The Human in the Superhuman

By Amanda Owles  BEd (Hons) QTS, MA, MEd, Grad Dip P&C, Dip P,T

Olympic, World-Class, Elite-Athletes and competitors have been across all possible media and news sharing outlets in recent weeks. This has been the case, in part, due to the build up to the Japanese Olympics and whether it will or not it will take place and who will be there. Throughout this build-up and with the delay of a year to the start, many around the world felt sympathy and disappointment for the athletes. Yet, at the same time, in their personal home lives, many were dealing with their own difficulties of a world seemingly controlled by a global pandemic and the need to focus that energy on themselves, their family and friends.

If we fast-forward to a world where there is still a global pandemic and the 29th Summer Olympics is in full flow (now finished as you read this), many around the world are hearing daily of medal tallies and wondrous efforts of achievement; some with back stories of pain and disappointment that would have made many of us give up. So when we hear directly from these athletes whether they are a Tennis star, Gymnast, Cricketers or Racing Driver that they are struggling mentally or are not going to ‘perform’ and are going to take time out to care for their Mental Health; why is that such a surprise and even, to some, seemingly unacceptable? Why is there a feeling of being let down, or cheated?

It is true to say that Mental Health has in recent years almost undergone its own ‘re-branding’ and is now out of the shadows, being a topic many are ‘allowed’ to discuss. Yes, the involvement of high-profile individuals and emergence of funding for the area across the board has without a doubt helped and will continue to with work places being more open to individuals Mental Health needs. So, again, why is it such a shock to hear of Elite Athletes protecting their Mental Health….they are human too… just like us.

Perhaps a look into the Elite Athlete and the differences and similarities to the normal average member of the public will help us to understand both sides. Hendriksen et al (2019) reminds us ‘psychological demands must be balanced with strategies to support mental health. Winning “At any cost” is incompatible with a modern responsible sports system’ (Hendriksen et al., 2019) and, in recent years, there has been a tangible shift in attitudes to mental health in high performance sports, ‘Mental Health Officers (MHO)’ (Hendriksen et al., 2019) in sport; is one such example. The mere fact that the recent Elite Athletes’ have been able to so publicly even talk about Mental Health AND be supported by their coaches and teams; shows this recent. There has also been a shift in the inner working of Elite Athletes of many categories in accepting that one type of support does not fit all and a ‘multimodal’ strategy is a more accepted way forward. In this vein, Elite Athletes’ have been encouraged and directed to support from therapists with an eclectic toolbox. In doing so, some have found Mental Health support in areas such as psychotherapy and hypnotherapy.

‘Milton Erickson described the root of all problems a client could possibly have is a loss of rapport between the conscious and unconscious mind’ (Marion author of forward in Hand, 2017) and athletes, though clearly capable in many areas of mental ability such as confidence (Hays et al., 2009), thinking style, coping style and emotional intelligence (Xiaobo Zhang cited in Personality, 2012) can, due to context, find themselves unable to cope or perform and potentially, not consciously know why.

Gouttebarge et al, in a recent study which concluded, ‘…the prevalence of mental health symptoms and disorders, ranged from 19% for alcohol misuse to 34% for anxiety/depression for current elite athletes and from 16% for distress to 26% for anxiety/depression for former elite athletes’. (Gouttebarge et al., 2019) reminds us all of the tangible evidence and possibilities. While there are ongoing contradictive conclusions on the balance needed of raw talent and psychological input with some stating that ‘ …a lack of certain personality traits could help to explain “why some individuals gifted at sport don’t thrive at elite level’ (Brown citied in "20 Distinguishing Personality Traits of High-Performing Athletes - Sports Management Degree Guide", 2021) it is clear ‘Athletic careers are uneven and involve progressions, stagnations and decay’ (Hendriksen et al., 2019). With no National or Internationally agreed or in-place frameworks to support early intervention, or intervention in general, (Purcell et al., 2019) one could argue, in these ‘uneven’ moments, they need Mental Health support more than ever.

Having had the true privilege to work with Elite-Athletes across different disciplines, I have seen the public and private faces of Performance and Performance Anxiety. It is just as real to each and every one of them as it is to us, the general public. If we are honest with ourselves, we have all had or can think of a potential performance anxiety inducing event in our lives. Now, add in the world watching you, with each and every one of those watching feeling somehow they have a vested interest in you succeeding “for them” or they will be so let down by you and very unforgiving.

With athletes, especially Elite World-Class athletes, who have spent every minute of every day on specific plans which monitor them physically and mentally and push them to extremes, it can be just the same. While there are those that still debate whether hypnosis is suitable for enhancing performance in sport as an added advantage when all is going well; there is less debate when it is accessed for the regulations of emotions and the inhibiting of various psychological elements (Hammond, 1990). As Nongard (2012) reminds us, hypnotherapy and sport Performance Anxiety treatment is about finding the athletes ‘optimal zone of functioning’ (Nongard, 2012) in the physical and mental sense. As Hand (2017) also reminds us we, as the therapist, are ‘their guide, but they too have control’ (Hand, 2017). Elite Athletes often have a heightened abilities of visualisation, a higher focused nature; the normalcy of a ‘coach’ and inner resources ever present arguably, naturally or honed of years of routine. Yet, in all of this skill and strict routine often forgetting that they, the athlete themselves, can control their destiny. This is often a reminder that has not been given or an idea that has been lost. With some Elite-Athletes I’ve had the privilege to spend time with, most have fitted into this category and having a ‘guide’ or ‘coach’ outside of their usual routine to remind them of all aspects of their ability and control was partly where blockages could be overcome and change would happen.

We, the public, must remind ourselves although in these wondrous Globally watched events, that those individuals or teams may seem superhero-like. However, while perhaps being built a little differently to us, Performance Anxiety, doubt, injury and their unconscious mind, sometimes decides it is not OK. It does not matter if you are a nurse, housewife, pilot or world-class competitor. If you had to face your family or employer right now in this moment and say you were needing a break for your Mental Health, how many of us realistically would feel able to and would receive a positive response. Sadly, I fear very few in reality. Add into such an equation millions of people watching you share these thoughts. In that moment it does take a brave athlete to speak out. Hopefully, with the topic becoming less taboo and the acceptance of a wider support network of Mental Health modalities such as hypnotherapy, not only will Elite-Athletes have more options for care but the topic will continue to break down barriers to understanding between Athletes’ of all disciplines and the general public.

Amanda Owles  BEd (Hons) QTS, MA, MEzzEND, Grad Dip P&C, Dip P,T
Psychotherapist and Hypnotherapist