Counsellor and psychotherapist Johanna Sartori
Psychotherapist and counsellor Johanna Sartori is our regular columnist. This week she considers the mental pressure on the London 2012 Olympic athletes.
Today, Wednesday 18th April, is just 100 days to the 2012 Olympics and like many people I suppose; I feel I’ve been through a range of emotions about this already.
I was on a family holiday in South West France when it was announced that the 30th Games would be in London, and we celebrated with the Basque locals who were happy to see Paris trounced in the bidding process. As a family we’ve looked forward to it since then, but having failed to get any tickets at all, collectively our enthusiasm, has waned. I know that we will still be able to see the torch run through Richmond, and the cycle race stream through Twickenham, but I am sorry not to be able to experience more, especially as the media has been building up the spectacle of British athletes competing in front of a home crowd.
That said, I only really started to think about the enormity of what the athletes will face, at the weekend when reading about Paula Radcliffe’s performance in a half marathon in Vienna. Despite running 13 miles, whilst recovering from Bronchitis in just over 72 minutes, she was in tears at being three minutes slower than anticipated. I know that training and goals are relentless for world class athletes, but lets stop and think about the pressure people like Radcliffe are under when 180 seconds are the mark of failure. Ronald Reng’s biography of German goalkeeper Robert Enke tells of a lifetime of feeling
overwhelmed by the pressure to succeed on the pitch, he was only really able to relax when third choice in the squad, and therefore unlikely to have to play.
It was a pressure that he never was able to conquer and his ongoing battle with depression only ended when he took his own life at the age of 32. More recently, Duncan Bell, the retiring Bath Prop has spoken in the Telegraph this week of similar feelings; at their worst in 2009, when playing for England he was effectively at the height of his career but also therefore under the greatest pressure. Luckily for Bell, counselling and anti-depressants have supported him supported through this.
Finding a way out of depression is often linked to an acceptance of who you are, and how you are, a personal acceptance that you are “good enough”.
But the problem for Enke, (and seeming for other athletes), is that “OK” was never going to be acceptable, in fact, “brilliant” was the minimum requirement to satisfy fans, teammates and sponsors. Ultimately, when you feel valued for your sporting prowess alone, it becomes hard to separate what you do from who you are. Mark Zaslav has written about how this leads to feelings of shame, when “the person goes beyond evaluating a set of actions to making a negative evaluation of the entire self”. The thing about shame is that it is isolating; the sufferer learns to fear situations where it might arise and avoid these wherever possible; Enke at his worst resorted to feigning injury to avoid playing, and towards the end, told his wife and friends that he was beginning to feel better, thereby ensuring he was able to leave the house unaccompanied on the day of his death.
Shame also makes it difficult to seek help; when your sense of self is so completely devalued it becomes hard to believe that you are worth helping, or that others will want to help. On top of this, depression in tough, macho sports can be a hard admission to make, Duncan Bell talks about becoming polarised, playing the part of the jovial team player at the ground, and suffering privately alone, rather than let his teammates know what he was going through.
It is tempting to think that as more and more high profile sportsmen come forward to tell their stories (especially it seems in cricket), depression amongst sportsmen is becoming less stigmatised. However, the unexpected suicides of Gareth Speed in November last year and ex-rugby player Serlom Kuady in January this year suggest there is a way to go still. And having started with Paula Radcliffe, I have to ask, where are the sportswomen? Statistically Depression is likely to be as, if not more, prevalent for women athletes as for me, yet we hear very little about it.
So, like most people I’ll be watching the Games on the television, but it will be with a sense of awe for both the physical and mental challenges the athletes face.
Johanna is a counsellor and psychotherapist working in Twickenham. Go to www.johannasartori.co.uk