Unethical pressure on young talent?

The cost of success and perfectionism can be significant for young talent aiming for the top. Around a third of this group active in sport and performing arts struggle with negative feelings, stress and performance anxiety. Their coaches may be both the problem and the solution.

Ballett dancers on stage
Dancing in the big theatres is the very dream for many performing dancers - who are victim to heavy pressure, even from themselves. Illustration photo: Shutterstock

It’s about understanding how positive or negative motivation processes affect performance, mental health and motivation.

Heidi Marian Haraldsen - portrait
Heidi Marian Haraldsen, fellow in Coaching and Psychology at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences. Photo: Åsa Maria Mikkelsen

Heidi Marian Haraldsen has studied teenagers who have devoted themselves to the performing arts – ballet and music – and various sports. The study is the basis for the PhD she will defend at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences (NIH) on 17 December.

Victims of perfection

In multiple sessions, 200-250 young people between 16 and 19 have been answering questions on their day-to-day experiences on their journey to the top. Heidi Marian Haraldsen has also conducted in-depth interviews with numerous present and former practitioners, reflecting on their experiences along the way. 

She has studied young people within ballet and music and in the sports of rowing, ice skating, alpine skiing, biathlon, cross-country skiing, athletics and swimming.

“Coaches in particular must become far more aware of perfectionism and its consequences in the form of increased vulnerability and thus unhelpful motivational processes. And: That environments in which talent is developed – with coaches at the forefront – can do a lot to mitigate the risk of damaging mental health, well-being and motivation.

Young musicians can have a lot of fun, but here too, seriousness and performance anxiety will strike for many. Here a group from the Barratt Due Institute of Music. Illustration photo: Thea Gunnes

  • Healthy motivational processes: When someone is driven by their own enthusiasm and feels in the driver's seat for their own development.
  • Unhealthy motivational processes: Processes in which a youth is judged to be driven by external controlled and controlling forces which in the long run are unhealthy and can go beyond mental balance and health.
  • It can be judged as a hunt for the perfect, first-place beliefs about high expectations from other or other forms of internal or external pressure.


  • Unhelpful motivational processes: Processes in which a youth is judged are driven by externally-managed and controlling forces which in the long run are unhealthy and can go beyond mental balance and health.
  • It can be seen as a pursuit of perfection, perceptions of high expectations from others, or other forms of internal or external pressure.
  • Healthy motivational processes: When someone is driven by their own enthusiasm and feels in control of their own development.

Positive mindsets

Haraldsen says that positive motivational processes are particularly important for learning, development and personal growth. The development of talent does not just depend on the artistic and sporting abilities of the practitioner. It is also dependent on good motivation and a good mindset; it affects the psychology of the practitioners. Detecting and eliminating factors that threaten healthy development is important.

Artists than just teachers

"Some teachers, both within the arts and certain sports, have a lot to learn," Haraldsen concludes.

She says that some work in a more authoritarian and controlling way than others – who in turn support their charges and their own initiatives to a greater extent.

“It’s not a black-and-white situation, but teachers in the arts generally rate a bit lower in terms of teaching style. To simplify a little, these teachers are primarily artists rather than teachers or coaches. Their charges have great respect for them and feel a great deal of pressure: They must live up to high expectations if they are to succeed in a competitive environment.

"Should be tough"

The hard work in general and pressure from the teacher or trainer together with perfectionism affects the mental health of the practitioners: It reinforces unhealthy motivational processes and can turn into doubt, negative feelings, physical and mental fatigue, performance anxiety and other problems.

However, the practitioners themselves are responsible for much of the pressure; many of them want it to be this way, both in sport and the arts.

“It should be tough and hard. If courses and training are too easy, young people will go to Britain or Russia instead, in search of more extreme environments.

Ballet dancers' streched legs on line
The beauty is in the details, and one does not get away from terping, terping and terping. Photo: Shutterstock


Specialisation or just fun

Talent within art and sports is very different. Specialisation starts earliest in ballet, where even young children participate in professional and teacher-guided training with a stress on technique and critical feedback from an early age. There is a long tradition of this in dance and music, and particularly within the classical disciplines, i.e. classical music and ballet.

In comparison, specialisation within sport occurs later. Sport is mostly fun – it consists of parent-driven activities with a lot more social support for the youngest, for example within athletics or cross-country skiing.

Research shows that this approach is both healthier and better for cultivating talent.

“Some of the differences between sports and performing arts found in the research are down to this cultural difference,” says Haraldsen.

Perfectionist with low self-esteem

So what do participants characterise as unhealthy motivational processes? This is what Haraldsen has studied in the greatest detail.

Participants can be divided into three groups, which tell us different things about how unhealthy motivational processes are experienced. This is very similar in both the sporting and art world.

For one group, the "perfectionists," it is perfectionism itself that is the problem; the fact they are talented, feel that they often practise extremely hard to avoid failure because their self-esteem depends on how they perform. In the event of a setback, their feelings of intrinsic value are at stake.

Sense of duty

The second group, who are less perfectionist, unhealthy motivational processes often come from the fact that they have been unlucky quite recently, due to illness or injury. It's tough to deal with, but they're still more mentally robust because they have a healthier way of looking at developments than those in the first group, and are better at coping with adversity.

The motivation of the third and final group comes from external sources: They have started and succeeded more due to a sense of duty, or to live up to the expectations of parents or teachers, rather than for themselves. They can practise for 30 hours a week because they have already invested so much and have not explored other options.

“This can be a disadvantage of early specialisation. They don’t have a plan B.

Athletes on rollerskis in foggy forest
Training cross country skiing is much more about playing and having fun - and much more often run by the athletes' parents Photo: NIH


Girls and dancers on the edge

In both art and sport, teenagers aiming for the top are ambitious; they work in an extremely focused manner in order to improve. The vast majority are aware of this, and they cope well with the pressure. Nevertheless, the study shows that artists and girls are generally more vulnerable than boys and athletes, Haraldsen points out.

The coach as a buffer and solution

According to Heidi Marian Haraldsen, the coach is part of the solution to these problems. She says that the coach’s relationship with their charges is crucial.

“If the coach both knows the character of his/her charges and puts them in the centre, and at the same time avoids pushing, controlling or manipulating them, he or she will act as a buffer or shield against potential problems. Then he or she can keep aspects leading to vulnerability in check. Talent will blossom, and the drop-out rate will fall,” according to the motivation researcher.

“If someone is going to be very good, can’t the coach use kid gloves?”

“There is a fine balance between needs, structure and support. The coach has to discover this balance if young people are not to be at risk of mental problems.” You have to bear in mind that the practitioners themselves are important for their own learning and development – this isn’t something you can force or threaten them to do. A coach has to think of the big picture, not just about technique, details and performance,” says Heidi Marian Haraldsen.

“Therefore, a coach should not just have sports or dance skills, but should also be a good motivator and educator. They have to remember they’re working with human beings, rather than machines.




Heidi Marian Haraldsen:

Is a qualified dancer and dance teacher, with a major in pedagogy on “The aesthetic human”.

She has run a ballet school and dance Company for young people for over 15 years and develops secondary school dance curricula.

Responsible for the practical/pedagogical dance and theatre study programme at the Oslo National Academy of the Arts.