Student Athletes, or Just Athletes?

“Topping the Olympic medals table was one way that the USSR showed the rest of the world how powerful it was.”

The USSR pioneered training athletes at a young age, as sports boarding schools were a crucial part of their dominance at the Olympics.  Young athletes would practice a single sport or event everyday of the week, ignoring everything else, so they could eventually be the best in the world.  With the collapse of communism, the system has changed, but in many ways it remains the same.

Alen wrestling with a teammate at the Olympic Reserve School in Ekaterinburg, Russia.

At an Olympic Reserve School in Ekaterinburg, Russia, many young athletes train in hopes to represent their country in the near future. Students do not have to pay to attend this school, as Russian teen and Greco-Roman wrestling standout, Alen, has been training five days a week since he was seven. “At first it was just something to do after school. When I started doing well I wanted to make it my career”. One of the school’s best divers, and qualifier for the Olympics in 2012 started swimming before she could walk.

I found an article “How to Grow a Super Athlete”, by Dennis Coyle on his trip to Russia with Elena Rybina, who worked part-time for the Russian Tennis Federation.  Coyle visited Spartak Tennis Club, a dominant club in the tennis world, to see how young athletes train in Russia compared to youngsters in the U.S.  “Tournament pairings regularly became all-Spartak affairs, most memorably the 2004 French Open final, Myskina over Dementieva, the continuation of a rivalry the two began at age 7.” “We are lucky,” Rybina whispered. “The heat is working. When it doesn’t, the kids play in their coats.”  Spartak Tennis Club is another example of the dedicated young athletes have in Russia.

The youngsters of Spartak Tennis Club.

When Coyle arrived, the youngsters were already there sporting heavy coats, carrying tennis rackets, sports duffels and plastic grocery bags. The class was an assortment of 12 kids from ages 4-7 who make the hour long trip to Spartak on a subway three times a week. The kids began their workout with a tough 15 minutes of calisthenics before throwing medicine balls back and forth. In my opinion, that is a tough routine for a 4 year old 3 times a week and many young Americans couldn’t hack it. “Thus the lesson began, and with it the unspoken implication: the great, rusty Spartak machine was coming to life, carrying its cargo of mini-geniuses another step closer toward inevitable glory.”

A few studies have been conducted to try to determine the amount of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation young athletes have. Intrinsic motivation is the motivation the athlete already has without being  pushed by a coach, while extrinsic is motivation that is forced onto the athlete.  In 2011, Marijana Mladenović and Aleksandar Marjanović directed a study, with the hypothesis that there was no difference in intrinsic motivation, but a lot of difference in extrinsic motivation between kids from different countries. The tests showed that youngsters from Serbia and Montenegro had a much higher degree of intrinsic motivation than Russian youngsters.  This shows that the young athletes in Russia are being pushed harder by their coaches or parents than in other countries.

The importance of the Olympics in Russia is awesome because it shows the pride that the country has.  I don’t think it is always in the best interest of the kids to be taking it more seriously than school if that truly is the case.  The Olympic Reserve School system currently in place in Russia is a great idea as long as the kids like being a part of it.  In many eyes, it is more of an honor to go to one of these schools than to go to a high scholarly school in Russia.  From a young age, Russians learn what they are good at, and where their careers will go.


Would you let your child focus strictly on a single sport at the age of 5 with hopes to be an olympian?


This entry was posted in Culture.