Crossing the line – the athlete’s race for mental health

Crossing the line Summit became known to me through a retired elite athlete.

This unique gathering of sports participants, former athletes, coaches and mentors from all over the world convened in Dublin in May this year (2016).

The agenda was to ‘look at the good, bad and the ugly of athlete retirement and personal welfare.’ How apt this is to consider, as this year the Olympic Games closed on more than 11,000 athletes followed by the opening of the Paralympics.

We know that sports psychologists are employed and integrated into these teams to optimise performance help the athletes to focus on winning and achieving increased status, but Crossing the Line Summit was new, courageous and going further than athletes had publicly gone before.

We see amazing and wonderfully celebratory photographs of success in the media. We saw parades of Team GB Rio members in Manchester and London. It is indeed awesome to revel in amazement and wonder at the human body in action. We are all perfectly imperfect as people and we can share in the attitude and discipline of the motivated action of these ordinary humans doing more and more than we considered possible.

My own avid interest since being a child is in gymnastics. As a schoolgirl I was in a floor routine ‘presented’ to the Duke of Edinburgh and as a student I was a trampolinist (as a microdot) in front of the Queen of England. Later I lectured PGCE students at St. Mary’s college H.E Strawberry Hill. As a parent I went on the floor with my daughter at her competitive gymnastics club and I trained the little ones in movement for dance and choreography for their routines.

With technology improvements and refinements to the apparatus, I have seen gymnastics become faster, more dangerous and complex in the scoring of surpassing each former routine. The floor is springier, the vault is broader and longer and the tariff of dare to do more is particularly evident on the balance beam for women.

Simone Biles’ beam routine is considered outstanding because of the number of elements she does in succession. In my old school measurements of 3 inches high and 4 inches wide, this apparatus is solid wood disguised with fabric that belies its harshness. Dancing on the kerb it is not. Simone Biles connects height and inversion, balance and rotation, power and strength with agility that makes me hold my breath whilst watching. Even when gymnasts fall off this plank propped up in the air they seem to do this gracefully. Except in training.

Where do the best of the best go for mental and physical recovery and rehabilitation when they fall? The Dublin Summit is about stimulating conversations politically and personally for the consideration of all elite performers in sport (especially when they are no longer of use to their nation). The Financial Times journalist Janan Ganesh quoted in the Independent newspaper 17th August 2016 in the voices section states “There was never a costless route to our athletes’ present eminence, which the Left cites as a social democracy in action. Investment galvanised British athletics but so did a pitiless elitism. Money went to plausible finalists and medals”.

I live and work in Sheffield, with the English Institute of Sport here and across the Yorkshire to Lancashire border, the Manchester based National Cycling Centre. As a psychotherapist I am privileged in helping some of these ‘super-heroes’- both the ones in ascension and the ones fallen by the wayside. I hear and see these mortals in emotional and psychological pain. I am not there to get them better to become more acceptable as performers. It can take quite some time before I am trusted and they can reveal their feelings of shame and inadequacy.

Simone Biles back story gives a ‘rags to riches’ spin on her childhood adversity and how she has triumphed over the unfortunate beginnings to her life. Perhaps sports have indeed given her resilience or maybe she developed resilience within the trials of family inconsistency and distressing experiences? But what of the private battles of feeling like a failure, perceiving that you’ve let people down? Some performers feel like actors in their own lives, as if they are impostors that will soon be humiliated and found to be lacking.

Because of the immense mental component of success, athletes are not expected to suffer the ignoble human frailty of depression or anxiety. Indeed, weakness is replaced in their vocabularies with discipline and determination to conquer. Fu Yuanhui an Olympic swimmer in the 100m relay said in an off the cuff remark: “I feel I didn’t swim well today. I let my teammates down because my period came yesterday, I feel a bit weak, but this is not an excuse.”

Take the Michigan –born swimmer Allison Schmitt. After winning five medals and setting a world record in London 2012 she uttered the dirty word “depression.” In an interview with Channel 4 in Detroit she said, “I didn’t want to ask for help, but in this situation I found out ….that I couldn’t keep fighting it by myself….. There’s this thing that they call post Olympic blues and I think I had a little bit of that and I kept isolating myself and isolating myself.” Notice, she only had ‘a little bit.’ Being in control is the only norm for the high achiever.

Check out the internet and there are stories now being told about, and by, the very people involved who are wanting it to be known that the idea they are superlatively different to ‘normal’ people is a myth and a fallacy. At the Dublin Crossing the Line Summit, speakers shared their personal narratives of retirement difficulties, including identity issues as well as mental and physical health problems.

Addictions, relationship breakdown, loss of status and adoration, changes in physical prowess and sporting injuries and disorders for life are real and detrimental experiences for these people. Additionally, not everyone will get their picture on a cereal box for advertising or be a poster ‘girl.’ Even paying the bills can be stressful and becoming a ghost of the past when people say “didn’t you used to be …..?”

Just two weeks before the opening of the 1980 Summer Olympics, Russian gymnast Elena Vyacheslavovna Mukhina broke her neck whilst attempting to master a dangerous and difficult floor tumbling move (the Thomas Salto). Permanently quadriplegic at only 20 years of age, she died aged 46.

Living outside the bubble of a training regime, the structure of sporting relationships and the constant pressure to be better needs more than a medal.

At MindBodyTherapy Clinic I offer many different types of therapy that can benefit athletes, whether they are in or out of competition, and regardless of what level they compete at or used to compete at. Even sport at amateur levels can have an enormous impact on people who participate in it. EMDR or CBT helps many of my patients deal with the feelings of anxiety, depression or guilt that can be related to athletic competition. Massage based therapy or yoga and mindfulness based cognitive therapy could also be of particular use to people who engage their bodies in sporting activity.

Please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you think any of these services could benefit you.

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