Win at all costs?
Every four years, winning an Olympic medal becomes the focus for hundreds of athletes across the world, much in the same way that lifting the trophy at a major tournament consumes hundreds of footballers. It also means everything to the coaches and support staff: there’s the issue of financial security through job retention, but also the raw passion and ecstasy associated with all that hard work coming to fruition. That’s all before we even get to the fans. Winning matters.
This comes at a price. Across high performance environments the overriding characteristic that athletes, coaches and the organisations experience is intense and unrelenting pressure. Constant reviews of funding, support and planning leaves people continuously challenged by the long-term issues rather than basking in enjoyment and excellence (Masaki et al., 2017). Media scrutiny exaggerates every misstep. Routine and home comforts can go out of the window at a major sporting event. Athletes can find themselves isolated from other social circles, disrupting the already tenuous work-life balance in elite sports and ultimately creating an environment where hyper-masculine traits like grit, mental strength and determination are valued and celebrated above all else. The dominant ideology is ‘tough love’, with athletes feeling they can ill afford to show signs of weakness (Ramaeker & Petrie, 2019).
It is only too easy, then, for athletes, their support teams and followers to fall into the mindset of needing to win at all costs. What does this mean for Psychologists working with them?
Although there are countless examples of teams and individuals just glad to be competing, for every fairytale underdog there are a hundred competitors carrying the weight of expectation and the potential for gut-wrenching disappointment. Anthony Ervin, a four-time Olympic medallist for the United States, took 12 years to return to the Olympic stage in London, highlighting how the dedication and mental energy required to sustain that level of performance was simply too much for him as a young athlete, with burnout and lack of motivation key factors. Similarly, Huddersfield FC manager David Wagner went to the club’s board in 2019 to ask for a break from the ‘rigours of football management’, a stance that was reiterated and supported by coaches across the world. Pep Guardiola has highlighted the importance of recharging your batteries when leaving previous roles. Ameliaranne Ekenasio, the captain of New Zealand’s Silver Ferns, declared that she would sit out the start of the National Netball Premiership in an attempt to recover mentally and physically. Sharni Norder, best known under her given name Layton for a netball career that included being named the best player in the world in both 2016 and 2017, retired a year after having taken six months off due to her own mental health. She had pushed herself to the extreme for such an extended period of time that it had taken a serious toll on her. The one concept all these examples have in common is the importance of mental recovery, and how that fits into the principles fostered by sporting organisations.
National governing bodies in the UK and abroad have also been hit by reports of bullying and verbal abuse. This is likely to be one factor behind a spike in drop-outs in teenage sports (Roman et al., 2018), and mental health concerns across performance domains and levels (Schinke et al., 2018). The interview with Amanda Gatherer in the May issue of The Psychologist highlighted burnout – physical and emotional exhaustion accompanied by a devaluation of achievement and the sport itself (Raedeke et al., 2002). Often observed in professional sport in both coaches and athletes, it poses an obvious threat to individual performances and mental and physical well-being. However, beyond the clear-cut exit from professional sport, burnout has been shown to be complex to diagnose. For example, depersonalisation is a common symptom, resulting in a distinct lack of motivation, and a distorted or view of oneself. It can even manifest by blocking empathy and heightening negativity and cynicism towards others. Within a sporting context, this is often perceived to be an athlete being uninterested and not caring enough about their performance and the outcome; this can lead to further media criticism, feeding back into those feelings of negativity and frustration (Markati et al., 2019).
The Rocky Road and the challenge cycle
Failing to accomplish goals has impacts beyond the breaking point of an athlete. Reduced accomplishment has been shown to be inversely correlated to job satisfaction, optimism, and knock-on effects on confidence and self-efficacy. It falls to the trained professionals supporting these sportspeople to create a positive, healthy and accommodating culture in which to live and train: one that enables them to grow, develop and overcome challenges with support. Sports psychologists are often tasked with this. They work with athletes to ensure they’re equipped with the mental skills and coping mechanisms to manage the rigorous demands they face. For example, George Russell, a professional Formula One racer, has recently spoken about his experience of working with a psychologist to ensure that he could cope with his own mental health, and feel both physically and mentally ready to take on the next season.
What techniques might sports psychologists use? Two approaches in particular, the idea of the ‘Rocky Road’ and the periodised challenge cycle implemented by Kolb (Collins & MacNamara, 2012), focus on supporting people to ensure that challenges and setbacks are not deemed to be overwhelming and detrimental to long-term development. Challenges that occur frequently across sporting domains – such as serious injury, de-selection and poor results – can require significant levels of support, compassion and empathy to enable athletes to cope with them and learn from the experience. This can be where emotional periodisation comes in, drawing heavily on Kolb’s cycle of challenge and the idea of physical tapering often used in the principle of Strength and Conditioning.
In the context of sport psychology and talent development, emotional periodisation has been described as ‘a deliberate and carefully planned variation in mental challenge and load reflective of the general and individual factors’ (Collins et al., 2018). It is similar in part to the principle of mental rest and recovery that is often touted as an essential skill for athletes to manage competition and be able to recreate their best performances when it matters.
This has been observed in a variety of professional athletes, such as Team USA’s Camille Adams, who struggled mentally post-London 2012 with the emotional drain that came from training, preparing, competing and narrowly missing an Olympic medal. Following strong support from her coach, as well as therapy and a period of time out of the pool, she returned and started performing better than before, winning the 2013 NCAA Championship, and highlighting that she was able to bring greater balance to her life.
That balance is also paramount during competition. After his recent semi-final victory at Roland Garros, Stefanos Tsitsipas said: ‘It was difficult to handle all of these things and put them together, kind of compromise on some others. I was able to deliver and close the match when I had to. I'm proud of myself.’ Tsitsipas indicated how important it was to manage his emotional load and active recovery during a high intensity tennis match, demonstrating the continuous nature of mental challenge during elite sport.
Coaches need this too. Kellmann et al. (2015) highlighted the importance of managing their recovery periods: throughout the course of a season, stress levels were not perceived to increase significantly, but the impact of physical and mental recovery periods decreased. This imbalance was found to be a predominant factor in predicting stress levels in elite coaches; it’s about meaningful rest periods (Bentzen et al., 2016). It’s also important that this isn’t simply reactive, with rest following early signs of burnout or injury concerns. Instead, periodisation can be used to pre-empt and strengthen an athlete against any potential challenges and setbacks.
We can also see the need for a carefully planned variation in mental load when we consider Cognitive Load Theory and the way individuals process and store information. Under heightened stress situations, working memory is reduced and skills, ability and learned behaviours are challenged. Therefore, increased mental load – caused by potential exhaustion, injury, additional pressure, or any other factors – can directly impact on how much an individual can cope with and comprehend. This leads to reduced performance, as well as a significant impact in terms of how the athlete is able to manage their situation. That’s where psychologists might work on ‘automated’ schema that are established through training and rehearsal (Runswick et al., 2018). The Modality Effect is useful here: the auditory and visual modalities do not compete in terms of occupying working memory, and so can be used in a multidimensional framework.
For example, Wilmott (2017, unpublished) and Collins et al. (2018) illustrated how elite athletes could be affected by this: ‘I didn’t realize how much working on that [new trick] took out of me, then all of a sudden it seemed to hit me, and I was struggling even to do basic stuff. So I think the best thing for me is to take two days off and then get back into it when I’ve recovered and I’m back on my game.’
Creating additional mental capacity in this way could produce more consistent and positive outcomes and execution of skills in the face of adversity – a significant factor across performance domains.
Thrive not survive
Coping with stress is a balance between the resources available and the situation that is placing a demand upon the individual (see Transactional Stress Theory, Lazarus & Folkman, 1987). When coping mechanisms aren’t available to us, we struggle to manage the stress and the scenario. That’s only multiplied in quick reaction sporting environments where performance is the ultimate measure. Emotional periodisation, active mental rest and a strong support system are essential. Yet despite a growing awareness and recognition of the need for psychological support, there is still an overriding pressure for athletes to push through. Mental resilience and grit are the demanded traits, all too often at the cost of individuals’ physical and mental well-being. I’m not saying that ‘Win at all Cost’ can’t have its place within an established and encompassing support system. But it shouldn’t be the central focus and approach for an athlete and their coaches. Psychologists, coaches, governing bodies, all should support the athletes through periods of intense challenge. Again this doesn’t mean insulating against them; athletes should feel able to cope with the circumstances but push on to thrive in their performance environment.
Perhaps those elements remind you of the feeling surrounding the England Football Team at Euro 2020. The considered approach has been ‘everyone has a part to play’, ‘a chance to create history’, ‘we’re enjoying the moment and want to be here until the end’. Players and former players have compared this environment favourably with the pressure of expectation that England teams of the past may have felt. This notion is reminiscent of Fletcher and Sarkar’s (2014) work, that resilience is the ‘interactive influence of psychological characteristics within the context of the stress process’.
To sustain that into the future, there will need to be that balance between coping mechanisms, mental skills and support. Perhaps seeing a move away from supporting our sporting stars through challenges and towards a focus on the challenging nature of their environments. It’s time for a greater emphasis on enjoyment, camaraderie and support; a shift towards ‘flourish and thrive’, rather than merely ‘survive’.
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