A Balance Of Mindset And Mental Health

2019-05-27 Reading Time: 12 minutes
Michael Phelps, boy in a bubble of excellence and singular focus, now a man who advocates for the de-stigmatization of mental health problems

Citius, Altius, Fortius, a never-ending conveyor of progress and one-way travel. At the fast end of pace and prime living embodiments of sporting supremacy, no name is more golden, in terms of dedication, work and process, winningness, versatility, perseverance and longevity than Michael Phelps.

Michael Phelps won an award for spreading awareness of mental health and its impact on individuals in many walks of life, including the pointy end of performance sport. Phelps, Allison Schmidt, Michael Jamieson and several other big names have spoken out on their own struggles. Less attention has been paid to the importance of the issue to the people who serve as mentors and guardians: coaches. In the midst of Mental Health Awareness Month, we look at why Phelps attracted his latest prize – and then take a peek into the archive to consider the importance of a healthy environment on the deckside.

Phelps lived life under the glare of an Olympic super trouper for the bulk of years between fifth place in the 200m butterfly at Sydney 2000 until his second retirement from the fast lane after taking his career tally to 23 gold, 3 silver and 2 bronze at the Rio Games.

The count stretches to 26 gold, 6 silver, one bronze at World long-course championships and 66 international titles atop 83 podiums in a USA cap.

Cap that! The greatest haul by the greatest winning streak in the history of world-class sport: his first and last major titles span 15 years, duding which a modern-era record 39 world records (29 individual, 10 relay) fell at his fingertips. That’s past Mark Spitz’s 33 world records (26 individual, 7 relay), while in the days of a melting pot of yards, metres, short and long-course, Johnny ‘tarzan-to-be’ Weissmuller celebrated 67 ‘worlds’ records.

All of which takes talent, hard and smart work and a mindset to match. Anyone who ever sat in a venue and paid attention when the whistle blows, the world stops and an expectant and singular silence descends as Phelps, Thorpe, Hoogie and Co take their marks before the gun converts slo-mo to fast-forward in an instant, will understand the thrilling, chilling rush of a moment of meaning, decision and the last turn of long-term process.

The mindset delivers (or not), the clock stops, the job is done. Let celebration and coping begin, for athlete and coach. They’re world-class: they’ll be fine.

At least that’s what it may look like to the watching, wider world that got what was promised on the ticket: soaring entertainment and sporting theatre.

The curtain falls – but the story goes on: sheer joy, relief, despair, disappointment, anger and many more emotions and potential triggers to depression in between the explanations, analysis, the need to park celebration, sympathy, solace and consolation, and focus on the next target.

And when the thrills and spills are done, the roller-coaster of lives less ordinary screeches to a halt, for athlete and coach.

Now starts the craft of careful handling and support, regardless, as we learned long ago, of “success or failure”, perceived or real, external or internal.

A tip from Australia Mike Wenden, after his 1968 triumphs over 100 and 200m freestyle:

“Seek advice about an appropriate business manager and maintain close contact with a psychologist.”

Phelps has spent a couple of seasons advocating for mental health in general, his personal experience and status among aspects that make his campaigning all the more significant to the ripple with the widest reach.

His bout with depression reached its nadir in 2014 after a second DUI arrest led to Phelps checking himself into a rehabilitation centre in a desperate effort to make sense of it all.

In an interview with Associated Press this week, he recalled:

“When I was in my room and not wanting to talk to anybody for a number of days and not wanting to be alive, I wanted to see what other roads I could take to see if there was help.”

He continues to received treatment. Just as it is when working for medals in the pool, working on mental health is part of a long-term process and might best be viewed in the way we view brushing our teeth: awareness, coupled with daily habit aimed at a lifetime of health.

Says Phelps on his treatment: “I know it’s something that changed my life and saved my life and allowed me to be able to be where I am today, enjoying the platform of talking about something that’s so important.”

Talking helps self and many others when it comes to Phelps, which is why he was granted the fifth annual Morton E. Ruderman Award in Inclusion in Boston last Tuesday.

Since retiring from the fast lane in 2016, Phelps has been busy promoting the importance of water safety and advocating for the de-stigmatization of mental health problems through the Michael Phelps Foundation.

“When I first really opened up about the struggles that I had in ’15, obviously I dreamed of being able to get more publicity to this and to really share my journey and have other people share their journeys with me as well,” Phelps told AP.

“Honestly, I never thought it would be as big as this, but it’s been a true dream to be able to watch the growth that mental health has taken, almost being at center stage. Through this, if I can save one life, two lives, five lives, a thousand, a million, to me that’s so much more important than winning a gold medal.”

Now 33, he looks back on his soaring career in the pool through different goggles: “Probably my first real depression spell was after 2004, then the next big one was after 2008,” he said. “When you set out to be an Olympian, your whole life is put on hold. All the eggs are in one basket. I would say 2004, 2008, 2012, partly after ’16 (all Olympic years) I’ve dealt with pretty severe depression spells. I was kind of lost at that point.”

No more: “To have my wife (Nicole Johnson), who’s always by my side, two amazing little boys at home and a third one on the way, I’m extremely thankful of the support I’ve had to get me through these times.”

His message has been “It’s OK to not be OK”. A message good for mentors, too.

Mental Health Awareness Month has prompted coverage far and wide of how important the issue is to athletes. There has been far less focus on the effects of burnout, depression and related issues among communities who work in sport not just for the time they compete but for entire careers that stretch to several decades and more. Here is an article highlighting the issue: from Craig Lord in 2016 at the World Aquatics development Conference in Lund, Sweden.

Olympic season. Lights, action, the world tunes in to singular moments of sporting excellence and achievement. Spills, thrills, smiles and tears – and when its done, the world moves on, swimming among those sports that slides back down the spectrum of media exposure.

Behind the scenes: burnout. No, not the swimmer – the coach. Followed by the risk of all things collapsing about the coach.

Behind the scenes: across the world this weekend, coaches will be steeped in work in training and at meets, long hours on the deck, travelling and coping with the load ahead of them. For many all will be well. For some, it will not. Anti-social moments ahead, as far as family life and the balance of all things go.

Wrecked lives in the community of coaches who get an honourable mention if their charge makes the podium and are either largely ignored if they find themselves celebrating best-ever performances that fall shy of the medals or pulped under the hammer of stinging criticism and loss of funding after a result in the realms of 4th to 8th.

The pressure is on but like the work that feeds into Olympic podiums, it starts long before the gun goes off at the Games.

Addressing a room full of coaches at the World Aquatic Development Conference in Lund, Sweden, last month, assistant professor Marte Bentzen, of The Norwegian School of Sport Sciences, painted a stark picture of a condition that afflicts their number – Coach Burnout:

“Every fourth coach in top sport becomes fatigued during the season. An ailing privacy is one of many reasons why coaches lose motivation and passion.”

The Aftenposten spoke from true heart of the matter when it reported:

“Rowing’s national team manager Johan Flodin had a weird feeling in his stomach. He knew what awaited him when he opened the door to his own home after returning from the World Cup. When he peered into the empty apartment, he heard himself breathe and the gasp that followed. His family had flown – and taken the furniture.”

The coach sat on a new sofa for the interview but noted that the room where his two children had slept remains empty. The 48-year-old acknowledged that, in common with many others in his line of work, the job, the traveling, the unsociable hours, the sacrifice of private life had cost him his family and his personal happiness.

Bentzen, of the coaching and psychology department at the NIH, received her doctorate last October for a body of work that can only help improve the lot and understanding of coaches and the coaching role. Norwegian and Swedish colleagues followed 299 coaches from many sports in the two countries for the research, a very solid sample group.

In Lund, Bentzen explained to the coaches gathering that they have embraced a job in which they may experience a much greater conflict between work and life than those who work in realms that leave them less fatigued.

Fatigue is a trigger to a downward spiral, passion for the job a blessing and a curse. Her studies baed on workload and motivation, Bentzen suggests that while a coach remain enthusiastic about their jobs, they can – or at least appear to be able – to cope with the stress.

Bentzen displays slides that list some of the things that come with coaching: unpredictable; ever-changing; insecurity; intense pressure, highly competitive; unsocial; a wide spectrum of understanding in a given sport, including physiology, biomechanics, psychology, technology.

The study, identifying 182 stressors, found 24 different expert skills in the one job, a level well above that required in many other fields of work.

Those stressors came down to two overriding categories:

  • performance-related – own and that of the athlete
  • organisational stress – the environment in which they work; dealing with ‘leadership’, extensive travelling, limited delegation of responsibilities, internal conflicts, sports policies and lack of support.

“Who is looking after the coaches?” Bentzen asks. The issue and the welfare of coaches should be best compared to the emergency procedures on an aircraft which demand that you ‘put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others’. “If you do not look after yourself you will eventually not be able to help others,” says Bentzen.

Bob Bowman, mentor to Michael Phelps and others, has placed his wisdom in the public domain in a book called The Golden Rules: 10 Steps to World-Class Excellence in Your Life and Work. Co-authored by Charles Butler and forwarded by Phelps, the book has many a gem in it.

Take this for season-end each year that speaks to the work Bentzen has been steeped in. “Over the years, I have become a firm believer in the value of celebration as part of the Method … in recent years I’ve started to celebrate the end of each year with a holiday party at my home …

“Achieving our dream vision requires plenty of sacrifice: we use hours we can never get back, we must propel ourselves through daily to-do lists, we need to find a way to fight through emotional and physical exhaustion. But once that moment of completion arrives, it’s imperative to stop, reflect, and consider what has been accomplished and discovered.”

Bentzen’s work would appear to back up the value in those words. And even then, as Michael Phelps has confirmed, success is not a preventative pathway. 

One of the more surprising findings of the study was that feelings of burnout do not vanish if athletes perform well. “The studies did not find any statistical correlation between poor performance and fatigue in coaches,” says Bentzen, one of the qualitative studies she notes producing an interesting finding:

“Coaches with excellent results internationally can also experience burnout. We should stress that excellent results is no guarantee for a high level of wellness in coaches.”

It is not all dark, of course. Coaching comes with myriad opportunities inherent in teaching, interaction with young and talented people, personal development, a love of sport and the “joy and belongingness” of team.

Some call it family but for some coaches it comes at the expense of family.

Bentzen – her doctoral study entitled “Coaching Burnout in Top-level Sport” – and colleagues conducted four studies to investigate coach burnout a the pointy end of business.

Concentrated on samples of coaches in Scandinavia, the finding that one in four coaches experience a “high level of fatigue” (a key symptom of burnout) at the end of each competitive season, is stark. Says Bentzen:

“This is a significant number and an issue sports organisations and coaching education programs need to address to make sure that coaches can remain in their jobs for a long time.”

Burnout – The Causes

Burnout is much more than simply feeling tired, notes Bentzen. Think creep, the gradual gnaw of things that pile up on a trajectory to falling down.

High levels of fatigue come hand in hand with blunted emotions and reduced performance, on the job and beyond it.

In swimming, coaches know well the stories of colleagues who look for all the world on the deck like masters of their one circumstance and art, drivers of success and discipline, when the reality back home is chaos, broken relationships, a ship heading for the rocks. Some turn it round, some never do, a few pay the ultimate price, suicide not unknown in coaching circles.

Coaches on the way to developing burnout syndrome experience negative symptoms both physically and mentally, says Bentzen. The downward spiral churns as the negativity extends beyond the individual coach to their athletes, programs and the organisation in which and for which they work. Where other professions may take to the water, the gym, the road and cycle track to escape work and reduce stress, that environment is not one the coach may perceive as ‘leisure and pleasure’: it is just a further opportunity for the mind to work on in the same realm.

Bentzen’s doctoral thesis consisted of four studies:

  1. A qualitative study involving in-depth interviews of four former top-level coaches on how they experienced the process and the job that lead to strong burnout symptoms.
  2. How changes in the working environment leads to changes in motivation which in turn leads to changes in level of burnout and wellness.
  3. Whether there are different developmental stages as coaches experience a high level of fatigue over the course of a season. This part also looks at the likelihood of being in these stages based on workload, issues in their personal life, rest and quality of motivation.
    On the trail of four Norwegian top-level football coaches over a competitive season, with investigation of the differences in coaches experiencing mild or strong symptoms of burnout at the end of the year.
    The Nature of Burnout
  4. Burnout is linked to depression but is not the same, says Bentzen. Is burnout a problem – and why, she asks. The answers starts when we consider the causes.
    Workload
    On top of what is actually done, there is perceived workload and the work-home “interference” factor to consider (many studies conducted on the impact of work-home factors on women’s lives, but few on the lives of men and fewer still on coaches).

Self-determination

Bentzen wanted to see if the self-determination theory could clarify the process of how an individual develops the burnout syndrome. She concludes: “The theory has helped to explain why a demanding and unsupportive working environment may lead to a higher degree of burnout in top-level coaches.”

The process model is fairly simple and sits on the following pillars:

  • The work environment (the climate) – basic psychological needs – quality of motivation
  • Basic psychological needs include the concepts of autonomy, competence and relatedness, the very factors that feed into related research, such as that of Prof. Joan Duda and what that tells us about cheating in sport and the precursors of doping.
  • Quality of motivation hangs on two opposing pegs: autonomous; or controlled motivation. The latter is more likely to end in burnout.

Bentzen notes what’s missing in the interface between swim coaching and studies that tell us what constitutes a “healthy worker”: there are no specific projects among federations and those with the big budgets that identify and target those at risk’; there are no longitudinal studies that might tell us about the extent of the problem.

Self-determination Theory

The self-determination theory (SDT) is an empirically based theory on motivation, personal development and wellness. The theory focuses on different types of motivation, not level of motivation. The quality of motivation is key.

(More reading: Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2008). Self-Determination Theory: A macrotheory of human motivation, development, and health. Canadian Psychology-Psychologie Canadienne, 49(3), 182-185. doi:10.1037/a0012801 and the Self Determination Theory website).

To maintain the mental energy required as a top-level coach, it is crucial for the working environment to support self-determination, challenge the coaches and allow them to apply their knowledge, say Bentzen and team. It is also important for the coaches to develop good working relationships.

If motivation is thwarted, through conflict with leaders and colleagues, for example, decline is far more likely to set in. The research findings showed that the degree of self-determined motivation (whether the job was perceived as fun, interesting and rewarding) is vital: it prevents burnout. Those who no longer loved their work were at far greater risk of burnout.

In Lund, Bentzen highlighted the cases of five coaches who quit sport and were lost to coaching. She concluded:

“If you go to work because you have to not because you want to, it is a red flag.”

Equally, the study indicated that those who “rejected rules and regulations” and those “chasing the money and fame” – the kind of profiles referred to as wearing “Ego Glasses” by Prof Joan Duda in Lund – were more likely to reach at point of exhaustion that would place them at risk of burnout. Those well versed with ways of “relaxing and detaching themselves” from the strains, stresses and tiredness of the working day could be viewed as at “low risk” of burnout.

Signs to watch for speak to work-life balance issues, such as:

  • Maladaptive motivation
  • High levels of work-home interference
  • Difficulty in finding any method of recovering from a day’s work
  • Turning to alcohol as a recovery strategy
  • Difficulty in sleeping/turning off from the job

Among recommendations and measures that could help to prevent top-level coaches from being burnout, Bentzen and team suggest that coaches need to be educated on:

  • how to organise their working hours
  • how to set limits and how to maintain a healthy balance between their working life and personal life
  • how they can care for their own well-being
  • how they can maintain their energy levels through proper rest and recovery

Further, educational programs should prepare the coach for the organisational and administrative aspects of their profession. They should learn about leadership, decision-making processes, conflict management, how to delegate responsibilities and have a good general knowledge about how organisations work successfully

Bentzen would like sports employers to provide more support that she believes is available. “The measures to improve the working conditions for the coaches should be adapted to accommodate the needs of the different sports,” she adds.

Frank Abrahamsen, head of the coaching education program at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences, echoed that when he urged the Norwegian Olympic and Paralympic Committee and Confederation of Sports (NIF), schools and universities should include these findings in their educational programs.

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