So, this morning with heavy hearts, the nation’s lives return to ‘normal’ after our joyous week of hope, and how desperately sad I feel today for Gareth Southgate and his plucky band of brothers. Especially so for Bukayo Saka, Jadon Sancho, and Marcus Rashford (also Marcus Mount and Declan Rice). For these men are merely boys and the unimaginable pressure and sheer expectation placed on their young shoulders over the past week has been huge and must have felt impossible to endure. Now added to their sorrow, the racial hatred they have been targeted with since last night’s loss on penalties, is totally unacceptable.
Southgate knows only too well how the boys will be feeling today, as he stood in the very same boots back in the Euro 96 semi-final against Germany and has lived with the memory and fall-out ever since. Sadly, he will always be remembered for his missed penalty, and maybe not so much for the fantastic job he’s doing with today’s young and hopeful England team.
There’s no doubting the fact that last night Italy played ‘dirty’ and were determined to win at all costs. So, did they really deserve to win? Considering the number of uncontested fouls they got away with – personally, I don’t think so.
Last week we also saw Emma Raducanu pull out of Wimbledon, at the tender age of 18, with instant media speculation that she had suffered a panic attack when the pressure became too much. In an interview after she said:
“No, I don’t know what caused it. A combination of everything that’s gone on behind the scenes in the past week and an accumulation of the buzz. But I think it’s a great learning experience from me going forward and hopefully next time I’ll be better prepared.”
Having been thrust into the huge global spotlight with millions watching, compared to the 100 spectators she had previously been used to, obviously came as quite a shock. But I’m not sure how anyone could prepare themselves for such intense media scrutiny.
I remember listening to an interview on the radio a few years ago stating that today’s 18 year olds don’t reach the same level of maturity until they are 26, as those 30 years ago. At the time this fact horrified me, so the thought of these young athletes facing such monumental pressure is concerning – are they truly mature enough to cope with this, without causing any long-term harm to their mental health? Athletes at this level must have access to an array of specialists who will be devoted to helping them deal with their mental health, and I hope that their coaches ensure this invaluable support is provided and continue to do so.
A few years ago, my oldest two children both reached county level when they swam competitively for our local swimming club, and I witnessed first-hand the levels of pressure and competition they faced, even though they were only young teenagers at the time. As a parent it was not easy to watch and when they decided they’d had enough of the endless grueling training regime, constant failures and only rare wins, and both decided to quit – it was with my blessing.
After reading the story of how Raheem Sterling’s sister took him to his football training sessions on three buses, there and back, after school every day at 3 and not returning home until 11, it proves that these boys can only ever hope to be the best through, not just their immense talent, but accompanied with a dogged determination and tireless hard work – which often affects their entire families.
I wonder whether this kind of pressure placed on young athletes today, or the pressure they are placing upon themselves, is acceptable or good for their well-being. Mental Health is now one of the most talked about subjects of the modern age, but it is also an invisible problem, and so it is one we must be vigilantly aware of and keep addressing – not sweeping under the carpet.
With the world’s eyes watching their every move, and despite all the riches and glory bestowed upon such youthful shoulders, it could be a recipe for disaster for these young people later in life when their stellar talent has passed, and the spotlight finally fades. I sincerely hope not.
Last night’s performance leaves little doubt that these boys will be back, and I for one, can’t wait to cheer them on!