Dr John Hellemans: An insight into the thinking and mental health of our elite athletes

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OPINION: Some years ago, our New Zealand triathlon community was rocked by the suicides of one ex-elite and two still active young athletes in relatively quick succession. In all three cases it was unexpected, and contrary to the innocent, happy and healthy image the then relatively new sport had.

Recently the mental health of elite athletes has been brought into the limelight, due to a spate of incidents and investigations within New Zealand’s high performance sporting community. A number of athletes have opened up about their mental health struggles. It has made me wonder if mental health in athletes differs from their contemporaries, who lead more ‘normal’ lives?

Most young people are exposed to pressures and challenges in some way or another, in the form of exams, job interviews, relationships, financial hardship, pandemics, loneliness, exposure to bullying and harassment in the workplace and educational institutions, or, they can just feel gloomy for no clear reason.

Dr John Hellemans coached top triathletes including former Olympian Kris Gemmell (file photo).

Kirk Hargreaves/Stuff

Dr John Hellemans coached top triathletes including former Olympian Kris Gemmell (file photo).

In addition to being exposed to these ‘life’ events, athletes focus on a career in which few succeed. To get to the top in sport requires an extra-ordinary amount of egocentricity and singlemindedness, bordering on obsession. Elite athletes live by the mantra ‘train, eat, sleep, repeat’.

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This dedication to one cause can result in a loss of perspective. “You become what you give your attention to” said the ancient philosopher Epictetus. The attention required by athletes to do what they have to do to succeed can be so intense that they sometimes confuse what they do with who they are. Success and public endorsements at an early, still impressionable age, feed their perceived identity as an athlete.

The less ambitious in our society have more chance of a balanced life, in which they have room to divide their attention between family, work, relationships, and hobbies. If things don’t turn out well for a time in one aspect of their lives, they have other facets to fall back on to soften the impact.

Athletes are not the only ones who can fall into the trap of defining themselves by what they do. It also applies to high flyers in other professions like the performing arts or the corporate world.

Cyclists turn out in big numbers for a memorial ride for Olivia Podmore in Christchurch in August.

JOHN KIRK-ANDERSON/Stuff

Cyclists turn out in big numbers for a memorial ride for Olivia Podmore in Christchurch in August.

Where elite sport differs is that there is little empathy nor sympathy for lack of success, as there is in other aspects of life. All accolades go to the winner. It is said that nothing prepares you more for disappointment than competitive sport. Even the most successful athletes will tell you that they have lost far more events than they have won.

Many sports have a centralised programme where athletes live and train together. Because of their similar lifestyle, they end up socialising with each other as well. This sounds all very nice, until they discover that they also compete against one another for a place on the team, a world ranking or selection to represent their country. This brings a certain degree of tension to the group environment, which can easily turn into disharmony.

In most groups, in particular when they are made up of people with a competitive nature, there is a natural hierarchy, based on a mixture of achievement and personality. Athletes find it hard to take when they are ‘on top’ and are subsequently ‘dethroned’ by starting to lose to athletes they have always been the better off, in particular when this occurs within their own team setting.

In a competitive sporting environment, it is a normal part of human nature to feel some temporary resentment towards the victor. In social groups which don’t function well, it’s the weakest link which gets picked on and smaller groups will form within the group, adding to the division. Centralised elite sports programmes need a robust team culture with strong leadership to be able to manage potential disruptions in relationships.

Performing well, but in particular winning, are strong affirmations of who athletes are and it justifies their existence. Most athletes accept that they cannot always win and it is therefore not the losing itself which trips them up, but adversities like injury and illness, financial hardship, pandemics and selection issues, which they perceive as a strong threat to their career and their identity.

If they cannot train and compete, what is left and who are they? This is one of the reasons why so many athletes struggle with the process of reintegrating back into society following their sporting career.

Athletes who have the resilience to overcome setbacks and who can manage the uncertainties, distractions, and the pressures which come from not only their own expectations, but also those of their coaches, family, and the media, are the most likely to succeed, but… it is not a guarantee.

The pursuit of excellence comes at a cost and not only a financial one. Relationships, study, and other interests are ‘sacrificed’ in favour of training, travel and racing. Of course, athletes can opt out at any time and choose a more ‘normal’ life. They don’t, because success and winning and the accolades that come with it, feel good and are addictive.

The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas summed up the contradiction within humans when he wrote: “I hold a beast, an angel and a madman in me”. Most of us live with a degree of hidden ‘madness’, of which anxiety and depression seem to be the most common. This ‘madness’ can bubble to the surface when we feel under pressure and is generally triggered by our judgement of external circumstances which hinder us, and over which we have little or no control.

Most of us, athletes included, have a breaking point and are somewhere on the spectrum between the Mother Theresas of this world at the one end and psychopaths at the opposite end.

Elite athletes are as much at risk of mental health issues as their less athletic contemporaries, even if the triggers might differ. Their triggers are often directly related to the perceived pressures of their athletic career.

At least we are now talking about it, rather than hiding behind the ‘just toughen up’ attitude, which until recently has been so ingrained in New Zealand’s high performance sporting culture. Contrary to the belief of some, opening up and managing mental health issues does not have to impact detrimentally on performance, in fact, in the long run the opposite is more likely.

*Dr John Hellemans is a Christchurch-based sports medicine doctor and coach. He coached numerous New Zealand triathletes to world championship titles and Olympic Games. He also represented New Zealand as a triathlete in the 1980s and 1990s.



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