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John Amaechi: ‘Path to greatness’ for athletes should never be ‘injurious, dangerous, or evil’

Negotiating the “path to greatness” is never an easy process for athletes.

Despite the apparent ease with which our sporting gods reach heights never before reached, there is always a backdrop of fierce dedication, tireless hard work and an often painful commitment to success.

Which is why former NBA player John Amaechi has called on elite coaches and their prodigies to take extra care when pushing for sporting excellence.

“They are tied to their sport, they have this achievement pathway in their head and they are told, as many of us are, that they should tolerate anything that happens to you — even if its injurious, even if its dangerous, even if its evil, you should tolerate it in order to follow your path to greatness,” Amaechi, who now works as a psychologist, told CNN Sport of the dangers athletes and their coaches faced in striving to reach the top of their game.

“You can be rigorous, you can be demanding, you can push young people and indeed any athlete to the very envelope of what they can tolerate but you can do that in a way that has their long-term health and safety in mind.”

The international focus on the horrifying testimonies of child sex abuse victims in the Larry Nassar trial over the past few months has shined a light on a spectrum of issues that range from the abuse and bullying to discipline and exertion of pressure, all under the umbrella of “duty of care in sport.”

Safeguarding in sport

At the Laureus World Sports Awards in Monaco last month, CNN hosted a roundtable discussion on safeguarding children in sport, bringing together four legendary athletes — Michael Johnson, Nadia Comaneci, Martina Navratilova and Tanni Grey-Thompson — to reflect on their own experience and discuss the best ways to protect aspiring athletes.

Eleven-time Paralympic gold medalist and British parliamentarian Grey-Thompson worked with Amaechi last year in putting together an independent report into duty of care in sport, covering everything from education to diversity to mental welfare and physical safety.

She believes that too much emphasis is put on material success in elite sport: “In Britain, especially around the Olympics and Paralympics, we like winning medals. We want to be a strong nation, but that comes at a cost and we just have to be careful about what that cost is.”

Speaking at CNN’s Laureus summit, she added: “Elite sport is tough and it’s hard and it’s challenging and it’s meant to be, but for younger children coming through, they have to be safe and secure and have fun all the way through.”

‘It’s about coaching the coaches’

For former tennis world no. 1 Navratilova, the solution lies firmly in the education of those in positions of power over children: “It’s about coaching the coaches. 50% of kids in school in the US experience their first failure in sport at school in P.E. – and so guess what? They don’t want to do it again.

“It’s about making it positive rather than negative but you need to coach the coaches as to how to motivate the kids.”

In a similar vein, former world record holding sprinter Johnson sees a problem with the way many coaches operate in youth sport: “I think that you run the risk when you take a one-size-fits-all approach — that every kid needs to be screamed at or yelled at — then you’re going to run some kids away from sport and that’s a shame.

“Once you start trying to force a kid into certain types of training or behavior and you are trying to motivate them in that way, it becomes very easy to cross the line into bullying and it makes that kid vulnerable to not enjoying the sport and then regretting for the rest of their lives that they didn’t continue just because of one individual.”

With gymnastics very much a central focus of the discussions around safeguarding children, trailblazing Olympian Comaneci has already seen development in the ways in which people are scrutinizing young people’s security in sport.

“I don’t think there was a lot of concern 30 years ago when you went to the gym that safety would be a problem but there are a lot of gymnastics clubs looking a lot differently at the safety of kids now.”

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