A new paper from Holly Bradshaw (yes – the Pole Vaulter and now Sport Psychology student), a fabulous sport psychologist Dr Karen Howells and mental health researcher Mathijs Lucassen has just been published on the post-Olympic blues. While it seems like it might only matter for the few thousand elite athletes who head off of the Olympics or Paralympics each year it can actually have much wider resonance as many of us will feel down after a great season, a long build up to a tournament or a massive race like a marathon you have trained hard for so worth a read.

We think that the blues will come if we haven’t performed as well as we would like yet this study highlighted that even when athletes do really well there are issues. One study found winning a gold medal could prompt memories of the stress of trying to win the medal, the feeling being judged and discussed by people and left unsupported.

This study from Bradshaw, Howells and Lucassen identified that while people had helped these athletes prepare to win, no-one had helped them prepare for what happened once they had won. And this is important as a recent study found the best transitions after the games came when plans were put in place for what happened after whether retirement, a break or back into training. Without these plans athletes can be at risk of mental health issues.

The study saw 14 Olympians interviewed in focus groups about the post-Olympic period.

Interesting points:

  • The majority felt an anti-climax as the games were different to what they had imagined.
  • Many felt disappointed they hadn’t achieved their goals – and took personal responsibility for that, and for others’ disappointment in them too.
  • There was a real dehumanification as many athletes felt like they had become commodified, objectified and were just there for others to judge and criticise.
  • The games felt like a medal factory where the athletes knew their primary role was to win medals to ensure their sports kept their funding. This fed into them feeling a lack of emotional support where the athletes felt they were there to deliver a performance and were not seen as humans with needs, feelings and emotions.
  • The athletes felt their personal value became linked to the colour of medal won – one really telling story on this discussed how on the plane home from Rio the seats were allocated based on the colour of medal won, creating a them and us mentality.
  • The athletes were clear they needed a sport psych who would keep everything confidential and had strong professional boundaries – sometimes they saw this as someone outside of the NGB.

Four types of coping mechanisms were discussed:

  • Avoidance strategies – to distance themselves from the Olympics.
  • Activity-based responses – distractions perhaps like we can see Adam Peaty doing right now in Strictly Come Dancing.
  • Maladaptive strategies – often hedonistic like partying.
  • Goal setting – thinking through goals and putting everything in place to work towards the next one.

This sentence sums the study up well: “The athletes felt thoroughly prepared and sufficiently supported for their athletic performances at a number of Olympic Games but felt abandoned in the post-event period. This negatively impacted on both their mental health and the way that they perceived that they had been treated.”

Their suggestions, or implied suggestions:

  • A pre-Olympics workshop to share the realities of the Olympics and reduce the myth of the Olympic Dream.
  • Much more understanding within NGBs and the sporting system that their links between medal totals and funding create mechanical dehumanisation, which can be harmful to an athlete’s mental health.
  • Readily available support after the games from professionals but also those who have been through the process before like Olympians.
  • For the professional boundaries and confidentiality of sport psychs working within an NGB to be incredibly clear.

So how does this help regular athletes?

Keep your expectations flexible: Expect that an event you have been working towards and are really focused on to be different than imagined. With YouTube we can often get a really good idea of what events will look like; we can watch our tennis competitors on the court, a rival team playing on their home pitch or see a triathlon course from a headcam. These are great – but they might be a bit different on the day; the weather will have changed, supporters might not be there, you’ll be in a different position. Even if we have done an event before, things can change year to year, so while they are good to prepare your bearings we need to leave some leeway in our heads about what it will actually be like.  

Find your tribe: Having a sense of belonging to the sport we do and the community we interact with is incredibly important for motivation. At the Olympic level when there are only a few people who go each four years it can be hard to find others who get what you are feeling. But if you are doing your first marathon, or playing in a local final there will be more people who get it and sharing how you feel with them can be really helpful.

Prepare some coping mechanisms in advance: In the study above we saw some helpful, but also unhelpful coping mechanisms used. If you plan yours in advance you have a go to response if you find the post-event blues kicking in. Could be distraction (a holiday or a different sport for a few weeks), goal setting (to work on what you want to achieve next) or one I love is giving time back to those who have supported you recently (going to watch them train or compete or taking them out for a coffee).

Have someone you can chat to with psychological safety: As we saw with the Olympic athletes it is important that you have someone you completely trust and know they are on your side. A sports psych is brilliant for this but not everyone has access or budget for this. Instead think about a really good friend, family member or someone from your sports club that you feel able to chat with and you know wont spread gossip.

Just to note – It was well advertised this year that the EIS (English Institute of Sport) were running Decompression Workshops –  https://www.eis2win.co.uk/article/performance-decompression-post-games-celebration-and-support/ – for those coming back from Tokyo – so it looks like this research is already starting to have an impact and athletes are getting more of the support they need.