Burning out and fading away not the only options for young athletes

Pacing a career is one of the great challenges for any sportsperson, from beginner to veteran


Better to burn out than to fade away. True servants of rock’n’roll always played to that tune, most of the great actors too, the irony these days being so many of them don’t seem to burn out or fade away.

Now it seems not even Garth Brooks himself can explain how he managed to sell out five consecutive nights in Croke Park this July. Especially given his career looked to have burned out and faded away. Is there any way of telling the difference anymore?

Then a great actor like Philip Seymour Hoffman burns himself out with such spectacular self-destruction that everyone is left wondering what might have been: his death from an apparent drug overdose in New York last Sunday prompted a worldwide lament, not just over the circumstances, or the fact he was just 46, but that it foreshortened an already brilliant career.

Yet what if Hoffman had already peaked – as we say in this business – and for all his great talent, all that was left was to begin fading away?

It’s the old imponderable that is increasingly fashionable in the sporting world, particularly when trying to distinguish between burning out and opting out, or indeed fading away and simply walking away. Because it is impossible to say for certain what comes first: in most instances, athletes keep on going for as long as they can before one or the other – the burning out or the fading away – simply brings the whole thing to a halt.

O’Driscoll’s endurance
Who could have known with any certainty that when Brian O’Driscoll scored that hat-trick of tries in Paris in 2000 that he’d be still at it, 14 seasons later? There have been several moments in the years since when O’Driscoll looked in danger of burning out, and might well have faded away when missing the 2012 season after shoulder surgery. Instead, he looks more central than ever to the chances of Ireland beating Wales this afternoon, and even if he has declared this his closing season, he still makes every game look like an act of defiance.

It’s not like rugby careers aren’t prone to some spectacular self-destruction, particularly given the increasing risk of injury. Indeed these days, the game at schools’ cup level looks like creating the perfect storm for young players burning out, which in many cases they do. There’s nothing wrong with a healthy dose of competition at school level, no matter what the sport, and it is where most champions are first bred. The strongest, such as O’Driscoll, will invariably survive.

Yet against that backdrop comes an alternative model of schools athletics and the staging, later this month, of the first European Schools Cross Country Open. The brainchild of two Irish athletics aficionados – former national cross country champion John Downes and sub-four-minute-miler Andrew Walker – the event takes place in Gran Canaria, where Walker also operates a professional warm-weather training business.

The series of races – set for February 19th – are designed not only to cater for secondary school students from around Europe, but also to encourage a more thorough appreciation of health, youth leadership, and even the environment they’re competing in.
If that all sounds a little idealistic, the event has got the official endorsement of athletes such as Haile Gebrselassie and our own Sonia O’Sullivan and Catherina McKiernan, and for the good reason: it is ultimately aimed at strengthening the depth of cross-country and long-distance running in Europe by better nurturing the young athletes who might otherwise burn out or fade away.

English promise
All of which brings me to Mark English, the 20-year-old from Donegal who last Sunday killed two birds with one stunning run more than 800m – his 1:46.82 on the Athlone IT indoor track not only bettering the long-standing Irish senior indoor record, but also qualifying English for next month’s World Indoor Championships, set for Sopot in Poland.

It’s hard to know what satisfied English more – the record or the qualifying time. What is certain is that here is a young athlete that still seems to be just getting into his stride. He turns 21 next month, and last summer ran within the width of his vest from breaking the Irish outdoor record, with his 1:44.84. On Thursday night, he ran a tactically perfect race to win the Stockholm International in 1:47.69, albeit drawn in the B-race.

English is currently doubling up his running career with a degree in medicine at UCD, and boasts a sensible training regime that wouldn’t suggest any threat of immediate burn out. He may take well take some time out from his studies, but for now the only season that matters is 2014, not the Rio Olympics, and definitely not Tokyo 2020, because sometimes the best way to avoid burning out or fading away is to just keep on going, instead of wondering what might have been.
– For more information on the European Schools Cross Country Open see escco.es

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