By Jessica Zelinka, Coach, Mentor, Former National Athletics Team Member, Olympian
Sport: Heptathlon

Career Highlights:

  • 2012 Olympic finalist in both heptathlon (6th) and 100m hurdles (7th);
  • Returned to competition after giving birth in 2009 to re-break Canadian record in 2012 Olympic Trials and win 100m hurdles title
  • 2008 Olympics, heptathlon (4th) Canadian record (at the time)
  • Pan American games Gold 2007, 2 X silver medalist commonwealth Games (2010, 2014)

As a kid, I never thought about the Olympics.

I thought about going to the library and taking out a “how-to” book on self-coaching for track and field, along with a pile of crummy joke books to add to my joke collection. I thought about jumping over curbside garbage pails on the way home from school to practice hurdling just because I wanted to do what my older sisters could do. I thought about surpassing my personal best in as many events as I was allowed to compete in for my elementary school because I loved how competition always brought out my best results. For each of the three meets that would sum up the track & field season, I recorded my results in my journal next to my thoughts about boys I liked and other important life events.

Now as a former Olympian turned coach and a parent of a 10-year-old daughter, I can appreciate how simple my life was back when I started sport.

My peers and others would say you’re going to go to the Olympics.

I didn’t know how to respond. At a young age, I was recognized for my talent. I internalized it as some kids are told they will be doctors or veterinarians one day; I guess I was expected to be jumping in a sandpit and throwing spears for Canada one day. It could have been worse.

I have spent my fair share of time spectating in stands, coaching and observing athletes of all levels and conversing with parents. What I’m hearing is a deep desire for sport to play a more significant role in the long-term character development of the athletes as individuals.

I was fortunate to have a long career, competing for Canada at the world stage for 10years in a row, minus the one year (2009) when I was pregnant with my daughter, between my two Olympic appearances.

Photo Credit: Dave Holland

In watching fellow athletes of different sports come and go from Varsity and National teams, the sad reality I witnessed was that many athletes were not having those grandiose experiences sport promised to offer. The result is many ended up leaving sport without wanting to ever look back. Which means, losing potential coaches, volunteers and supporters of sport in Canada.

Who’s at fault here; the coaches, parents, sporting system? I’m not here to point my finger, actually… in my roles as a mentor and coach, I’m looking to place my finger on what’s missing for these athletes. Why are so many athletes leaving the sporting system feeling like their best just wasn’t enough?

I think it starts with the stories and messages athletes buy into at a young age. Nowadays, I think parents need more guidance than ever before. It can be very confusing with all the mixed messages. Parents want to do what’s best for their kids and yet they are in a culture with different sports that are supporting the wrong things.

Photo Credit: Dave Holland

I would even go so far as to argue that the majority of competitive sporting organizations have completely missed the point in their athlete development programs. When parents don’t question that it’s expected of their 8-year-old to practice 4-5 days a week, plus weekends for competitions, I can’t help to wonder if we completely forgot that these family-fuelled commitments are for extracurricular activities, AKA hobbies, not an investment in a multi-million dollar career.

When an athlete doesn’t “succeed” down the road, because really what are the chances of making the NHL or representing Canada at the World stage, slim, right? So what do we tell the athletes then? We sold them the story about sport, that hard work pays off, now what? We won’t have to tell them anything, because they have already have come to their own conclusions. They weren’t enough.

Truth be told, I loved track from the moment I tried it, but if I was forced to train 5 days a week or miss downtime on weekends, I probably wouldn’t have lasted long enough to see where the sport would have taken me. I also wouldn’t have had the time to try other sports that kept me engaged and challenged in different ways.

Instead of learning how to long jump from a library book, I would have probably conked out in front of a TV after practice. Instead of being creative about using resources around the house to practice, I would have probably put higher expectations on myself at a younger age to perfect the hurdling technique and could have lost my natural feel for this event.

Photo Credit: Dave Holland

There is more to sport than we give it credit for, especially at the athlete development stages. Sport is a child’s play; it’s a time for discovery, a place to learn and grow. At it’s best, it is a space for self-discovery. At it’s worst, it tries to mold athletes into stereotypical sporting ideologies that will eventually lead to disconnection and disappointment.

There needs to be a paradigm shift.

Where do we start?