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Column We need to put the humanity back into sport performance

Our sports stars may seem like superheroes, but they’re just as fragile as you and I, writes sports psychologist Tadhg MacIntyre.

IN RECENT TIMES, we have been shocked to hear of suicide by a high-profile soccer manager, alcoholism by an Irish Olympic medallist and most recently, an Irish athlete admitting doping.

We shouldn’t be surprised. These are all predictable.

Those in the spotlight of high-level sport, managers, coaches and athletes, are all defined by their performance to some degree. We call them elite, World Class, champions, natural-born winners, instead of Gary, Kenny and Martin.

Their own identity too, is anchored on their performance and performance is one variable in sport that always changes. What is argued here is that if sports performance undulates, do we have sufficient safeguards in place to ensure that our athletes, coaches and managers are supported when they are at their most vulnerable?

Losing, by definition is part of competitive sport and intuitively we would associate it with feelings of anxiety or insecurity. However, this outcome-based viewpoint (win vs loss) is a crude metric and athletes tend to judge themselves more often on their perceived performance.

While losing a key match or underperforming can lead to significant psychological issues, even winning or achieving your goal can lead to negative mood and emotional reactions.

‘Olympics blues’

The weeks and months after a major tournament or event can be the most traumatic time for an athlete whether perceived to be successful or not. For example, this emotional reaction after the Olympic Games has been labelled Olympic blues.

The transition from one season to another, one four-year cycle to the next or to retirement is typically when athletes and the coaching staff are most in need of support.

Similarly predictable are the challenges presented by injury. Top performers in many team games and endurance activities experience high rates of injury and indeed often suffer recurring injuries. The complexity of human performance is that paradoxically an injury can lead to higher levels of confidence for a performer. Athletes can seize it as an opportunity for reflection and development of skills they had previously neglected.

However, for those who define themseleves predominantly by  their performance, injuries can be traumatic particularly when career terminating.

The assumption is that sport psychologists are graced by the fact they get to work with people who are high performing. What’s more, on one level people may assume that the worst thing that can happen to an athlete is that they can lose.

The above examples show that this is not the case. In fact, despite the vast evidence that physical activity has benefits in terms of mood and emotional control – to such an extent that it can be prescribed as a supplementary treatment for mild depression – a recent large-scale study at the French Institute of Sport (INSEP) demonstrated that psychological problems (eg, anxiety disorders) were similar to those of the general population.

The mere presence of a variety of disorders including depression, sleep problems, and substance abuse may be surprising to the supporters of our sporting heroes, but they are in many ways as fragile (at times) as you and I.

A sport psychologist and a taxi-driver usually have a short conversation: “What do you do?” I reply by stating my profession.

“So you are a motivator!”

Sport is truly a microcosm of society and if sport psychology is to have an impact and value then it should not simply about faster, higher, stronger but by the nature of our profession we have a duty to provide support, care and humanity to the individual person and not just the athlete.

Dr Tadhg MacIntyre is the Course Director for the MSc in Applied Sport and Exercise Psychology at the University of Ulster and a qualified sport psychologist with over a decades experience as a consultant. He will take part in a workshop on the topic- “Continuity of Care in the Pursuit of Excellence” this weekend in Jordanstown.

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