Our Town: The mental anguish of the athlete

Dr Tom Ferraro
Simone biles, an athlete under duress

Mental anguish and the athlete

(Photo with caption “Simone Biles, an Olympic athlete under duress.”)
On occasion the spectator is made aware of the role of the mind in athletic performance. In this year’s XXXIII Olympiad in Tokyo, Simone Biles, the foremost gymnast in Olympic history, had a psychological collapse which led to a withdrawal from her events. This is a perfect example of what happens when the mind is no longer able to process the pressure it faces. As a sport psychologist I hear stories like this every day.

No matter how much training, talent and courage an athlete has, there is a limit to the mind’s ability to take in pressure, just like there is a limit to how much dirt a vacuum cleaner can suck up before it explodes. When the mind is filled to overflowing, a tipping point is reached and we see things like the yips, a frozen performance, the choke or the sudden misstep. A sprinter will get frozen on the blocks, a professional golfer can’t make a 3-foot putt, an MLB catcher can’t get the ball back to the pitcher or a gymnast can’t make a tumbling pass she has done a thousand times before.

In athletics, the elite athlete’s mind must bury pain, fear and distraction. It does this by using a variety of defenses such as suppression, repression or compartmentalization. Some do this better than others depending upon their temperament, family history and development. They are rarely if ever actually trained to do this because their coaches are not psychoanalysts.

The athlete’s mind is also tasked with the expectations of the fans as well as personal fantasies they may have about what a win will mean for them. They must manage the so-called “poison chalice of fame and fortune.” I hesitate to add that there is very little useful literature on how they are supposed to manage these abstract and mammoth challenges.

In addition to all this, the mind of the athlete must also digest the many defeats they have endured over the past years. If they are unusually lucky, they will have a solid support team, family or spouse who will help them to digest the losses, but what usually happens is that this task is left to themselves to deal with. What they will do is simply repress the loss and push it into their unconscious where it will remain, festering and building up until you see it explode into the yips, the choke, drug addiction or an injury.

These are the grim truths about the mind of the elite athlete and the reason why I am booked solid every day from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Of course, no one believes any of this and the sports world with all those coaches and trainers and agents and physicians and GMs will simply call the above formulation hogwash and suggest some medication and a brief vacation in Barbados. But as the saying goes, “you may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with you.”

The cure for all the anguish, collapse, repressed shame and overwhelming applause is what Freud simply called “the talking cure.” Every day I must answer the confused question: “Well, Doctor, how does talking help my son’s yips?” The short answer is that just like that overstuffed vacuum cleaner with all the dirt inside of it, the athlete’s mind is filled to overflowing with the detritus of their past performances and their future fantasies. And until that detritus gets talked through, processed and resolved, they will be subject to surprising and sometimes career-ending flaws.

Indeed, the talking cure takes time. But so does the making of a true champion. The process of depth sport psychology for the elite athlete is usually one to three hours per week of talking sessions where they find a safe, accepting, objective private haven to ventilate and then to explore the damage done to them by their sport. Great psychological stress is felt by the losses, by the fantasies, by the fans and by the media and until all of that is processed properly they will be weakened by it.

“But, Doctor, all of this takes money. What is the actual value offered by all this chit-chat?” Well, the alternative path is to not talk but instead to have a career-ending collapse that we witnessed this week by Simone Biles, a child who has endured the experience of not knowing her biological mom and who also was sexually abused and had to share that information with the world. This is clearly too much to ask of anyone to bear alone.

The failure to process one’s competitive stress will result in the loss of a scholarship opportunity or will lead to an overuse injury. I would say that an upfront investment of time and money in the talking cure will pay more than 20 times in the long run. And if you doubt that, do the math. An upfront investment in the talking cure may cost you $7,500 for the year but produce a $240,000 scholarship. That’s a 32-to-1 return on investment.
The talking cure is a private, abstract, ephemeral and emotional experience that does not seem to fit well in the hard-edged, winner-take-all world of sports. But without this personal talking cure, the athlete’s sport career will always be in jeopardy and no amount of pep talks or pills can safeguard them from the power of their own unconscious and its very specific needs.

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