International middle-distance runner Emily Dudgeon suggests what might be done to help more youngsters realise their ambitions in athletics
Back in 2012 when I ran in the 800m at the World Juniors, I thought the athletics world was my oyster. I had clocked 2:02.32 in the semi to make the final, where I came sixth. My personal best coming into that year was 2:07 and I now realise this is something to be proud of, even if I didn’t feel that way at the time.
I had read autobiographies, articles and interviews with senior athletes who all said that the road to success was not straightforward, that it was full of ups and downs. And, although I had already faced some of my own challenges, I was so naive that I never considered I might not achieve my goals.
I was balancing my training with a full-time degree so surely there was loads to be gained by resting more, training harder, eating better and adding a few more years of training? I set myself the goals of making the European Under-23 Championships teams in 2013 and 2015, and the home Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014. I had hopes, too, of making it to this year’s Olympics. I am honoured and proud that I made it to my home Games in 2014, it was an experience I will treasure for the rest of my life.
The thing is, it is true that progress towards success is full of peaks and troughs. You will experience trials, tribulations and turmoil. I strongly urge you not to think you are immune to the challenges of other athletes.
Many unpredictable challenges could come your way – illness or injury because of your training, illness or injury totally independent of your sport, or tough times in other areas of your life – academic, family, friends, relationships. One or some of these things will happen. I was born an optimist, and I hate to be doom and gloom, but if I can get through to one of you, or to one parent, I might manage to help you adopt a healthy mindset.
I don’t feel I’ve made the junior to senior transition yet, and I appreciate that I certainly haven’t achieved the success that you may be dreaming of. But I’ve learned a lot, so here’s my advice:
1. If you’re happy, keep doing what you’re doing, and don’t beat yourself up about your results – it’s a sport and above all else it should be enjoyable.
2. If you are offered governing body support, take it but make the most of it – sport is fickle and it’s unlikely to last forever.
3. Surround yourself with people who care for you because you will need them.
4. Remember that athletics does not define you, and that whenever you decide to stop competing, you still have a lot of life to live.
5. Keep hold of the other things that contribute to your happiness, because there will be times that you need them more than you might think you do.
6. If you really want senior success, know that it takes years of work to get there. You cannot hurry it to fit in with a prescribed timetable, like the year-on-year goals I had set myself in 2012.
Striking an optimistic note, a special mention has to go to my team-mates from Barcelona in 2012 who have completed this transition and competed at the Olympics this year: Dina Asher-Smith, Adam Gemili, Charlie Grice, Katarina Johnson-Thompson, Jazmin Sawyers, Laura Muir, Desiree Henry, Nick Miller, Bianca Williams, Chijindu Ujah and, in the cycling team, former heptathlete Katy Marchant. Congratulations for reaching the pinnacle of your sport.
When the time comes, regardless of whether you are pleased or disappointed with your result, be proud. You have achieved so much and becoming an Olympian is a huge achievement in itself.
For every Olympian there is someone who worked just as hard and didn’t make it. Theirs aren’t the stories you want to read about in the press so you rarely hear about them. It’s this bias which creates a picture that encourages the kind of blind optimism I described earlier because it makes it all too easy to forget the broad base of the pyramid.
While all athletes must overcome difficult challenges, those at the tip of the pyramid are the ones for whom everything works out, while the rest of the base fall by the wayside somewhere along the journey.
Just after I wrote this article, I found a piece on beinghuman.org entitled “survivorship bias” which helps to illustrate my point further. Parents, be proud of your children. But be cautious. If your child is going to make it, they need to have a lot of optimism, faith and confidence. They might not want to entertain the idea that they could be left disappointed, so disappointments can come as a shock. Be ready for those moments because you’re the ones who will always be there for us.
Finally, a word to the home country and national governing bodies. Sport is about being the best that you can be, about identifying areas to work on, about improving. I think that you can improve the number of athletes who represent GB juniors and go on to make a senior team.
I am just one person but I’d like to start a conversation and here are a few ideas:
1. One possibility is to make some of your athletes or staff available as a junior to senior mentor for each event group. Regular contact and updates, and sometimes a friendly word from somebody outwith your training environment, can be a great help.
2. How about developing a network where people can go online to share experiences about injuries, illness, challenges and the different approaches they have taken to overcome them? After all, at a championships we are a team so surely we could adopt more of a team approach to development.
3. Along the same lines of teamwork, could funded athlete-coach pairs get involved in education – for example, visiting athletics clubs as part of their contract?
4. Every year athletes are trying to make the junior to senior transition. Do you gather information on athletes’ progress after participation in a junior team? If not, why not? There is no need to stand back and watch people make mistakes that have been made before.
5. I think previous junior team members could be used as a resource. Maybe pair each GB junior team member with someone from the previous team. Having a point of contact who is a couple of years ahead of you could be a fantastic resource, and acting as that point of contact could help the older athlete too. I have been lucky enough to receive bucketloads of help, advice and support from Alison Leonard, who went to the World Juniors in 2008.
The aim of this article is to try to help so I’d very interested and keen to hear other people’s thoughts, or to answer any questions. Please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.