Having spent some time recently putting in place a structure to create (and protect) space for my book project, today was the first of several whole days I had planned for dedicated, intensive writing. Ordinarily, this project will be based upon consistent ‘bite sized chunks’: a rate of 500 - 700 words per week and these short posts coming together after a two year period in to a book format. However, I am making a head start over the summer months - to gain some momentum and create a foundation upon which I can build over the coming weeks and months.
On a practical level, as I put the metaphorical pen down for the day, it has also been useful to gauge how long it takes to write a certain word count. I have written enough for several weeks of ‘posts’; and its been good to write some of the opening sections of the book in a series of 2h blocks over the day. I am in the flow and feel confident from where I am writing, and to whom.
Within the opening chapters I am giving some of the background story as to how I have arrived here: the career changes, the consequences of those changes and how the Buddhist dharma, meditation and psychotherapy have brought about (and helped me hold) a great deal of change - who Helen is and also how she relates to life and others. The writing allowed me to reflect upon my beginnings as a sport scientist and physiologist rooted in the body and the shift toward working with the mind within coaching and then psychotherapy. I found myself writing about the competitive and ego-orientated world of sport and how unhappy I found my athletes could be in their performance world. I felt a deep sadness as I wrote and I pondered “does it really have to be that way?”. It is some 10 years ago I was working in elite sport and I don’t sense much has changed since.
The Tour de France, which ended last weekend, contained its own stories of pain and struggle - and not just the physical suffering of tortuous mountain climbs, 200km plus race stages, and extreme weather conditions (heatwave AND snow!). This year, two stories of psychological anguish came to the headlines. Mid-way through the race, Rohan Dennis quit the race with no apparent explanation. One piece I read explained there may have been some hints in an interview he gave before the season started in January. He shares his periods of depression in which he questioned “what the hell am I doing?”. I felt like asking Thibault Pinot (the in-form home rider looking to be the first Frenchman since 1985 to wear the Yellow Jersey of the overall winner) the same thing as he attempted to continue Stage 19 in the Alps in obvious agony from a knee injury. He eventually climbed off the bike, but it took a team mate to ride up beside him and help him see the pointlessness of his plight. I imagine the burden of his nation’s hope was part of why he tried to carry on, but he was clearly risking his health. I see the human suffering in these riders, and I still have concerns about the well-being under the bonnet of these fine-tuned machines. Do we - the professionals, the support teams, the fans - do enough for them?
Back in May of this year, British Cycling announced the addition of a ‘mental health strategy’ to their existing athlete support plan. On one level, I welcome this move; I know some of the pressure of being an athlete myself; and I have worked with elite riders and Olympian to know some of what is experienced at the very top - any support of emotional well-being is a good move. British Cycling have appeared in their fair share of mental health-related headlines in the past couple of years, with riders such as Callum Skinner, Peter Kennaugh and Jess Varnish sharing their stories of being in the system. Things have obviously needed addressing, and exposure of this gap is a good thing. But I can’t help but remain skeptical: Why does a major governing body with such a fantastic track record in performance and a ’no stone unturned’ reputation recruit sport psychologists and not considered bringing in psychotherapists?
As a psychotherapist, I have often experienced people’s ‘fear’ of me and my profession: I tend to be quite careful telling people at social functions what I do and risk them moving 3 paces back from me! Aspects of the psyche remain unchartered and dreaded territory for many. Maybe BC picking sport specific rather than clinical psychologists is in tune with that societal and systemic ‘fear’? Or, if I allow myself to be somewhat more cynical…maybe bringing mental / emotional stability to their athletes is the bigger risk? I once had a conversation with an elite coach at British Cycling who inferred elite athletes don’t respond to care, they respond to having their demons provoked.
Currently, we orientate around the “need” to win trumping the human “want” to win, I hope this isn’t always the case. And it is hard to reconcile this with my love of sport, and my belief it CAN be character building. With my current moral and ethical compass I can’t see a return to working in sport. Since becoming a psychotherapist my involvement in sport has been in helping athletes become ex-athletes…because that is how I can help people find a place of more ease.