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Neil Featherby: Why do some young athletes burn out before fulfilling their potential?

Neil Featherby on a canicross run. Picture: Neil Featherby

Neil Featherby on a canicross run. Picture: Neil Featherby

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Having very recently spent an afternoon in the company of Paul Evans discussing all things running, we got on to the subject of why so many talented youngsters have disappeared from the sport prior to becoming senior athletes.

This is something we can both very much relate to ourselves. Whilst looking through some old pictures, it became apparent that it was 46 years ago this week when I won my first Norfolk Schools Cross Country title as a 14-year-old junior.

Ironically my last ever race as a 16-year-old schoolboy was running for Norfolk in The Anglian Schools X/C whereby I ran virtually the whole race with one shoe on and finished second.

Paul, who was three years behind me, followed a similar path and whilst I did not compete again for eight years, he was away from the sport even longer. This, however is where the similarities end what with him bursting onto the scene at 27 years of age where his natural talent saw him going on to stardom, winning major titles, big races and of course competing in two Olympic finals.

With the area and then county cross country championships having taken place during the last month for which the best athletes go on to represent their county in the English Schools X/C Championships, there really are so many champions of the past that did not make it to senior level or indeed fulfil the potential they had shown during their school and teenage years.

Needless to say there will be lots of differing reasons why, but when you consider the amazing success that Paul had, if he hadn’t have made a comeback he would undoubtedly been one of those people who go through life wondering what might have been.

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In his case this would have been a huge loss to athletics in this country.

We all hear people saying “when I was at school I was better than him” be it at running or indeed about those who have excelled at other sports and whilst I always think here we go again, the truth is they may well be right. But as they didn’t dedicate their lives to what might have been, then it is all what ifs and maybes.

After weighing them up, my usual response is by telling them that whilst they may not recapture the potential they had in their youth, it is still never too late to have a go. You only have to look at the success that so many runners are having on the masters circuit with many athletes only taking up running in their 30s and beyond.

However, going back to burn out amongst young athletes, this is usually deemed to be through physiological or psychological responses, which in my case was probably both.

I had become totally obsessional and just ran too many training miles whilst being far too young. I ran morning, noon and night to the point where I excluded myself from just about everyone and everything. Looking back on my school years I was most certainly following a regime which was not healthy.

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It was the fear and pressure which I put on myself, thinking that I would be letting people down if I didn’t. Going through old school reports, it is pretty obvious that the only subject I excelled at was PE as there were certainly no other subjects where an A appeared beside my name.

Nevertheless and one other big factor for me was trying to come to terms with the realisation of having to earn a living after leaving school and of course discovering many other things in life which perhaps aren’t always conducive to that of being a full on dedicated athlete.

Therefore each time I see youngsters coming into Sportlink with their parents, whether they are already showing signs of becoming champions or indeed those just full of enthusiasm in the hope of one day achieving greatness, I always ask if they are in a club as the one thing we can be sure of nowadays is that the excellent coaching systems which we have within the clubs can most certainly identify any issues prior to any problems occurring. If that keeps our young talent following a path which leads them into becoming senior athletes and maybe even becoming as successful as Paul Evans, then it’s job well and truly done.

Don’t forget to join the new Run Anglia Facebook group here.

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