vision, it is important to regularly remind ourselves of the creed on which the modern Olympic Games were built, and to ask ourselves whether or not we're doing everything we can to live out that creed in our everyday sporting lives, whether we be a weekend warrior or an Olympic medallist, because, at the end of the day, it doesn't matter whether or not everyone else is living out the Olympic spirit, if, when we reach our 'Olympic' moment, we get that warm fuzzy feeling inside knowing that we have both struggled and fought well, and done so with honour and integrity.

Irish Olympian Ciarรกn O'Lionaird said it best when he posted the following on his Facebook page earlier this week:

And remembering that the struggle is more important than the triumph doesn't mean that we have to give up on victory, or reduce or sporting goals in any way. Going about achieving success in a way that is true to the Oath may even make us more successful.

Here are some ideas on how we can apply the true Olympic spirit (not the win at all costs one), to our everyday sporting lives. Please feel free to add any further suggestions that you might have as comments below.

1. Don't forget to enjoy the moment, whether that's at a national championship or an Olympic Games. You've earned your place on the start line. This is what you do. Take a moment to take it all in.
2. Whether you win or loose, shake the hands of your fellow competitors. Without them there is no battle to win.
3. Be gracious in defeat, and humble in victory, but don't let that stop you feeling the emotions your win or defeat has created.
4. Play by the rules, and by the spirit of the game.
5. Set goals with are both stretching and realistic. Challenge yourself. Strive towards your goals.
6. Thank your coaches.
7. Encourage others.

Monday, 18 July 2016

Burnout in young athletes: Are we doing everything we can?

As a teenager and young adult the end of season break from athletics was always an important part of my training year. Two weeks of complete rest normally coincided with the first few weeks of settling back into school or university, and was followed by a further two weeks of mild and varied exercise. I always looked forward to this phase of the year, but, after a week or two I was keen to get back into training. By the end of the four weeks I was ready, both physically and mentally, to get stuck into the hard winter miles again.

Even now I take a break at the end of the season, though various enforced breaks mean that the end of season isn't always a predictable period in September, sometimes falling much earlier, and some years a lot less needed than others. However, whether I feel like I need an off-season or not, this break in training is necessary, if just to mark the start of the next 12 month cycle, reflect on what went well or not so well in the previous 12, and set new goals for the season ahead. A finishing point for one season gives you a starting point for the next.

I have no doubt in my mind but that the annual break helped me remain mainly injury free over the years, and has allowed me to have a 'career' that has spanned 24 years, and counting. The value of the off-season is well supported by scientific and anecdotal evidence and is a fundamental component of any sound training programme.

It is therefor disappointing when I hear of 12 and 13 year old athletes who take no annual break from sport, or even have a day a week free from some form of physical activity. Yes, that's prepubescent boys and girls partaking in sport seven days a week, 52 weeks of the year, for as many years as their bodies (and minds) will put up with it. That, in my book, is child abuse.

Don't get me wrong, it's great to hear of young people participating in sport, trying multiple different sports, and not being afraid to partake in competition. But that shouldn't be at the expense of the fundamental principles of training. If an elite Kenyan athlete - who doesn't have school or university, or even making a living to worry about - can spend 4-6 weeks away from sport each year, then surely growing boys and girls can.

The great thing about athletics is that there are always things to train for. But that is also its downfall. I remember as a child how packed the annual calendar was, particularly since I competed in multi-events and cross country in addition to a range of events on the track and field programme both indoors and out. There was a competition on the programme almost every weekend, and even more once I became eligible to compete in junior competitions as well. When I was finally good enough to reach the national Community Games finals, the season end was extended to early September, with county cross country championships - races that I had to do to be eligible to compete in regional and national competitions - usually being held just 4 or 5 weeks later. The season was almost endless. Thankfully my coach was wise enough to know that the break was essential, no matter what the calendar said, and my ego was robust enough to take a sever beating when racing county championships more or less straight off a break.

Other sports are similar. Seasons have been extended to prevent athletes wandering off to other sports and not coming back. That's not to say that athletes don't do multiple sports - they just try to do 3 or 4 sports with overlapping seasons on top of each other, and with no consideration for the overall loading that their body is taking. But the physical components of sport, particularly in young individuals, are transferable. Training can, absolutely, be altered to take into account what an individual is doing in training elsewhere. If they are developing speed and endurance in another sport, then they just need to concentrate on the skills and technical aspects of that sport. This fear of loosing athletes to other sports or not having complete control over their participation in your sport is having undesired effects. Not only are they not coming back, not making the transition from talented juvenile to junior and senior competition, not being the next star athlete, they are being lost from sport altogether. The 'must-find-and-keep-the-next-superstar' attitude has to change because too many young athletes, each with the potential to be a useful sportsperson, are being resigned to the scrapheap long before they have the opportunity to fulfil their potential.

And that is not fair play.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Anyone can be an Olympian; but that doesn't mean it's easy

This week has been a big week in the lives of track and field athletes across the world. This is the week in which most national governing bodies are announcing and nominating their teams for one of the central sports on the Olympic programme. It is, in short, the week in which dreams are made and hearts are broken.

This morning I gave a small talk to some of the athletes attending the week's Wexford Athletics Summer Camp. Twenty-three years in the sport has thought me that if just one of those young athletes makes the Olympic, they'll have beaten the odds. In fact, if even two or three of them compete in athletics as an adult, that'll be a small miracle. Over the years I've seen hundreds of young athletes, many far more talented than me, give up on the sport because they can't handle been beaten, because they want to concentrate on their studies, because they want to get a job or spend more time socialising, because they get injured, because they go through a bad patch, because they think that success doesn't happen to people like them and because they think that if they are not good enough for the Olympics then the sport has nothing to offer them. Some simply fall out of love with the sport, move on, or do other things with their lives. And that is perfectly fine. There are things that I did as a child that I no longer do, there are things that I realised that I wasn't very good at, and there are things that no longer interest me. 

But, the Irish team named on Tuesday disproves all the myths about where successful athletes come from or what they do with their lives. It proves that you don't have to give up on your academic goals to follow your sporting ones - Paul Pollock and Sara Treacy are both doctors; Mark English is working towards that goal; Ciara Evarard has studied physiotherapy; Michelle Finn will go straight into a block of teaching practice when she gets back from Rio. It proves that you can absolutely work full time and still be a top athlete - Kevin Seaward is a fulltime PE teacher, Breege Connolly works full time in software testing, and Lizzie Lee, a fulltime employee at Apple, recently said that she wouldn't have it any other way (yes, that's half our marathon runners with proper jobs!). It proves that it's not always the best juvenile athletes that make it big time - many of the team will not have been standout juveniles - only a few years ago Michelle was deemed not good enough to be sent to a European Cross Country Championships, now she's going to the Olympics. Indeed, Breege and Lizzie didn't even start to run until their late twenties. It shows that injuries can be overcome - before winning European bronze on Sunday, Ciara McGeehan, one of the true former junior standouts to make the team, had not worn an Irish vest for five years because of injury. 

But most of all, it proves that ordinary people, like you and me, can make it to the Olympics. 

And those of us that don't, can have a darn good time trying, and achieving our own 'Olympic' goals.

The closest I'm likely to get to an Olympics