While spectators of the Olympic Games marvel at the feats of (pre)adolescent elite athletes, the symbol of their participation is normalized without question: training and discipline from an early age leads to achievement of “ideal human potential.” But across sports, the culture of performance enhancement is comprised of paradoxes between empowerment and disempowerment that are constantly negotiated by youth athletes, their coaches and their parents. These paradoxes exist in daily practices, involving pain and discipline, performed to enhance athletes’ physical and psychological skills as well as commitment to the athlete identity. Youth athletes are still developing physically, emotionally, intellectually and socially through adolescence. This both influences and is influenced by their training regimens. But many parents and coaches, with the best intentions, overlook this by prioritizing performance over well-being when they view athletes as mini-professionals instead of liminal persons in transition. Based on my doctoral research and over 20 years’ experience with elite youth sport, in particular Florida junior tennis, I explore issues related to well-being and (dis)empowerment of “professionalized youth athletes”—trained from young ages for professional/Olympic careers. These issues merit further anthropological study as they raise additional questions about the experience of sport, youth, the body, health, well-being and power.
Embodiment of Identity through Sport
For most professionalized youth athletes, sport and the Olympics is not just a game or a chance to represent their country; it is the core of their identity. As described to me by Megan Neyer, an Olympian and World Champion by age 18 who now holds a PhD in Performance and Health Counseling, “The Olympics was my religion. It was my quest for excellence, being an excellent diver and being a better person. [Since age 6] that’s what I wanted to do, that’s what guided me, that’s what I had faith in.” By age 10, training consists of performance enhancement regimens, techniques, and drills to habituate movements, regulate emotion, and instill thought patterns that eventually become automatic. Commitment to the requisite rites of passage of the “performance enhancement lifestyle” can entail strict eating plans, obedience to tough coaches, constant pain and fatigue, emotional dependence, and limited free time. This typically requires separation from childhood identities because pre-professional youth athletes have little time for non-sport peers and activities, take classes online,and often leave home to train at academies.
Youth athletes come to know themselves and develop self-worth through their sport: their bodily movement, interactions with people, experience of pain and discipline. They learn social values and life skills like learning to establish goals and make choices based on those goals, dealing with success and failure, working as a team, and operating within a system devoted to the attainment of excellence. As a result, athletes develop a sport-based identity marked by intensive focus, pain tolerance, trust in authority and sport institutions, and expectations of unlimited athletic potential. Youth athletes can be seen as both liminal subjects and agents of discipline, both being remade and remaking themselves. That is, they are constantly progressing through various transformative states as they give up their “child” identities to be maximally trained by their coaches to ensure athletic success. The ultimate purpose is to become independent, self-disciplined, high-performance professionals in their sport which will (ideally) lead to success in other endeavors. Many of my participants express this saying they want to become professional athletes to inspire and help others.
Paradox of Power through Pain and Discipline
As professionalized youth athletes constantly strive to achieve this purpose, they experience sport in both empowering and disempowering ways. They develop a paradoxical relationship with pain tolerance—not just physical, but emotional and existential pain. They can interpret pain, simultaneously, as torture and transcendence, and this experience of pain allows discipline to be instilled. Involving the quest for improvement, adherence to discipline (in training and competition), risk-taking, and tolerance of injury, fatigue, criticism, and deprivation are perceived as markers of success. Through this “sport ethic,” youth athletes learn how to stretch the boundaries of pain in order to attain physical achievement, personal and spiritual fulfillment, and maximal performance. Athletes developed in environments that prioritize personal well-being and pay attention to individual needs push the boundaries of pain and achievement with appropriate recovery time. The resulting sensations of mind-body-spirit connection and ultimate control of the self and environment can be empowering for youth athletes.
But athletes developed in environments that prioritize immediate performance over long-term personal well-being, or guided by coaches who are uninformed about the psychological, emotional and physiological nuances of developing (pre)adolescent athletes, tend to push too far or too fast past the pain boundary with an “overcommitment to sport ethic” (Robert Hughes and Jay Coakley 1991). The result can be disempowering, producing injury or “burnout”—a term used by my participants to define mental and emotional exhaustion that entails a sense of dread towards sport, depression, and withdrawal. This can weaken athletes over time, even though it may be empowering in the short-term with immediate victories and performances. As Neyer comments, “It’s the coach’s responsibility to push athletes to places they didn’t know they could go…but to do it mindfully and with empathy.”
Thus, the liminal youth athlete may emerge from the physical and emotional demands of training and competition and a conditioned commitment to the sport ethic as either a strengthened or weakened performer and person depending upon the manner in which she has been disciplined. This is especially important to recognize for emotionally dependent youth athletes who want to conform to the standards of the training environment and their coaches’ and parents’ expectations but who may not understand the difference between empowering pain (soreness/tightness/fatigue), which extends the pain boundary, and debilitating pain (injury/burnout), which may be unrecoverable. As they become more experienced, athletes learn the difference between empowering and debilitating pain. However, professionalized youth athletes still often perform through debilitating pain to achieve their goals and garner recognition from the sport community. Pain can even be “turned off” during competition in “flow” states (Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi 1975) as athletes become one with their bodies. They may instead feel a sense of exhilaration, despite (or because of) the pain. In short, youth athletes come to know themselves through the paradoxical yet powerful combination of pain and discipline through athletic achievement.
Entitlement and Vulnerability to Abuse
Because performance enhancement in youth sport is both empowering and disempowering, the differences between encouragement and entitlement, and between discipline and abuse, are difficult to discern. Some elite athletes—as they become increasingly skilled at displaying physical and psychological strength, speed, and power—become superhuman in the eyes of society. This is especially true if athletes are coddled and not held accountable for their actions outside sport. According to Neyer, “When athletes are raised in these controlled and controlling systems…and haven’t had responsibility or learned critical life skills, they have trouble transitioning into life outside sport, and that’s when sport can be developmentally arresting…” So, excessive reliance on the sport environment for structure and identity can make transferability of skills to non-sport situations more difficult, especially if athletes believe they are “above” societal rules.
Because the highly commercialized atmosphere of youth sport at the upper levels of competition requires great financial and time investments by athletes, parents, coaches and sport federations, it can be difficult to distinguish between training environments that are emotionally enabling and disabling. They want to see a return of their investment in the form of sponsorships, endorsements, Olympic medals, or college scholarships. With this pressure, athletes often trust their coaches with their dreams and see them as parental, authority, and heroic figures. This gives coaches enormous power. Many coaches who view their athletes as collaborative participants in the training process do not abuse this power; but some coaches do as they feel the pressure, themselves, to produce “winners.” This can make them feel entitled to excessively control, punish, overtrain or bully their athletes whom they may regard as representations of their reputation rather than individuals they have the privilege of inspiring.
Thus, when trusted authority figures—coaches and parents—come to see their athletes as vehicles for their own success and status, they are more likely to abuse their power over athletes emotionally, physically and even sexually. Youth athletes whom I have interviewed interpret all of these forms of abuse as betrayals of trust. Emotional and physical abuse is not just a result of the coach or parents’ interventions (and non-interventions) but also depends on cultural conceptions of discipline and abuse along with the resilience of individual athletes. But over time, those who are overly dependent on abusive authority figures, and an abusive training environment in general, are vulnerable to burnout, injury, and further abuse. Because the differences between discipline and abuse are so subtle, abusive behaviors are often normalized as part of the training environment and accepted as the right of the authority figure. Reproducing an overly demanding/exploitative training environment, abuse can also be self-imposed as an excessive form of self-discipline in the form of eating disorders, compulsive negative self-criticism, and excessive training to the point of injury. As one participant told me, “You need a little abuse to get good, don’t you?”
Overall, the economic model of sport rewards coaches and athletes who have winning records, regardless of whether athletes become irresponsible members of society or whether coaches and parents abuse their authority. As a result, the twin tendencies of disempowerment— culminating in a sense of entitlement and vulnerabilty to abuse—are often justified as long as the athlete (and therefore coach) keeps winning. To maintain their long-term well-being and understand the nuances of professionalized youth sport, youth athletes and teenaged Olympians should be appreciated as developing through transitions of both adolescence and high-performance sport training. Although they can be empowered in many ways through sport, they are also especially vulnerable to the disempowering effects of intensive athletic discipline, ultimately impacting their overall social and athletic development.
Overall, the economic model of sport rewards coaches and athletes who have winning records, regardless of whether athletes become irresponsible members of society or whether coaches and parents abuse their authority.
Jennifer Fiers is a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of Florida.