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Since the news broke that 11-year-old table tennis player Anna Hursey has been selected to compete for Wales at this year’s Commonwealth Games, she has been peppered with plaudits, and deservedly so.
But as messages of congratulations continue to fly her way faster than a Desmond Douglas forehand smash, I wonder how many coaches have also been left feeling a little uneasy at the decision?
A young child yet to hit her teens, competing as an elite athlete in the pressure-cooker environment of a renowned international showpiece begs a lot of questions.
So while recognising her remarkable achievement of becoming the youngest person to represent her country at any sport at senior level, and marvelling at her record of six wins from eight matches in last year’s European Senior Championship – when she was 10 – this is as good a platform as any to broach these important questions.
Her coach points out she is mature for her age and took the pressure of the Euros in her stride, but the Commonwealth Games is a different ball game entirely, being played out under the glare of the media spotlight in Australia and a global TV audience.
Anyone who heard the rather awkward interview on BBC Radio 5 Live on Wednesday morning will have had their fears heightened that the Welsh starlet is underequipped to embark on such an emotional rollercoaster that could (most probably won’t but could!) damage her psychological well-being. Others, indeed, might argue the experience could prove priceless, the perfect platform to bolster her confidence and mental fortitude.
There are other spin-off questions I would really like members’ feedback on.
Should children really be training at an adult level of frequency and intensity? (A ‘Chinese practice partner’ is primed, ready to move in with Anna and her family, her coach revealed).
Table tennis is not considered an early specialisation sport. Participants do not hit their peak at the same age as gymnasts, for example, where a high volume of training and practice at an early age goes with the territory and is considered to be intrinsic to success at an elite level. So why the rush in Anna’s case?
By all means train hard and practice for long periods, but not at the expense of a balanced lifestyle. So play for long periods too, and enjoy developing physiologically, psychologically, emotionally and socially in all other areas of life.
Sporting success demands sacrifice, but sacrificing too much too young could have serious repercussions and could lead to a lifetime of regrets around a misspent youth blinkered in pursuit of excellence.
Anna’s coach is mindful of such criticism and says all those looking after Anna’s interests are aware of their responsibilities around duty of care, pointing out: ‘We are going to put measures in place to make sure she is well-rounded and goes to school every day just like any other child.’
So do the questions posed regarding the potential perils of an 11-year-old competing in the Commonwealth Games mark me out as a spoilsport?
Is it true that if athletes are good enough, they are old enough?
Or perhaps the answers in this ethical dilemma come not in black or white, but in shades of grey?
Yes a tricky one this.I'm inclined to think that clearly her recent experience in the European Senior Championships did n't do her any harm and the level of competition is probably not higher at the Commonwealtn Games? Age is probably less of an issue in the racket sports.I remember how Boris Becker won his first Wimbledon title at 16/17 yrs? I subscribe to the view that if 'you're good enough,you're old enough'.
It is so great to see such a talented young athletes taking part in sports especially this day and age where it seems that Phones and computers social media are taking first place in their lives.
I dread to think how many days and hours this young athlete has put into her training and how much of her childhood has she actually missed / experienced. What about the impact it has on her education how much school has she missed?
How does someone prepare this young person for Winning, the media, personal life. and how do you prepare them for failure? What will be her mental health status when she becomes older and how will this effect and impact her in years to come.
Personally I think let our young people grow up, live and enjoy life, allow her body to grow and develop before putting it through extreme stresses and strains.
I'm not 100% sure where I stand on this and your concerns don't make you a spoilsport. But I am torn ... especially with my sport being early specialisation and there being extremely young children doing triples and even quadruple jumps. I don't want to sound hypocritical!
She's obviously competed at a high level before with no ill-effects (or so it seems) and she has the skill level to hold her own with older athletes. She may be a highly driven young girl who balances her schooling, sport and other aspects of life well and just wants to achieve. Plus as you've mentioned a young person engaging with sport rather than a screen is a positive thing.
There is also the other side. She seemed very young when I saw an interview on the BBC Facebook page ... although that could be the lack of familiarity with cameras and TV and her obviously young age. I've seen in my sport the other side of being a young starlet - they appear to deal well with the attention thrust upon them, gain amazing results as a child prodigy etc .... but the problems manifest themselves as they get older. Their body matures, things change, skills which were easy are suddenly difficult and they're no longer "top of their game". How they then deal with this can be the breaker - and not everyone can cope well with changes even with a great support network.
Another question I would have is has the publicity been for the benefit of the girl (ie. sponsorship, facilities, training benefits etc) ... or possibly the sport as a whole? It's not the most publicised sport in this country, certainly not one many would automatically think of unless they have a venue / club nearby ... so who reaps the rewards of the new found fame?
I'm still not decided on what I think ... I'll remain sitting on the fence for a short while longer!
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