Pressures of being an Elite Athlete
Isobelle Biggin provides an overview of her doctorate research project into coaches' and athletes' perceptions of mental ill-health in elite athletes, how these issues arise and the challenges and barriers in athletes accessing support.
The news in November 2013 of England Cricket batsman Jonathon Trott's departure from the Ashes tour of Australia, due to a long-standing stress related illness, was labelled by some members of the media as a "shock". Whereas others speculated whether "cricket has a problem", with the news coming in the wake of fellow England cricketers Marcus Threscothick's and Graeme Fowler's own battles with depression.
However, with other sporting legends such as boxer Frank Bruno and Olympic medallists Dame Kelly Holmes and Victoria Pendleton, disclosing their battles with mental ill-health, perhaps it is more prudent to examine the pressures of the elite athlete identity and what can be done to support those in this 'privileged' position, than propose an issue solely located within the culture of cricket.
Athletic Identity: Hercules' Muscles or Achilles Heel?
When we consider that 1 in 4 of us will suffer from a mental health problem in the course of a year due to the pressures and demands of everyday life, is it really surprising that elite athletes, with their own unique pressures to consistently perform, potential to over train, burnout and body perfectionism, are at risk of developing psychological difficulties too?
Or, as icons of physical perfection, do we unfairly assume that they have equitable superhuman mental strength and endurance as well? And what happens when the 'elite athlete' is no longer the 'elite athlete'? When they have been dropped from the team, are injured or retire? When the elite athlete identity, formed by a lifetime of early morning starts, gruelling training schedules and countless social sacrifices, is no longer applicable, what is the impact on self-esteem and psychological well-being?
Psychology offers some helpful models in understanding why some athletes may develop psychological difficulties, such as the diathesis-stress model of psychopathology or role identity and loss theories, but are they being drawn upon? Sport Psychologists' knowledge of motivational models and visualisation techniques have been bettering athletes' performance for decades, however, the expertise that clinical psychologists have to offer on maintaining the wellbeing, with the potential to prolong careers, has yet to be fully utilised in the field of sport.
Coaches: Protectors or part of the problem?
Within clinical psychology we know that early detection and intervention of mental health problems can prevent longer-term adverse effects, which has led some researchers to suggest that sports 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 athletes, who can find themselves isolated by long international tours, training camps and hours on the track, field or pitch. However, does the career success of a coach, which is reliant on the competitive success of the athlete, lead to unhelpful pressures on the relationship or even a culture of complicit denial of such issues by coaches and sporting bodies?
What are your views?
Are you an athlete who can identify with these issues, whether 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 interested in hearing your thoughts as part of an online research project to gain a greater understanding of these issues and the role clinical psychology has to play.
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
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About the Author
Isobelle Biggin is a Trainee Clinical Psychologist studying for a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology at the Salomons Centre for Applied Psychology, Canterbury Christ Church University. A keen sports woman from a young age; competing at a National level in Tetrathlon and more recently recreationally in Triathlon, I have a keen interest in how athletes deal with the pressures to consistently perform from a mental health perspective.
The following Sports Coach pages provide additional information on this topic: