One of the most defining aspects of this year’s Olympic Games has been the exposure of the inner struggle that many high-class athletes experience and the dark underside of what’s necessary for achievement on this scale.
This exposure highlighted issues that I would regularly see as a therapist when athletes, especially teenagers, come to see me.
Simone Biles has never hidden that she has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). She just didn’t broadcast it as she felt it was irrelevant to who she was and her achievements.
One thing Simone struggles with that is an issue for many people with ADHD is when your mind goes completely blank in the middle of doing something and you completely lose your train of thought. Most of us have learned how to wing our way through this if it happens but it’s not much fun when it occurs in front of people.
When it happens, we start to feel anxious as we are acutely aware of the “pregnant pause” this causes. Our focus changes to not letting people see us anxious instead of the task in hand, which causes the stage fright that Simone experienced.
Tennis player Naomi Osaka, who also has ADHD, has a similar problem. Except Naomi’s problem was trying to remember what to say in news conferences.
However, you don’t need to have ADHD to feel that you have to constantly prove yourself. I see it every day. The same belief that in order to be just OK, I must get 100%, drove both Simone and Naomi to succeed.
When boxer Ben Whittaker refused to accept his silver medal, my own feeling is that he wasn’t trying to be arrogant, he was just acting out what his own internal critic was telling him; “Because you didn’t come first, you’re a total failure.”
Shot putter Raven Saunders summed it up. As a consequence of her own negative self-image, she believed that if she could excel at one thing, this would silence the “pathological critic” in her head.
She said that her whole identity eventually became consumed by the shotput to the extent that she couldn’t escape the pressures of it. Like Steve Jobs, she achieved the epitome of success but all she found was loneliness.
Putting their mental health first
When each of these sports people tried to put their mental health first and take a breather from things, they were all criticised as being a “quitter”, “lazy”, “irresponsible”, especially by their own sporting community, for not pushing through, not doing the work. The message was clear: quitting for whatever reason means that you’re a failure.
Beliefs like this can be found everywhere in sport. The obsession with succeeding saturates life but at what cost? Society mistakenly believes that if we excel at something, everything else will become secondary. The more we focus on this one thing, the more irrelevant all other things will become.
When we put fame, fortune, and medals in front of everything, the price we can pay is our happiness. Similarly, achieving one thing will not compensate for all the other issues in your life.
Go to any underage soccer or GAA match and watch how [some] parents scream from the sidelines at their children for making a mistake. Or the body shaming of girls in Irish dancing classes for not being “fit” enough to win. We demand our children drive themselves to greater and greater extremes, thinking we are helping them. In reality we could be driving them into despair.
Will success on the field compensate for everything else? No! You may become a brilliant footballer, cyclist, dancer, or swimmer but ask Tiger Woods, Oscar Pistorius or Lance Armstrong where it got them. As brilliant as they may have been at their sport, do you want your children to turn out like this?
Sacrificing everything else for one thing is the definition of addiction.
We can’t dictate what our children will do with their lives, but we can influence the kind of person they will turn out to be.
Raven Saunders learned that it’s OK not to be ‘strong’ 100% of the time. She realised that defining herself by one thing was at the root of her problems. She now recognises that she belongs in many groups: gay, woman, sister, friend, black etc. The whole is a lot greater than the parts.
It is this that we need to teach our children instead.
Notice the people in your life who just seem to have an emotional balance that everyone envies. They are content with their lot and wear adversity like a loose cloak. They always seem to attract people towards them because they accept both themselves and others unconditionally.
They may never make headlines because they never feel they have to. They know that they belong to life as they are. These are people with good mental health.
Have a look at their characteristics and see how many you have. Don’t worry, none of us have them all. We don’t need to, we just need to cultivate them as best as we can in our lives.
How I feel about myself
How I feel around other people
How I meet the demands of life
Enda Murphy is a cognitive behavioural therapist and director of Seeme. For more details go to www.seeme.ie. Please email your own queries for Enda to email@example.com