Going for the gold
By KIFLIN TURNER
When searching for a common bond between countries competing in the Olympics, one factor can come to mind — the growing trend of athletes being more competitive at an earlier age. It may not be surprising to hear of a 15-year old winning a gold medal at the Olympics. What could be surprising, if not alarming, is the amount, or the lack of concern given to the personal and mental development of these young athletes.
Many argue that the Olympics serve as a forum to exhibit the ultimate level of athleticism reached through hard work, pain and perseverance.
"Stepping up to the plate, and having the courage to compete and try their best — that's what the Olympics are all about," said Chris Apple, head coach of the men's soccer team. Training and competing at the Olympic level is not merely a showcase of one's athletic ability. It is about developing the mental capacity to handle defeat and continue trying regardless of what obstacles may exist.
"It builds your character because you spend so much time and effort in training," said Anne Makinen, a member of Notre Dame's women's soccer team.
Makinen played on Finland's Women's National Team, and recalled that her experience in playing sports has had an enriching effect on her life.
"I had a lot of chances to play overseas and to meet other people, and that's probably helped me to shape my views and my perspectives," said Makinen.
Participating in sports exposes athletes to the fundamental lesson that losing in life is inevitable. What is more important is how a person chooses to handle defeat that makes the difference.
"Sport, in general, teaches that it is the competition, not the victory that matters," said Apple. Striving to achieve excellence builds an athlete's character as well, said Apple.
"Sport teaches young people how to handle adverse situations — it gives them strength later in life and the skills to deal with those situations," said Apple.
Competitive sports demand discipline and a strong will to achieve success. These attributes are likely to extend to all parts of an athlete's life, as mental strength has a direct relationship with physical strength.
"I think it is the single most important entity to steer [athletes] on the right path outside of religion," said women's head soccer coach, Randy Waldrum. Building honor and values result from the will to succeed and establishing the goals needed to reach that point.
"With so many other temptations in life, the impact is immeasurable," said Waldrum. By involving young adults to get involved in the sport of bettering one's self physically and mentally, these athletes will develop a stronger resolve to reject the pressure to succumb to any negative activity.
Sports are "the best thing to get young people into today," Waldrum said.
These qualities, while admirable from the spectator's viewpoint are not the only byproducts of Olympic training.
The typical day for an athlete training for the games may consist of following a strict regimen of diet and exercise.
The potential stress levels often create a gap between the athletes and their peers that may eventually cause them to feel alienated from the norms of their peer group.
"I think that's the exception, not the rule — most of [the athletes] are pretty well adjusted," said Apple. Balancing competition and maintaining a healthy social life are feasible qualities that are attained by the majority of young athletes.
"I think there can certainly be a balance and a means to do both," said Waldrum.
Focusing on a competitive sport for athletes who have the ability to train at a high level is something that young adults should have the option of pursuing.
"If you have a high level athlete, and that athlete wants it, then I think it is important to put them in that environment," said Waldrum.
Often, the media and public in general tend to place a negative stigma on intensive training and competition.
"I've always viewed athletics like academics in that, in schools, when you put kids that have a higher ability level into honor programs, then it's OK, but when you put kids that have the athletic ability into higher programs, then people have a problem with it," Waldrum said.
However, there is some concern that young adults training at the Olympic level have an unhealthy amount of stress because of their preoccupation with practicing and reaching a near state of perfection.
Specifically, in individual events such as gymnastics, Apple said that the likelihood of maladjustment to personal relationships is much higher.
"There is so much pressure on them at a young age to be perfect," said Apple. "After time, those kids will burn out."
Parental involvement is key, said Waldrum, but sometimes even this vital influence may not always be positive.
"Too many times the parents live through their kids," said Waldrum. Parents play a significant role in the lives of young adults whether these influences are positive or negative, said Waldrum.
The decision, as well as the extent to which these athletes should pursue competition at such a high level should be left to the child, not the parents, said Makinen. Further, if the athlete feels overwhelmed by the intense practice, the child should also have the right to stop training.
"My parents have always supported me," said Makinen. "If I were to quit today, they would say `that's OK, that's fine.'"
Because young adults training for Olympic competition take on training as a full-time activity, schoolwork and personal development often take a backseat to the rigors of practicing and staying fit. Training becomes a way of life devoid of healthy relationships with friends and family.
"They never get to be kids, to go to the movies, they're always concerned about their weight and what foods they can eat," said Apple.
Balancing practice, relationships with family and friends, and schoolwork is a difficult endeavor, and many athletes decide to concentrate on their sport as a career. However, not everyone will achieve excellence and attain an Olympic medal, said Waldrum.
"I think we all have an obligation to steer them in the direction of education — there are so few athletes that actually go on to make it," said Waldrum.
All News Stories for Wednesday, September 27, 2000