Johnny Fake is a made-up character based on many real-life athletes and their struggles with finding balance in their lives. The following is a fictional account of how Johnny used mental health therapy to reset his win-at-all-costs mentality to become a true winner in life.
It was a sunny day when Johnny Fake went to his first therapy session. This therapy session was directly after his third visit to the physiotherapist in 2 weeks. Johnny was a young rising star in athletics and this hard-working athlete had turned amazing potential into quality results. He was now, however, injured and becoming depressed
The first impression the therapist got from Johnny, was that he seemed nervous and somewhat confused by the whole situation. Despite his magnificent discipline and driven mindset, the boy that sat in front of the therapist seemed more like a nervous child. When first approached by the mental health professional, the first words that came out of the young athlete’s mouth were “When can I go back to training? How can I hack my mind into ignoring the pain?”
There was no hiding that Johnny’s priority was to go back into training as soon as possible. He needed to participate and most importantly, he felt that he needed to win. Upon further exploration by the therapist, they uncovered what medals truly meant for this young athlete.
Before becoming an elite athlete, Johnny had a distant relationship with his father. The two of them were not fighting, it just happened that he was not emotionally available to Johnny a lot of the time. Once the medals started being won, however, something changed in his father’s behaviour. Suddenly he was there for Johnny, and cared about his training, his interests, and his thoughts. In Johnny’s mind, his medals were the symbolic glue that kept his family together.
As the counselling continued, it became clearer that Johnny was under great pressure to perform well. He felt that it was his responsibility to respond with athletic results for his parents as his mindset was that it was through successful performance that his family would love him and stay together. The objective of the sessions became then to allow Johnny to come to terms with himself and develop a healthy relationship with his dad and subsequently with his sport. Learning how to say no when a situation was not beneficial for him, identifying healthy relationship dynamics and understanding the value of each person beyond a physical performance or a medal were some of the elements boarded across the sessions.
When a young athlete with an outstanding talent is found, an incredibly complex web is cast to ensure they get the best support and care possible. This support base is made up of family, medical practitioners, allied health experts, coaches, teachers, friends etc. This brings with it the perception that the pressure is very high, as they feel that they are meant to repay in medals the economic and emotional investment the world has given them. If we add to this the increased attention given to them by their parents and close ones, their mindset is then set to go through inhumane training programs and excruciating routines to respond to the expectations. This eventually results in a complete divorce from the sport.
What Johnny’s story shows us is the incredible pressure that young elite athletes face in today’s increasingly competitive world. It is a world where only results are valuable and that any athlete, regardless of their level, age or objectives, can develop a negative relationship with the sport. Even though most people would find this story completely disconnected from their reality, the truth is that pressure to be the best can come from anywhere, from a coach, family, or even from ourselves. This often leads to certain unhealthy behaviours, such as pushing through injury, getting annoyed by the sport or even consuming performance enhancing drugs.
Studies show that a 25% of amateur athletes have consumed some kind of performance enhancing drug. This means that there are 25% of athletes that have no other incentive to keep performing at a high level other than an emotional one. The solution is not to make drugs harder to access, or repercussions tougher, but to look for the root of the problem. In Johnny’s case it was his desire to be closer to his dad. For each individual it is a case of going through a journey of therapy that is your own story.
If you have ever wondered about your relationship with sport, it is worth considering the following points:
- Control: Do you feel that you have control over your body and training? Do you feel comfortable with the idea of disconnecting from training for a few weeks or months for any reason? On the other side, think about your priorities. If you had to choose, would you go to work or go to train? And what about assisting to a friend’s wedding if it clashes with an important race? And what if your sister/cousin/friend is giving birth? Would you go?
- Socialization (Support Network): Think of your friends, do they care about your life? About your job promotion? Your recent studies or your deep thoughts? Or all they care about is your recent race times and the next race? Do you have people who truly care about you if something ever happens to you? On the other side, do you feel that you have true friends?
- Risk Factors: What if you find out that you have a small pain in your leg? Would you stop for it to recover, or would you push harder? Would you run the pain off every time? What if that small pain becomes a stress fracture? How long do you think you can last before that pain forces you to stop?
- Emotional stability: How often do you feel irritable? Have you felt any mood swing recently? Do you feel emotionally connected to other people or activities?
- Physical reaction: It is common knowledge that after forming a habit, we as humans tend to feel uncomfortable when we can’t do the activity that we love doing. If we swim every day, having a day off would seem weird. But how would you react if you had to completely stop for a few weeks? Is there any chance that you develop withdrawal symptoms?
In the mind of someone who has developed an unhealthy relationship with sport, these questions are hard to answer. Identifying what moves us to stay competing is key to understanding what our emotional priorities are. If you feel that your relationship with your chosen sport is becoming unhealthy in any way, consider checking in for some mental health therapy to help you understand your drive and motivation better. Davey Black is a Sports Performance centre and a St Kilda Triathlon Club that offers Mental Health Counselling, Physiotherapy, Clinical Nutrition, Massage, Myotherapy, Pilates, Protein Products, Pre-prepared Meals, Strength and Conditioning and Yoga.
After leaving the sport for a few years and focusing on his studies, Johnny came back with a completely different mentality. He may not go on to win a national title, but he is an athlete at peace with himself. In this specific case, Johnny’s new winning mindset is worth more than any medal.