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Fight the source, not the flames!

Programme-level redesign of elite sports.

Soon enough, we will be able to say that we have been living amid a worldwide pandemic for almost a year. COVID-19 has spared any area, but perhaps one of the most painful points is the complete transformation of sporting life. Mainly the flavourless-odourless nature of professional sports. Who wants to permanently live in a world where we can’t support our favourite athletes and teams in person? Nobody. And this statement holds true for every athlete in some way.

The basic thesis of professional sports

In principle, professional sports are about the most talented competing against one another, and the best among them emerges victorious in clean conditions. 2020 has completely rewritten this thesis. The competitions themselves have become unpredictable, international tournaments remain questionable right up until the end of the event. We should not even talk about the different preparation options for athletes. It is not sure that everyone who has a real shot at lifting the trophy can even make it to the world competition or arrive fully prepared. Restrictions in each country depend on the severity of the pandemic situation, so some benefit greatly from these conditions, while others suffer. Although we often hear that elite athletes are elite athletes because they can perform at their best in critical junctures, we do not, in fact, actually expect them to be at their physical and mental peaks more than a few times a year, let alone continuously. However, the real winner succeeds because they are perfectly prepared for the given competition or the all-deciding match. Not necessarily because their mid-year, average performance is the best. But this, too, is starting to change. We can observe many big surprises across several sports. Completely unrealistic results that we would not except in a normal year. This does have a negative effect, as whoever wins nowadays will question their own success, even though they should not. But we also have a reason for that, because we don’t know what specifics lie behind that particular result. Experts say that individual sports are far ahead reorganisation-wise than team sports, which is a good sign. This situation is understandable, since a single positive test can keep an entire team from playing, or at least playing well. Suffice it to say that if two key players have COVID, then in addition to their personal battle with the virus, their team must fight against the negative impact of their absence.

The real tragedy

This, however, is not the real problem in elite sports. Because sooner or later, every athlete can cope with changing circumstances and rules by adapting their preparation schemes to the new situation. Losing the audience is a much bigger concern than that. Now everyone can experience what we already knew: sports bring people together; they are an integral part of society, some of the most popular forms of entertainment, pastimes, and social events for fans. It’s also a serious challenge for athletes, as we don’t think for a minute that every athlete is playing purely for victory. It is important to win a gold medal, to have a crowning achievement for a sports career, that is a fact. But performing in front of the audience, the stage, and the atmosphere: that’s what most athletes live for. COVID has robbed them of this necessity. Many people are now wondering whether it is worth playing this way at all. And they have every right to raise this question because we don’t yet know when everything will return to normal. There are many dissatisfied and frustrated athletes who continue their careers just because it’s their job and can’t figure out a better option yet. But there are also a lot of athletes who have had this significant push towards quitting the sport and starting their post-sport careers. They would have had to do this anyway between 35-40, although this is obviously an average number that depends heavily on the sport and skill level. In addition, COVID had not had a good effect on youth, as they have seen up close that making a living playing sport is by no means a guaranteed. Obviously, genuinely fanatical athletes and athletes who crave success are less affected, but many professionals are already predicting that more athletes will quit in larger numbers at earlier ages than normal in the coming years. They also indicate that we may see a significant decrease in the number of young people coming into and remaining in each sport.

A comprehensive programme is needed to keep the situation from devolving into an irreversible downward spiral. We also know that old attitudes must be forgotten for truly effective development, as our current world is contending with completely different generational, social, and sociological influences than it was even five years ago. Moreover, the time has certainly come for the sports professionals to avoid producing the solution they believe is perfect and involve those who are most affected: the athletes themselves. Understanding athletes’ motivation has always been an important area, but the damage caused by COVID has simply made it indispensable. In many areas and many cases, the search for a real solution is evident, as so far only the focus has been on putting out fires. But even children know that it is impossible to fight the flames without putting out the source of the fire! Applying this golden rule will be critical to the future of the sport.