Elite sports are (absolutely) not for everyone

“I’m just not passionate about life as an elite athlete anymore. It requires a lot of dedication and I have always wanted to be the best in the world, but if you don’t give one hundred percent and are passionate about it, it won’t happen. It’s also a lot of pressure you put on yourself as an elite athlete, and now that I haven’t had that pressure while I’ve been injured, I feel much better in my everyday life, so I also prioritized making the decision to stop in relation to my mental health. These are not thoughts that have only come to me now while I have been injured. I have thought about being a professional elite athlete, and whether it has been something for me, for several periods, and it has taken up to the last four to five months. It has been the most difficult decision of my life, but I am confident in my case and rest well in the decision. In any case, I have to study full-time, and I haven’t tried that before. I have only tried it half-time because badminton has also filled me up a lot. I now have the time and energy to be with friends and family, and now I also have the opportunity to be more impulsive, and I want to practice that. Everything has been structured for me so far, so it will be a fun challenge”.

Elite sports have both a front side and a back side

This is how the 22-year-old Freja Ravn expressed herself in a press release from Badminton Denmark a few weeks ago. She has experienced both the “front side” of elite sports – international titles and European Championship gold medals as a senior player, and the “back side” in the form of a serious cruciate knee injury since she won her first Danish Championship title as a youth player at the age of 13. Freja Ravn’s career stop in elite sports was only mentioned in very few media, but the content of her honest statements should be noted – not only by journalists, but also by elite and talent coaches, managers, parents and everyone else with an interest in elite sports. Her story points to an inappropriate elite culture, where very elitist training and competition environments for senior athletes are all too often uncritically copied into environments for children and youth, which can damage the talent’s well-being and motivation in the long term.

The age of majority is absolutely decisive for the rights and duties of elite athletes

Also in elite sports, it is appropriate to distinguish between the rights and duties of children and youth under the age of 18 and adults who have reached the age of 18. The legal age of 18 means that the parents of a talent have the right and duty to “protect” the talent against breaking the law, unethical behavior and actions that create dissatisfaction and bad social relations for the talent or the team. This means that every youth and talent coach should be in close dialogue with both the youth and the parents to ensure a safe and sustainable training and competition environment. For elite athletes who are 18 years old and thus of legal age, things are different. Elite athletes over the age of 18 can independently and voluntarily enter into binding agreements with clubs and federations, which oblige the elite athletes in specific areas such as e.g. place of residence, everyday life and holiday activities, alcohol, diet, smoking and weighing. For elite athletes over the age of 18, there should always be a written contract – both at club and federation level – in my opinion, which describes the rights and duties of the parties. In addition, the cooperation between the parties must take place in accordance with the Elite Sports Act. If one of the parties violates one or more points of the contract, this should of course have consequences in the form of a warning, fine, quarantine, exclusion or termination of cooperation.

Elite sports at international senior level is a very special arena

The legal age of 18 can hopefully also sharpen the attention of clubs and federations to the fact that there should be different objectives, training methods, forms of competition, expert assistance and much more for children and young people – including the most talented – in relation to elite athletes over 18. Unfortunately, it happens all too often, both in Danish and international elite sports, that behaviour, language, ethics and attitudes from very elitist training and competition environments for senior athletes are “copied” uncritically into talent environments for children and young people. Elite sport at international senior level is indeed a special arena, where selection, opt-out, frustration, lack of motivation, serious injuries, conflicts and hard training wear without satisfactory sporting results are also part of reality. For these reasons, opting out of elite sports may be the right solution for some, both in the short and long term.

Weighing in football of children and youth under the age of 18 should not take place

DR’s documentary broadcast “Soccer’s invisible diseases” has in recent weeks created a debate about weight, eating disorders, depression and unhappiness in Danish women’s football. “Public” weighing is of course completely legitimate in sports such as wrestling, boxing, judo and rowing (lightweight), where weighing is part of the sport’s rules – also for children and young people under 18 years of age. For elite athletes over the age of 18, in many sports – including league and national teams in football and handball – it can be particularly appropriate to use weighing as part of performance optimization, both in relation to training, matches and tournaments. Whether weighing is included as part of the contractual relationship between player and club or federation, the two parties decide independently and sovereignly. For children and young people under the age of 18 – who are not of legal age – weighing in sports such as football and handball with many, complex performance factors should not take place in my opinion. For youth players, there are far more important physical factors – such as endurance, speed, resilience, coordination and balance – than the player weighs 1/2 or 2 kilos too much or slightly.

Elite athletes often have a strong mental health profile

Less than two years ago, a research project from the University of Southern Denmark focused on the mental health and well-being of Danish elite athletes. And a number of conclusions are worth highlighting. Firstly, Danish elite athletes have the same mental health and well-being as the population as a whole. Secondly, there are significant differences in the mental health and well-being of female and male elite athletes in different sports. Thirdly, Danish elite athletes have the same mental health and well-being profile as elite athletes in e.g. Sweden, Australia, Switzerland, Germany and Great Britain. And finally, fourth – and most important – almost 2/3 (64%) of Danish elite athletes have a “strong mental health profile”, 30% of elite athletes have a “moderate mental health profile” and only a modest minority (6%) – can are categorized as elite athletes with a “weak mental health profile”. These elite athletes show a high degree of unhappiness, sleep less and experience stressful situations to a much greater extent, both in elite sports, in education and in private life. Some of these will probably sooner or later opt out of a continued life as an elite athlete. It is of course very important – not least for the coach in everyday training – to focus on these elite athletes and not least the challenges and dilemmas they face in training, competitions, education, work or everyday life. And sometimes it is basically about people who have personality traits that simply do not “fit” into the selective and demanding structure of elite sports.

Elite sports provide skills that are valuable in life

I think that Freja Ravn as an elite athlete has had a “strong mental health profile”. And then I am convinced that she has really good chances to complete an education as a lawyer, become a competent and valued employee and not least to have a good and meaningful life outside of elite sports – not least because of her experiences, skills and experience, which she has in her “backpack” from elite sports.


Andreas KüttelAndreas Koefoed Petersen & Carsten Hvid Larsen: ”To Flourish or Languish, that is the question: Exploring the mental health profiles of Danish elite athletes” (Psychology of Sport & Exercise, No. 52 – 2021).

The mental health of Danish elite athletes is neither better nor worse than the population as a whole – https://ma57.dk/en/the-mental-health-of-danish-elite-athletes-is-neither-better-nor-worse-than-the-population-as-a-whole