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Losing to a hidden rival


One in three elite athletes, as in the recent case of tennis player Naomi Osaka, suffers from psychological problems. Stigma is the biggest obstacle to getting help

Imagine the reader who, for a few hours, transmutes into Serena Williams.

He is going to play a crucial match at Roland Garros.

It may be the last in Paris.

Her 40-year-old body accuses the break of motherhood.

Its performance has been dropping ever since.

The tournament weighs on him, and everyone he attends weekly, from one end of the world to another.

When he takes to the track thousands of eyes scrutinize him even though there is no audience.

They expect me to win.


Family, followers, sponsors.

You too.

But she is alone on the clay with her inner monologue.

It's time to take out.

Note a pinch in the Achilles heel.

Last year that injury expelled him from the tournament.

Feel a cold sweat.

More information

  • Osaka makes a miscalculation

  • Naomi Osaka, example or offender?

This image illustrates some peculiar challenges faced by the mental health of elite athletes, about which it is worth wondering after the controversial abandonment in Paris of the Japanese Naomi Osaka, number two in the


. The highest paid woman in the world - 34.2 million euros a year, according to the latest



- publicly announced that she has suffered episodes of depression since 2018 and social anxiety, which she alleged not to appear before the press. An ambitious review of studies that accompanied the unpublished pronouncement on the subject of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 2019 found that one in three competitors at the top of excellence suffers from psychological disorders.

In the imaginary scene embodied by Williams, the enormous specter of injuries appears - those who suffer them have more symptoms of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress than those who have not, according to the latest research - and of withdrawal - one of each. four athletes suffer from these emotional disorders at the end of the race and the risk of becoming ill is aggravated if they abandon due to injury or exclusion from a national team. Antoni Bulbena, professor of Psychiatry at the Autonomous University of Barcelona and a veteran doctor of top-level athletes, illustrates it this way: “Three out of every five footballers go bankrupt after retiring. They fall from high above and settle in the loss ”.

Repeated bad results are also there.

"That frustration of not achieving the objectives, they try, they try, they do not achieve anything and are even very disappointed," says the experienced Chema Buceta, who has been a Real Madrid psychologist.

Or the fear of failing everyone.

And oneself.

Something like this is recalled by former tennis player Álex Corretja, with meritorious successes behind him: “I remember playing in Barcelona in 1999 and thinking that the entire stadium believed that they couldn't do it well.

Self-demand and that external factor make the burden can become very great.

When you lose or you are not well, you feel that you are failing everyone ”.

Michael Phelps, during a competition in Nebraska, in 2016.TOM PENNINGTON / AFP

“It can happen to anyone, but they live on it. And of course, if you do not meet certain expectations, you are obsolete ”, argues the specialized psychologist Ares Zamora. "They are subjected to tremendous workloads," says Pablo del Río, who has been psychologically training athletes from around twenty disciplines for decades at the High Performance Center (CAR) in Madrid; "Imagine that you and I had to compete weekly to be number one in the world."

Success is a great risk factor, Buceta maintains: “Very high expectations are created around the athlete. And he often finds himself in the obligation to be continually succeeding, because it is what others expect of him, and he links it to his own self-esteem ”. Related to the triumph, "there is loneliness, although he has many people around him, in many cases he is not clear if they are there because he wins titles or money or is famous or if there really is a personal bond." Dr. Bulbena insists: "There is the obsession for continued success, which is actually an effort not to lose, and the panic to say goodbye to social status, recognition, the train of life."

The exercise of putting yourself in the shoes of a tennis player is not accidental. This discipline - individual, solitary - is one of the most demanding psychically, say several specialists. In addition, in all sports women are subject to greater scrutiny for their physical appearance, says Duncan Simpson, a specialist with the American Association for Applied Sports Psychology (AASP, for its acronym in English) “or when they show strong outbursts of anger , like Williams. And if they are mothers, they face more difficulties (time lost from training, weight control, childcare). Men will never have to answer questions like why their sons are or are not in tournaments with them. " From the work with 50 female tennis players from the top positions of the WTA,Simpson emphasizes that her itinerant life "is a physical and mental crusher" for many of them. Applied to all athletes, it believes that mental well-being can be compromised "by increasing symptoms of anxiety, stress and depression due to performance, travel, financial challenges, media scrutiny, overtraining, injuries and burnout syndrome." The demands of elite sports life wear out, Buceta explains, "and there comes a time when they can turn into psychological exhaustion."The demands of elite sports life wear out, Buceta explains, "and there comes a time when they can turn into psychological exhaustion."The demands of elite sports life wear out, Buceta explains, "and there comes a time when they can turn into psychological exhaustion."

When fear dominates

Victoria Garrick, a former volleyball player in the US First Division, knows that: "My anxiety about sports performance came from the fear of making mistakes, losing or being expelled," she asserts by email.

“It started to dominate me and I couldn't sleep.

After many months of enormous anxiety, insomnia, worry and concern for the life that I had been trying to combine studies with sports, I became depressed ”.

As in the general population, anxiety and depression are the most common ailments of athletes at the summit, agree the specialists consulted and certify the largest review of the scientific literature made by the IOC.

Eating disorders are also frequent, from anorexia, to which cannot be classified as strictly pathological, especially in those athletes who must maintain a certain weight. It can reach almost half of the athletes (45%) compared to a maximum of 19% in men, "significantly higher than the general population", says the IOC document, which points to an alarming data: "More than 60% of the elite athletes have stated that they have been embarrassed by their coaches ”.

Another distinctive stumbling block to the psychic well-being of the select club of the sport's gifted is the violence of all kinds, psychological, physical and sexual to which they risk, whose impact, maintains the IOC, "can be devastating and prolonged".

Although psychological abuse is the most prevalent, sexual abuse is no less important.

Scandals with the case of the predator Larry Nassar, who attacked 300 gymnasts, one of whose victims was the award-winning Simone Biles, highlight the vulnerability of the young stars.

Most of the victims are girls and women.

Simone Biles, during a recent competition in Indiana.Emilee Chinn / AFP

There is no solid evidence that top-tier athletes get more psychologically ill than ordinary mortals. "To get to the elite you have to be very strong," says Buceta. And they are young and healthy. “But they are in a place where it is more difficult to explain and share that something is wrong with you, and it is a stigma. They cannot allow themselves to be lazy ”, considers Bulbena, who although she welcomes the fact that great athletes speak publicly of their sufferings, she acknowledges that she advises her patients to be prudent. "They fear, possibly rightly, that sharing symptoms or mental disorders may reduce their chances of maintaining or signing contracts or advertising campaigns," say the IOC researchers.

This is the crux of the matter. Stigma. It is the main factor that those suffering athletes, often insomniac - half of the Olympians suffer from sleep disorders of all kinds - do not seek help, according to the scientific review accompanying the IOC ruling. Experts repeat that behind the image of invulnerability of those supermen and superwomen who smash unthinkable records, there are people as susceptible to illness as everyone else.

Insufficient knowledge about mental illness, their busy schedules and even gender stereotypes also influences: men are more reluctant to visit a psychologist or psychiatrist. The volleyball player Garrick says that she could not even imagine that after reaching the elite, she would suffer psychically in that way. He has founded The Hidden Opponent, an association to educate other athletes about mental health.

But if the greatest medalist in history, swimmer Michael Phelps, speaks publicly of the depression that continues to attack him even after saying goodbye to the pool; If NBA star Kevin Love writes about the anxiety attack that brought him to the hospital, and teammate DeMar DeRozan details his depressive reality, something is changing. In Spain, stars such as footballer Andrés Iniesta or Paula Badosa, who are competing at Roland Garros these days, have shared the harsh onslaught of depression. The naked visibility of that hidden opponent before whom one can lose, and this is recognized by the experts, who clearly indicate progress.

The psychologist Del Río now has his office full of memories - helmets, T-shirts, photos - of athletes who have passed through there.

"When I started, in 1990, they came in secret," he recalls.

A similar perception is expressed by his colleagues.

The fact of asking for psychological help has become somewhat more normalized.

Del Rio believes that mental training should be mandatory for its preventive value.

"More and more athletes have their psychologist," observes the specialist Zamora, "what does not make sense is to train the physical part and leave the mental part, because then there is one of the legs that limps."

And although the IOC calls for more studies to define this masked attacker, there is a hopeful piece of information: research on mental health in elite athletes has multiplied in the last decade.

"The head betrays you"

"The tennis player suffers a psychological crusher in each game," exclaims former champion Álex Corretja. “Since you are very young, this sport forces you to have to constantly decide and you are not prepared. You are alone, you are permanently on trial; you are wrong many times and that has its consequences. It is devastating. You suffer it. Somehow you are required to behave like an adult. In the end, you get into a track with 20,000 people who expect the best of you at each point, and that is very difficult to manage; You can have the technical and tennis conditions, but the mind is the fundamental factor ”.

Mental health experts agree with the former Spanish tennis player. “Tennis is a battle against oneself”, dictates psychiatry professor Antoni Bulbena, “which is basically what we spend our entire lives on, trying to harmonize that internal dialogue. But on the track it is harder because there is more silence. You are alone in the face of everyone's demand ”.

Not even the coach can assist the player during the long hours of inner hum accompanied by the striking of the ball. Sports psychologist Pablo del Río agrees: “It is one of the most complex sports. You don't know what time the game starts, or how long it will last. Each ball has a different value ... And you spend a lot of time working not real. You get on the track and you are alone. The mind betrays you a lot ”.

There is also what happens off the track, which affects differently depending on who.

Psychologist Duncan Simpson, who works with WTA tennis players, says they "are among the most famous and followed athletes on the planet, and with it comes growing scrutiny through media and social networks."

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Source: elparis

All sports articles on 2021-06-06

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