By Dr Kirsten van Heerden
‘What makes one heroic?’ wrote Friedrich Nietzsche.
Interesting question. What would your answer be?
Nietzsche’s answer was profound in its simplicity: Heroic is to face simultaneously one’s greatest suffering and one’s highest hope.
Sport is littered with examples that give life to this definition. Take the current Soccer World Cup in Russia: anyone who watched Portugal’s Christiano Ronaldo stand and deliver for his country in the 88th minute to equalize against Spain would understand why Nietzsche said what he did. Holding onto your nerve and delivering performance when it counts the most is a defining characteristic of great players (and businesspeople, for that matter). They are able to face the fear of failure (their greatest suffering) while holding onto to the hope that they will win in the end.
But what happens when the lights of the stadiums in Russia go out and the emotional high of the final dies down?
Well, even Heroes have inner demons they need to fight.
The emotional crash
Athletes face an array of psychological issues after a major championship. There can be a huge emotional crash – sometime called ‘Post-Olympic Depression’ – because after the high of an Olympics or World Cup the ordinariness of life can be difficult to deal with. A few athletes have openly discussed their struggles, including USA Freestyle Skier and Olympic medallist Nick Goepper who said he began to question if it was all worth it, began to drink heavily, and at one point contemplated suicide as a way out. Allison Schmidt, Olympic Gold medal swimmer, also spoke out about the depression she fell into after the 2012 London Games. Even the greatest Olympian of all time, Michael Phelps, says he now recognises the state of depression he felt after every Olympic Games, with his lowest point coming after London when he also contemplated suicide.
If these athletes get support and help, most recover and get back to training and competing. But what about those who retire from sport (as many like to do after a major championship)? I explored these issues in my new book looking at the challenges of retiring from elite sports.
Retirement brings its own set of unique psychological challenges, not least of which is loss of identity and loss of the accompanying self-worth attached to that identity. Taryn Ternent, a former South African swimmer, said after her retirement:
I really struggled with figuring out who I was when I retired because I had confused who I am with what I did. I kept thinking that without swimming I was not worth anything of true value, I had nothing to give or offer my family, friends or society. I still struggled with this concept some years after my very last training session and last competitive race. Can I be someone other than ‘THE SWIMMER’, can I have different dreams and aspirations, and can I find success and happiness?
Then comes the challenge of trying to find new, meaningful goals that match up to the childhood dreams of playing sport for your country. Bafana Bafana legend Phil ‘Chippa’ Masinga says:
You now have to decide for yourself what to do every day, and what sounds so simple in theory is so much more difficult in real life, because in the end, all you really want to do is play soccer. Losing the game will create a void in your heart which will be difficult to fill
But probably one of the most jarring aspect of transitioning out of sport is the loss of structure. Former Springbok prop Eddie Andrews puts it succinctly:
The sense of freedom quickly turned into a feeling of being in limbo and I began to miss the structure that rugby gave my life. A lot of things get taken care of for you while playing, your responsibilities often don’t extend much further than training and competing, but now there was no one to arrange my everyday life for me and it was a bit disorientating.
Part of our job as psychologists is to understand mental and emotional processes for the purpose of predicting and controlling future behaviour. So I find it dismaying that so many athletes still suffer through the issues described above because of a lack of mental health education and awareness. We know what is in store for athletes, it is not a surprise. We know what to expect. Nightmares are part of dreaming – like it or not. So, in good faith, we cannot sell the dream of professional sport to young athletes (and parents) without also preparing them for the inevitable challenges they will face. If we neglect to prepare them, we are treating them like commodities rather than human beings.
Dr Kirsten van Heerden is the author of the new book Waking from the dream (Viking Publications, 2018). She has represented her country as an athlete and holds a PhD in the area of sport psychology. She has worked and travelled extensively within high performance sport for more than 10 years and her services have been used by many Olympians, World Champions and South African sports teams. Kirsten is currently in private practice in Durban at Newton Sports Agency.