Courtesy: Kim Fairley
There are endless positive aspects of sports for young kids. Sports improve motor and cognitive skills and instill a lifelong healthy approach to physical exercise. As social springboards they teach kids to interact with other kids and help them develop an understanding of teamwork. What parent can’t relate to the joy of discovering the shift in behavior when a young child gets involved in a sport and no longer has the energy to get into trouble?
But what happens if that same child reaches the elite level? When this rare dream comes true, there are phenomenal rewards: the thrill of the accomplishment, the satisfaction of hard work paying off. There also is the grit, the focus and the discipline elite athletes develop—skills that can be transferred to many other areas of life. At the same time, though, when an athlete reaches the elite level, the stakes become much higher, presenting a host of new challenges which can threaten an athlete’s confidence and perception of the sport.
As a former elite swimmer, I’ve seen the best and worst of how elite athletics can alter a young person’s life. I write about this in my forthcoming memoir Swimming For My Life. Paradoxically, many of the best characteristics of elite athletics also have a dark side. Here are the six that stand out as having both helped, and hurt, my own childhood:
1. The team functions—and dysfunctions—as a family.
With six or more hours a day at the pool and three-day meets that swallowed up twelve to twenty weekends per year, I came to see my authoritarian coach as a kind of fill-in father figure. His rigid approach provided a structure that I wasn’t always able to find at home. I saw him as an adult who cared. By his deciding which strokes I would swim, what meets I would attend and what events I would enter, at least while I was at the pool, I could be a twelve-year-old child and not feel the pressure to function as an adult the way I had to at home due to my family’s particular dynamics. The team also gave me a sense of belonging, and a feeling that I was a part of something bigger than myself.
Yes, sport can operate as a family, but that family can also be dysfunctional. Coaches can be quirky and temperamental; my coach would throw kickboards or pull buoys. He’d scream and shout at the team, creating feelings of isolation. This abusive behavior, which in many sports is part of the culture, can leave deep scars.
2. The road to developing mental toughness can also be destructive.
Elite athletes give up a helluva lot. I swam through the holidays. I missed family vacations. And whenever I had the opportunity to attend a sleepover or fun school event, I would have to say,
“Sorry, I can’t. I have swimming practice.”
This kind of extreme focus builds emotional strength. I learned how to psyche up for events, cope with angry adults, and survive extreme physical stress on my body in pressured situations. I also developed street smarts. The hypervigilance I needed to cope with a tyrannical coach made me hyper aware of my surroundings. I learned how to fake that I knew what I was doing and how to blend in amongst my teammates. I also learned how to avoid conflict and unnecessary punishment in practice by following the rules.
Sadly, the emotional strength required of athletes to function in their sport can leave gaps in their functioning in the real world. To this day, whenever I arrive at a new place, I search in every direction. Is there anything here that can get me? I have to tell myself to walk with a sense of purpose, to pretend I know where I’m going. This level of anxiety and insecurity can cause a hypervigilance that can take years of therapy to overcome and often last a lifetime.
3. The health benefits can also be hazards.
Elite athletics will make you incredibly strong. In my case, this helped in surprising ways. When I was a teenager, the strength I’d built as a swimmer enabled me to fight back when faced with physical threats. Even today, decades later, I have confidence in my body’s ability to protect me.
But as an elite athlete matures, the stress on the body increases exponentially. With arduous daily workouts that included anywhere from eight to eleven miles of hard swimming, along with a rigorous program of weightlifting or dryland exercises, there were times at school when I staggered from class to class in a fog. For female athletes in particular, one unfortunate side effect of overtraining can be the development of amenorrhea (absence of menstrual periods). I suffered with the condition from age twelve to eighteen, as did many of my female teammates. Research has shown that amenorrhea can result in a higher risk for cardiovascular disease and can seriously threaten bone health. Thankfully, at least so far, I have not developed any heart problems, but I did develop premature osteopenia which undoubtedly is directly related to all those years that swimming prevented me from having regular menstrual periods.
With the added physical demands of an elite sport, there also is a risk of injury such as torn ligaments, tendons or cartilage, leading to lifelong battles with osteoarthritis and other problems. With some sports there can be an increased risk of concussion that can lead to permanent sleep and memory problems, as well as diseases such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s.
4. It builds self-esteem—in a limited field.
By winning races and setting records, athletes are able to show to others—and to themselves—that something in their life is working. The pats on the back, the cheering during and after events, even with poor performance, is tangible evidence that people care. With outstanding elite sport performance, athletes can feel a sense of accomplishment throughout their lifetime.
In many cases, though, the narrow focus can weaken an athlete in negotiating the world outside of the sport. I entered college never having held a job, purchased clothing for myself, or learned how to handle a tip in a restaurant. With little time for social interaction, I entered adulthood significantly unprepared.
5. It can provide a top-notch education—but often with strings attached.
Athletics gives young men and women opportunities to make money and earn college scholarships. Coming from Ohio, I never could have imagined an opportunity to attend the University of Southern California. But swimming led to a scholarship which led to job opportunities, which led to my ability to overcome my parents’ financial difficulties.
At the same time, to keep my education, I had to maintain a grueling swimming routine which meant I could only do the bare minimum to complete my college class requirements.
For scholarship athletes, there may be additional expectations to attend fundraisers or perform exhibition events to raise money. I remember my embarrassment in college when I was asked to dress up to attend a cocktail party sponsored by an organization that contributed financially to the swim team. Once the party neared its end, we swimmers were asked to don our bathing suits and, like trained seals, demonstrate our swimming strokes in a tiny kidney-shaped backyard swimming pool.
Though this kind of display is rarely a requirement of today’s scholarship athletes, most athletes are expected to maintain a high GPA and complete the athletic season without injury in order to retain their scholarship.
6. The powerful work ethic can become all-consuming.
Hard work generates a feeling of accomplishment. I discovered as a swimmer that If I swam as hard as I could in every workout, by the end of the season, at Nationals, when it counted the most, all the hard work would pay off. That core belief in hard work has carried me through the pain of losing my husband and parents and has helped me through the ups and downs of my relationships with other people.
Still, the all-consuming nature of an elite sport, if carried into adulthood, can be a recipe for a life drastically one-sided and struggling for equilibrium. As an adult I am periodically shocked by my own obsessive and compulsive behavior, my narrow focus, and lack of attention to my health, all markers that reflect my experience as an elite competitive swimmer.
On my best days, I remind myself to break away, to listen to my body, and to not be too hard on myself. I try to remember that there is a big world outside my little bubble, one with endless opportunities to feed and nourish whatever it is that I may be doing.
About Kim Fairley
Kim Fairley is an artist and memoirist who writes about wrestling with secrets, healing from grief, and competitive swimming during the early years of Title IX. Her three books include Swimming for My Life, releasing in the fall of 2022, and Shooting Out the Lights: A Memoir, which was a finalist in the International Book Awards Parenting & Family category and was named a Distinguished Favorite Memoir by the Independent Press Awards. After attending USC, Fairley earned an MFA in mixed media from the University of Michigan. She lives in Ann Arbor.