It’s that time of year to get serious and drop the photoshops. Here we go…
A Guardian article has been doing the rounds for the past few days, quoting research stating that more than a third of professional footballers have reported depressive symptoms at some point in their careers. The media wasn’t surprised, insiders weren’t surprised and most of us were not really surprised either.
It’s not difficult to guess that in a world spilling over the edges with perfectionism, there could be emotional issues. And I don’t just mean in football; it’s true for most competitive sports where a head-strong mentality is both a blessing and a curse. These days, most athletes start increasingly young and grow into this extremely competitive environment, which is ideal for polishing their skills but maybe gives them fewer opportunities to work on their emotional intelligence. While most teenagers learn how to deal with interpersonal relationships and decision making, young sportsmen learn how to accelerate, kick, nail a drop shot and campaign for sponsorship. All very useful tricks in their line of work, and, well, screw being sane if it gets you millions, but what happens if things don’t go your way?
Perfectionism is a dangerous quality to have. Like a double-edged sword, it can drive you to incredible success and then pull the rug from under your feet. That’s because perfection makes people happy, but perfection is impossible, therefore you will never be happy. That illusive ideal lap in MotoGP, the Super Slam in tennis, a time-bending 100m run – those are definitions of perfection: possible but highly improbable and often not as satisfying in the end. OK, we might need Usain’s opinion on that last one. But my point stays, high doses of perfectionism are a risk factor.
I know what you’re going to say, and, fair enough, we all love a Marquez who is GASSS!!! all the time and a Federer who never gives up, but I think there’s a case for giving up every now and then. When it makes you miserable. Right, Casey? How’s it fishin’? Never giving up can only take you so far. For every Valentino Rossi there’s ten Louis Rossi-s and thousands of other kids who won’t even get a shot in the first place. Not talented enough, not lucky enough, not being in the right place at the right time. That’s life. And I can accept that, but a perfectionist can’t.
So are we dealing with a generation of extreme perfectionists? I’d say we’re not even close. One does not have to strive for perfection to be at risk. Some just HAVE to have life go their way, some cannot tolerate failure, some don’t know how to deal with disappointment or injury and others simply lose confidence. I say “simply” but it’s just as serious when you start to blame yourself and lose that feeling of self-worth. This reminds me of Dani Pedrosa’s words in Hitting the Apex, when he explains how he stopped thinking of himself as unlucky and realised that numbers are just numbers at the end of the day. But not everyone understands that. For most professional athletes, failure is not an option.
Perhaps, but if you want to be sane, you need to accept it exists and it might happen to you one day. It’s not about losing motivation, but building yourself up in a positive and rational manner. Remember Romain Grosjean’s turnaround after that silly Sunday in Spa? Accepting that he doesn’t always know best and that he cannot deal with this on his own didn’t make him any less hungry, but more focused instead. Which brings me back to the age issue: when this world steals you away so young, with no time to build coping mechanisms, how do you deal with loss? The implications of irrational thinking are complicated concepts that I only started to pay attention to in college, and after years of studying I’m yet to fully grasp them. So how can we expect these people, so isolated from the real average world, to function perfectly?
It would seem that two thirds of them do, and that’s fantastic. It’s a mix of genetics and having the right people around. But we cannot forget about the other third. And that this is not only a young people’s problem. The uncertainty of the future, dealing with injury and the reality of outside life are just as worrying for all ages. No matter how much success you enjoy, sporting careers are short compared to most other jobs. Having Hamilton’s bank account would help, but few sports can provide you with that, so most retired athletes try to find work in their field. Then again, in a peloton of hundreds of cyclists and a handful of teams, how many Sporting Directors can one hire?
Reasons to be depressed you’ll find plenty, but rational thinking and clever decision-making can spare you much trouble. There is endless research showing that thinking ‘the right way’ can help sportsmen deal better with whatever comes their way: enjoy success more and use failure as a motivator, not a millstone.
Then there’s the matter of obsessive passion. I studied that as part of my dissertation thesis and I noticed how sportsmen who adored their sport but didn’t let it consume their life were happier, better at dealing with negative emotion and had marginally better performance. Interestingly, the same was observed in sports fans. While this article won’t probably help many athletes, it might at least stop your girlfriend (or boyfriend) from dumping you. Yes, that was an actual topic of research. So go easy with the grandstand tickets for your anniversary and you should be fine. Finally, to leave you on a funny note: