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An Insight into the Pressures on Young Athletes

An interview with netball player, Holly Jones.

As many of us immerse ourselves in an exciting summer of sport (Euros24, Tour de France, and the upcoming Olympics), I was moved to reflect on the pressures on the athletes themselves and what happens to those who don’t make it to the top. The world of sports is ever evolving, and currently, stakes are at an all-time high for athletes, mainly stemming from the large financial rewards now involved in elite sports and the growing accessibility of training resources for young athletes worldwide.

However, with high stakes comes a heightened pressure on athletes to perform well, stay fit, and stay in a healthy mindset. To gain insight into this issue, I spoke with Holly Jones, a 21-year-old netball player, about her experiences with injuries and setbacks, starting with her journey in sport and what her motivations were to pursue it at a competitive level.


"I started playing netball when I was 7 at school. I had a great coach who was really supportive of me. I loved it, as did all my friends, so naturally, we all played club level and a lot of us progressed to 'pathway netball' as we got older. I wanted to pursue it competitively purely down to enjoyment. I loved the sport and loved being part of a team".

I was interested to hear Holly's perspective on the rewards and sacrifices she had to make to reach her current level.

"Despite the short-lived career, I would say the biggest reward was obtaining a sports scholarship to my secondary school" she tells me. "I was playing at my highest level when I was 14, right before my first injury. I was training three times a week through club and pathway netball on top of sport at boarding school with school matches on Saturdays and netball matches on Sundays. I wouldn’t say I had to make significant sacrifices as I was only young and loved it, but it was a busy time and my parents certainly had to make significant sacrifices to get me to all the training and fixtures."

I was keen to learn how she coped with pressure to succeed and the fear of failure and if this fear ever impacted on her performance and mental health.

"I was lucky to have very supportive teammates and coaches, so any pressures were alleviated by their reassurance and encouragement. When first coming to university having had almost five years out of netball due to injury and COVID, I really wanted to play BUCS netball (British Universities and Colleges Sport). I think the fear of failure and fear of injury definitely impacted my performance at trials. Whenever I wasn’t playing well, it knocked my confidence and my attitude towards the sport."

Sadly, Holly has suffered a number of injuries over the years, so I was interested to know about how these affected her mental wellbeing and outlook on competing at a high level.

"I suffered my first injury aged 14. I tore my ACL (anterior cruciate ligament), PCL (posterior cruciate ligament), and calf muscle in my left leg. I had my first operation in 2017. A year later, I re-tore my ACL. I had a second reconstruction surgery in 2019. I then tore my ACL in my right knee. I had this surgery in 2022. I then re-tore my ACL in my right knee in 2023 along with my meniscus and had surgery later that year. Unfortunately, four surgeries later, I have been forced to retire from netball.

As a 14-year-old aspiring young netballer, an ACL injury is quite life-changing. I went from playing netball all the time to not at all and had no idea what an ACL even was. To then be told I needed 9-12 months out and surgery to repair it was pretty shocking. Heartbroken was an understatement.

I really struggled mentally at this time as all my friends were able to play and improve, and I was just sat watching, and this continued for the foreseeable. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten more used to the fact that my knees just can’t cope with the demands of the sport, and I’ve accepted that it just isn’t meant for me, but it’s definitely taken me a while to come to terms with that. I still love the sport and like to get involved where I can, although I do miss it".

This begs the question of unfulfilled dreams and aspirations and what effect that has had on her outlook to life.

"I think not being able to reach the level of netball I wanted to reach was gutting, but suffering my injuries so young helped me accept that my aspirations were unachievable early on. This meant I could pursue other things instead from a young age".

To be a young athlete playing at a high level more often than not requires devotion and practical help from parents. In some cases, parental pressure can have a negative effect. I was interested in Holly’s experience whether her relationship with her parents was positive or it added to her stress.

"My dad was a keen sportsman, and I have two older brothers who played everything growing up. Naturally, I took to sport too. My dad’s passion has definitely had the biggest impact on my sports career, and he was always my biggest supporter. His competitiveness was infectious and impacted me and my performances positively".

We all know playing at a high level doesn’t come without the hard work of training. This can mean missing out on other childhood pursuits, as well as impacting on their education.

"At school, I had a lot of support balancing sport and education. Post my first injury, with the lack of netball, I quickly found other things to fill my time. I’ve always been good with time management and prefer to be busy. Through the support of my parents and teachers, I was able to do everything I wanted to do."

Holly’s experience may be typical in many ways she was fortunate to have supportive but not pushy parents, and the reason she did not go on to play national and international level netball was down primarily to physical issues rather than mental. Others are not so lucky.

Indeed, in many cases, parental pressure can have a negative and lasting effect, heightening, stress, anxiety and burnout. Young athletes can suffer from identity issues, as their self-worth becomes tied to performance on the pitch, leading to reduced enjoyment and motivation. This can also put pressure on the child-parent relationship as many parents see winning as more important than enjoyment.

When we watch a major sporting event like the Olympics we can perhaps be forgiven for assuming that all the athletes are happy, well-rounded individuals. Equally though, we can all point to cases of top athletes who have privately and publicly struggled, had troubled lifestyles, and have had to leave their sport much to the consternation of fans. We also have no idea about all of those who didn’t "make it" and the subsequent impacts on them, their families, and their careers outside of the world of sport.


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