The tragic death of Olivia Podmore has brought the issue of athletes’ mental health to the front and centre of national sporting attention. Discussing the topic with one of the athletes I help with her swimming, we decided that a series of Swimwatch stories on the subject may have value.

Our plan is to write each story on an aspect of sporting mental health from two points of view. I am a practical swim coach with many years experience in helping swimmers reach their potential. I have had ten athletes take part in national representative teams. Alex is a practicing triathlete with a PhD in cognitive science and sociology. She has a background in psychology and counselling:  .

Perhaps the combination of my practical experience and Alex’s academic training can make a contribution where it is desperately needed.

We first decided to tackle the subject of, “What is the issue” and how are its effects felt by the athlete?

I chose that topic after reading a Stuff article by Gary Hermansson. Gary calls himself a performance psychologist and counsellor educator. The last thing I want to do is tear holes in Gary’s essay on the problems of athletes mental health. He has clearly taken considerable time and effort to discuss the topic. The problem is he misses the central issue.

The mental problems faced by athletes are seldom those associated with winning and losing or training. The hardships of the sport itself are seldom the problem. Most athletes, especially international athletes, know all about those and accept and enjoy the challenges. No matter how much Gary might like to make sport the problem, it is not. So, what is?

We were pointed in the right direction to the answer by Olivia Podmore’s final Facebook post. It’s the politics. The never-ending put-downs. Or as Tonya Harding put it so well, “Why can’t it just be about the skating?” Or as UK football coach, Brian Clough said in a 1970s interview on the BBC, “We’ve talked about football for an hour and still haven’t passed a football yet.”

In my experience over 68 years involved in swimming the problem to be addressed is not about swimming, not about sport. It is about politics. When I was four years old, I went to swim at the Haitatai Swimming Club at a local beach. I applied to swim 800m for the Swimming NZ certificate. I was allocated an official to count my lengths and set off. Thirty-two lengths later I stopped. My counting official was not there. He had, I was told, gone home to lunch. I could not have the certificate because the counter was not there. I was devastated. I went home and told my mother. She was a formidable woman who took me back to the beach and demanded justice. I got the certificate.

Even as a four year old, the problem in that event was not the swim. It was politics.  Those sorts of events repeated a thousand times to me and to those I have helped are the cause of mental distress. Usually, athletes retire or move on to the USA university scene or choose a worse option. Whatever the choice to escape, it is not sports fault. It is certainly not the athletes’ fault. Responsibility lies with administrators and parents. All too often they have gone home to lunch.

And now here is what Alex thinks.

The word “politics” is derived from the Greek: Πολιτικάpolitiká, ‘affairs of the cities’ and refers to the manner in which those with power make decisions for a group. Politics literally refers to the power relations between individuals and between individuals and organisations. Political relations determine the distribution of recognition, resources and rights. The exercise of political power places some people in a position of privilege and discriminates against others. Politics is not just a question of which party you vote for. Politics define how we view people according to their gender, skin colour, ethnic and cultural membership, beliefs (religious, spiritual etc.), age, financial status, health status, appearance (including a person’s size and shape), level of success and increasingly, through social media, a person’s perceived popularity and power to influence.

The way you are viewed and treated by others is shaped by the political lenses they apply to you, whether they perceive you to deserve those lenses personally or through association. It’s important to recognise that politics creates both disadvantage and advantage. If you are a 6 foot 4 slim male white American swimmer you will be politically advantaged over a 5 foot 4 female curvy Syrian swimmer. This advantage or disadvantage will be applied regardless of your dedication to the process of training or even the results you produce. Politics is not the whole story, but in an environment like high performance sport, where the smallest advantage can make the difference, the influence of politics is likely to be felt very acutely.

How does political influence operate?

Firstly, the influence of politics is obvious in the attitudes, behaviours and decision- making of those around you in positions of power. Those who are advantaged by politics tend to be ‘blind’ to that advantage and see it as their fair entitlement. Those who are disadvantaged by politics, on the other hand, live in what I refer to as a toxic psychological and emotional environment that constantly requires them to navigate uncertainty, ambiguity, and irrational discriminatory behaviour. That discriminatory behaviour creates micro and macro-trauma. The way that trauma, especially micro-trauma operates has been the topic of my academic research and is something that I contend with in practice on a daily basis.

Uncertainty and ambiguity are stressful and interfere with motivation. It is much easier to work hard towards a goal when you know that your efforts will be fairly rewarded. You will be less impacted by irrational criticism or judgement and others will be more likely to support you and invest in your efforts.

Further, the micro and macro-trauma that result from discriminatory interactions with others accumulates over time. Macro-traumas are generally well recognised. If there is a death in the family we are given paid time off work to process this, for instance. What is more insidious is the slow creep of the accumulation of micro-trauma that goes unrecognised, unacknowledged and unaddressed. The snide remarks and judgemental glances aimed towards a female athlete who has gained weight, the unspoken assumption that short swimmers will never amount to anything, the lack of acknowledgement by the media and others of women’s sporting accomplishments, the lack of access to parking spaces for people of your ethnic identity, the inconsiderate behaviour of male swimmers towards fast women swimmers, being ignored in shops because you appear to have no money … this is a long list and it is not just water off a duck’s back! It is the oil that accumulates in our feathers and begins a slow process of wearing the politically disadvantaged down until they sink. But that is not where the story of micro-trauma ends.

Because as human beings we are naturally empathetic and literally model the behaviour of others with the mirror neurons in our brains, we internalise the political discrimination that we experience. This process of internalising both advantage and disadvantage shapes the way we relate to ourselves. Those who experience political advantage develop an irrational positively skewed internal voice that can actually interfere with how accurately they appraise their own achievements and capabilities. This can backfire on the effort and motivation brought to training. On the other hand, those who experience political disadvantage develop a ‘critical internal voice’. This critical internal voice operates 24/7 (yes, it even impacts on our dreams during sleep) and begins to cut us down from the inside. This critical internal voice exercises a level of hypervigilance that means it often beats others at their own game. We criticise ourselves before others get a chance and wearing the guise of protecting us from ambiguity and inconsistent nonsense this internal critical voice can even drown out the positive voices (such as the accurate advice provided by a good coach) that support us. It is better to cut yourself down first and be in control of the pain than be caught off guard by its delivery at an uncertain time and from an unpredictable source.

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