In her notes to me before we began this series on mental health issues in sport Alex ( wrote this paragraph.

“Perhaps in the next Swimwatch, David and I can take a deeper dive into political discrimination and how trauma operates. Hopefully we can soon begin to cover some of the potential solutions and means to prevent it.”

What a good idea. This post will look at one of those points – how does trauma operate? First, my view and then Alex.

David: I am sure Alex is better equipped to discuss how trauma operates. I will focus on the so-called sporting trauma that receives most attention but is of little concern and then on the really damaging stuff that results in hurt, retirement and worse.

In sport’s psychology much attention is paid to the process of winning and losing. There is a real question about whether the function of sport’s psychology is to improve athletes’ chances of winning or to protect them from the stress involved in competition. Whatever the motive, this subject is not where athletes need critical help. The vast majority of athletes know how to handle their sport. Winning and losing is their bread and butter. The joy of a win, the sorrow of a loss is the reason they pay their membership fees. For most athletes that challenge is the reason they are involved. Not, as some would tell us, a cause of distress, retirement or worse.

My guess is that Olivia Podmore was brilliant at handling the ups and downs of her sport. My guess is it’s what came with the sport in that ridiculous centralised environment they’ve built in Cambridge that was too much to handle. It is certainly what almost killed swimming. Peter Miskimmim and Bruce Cotterill take a bow.  

What tears athletes apart is nonsporting politics. No one signed up for this. I described one example in the first post in this series. It happened when I was four years old and in the 69 years since I’ve seen it repeated 100s of times to me and those I have coached.

I’ve seen a jealous mother claw a picture of my swimmer off a pool notice board. The image of her fingernail scars across my swimmer’s face will stay with me forever. I’ve had a 15-year-old swimmer call me in tears from Australia after NZ’s Head Coach called her a “national embarrassment”. I’ve had to report a national swimming judge for using the underwater windows during a heat swim to instruct officials on items they should use to disqualify a swimmer the judge did not like in the final. I’ve had an athlete denied a national record because she was a woman. I’ve had an athlete twice denied a NZ National Championship because she temporarily lived in the UK. I’ve heard my swimmer told in an airport that a family had got up to watch her swim in the Olympic Games and she had “let them down”. I have been falsely accused of arranging performance enhancing abortions. I’ve had a swimmer accused of bringing the sport into disrepute for staying outside the Olympic village when her accommodation had been approved by the official bringing the complaint. I’ve had to answer a complaint by a National Coach who objected to my 26-year-old swimmer drinking a beer in a Hamilton café. I’ve had the door handles of my car covered in Vaseline by an angry president of our swimming region. The same president tried to have my wife fired from her employment. He did not succeed.

On and on it goes. Repeated often enough this is the rubbish that kills sports, careers and people. But perhaps an email from a swimmer describes better than I ever could the distress felt by those targeted by out-of-control administrators and parents. Here is what her email said.  

I ended up a vomiting anxiety-ridden wreck. To this day I’m still angry, shamed and disappointed at myself for how something I had such love for all ended.  I remember my last Nationals in Wellington – it had progressed to a ridiculous level.  I vomited before a race, vomited again just before the 50m turn in the water, lent into the grates and vomited after finishing then broke down crying that all that fucking hard work at training was all a fucking waste. 

The next week I went back to the pools to train and just sat on the tiles in my togs bawling my eyes out at 5.45 unable to get in. I was too exhausted downtrodden and didn’t have the tools or desire to pick myself up anymore.  They’d won against me – I was done. 

If that doesn’t make you pause and think – it should. It makes me as angry as all can be. But here is what Alex’s trained mind makes of my emotion. It is good stuff and well worth reading. It certainly adds to my understanding of the tragedy that occurred in cycling.

Alex: I’m going to tackle the question of how trauma operates by breaking it into two aspects. In this post, I’ll talk about what amounts to a traumatic experience and how that experience damages someone. In future posts, I’ll talk about the specific signs and symptoms of trauma: the visible and invisible effects of trauma, how to prevent these and how to heal them. First up, you need to understand how trauma operates.

All human beings function by establishing four kinds of boundaries: physical, emotional, cognitive and relational. Boundaries are not permanently impenetrable walls. Boundaries need to be porous at times and barriers at other times. They are a two way street, letting in what we need to consume and letting out what we need to remove.

Our biggest organ, the skin, is the best example of a physical boundary and the way the skin operates is a very good analogy for how all boundaries operate. The skin, for instance, absorbs sunlight, water and nourishing oils and substances and when we sweat, the skin releases the byproducts of our activity. By being porous, the skin allows for a healthy exchange between us and our environment. The skin also blocks toxic chemicals from entering the body. In its role as a barrier, the skin protects us.

Anything that we experience as an affront or an injury to any of our boundaries has the potential to create trauma. If our boundaries are functioning well. If they are well established, not worn down or incomplete due to prior damage, then experiences that could be traumatic won’t affect us. If someone is young and has not yet established their boundaries (such as young athletes) however, this makes them more vulnerable to becoming traumatised. If someone is tired or worn down from many instances of affront to a boundary they become more vulnerable. Similarly, anyone whose boundaries are incomplete or unstable due to previously damaging traumatic experiences becomes more vulnerable to trauma.

To add insult to injury, literally, it is also important to recognise that humans have evolved to become very vigilant to threats, even hypervigilant. We have not, however, evolved to be very discerning about the source of those threats. If you sense you are being chased by a tiger, you don’t stop to check. The flight/fight/freeze panic response gets underway to keep you safe. We are designed to ‘run first’ and ‘ask questions later’. Later, however, is too late when it comes to our boundaries. We have already reacted, experienced the rush of stress hormones and changed from functioning from our pre-frontal cortex to our limbic system.

We are also not very good at discerning the amplitude or magnitude of the threat. We are either dead or alive as far as the older parts of our brain are concerned. Our awareness of intricacies such as whether it was an online or in person affront from an anonymous and possibly fictional social media user or a real person tend to come later, after the stress response has already played out.

In sum, just as constant exposure to chlorine burns our skin and begins to breakdown how well it does its job as a barrier, constant exposure to emotional and cognitive affronts and injuries to our boundaries wears us down emotionally and cognitively. Those emotional and cognitive reactions also have accompanying physical reactions and all of these accumulate over time to make any individual progressively less resilient and more fragile. You can hold it together for so long but unless you remove yourself from the problematic environment or learn to process these challenges eventually you will crack. Just like a shattered car window screen, full of tiny cracks, eventually all the cracks, all the rub, will add up and the final affront that breaks you can be apparently very minor. Removing yourself from the environment can mean losing your sport and I know David has written many chapters about the dropout rates amongst particularly young swimmers, swimmers who didn’t have a chance to build strong boundaries before they were significantly challenged. Young swimmers are not the only ones who suffer this fate by any measure. It’s a much better option to learn to recognise signs of trauma, to learn how to grow strong boundaries and repair any existing damage. These will be the foci of future posts.

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