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The desperate need for clinical psychologists

Oct 7, 2014  - James Parrack

No sooner had SwimNews posted an article about what is expected of Olympians, the greatest Olympian of all steps into the spotlight to give a perfect example of what is not expected of Olympians.

Except in this case, it wasn’t a case of a minor transgression and all part of being human, this was behaviour that none of expect to see from our friends and neighbours, let alone our Olympic heroes.  It is why Phelps moved quickly to check himself into a 6 week treatment programme in a rehab centre in Arizona, and why US Swimming moved quickly to hand down a 6 month ban for breaking its code of conduct that sees Phelps out of next year’s world championships.  US Olympic Committee CEO Scot Blackmun said, "We think the sanctions are appropriate and we are glad that Michael is seeking help".

Phelps isn’t just any Olympian of course, he is the ultimate Olympian, so the standards to which he is held, fairly or unfairly, will be higher than mere one time Olympic champions, let alone the mass of Olympians who never get near the medals.  But being such a high achiever means all the experiences are magnified, good and bad.  So many highs, and in his life probably so many lows.  He is not immune from the same problems we all face in relationships with our family, friends, coaches and others and in Phelps’s case, who knows what demons are in there from the relationship with his absent father.

Which comes back to an argument that has never yet taken hold in sport: if we have specialists for so much of our athletic improvement, coaches, bio-mechanists, strength and conditioning, nutrition, sports psychology, why do we not have a clinical psychologist?   In my view it is the single biggest gap in the support services of active and, especially, retiring athletes.

We don’t, because this falls well outside the comfort zone of most coaches, or indeed most sport scientists.  ‘Go to a shrink and talk about your issues with me and your parents, it’ll make you swim faster,’ might open a can of worms the coach just isn’t equipped to deal with. 

Yet, the kind of counselling that might be appropriate for Phelps, Thorpe, Adlington, or any number of athletes struggling with life, is not familiar terrain for athletes or young adults.

At US colleges, a 2013 National Survey of Counselling Center Directors, found that the ratio of counsellors to students was 1 to 1604.  In elite swimming, the Australian Sports Commission set up athlete counselling support services ahead of London 2012, but even then the document lists general counselling services almost as an afterthought, behind the psychological skills for performance and competition, which is now well established.

Phelps’s blood alcohol content (BAC) was recorded at 0.14, which is the equivalent of having drunk around 8 standard drinks, according to the National Traffic Highway Safety Administration (NTHSA), where a standard drink is a 12 oz beer.  For those in the uk this is a total of around 5 pints, where a pint is 20oz.  Anyway you look at it, you don’t want to be driving.

In 1991, the world championships were in Perth, Australia and at the time, it was impossible to miss a massive public education campaign on the dangers of drink driving which a view to changing the current attitudes in the country.  The campaign was pretty simple and direct.  It said, “It you drink then drive, you’re a bloody idiot.”

Some need a bit more help than others to navigate their way though days when they don’t know which way to turn.

When Phelps made his comeback in April this year, he said time and again about how much fun he was having, and right now it was all about the fun of training with such a great group of guys, and competing again.  In response to a question about his legacy, his reply was, “It’s your opinion if it tarnishes my career, but I am doing it for me.”

I was one of the observers who thought that this return was more about his being bored by life out of the pool after a life with such discipline and meaning, and also that there are some Olympic records out there that aren’t his, notably that:

Phelps has 13 gold medals in individual events and Soviet gymnast Larysa Latynina has 14.  Being American there is also the Al Oerter and Carl Lewis effect, of 4 successive gold medals in the same event, in the discus and long jump respectively. (Steve Redgrave’s 5 Olympic rowing golds across 5 Games were in different boats, coxed four, coxless pair 3 times, coxless four). 

In swimming, no one has won the same event four times. 

Maybe these things drive him and maybe they don’t, but it certainly focuses the mind a little more than a sense of having fun.

I too, have spoken to many former Olympic athletes who, like me, have struggled with the trauma of retirement from their sport, and the grief that brings, where a major lifelong companion is suddenly no longer present.

Rick Cotgreave of Mobius Performance has been studying the transition of retiring athletes through the Phoenix Project.  “All the research points to the recognition that transition poses a real challenge and that there is a need to do more to ensure the emotional and mental well-being of athletes beyond their sporting careers,” he says.

Among the key findings of the ongoing study are that the majority of athletes describe a sense of loss or facing a void, where depression or bereavement typically lasts for between 3-8 years, where externally we may appear fine, but internally feel significantly disorientated.

Everyone who has spent a significant number of years in the pursuit of a sporting goal, will feel the fallout from retirement.  Ian Thorpe’s admission of depression and abuse of alcohol is a visible case of what hundreds of swimmers are going through to a greater or lesser extent when they retire and in his case compounded by his sexuality. 

Just ask any swimmer and they will tell you.  Suddenly there is no compass to guide you through the days and weeks, defining what you eat, when you sleep and why you get up in the morning.  ‘I get up at 5’, becomes, ‘I don’t have to get up at five, or six, or any time really.  In fact, I can go to bed at 5 if I want to.’  You don’t feel like talking, you don’t see the point in anything and have no idea what to do all day.

Because nothing replaces the goals we had since childhood and which were so consuming.  Nothing replaces the intense ups and downs of victory and defeat.  For some, there is the coming to terms of years of verbal, physical or emotional abuse. Overnight, nothing matters as much.  We exit the swimming pool and step into a world that has changed and find ourselves drifting through a series of unfamiliar scenes with unrehearsed lines.  Which, in Phelps’s case, becomes a casino, some alcohol and a 2am trip to the police station.

Depression or depression like symptoms can and do set in and can last years.  For most swimming federations or Olympic Associations there is no mechanism to transition swimmers through those years.  We are so used to having swim coaches, nutritionists, strength and conditioning experts, sports psychologists, bio mechanists to help us with every aspect of our swimming, but we are left with no support system when we retire.  What most retiring swimmers need, and I would also say active swimmers need, is access to a clinical psychologist.  It is the single biggest hole in the ‘support team’ and I would argue the most important.

Everyone hopes Phelps can learn to manage his demons, or his boredom, or his attraction to risky behaviour, and that he can find a meaningful career after swimming.  But it is likely to be a journey that takes another 5 to 8 years.

 James Parrack is Eurosport’s swimming commentator and is the co-founder of the BEST Centre, an elite swim training centre in Mallorca, Spain.