Let me start by saying that I’m not a clinical psychologist or doctor, I’m a practitioner who has personally experienced the depths of the mental health crisis. It’s a tragedy that so many athletes are experiencing mental health challenges because for many, it can takes years to recover from the damaging consequences. Mental health is a serious issue but outside of clinical psychologists, not many organizations are effectively helping to combat this destructive epidemic.
When we hear of the mental health crisis what do we think of first? Personally, when I first heard the term I thought that something was wrong with the athlete and that they had an incurable illness. It may be true that they have an illness but the problem is much more complex. I believe that the culprit of the mental health crisis is systematic within sport itself. The coaches, parents, sponsors, teams are all making the mental health crisis worse by placing undue pressure on athletes. This in turn causes feelings of inadequacy, illegitimacy, discontent, self-loathing, etc. which in turn leads to depression and self-medication through sex, drugs, and alcohol.
Mental health erodes as the pressures to perform exceed the joy that an athlete once had when they started playing sport. The better an athlete becomes, the more expectation they have on their shoulders. An athlete might be a successful undefeated amateur or youth but as soon as they start competing on a more competitive level, their chances of winning decreases. At some point they realize that they will never be good enough and that’s when the pain sets in and the mental health crisis can be exacerbated.
The solution for this crisis is not an easy one, but there are solutions. While the problem that has created this crisis is deeply ingrained in the culture of sport, the solution is complicated and often involves one-on-one counseling. It can take years to unwind the damage done to an athlete’s wellbeing. Organizations need to be more proactive about ensuring the overall wellbeing of their athletes, knowing that when an athlete is healthy, they perform better. Adopting practices that build confidence, identity and purpose outside of the confines of sport is a good start. Helping athletes find purpose greater than themselves will take the focus off the performance failures and onto something more meaningful.
Follow us online as we cover this topic in the coming weeks.
The antidote to a performance-based identity is what we call a purpose-based identity. Purpose-based athletes are those who find purpose in the process and not in the end result. They are grateful for each day, they are thankful that they are able to train, and they value their relationships because they realize that is what has allowed them to get to where they are today.
They see beyond the accomplishments, the medals, and the numbers, and put a lot of stock into the people and the processes that have enabled them to reach their milestones. When tough times come their way, they are able to adapt and withstand the pressure because they have a strong foundation to stand on.
This stands in stark contrast to the performance-based athlete, for whom an injury becomes a major disruption. Their identity is so wrapped up in their ability to perform that they may not be able to cope very well if anything goes even slightly awry.
The disparity is easy to see, but when you’re in it, it might not be so easy to recognize. Given the same variables, the same odds, and the same results, the purpose-based athlete is able to bounce back faster. Even if they are not selected for the team, they will be able to withstand the disappointment because their happiness is not so completely wrapped up in their performance.
What defines you? Is it your results, fame, your relationships?
When young athletes first start playing sport, they fall in love with the joys of playing catch with dad, shooting hoops with the boys or riding a bike and experiencing the rush of wind in your face. Sport has the power to give us an immense amount of satisfaction. But as we start playing competitively, the pressure to perform can increase and the expectations from ourselves and others can often rob us of joy because we quickly realize that we’ll never be good enough for our coach, dad, or team. We never win 100% of the time, and even if we did, there’s still the pressure of winning the next game, and that pressure is heavy.
Often times the first question a kid is asked after a game is “did you win or lose?” “Why’d you lose?” “What can you do better next time?” These questions are detrimental and they distract from the transcendent nature that sport can became. Sport isn’t about winning or losing, it’s about becoming the people we want to become through the process of pursuing something meaningful. If it’s only about winning or losing, we may suffer from performance-based identity. Performance-based identity is when an athletes sense of self worth is tied to how they perform in their sport.
So what happens when winning becomes all there is?
Performance-based athletes are so focused on winning that nothing else matters. They tend to push everything out of their lives including their most important relationships, just so they can pursue this ideal of gold/fame/fortune – perfection – whatever they associate as their “reward” for winning. They’ve pushed themselves so far away from the truly good and enduring things in their lives that they’ve lost sight of the process.
Performance-based identity is especially concerning in youth sports. If not curtailed, it could create a myriad of issues and very real, often permanent, psychological scars. Some of the most immediately visible fallout from performance-based identity include:
* Self-description only relates to their identity as an athlete
* Overwhelming pre-competition anxiety
* Expressed desire to quit or pull out of a competition
* Lower self-worth if performance lags
* Jealousy or envy towards those who perform better
* Fear of failure overcomes the excitement of competition
* Obsession over mistakes long after the competition event is over
* Unhealthy focus on working harder to overcome failures
Sport is intended to bring joy to our lives, no matter what level we compete at. If you have a performance-based identity, it’s not uncommon and we have a very good solution that we’ll talk about more in our next post.
The everyday training routines that we adopt can sometimes feel like they drag on and on. The early mornings, late nights, strict diets, routine weight lighting, and training are all required to be the best but they can feel mundane unless we become intentional about making them meaningful moments. Each and everyday that we wake up we have choices to make. Few things are as important as the attitude we adopt. Viktor Frankl who had everything stripped of him while he was imprisoned in a concentration camp during WWII said, “the last of human freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”
Whether it’s your daily workout routine, challenging relationships, or other elements of life, it’s easy to let the daily grind become get to you unless you have a strategy to overcome and adapt. Thankfully, there are small things that we can do everyday that will bring significance to the mundane tasks.
Look at the big picture. Remain focused on the ultimate goal to keep perspective on why you're competing. This will help you overcome the minor inconveniences and setbacks that sometimes feel like major failures. Place post-it notes with your short-term and long-term goals on your bathroom minor as a daily reminder of why you're working so hard. Remember, the journey to the top is full of ups and downs, it's a daily process. Use the process to improve daily while you pursue perfection.
Practice gratitude. Get into the habitat of recounting three things that you’re grateful for on a daily basis. These things could be as simple as having a meal to eat or a car to drive or a team to play on. As you become more consistent in practicing gratitude, your life will start to change as the mundane tasks of today become meaningful transformations tomorrow.
With these quick tips we hope that you'll learn to make the mundane meaningful. It's going to make all the difference in your career and life beyond athletics.
Sports is an insulated world. Athletes close themselves off to the outside to remain focused and remove distractions. To be the best we have to work hard, achieve results and perform. We’re not afraid of doing the hard work to produce the outcomes we desire. It’s that laser like focus that helps us achieve success in the most elite environments. Focus and dedication, the refusal to give in and give up are some of the most important qualities but while that laser like focus helps us become the best competitors in the world, it can also be a detriment to our relationships and developing interests outside of sport that can help us weather the storm when our performance on the field is suffering and it feels like the world is coming to an end.
The more we develop relationships outside of sport and the deeper our relationships go, the more resilient we become. It’s a lie to think that we can do it alone. We can’t. We need positive people in our lives to reinforce our worth and value, in turn, those positive people are attracted to us and we begin to build a community that cares. Sport naturally teaches us many great characteristics that help us perform better in sport, but unless we’re intentional about using sport developing characteristics that help us relate better with others and finding joy, we’ll continue living in the insulated world of sport that has limits us and our potential.
2020 was a year for the record books. It took a toll on all of us in varying degrees. Our organization felt the effects as we had ceased operations in March. Additionally, Athletes have been hit hard this year with the cancelation of so many competitions and the constant fear of catching the virus, the long-term health effects and the loss of income. If there is anything that 2020 taught us, it’s that nothing is certain. We came up with three things that you can start doing to start 2021 off right.
We all have things to be thankful for yet it’s easier to look at the negatives rather than the positives. An astonishing 94 percent of people who recount three good things that happened each day feel significant depression relief after fifteen days. Take time at the beginning or end of each day to think about things you’re grateful for. An amazing transformation will occur as you get into the habit of gratitude, you’ll start looking for the positives, instead of the negatives.
Despite all the zoom meetings and conference calls we’ve had this year, it’s important to be intentional about relationships. Reach out to friends and family that you haven’t spoken to in a while. Find a mentor than can help you develop skills and talents in a field or discipline that you want to grow in. You don’t have to meet in person to build relationships, but you do need to be intentional. We need each other to get through trying times and there is no better time than now to get started. Call one person a day that you haven’t spoken with in awhile. Don’t text, call!
Winning and accomplishment can give us the feeling of validation, but when things haven’t gone our way it’s easy to feel like a failure. The lack of competition, the inability to perform and/or the disappointment of poor performance can lead to destructive and unhealthy behaviors. Take it easy on yourself, your career is a process of continual growth and improvement. You’re learning and growing and you can take the experiences from this year, learn from them and use them in your favor next year. Don’t be hard on yourself, it only exacerbates the hard year and makes it all the more challenging.
These are 3 things that you can do to start 2021 off right. This will be a year of opportunity, seizing the new and letting go the old. We can’t wait to see what the world holds for you.