Athletic identity: Hercules’ muscle or Achilles heel?
Last November England cricket batsman Jonathon Trott departed from Ashes tour of Australia due to a long-standing ‘stress-related illness’. This was a shock for some of the media. Do such things happen to elite cricketers? In contrast, others speculated that cricket has a particular problem. After all, fellow England batsmen Marcus Trescothick and Graeme Fowler have had their own battles with depression. However, with other sporting legends, such as boxer Frank Bruno and Olympic medallists Dame Kelly Holmes and Victoria Pendleton also disclosing struggles with mental health issues a unique place for cricketers seems unlikely. Given the particular set of pressures on elite athletes (fame, wealth, expectation), perhaps it may be more prudent to consider the risks of being at the pinnacle of physical achievement.
Many of us will suffer from the kinds of distress that gets labelled a mental health problem when dealing with the demands of everyday life. Is it really surprising that elite athletes, with their pressures to consistently perform, are at risk of developing psychological difficulties too? As icons of physical perfection it may be that we assume that they have equitable superhuman mental strength as well. It’s also worth giving some thought to what happens when an elite athlete is no longer elite. Or what happens when an athlete is no longer an athlete. What happens on retirement, or when an athlete suffers a drop in form, is left out of the team, or is injured? When the elite athlete identity, formed by a lifetime of early morning starts, gruelling training schedules and countless social sacrifices, is no longer applicable, it would be surprising if there were not some consequences for self-esteem and psychological well-being.
Sport psychologists have been bettering athletes’ physical performance for decades. But who is responsible for maintaining their psychological wellbeing? The world of sport has been wary of addressing this issue. However, psychological thinking about the struggles of athletes may be just as applicable in this area of life as in others.
Researchers have suggested that everyone has psychological factors that predispose them to developing mental health difficulties to some degree. It is the interaction between these factors and the level of stress experienced which determines whether or not an individual will experience mental health issues. Others have suggested the important role that identities, such as ‘mother’ or ‘carer’, may play in maintaining our wellbeing and that the loss of these identities can be detrimental to our psychological health. There appears no reason why the loss of the identity ‘athlete’ should be different.
Whatever the cause of these difficulties, we know that early detection and intervention can prevent longer-term adverse effects. This has led some researchers to suggest that sport coaches are well positioned to identify those individuals who may be experiencing the early stages of psychological distress and to signpost them to appropriate support. They may also play a protective role against mental health difficulties for athletes, providing a source of support and guidance for those who find themselves isolated by long international tours, training camps and hours on the track, field or pitch. However, without adequate information and support, are coaches equipped for this responsibility? Given the unique set of pressures within the athlete-coach relationship, which some have suggested is unhelpful, are coaches protectors or part of the problem?
What are your views?
Are you an athlete who can identify with these issues in yourself or others? Are you a coach who feels that more should be done to support athletes in this way, or that there is already adequate support for athletes? I would very be interested in hearing your thoughts as part of an online research project to gain a greater understanding of these issues.
If you would like to know more about this research project, or are a coach or athlete and would like to participate, please contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org