How performance-based identity dysregulates athletes.
The Tokyo Olympics have concluded, but the mental health challenges of so many athletes remain. Gymnast Simone Biles catapulted the issue front and center in the midst of the competition. Her courageous acknowledgment follows the stories of Michael Phelps, Aly Raisman, Kevin Love, and many other high-profile Olympic, professional, and college athletes. Yes, a crack has appeared in their armor. Athletes are finally talking openly about their mental health. They’ve been keeping it inside, festering for far too long.
But is anybody genuinely surprised that athletes have mental health problems? We shouldn’t be.
Now to be clear, not all athletes are created equal. Their tolerance for both physical and psychological pain falls somewhere on a continuum between resiliency and fragility. The mental health of some athletes is just fine, thank you. They likely were raised in an environment that nurtured them with unconditional acceptance and love. Sadly, the reality is quite different for the others.
Planting the seed.
The problems begin in youth. Parents or Little League coaches or peers let youngsters know, in no uncertain terms, that their value is intrinsically linked to their performance. Period. These “mentors” ignore process-oriented objectives like character development to focus on a singular manifesto: “just win, baby.” Often the message is implicit, but sometimes it is unequivocal. If you perform up to expectations and triumph, you will be embraced, celebrated, and loved. You will belong. But if you fail to live up to these benchmarks, forget you. You’re on your own, kid.
Welcome to the performance culture.
We saw it happen before our very eyes on the playground or field or in the gym. We witnessed how kids who didn’t perform were shamed, labeled, and cast aside. We saw the pain in their eyes before instinctively turning to look away. But, we got the message. Thus, young athletes learn to suck it up and push it down out of a desire to survive. No pain, no gain. Look out for number one. Second place is the first loser. You’ve got to work harder and smarter than the next kid or risk being left in the dust.
The notion always emanates from an adult, a parent or coach, but often the young athlete will instinctively assume the role and become lead brow-beater-in-chief. You protect yourself from the slings and arrows of others by becoming your own worst critic. Nobody can be tougher on you than you.
If you want it bad enough, you forego entire chapters of your childhood and adolescence. You give up kid things like hanging out with friends at the pool. There’s no time for such frivolity. You have to be better. You have to practice or train or work out, all the while looking over your shoulder to see if your competitors are gaining on you.
Strength vs. Toughness.
And you have to be tough. But, to me, tough means impenetrable. It’s a quality nobody should covet. Strong, yes, but there’s a big difference between strong and tough. Coaches like to say they have to tear you down to build you up. That’s the way muscle fibers work, but the neurobiology of our brains is infinitely more complex.
We’ve been told there’s no crying in baseball – or any other sport. No complaining, no standing up for yourself or a teammate, no shortcuts, no empathy, and absolutely no talking about your feelings, for Christ’s sake. Ever! When you’re told to jump, you ask how high? You hang out and share a few laughs with teammates, but too often, you have no deep friendships. Your relationships become transactional; practice, the game, an asshole teacher, or the hot girl or boy in English class. In short, you lose meaningful connection with almost everyone and especially with yourself.
Your identity as a person becomes your performance. You are what you do. Nobody gives a shit if you’re sensitive, have compassion for others, are curious about science, like to write, or taught yourself to play guitar. Nobody cares about the obstacles you’ve overcome. All that matters to the outside world is how fast you can run, how many points you can score, or how hard you hit.
And when you do perform, the dopamine release in your brain makes you feel invincible. You experience narcissistic grandiosity, an over-correction of the more typical self-loathing side of the coin. Accomplishment summons a rush of performance-based esteem and false empowerment. But, this state is only temporary. A thundering crash is just around the corner the next time you fail to perform.
You hate it: the grind, the aches and pain, the inner loneliness, the pressure. Your needs and desires go unfulfilled and even unacknowledged. You tell yourself you have to make sacrifices to have a chance at a gold medal or a college scholarship because that’s what you’ve been told a thousand times over. And so, you develop a self-bully to whip yourself into submission. It becomes not about being your best self but about beating your opponent, rubbing their nose in the dirt, and exulting your dominance. You obsess not on the joy and purity of authentic competition but the unforgiving judgment of comparison. And it’s that obsessive nonsensical comparison that robs you of your joy.
You question your adequacy and self-worth at every turn. You compulsively assess your body, quickness, strength, talent, toughness, and skillset, not merely to monitor your personal progress but instead, to compare your stats to others. You know better, but sadly you’ve become obsessed with physical prowess at the expense of emotional intelligence and self-care?
You learn to parrot a lie, that vulnerability and failure are weakness. So, you keep your fear, shame, anger, hurt, and sadness to yourself. To articulate these feelings would betray the jock code. The truth is the polar opposite. Vulnerability and failure breed success that endures and inspires. Nobody succeeds without failure. It is the greatest of all teachers.
So you second-guess yourself in silence. Was all this really worth it? Sadly, the truth is often “no, it really wasn’t.” That realization breeds shame, guilt, and sadness. You feel like a fraud, like you’ve wasted your life living an unfulfilling pipe dream that wasn’t yours in the first place. This isn’t who you are. This isn’t what you want.
Consequently, too many athletes experience anxiety, depression, and relationship issues that can become debilitating. Even, and especially, the most successful and celebrated athletes become lost in their heads. They grieve for their lost youth and long for the warm embrace of connection and meaning. These emotional deficits lead to isolation and despair. Sadly, some professional, college, high school, and even youth athletes lose hope and end their lives. It’s the only way they believe they can escape the performance treadmill and find peace.
Twenty-five years ago, rock musician Ed Kowalczyk wrote a song titled I Alone. In the lyrics, he acknowledged what most successful athletes and people already know: “It’s easier not to be great.” You see, greatness is always counterbalanced by burden. Simone Biles, Michael Phelps, Kevin Love, and thousands of athletes we’ve never heard of know this all too well. Thankfully, so many of them are taking control of their mental health, speaking out, and getting the professional guidance and support they need. They’ve realized nothing is quite as it seems. The burden is real and imposing as hell. There’s always a price to pay and sometimes that cost becomes just too steep to stomach.
If you need help navigating your challenges, do the courageous thing. Ask for help.