Here are the 3 other challenges that elite sports people may face, with suggestions about what can be done to help support the individual and help to minimise experiencing mental health issues.
SHAME & GUILT
The experience of shame and guilt can keep a person tied to a self-defeating thought pattern that can have considerable impact on mental health. It is inevitable for most elite sports people to experience shame and guilt through the expectations of self and others, their competitive failures and also their success, at times.
Shame can be a driving force for many, in an attempt to feel ‘good enough’ when perhaps a part of the individual does not fully believe that they are ‘enough’ exactly as they are. This can be related to various factors, including; a lack of understanding or praise when things didn’t go right, a challenging experience or time within the sport, a shaming parent, etc. Whilst shame can be a motivator, it ultimately is detrimental to the individual.
Guilt and shame can be interlinked in sport… the guilt of not having competed at a particular level in the game can lead and be overshadowed by the shame experiences as a result. The manifestation of both shame and guilt can evoke negative thought patterns, behaviours and emotions, such as anger towards self or depression.
Again, this is another area that I will go deeper in to the future, as I feel this is overlooked however a very important factor that heightens mental health issues. Below, I offer some thoughts to consider and to help with possible shame and guilt experienced by elite athletes:
- Find out what the shame-bind is. We all have it! This can be achieved through working with a therapist and over time understanding the personal process more deeply, which helps to bring awareness and challenge unproductive thoughts and behaviours.
- Form a dialogue with the parts of self that are experiencing feelings of shame and guilt… remember these are two different processes.
- Make a list of the things you are feeling guilty about… shame can be much harder to pinpoint.
- Use mindfulness techniques to remain in the present moment. Accept that it is there, but do your best to not let the shame or guilt from the past overshadow the present moment.
The long days practicing in all weather conditions, the travelling and not having home comforts, missing out on important social occasions, and ultimately just being dedicated to the game, is bound to, at some point during the career, produce a sense of loneliness and have an impact on mental health.
Most of this begins from a young age, as this is what is required to compete at an elite level. There are of course great gains for the individual developing the foundations of the game from a young age, however there is a loss as a result of missing out on the ‘normal’ childhood memories, which continue into adolescence and adulthood. And then when the individual does make it… the work amounts and the pressure continues! All this can form a sense of isolation, perhaps feeling like there is no sense of belonging, and suppressed needs, which can contribute towards the onset of loneliness and possibly depressive symptoms.
When feelings and thoughts surface for professional athletes the tendency to talk about it may be more complex, as support networks may not be easily accessible, time differences may form disruption of gaining contact when needed, plus many other reasons. Sadly, this may lead the individual to suppress and push down their feelings, rather than having the space to voice them, possibly causing further disruption and beginning the cycle of negative unconscious processes.
So, here are suggestions to help alleviate some of the loneliness that may be felt at times by elite sportspeople:
- Purposefully be part of social interactions, as and when is possible.
- Have a good support network such as family, friends or a professional. A space where you can have the freedom to talk openly.
- Airing thoughts and feelings, even when they may seem small, which can help to gain clarity by just ‘letting things out’. This is when turning to an accepting, trusting and non-judgemental person can be of great value.
- The more you talk about thoughts and feelings, the more you reflect, and ultimately the more you learn about yourself and the game.
MAINTAINING SENSE OF SELF & IDENTITY
Personal life, the game, the player’s perception of self and the perception from others, all become a part of the individual’s identity and sense of self, whether this occurs consciously or in the complexities of the unconscious mind.
Our sense of self and self-identity can be described as a core concept, along with the perception of our experiences, all of which contribute to a totality of who we are. This is the reality of what we all face, however within elite sportspeople there may be more engrained introjects, the drive for perfectionism, pressure, and a conditioning of the mind. These can suppress other parts of the self, or create a dissociation.
Parts of self that may ‘interrupt’ the identity that needs to be created, to be the best in the sport, can slowly affect the individual’s mental health. We all do it to some extent, however elite sportspeople may be more prone to this and can form a heightened disruption to who they are and perhaps lead to a sense of confusion regarding self and their identity. I feel this plays an important part and I will be concentrating on this more closely in the future.
So, how does the professional athlete play the game and maintain a healthy perspective when managing some of the negative issues within self or within the public domain:
- Understand personal introjects and belief systems that have become familiar, taking the time to reflect on them.
- Understand own needs and the different parts of self. Know the ‘self’ better and perhaps the game as a result. This may stop the individual from repressing or moving away from their true self.
- Talk to a professional who can work with you through a journey and a gentle process of uncovering more of who you really are.
It’s important to take care of mental health… Play the game, don’t play yourself!