Recently, Sports Illustrated and SI.com published an article about Michael Phelps and his path to rehabilitation in an effort to win gold at the Rio Olympics in 2016. It was a really thorough piece -- one that I couldn’t put down. It was intriguing not only because it's a comeback story about one of swimming’s greatest competitors, but because it looked into the more personal struggles that Phelps has endured over the last eight years.
Phelps should be acknowledged for his bravery in sharing his experiences during this time period. It couldn’t have been easy to publicly share this information and open himself to criticism or comments on social media.
I was moved a number of times throughout the article, but this one quote in particular struck me about his first experiences in therapy:
“I wound up uncovering a lot of things about myself that I probably knew, but I didn’t want to approach,” he [Phelps] says. “One of them was that for a long time, I saw myself as the athlete that I was, but not as a human being. I would be in sessions with complete strangers who know exactly who I am, but they don’t respect me for things I’ve done, but instead for who I am as a human being. I found myself feeling happier and happier."
This quote brings up two very important topics. The first is how we (as a culture and society) work with and view athletes and the second is athletic identity. Two subjects that are separate, but completely connected.
I believe that many athletes have similar thoughts to Phelps. Thoughts that say they ARE the sport they play or that they ONLY matter because of their athletic talents and performances. This bothers me.
At our core (as human beings), we want to be heard. We want to be listened to — and really understood. I think so often students and athletes today grow up having never experienced what it is really like to be heard. Our world is busy. There’s a lot of noise to break through and a lot of multitasking to compete for attention with. It’s a societal norm and it's a problem that contributes to how young people today grow up and think about themselves.
Very few athletes are asked what they are thinking or more importantly, how they FEEL. It’s generally uncommon for the people working with athletes on performance (coaches, etc.) to really delve into the personal feelings the athletes are experiencing.
Potential identity issues can stem from:
- how coaches and athletic administration work with and treat athletes
- how fans and the media publicly treat athletes
- pressure from parents, coaches and fans
If coaches treat athletes like products or commodities and place emphasis primarily on performance, then they lose a big opportunity to connect with and develop the athlete holistically as a person. This, I would argue, is more important than any other responsibility as a coach. Placing the focus squarely on the “product" on the field is certainly a coach’s job, but ONLY doing this is a miss. This is where we start to see issues with athletic identity surface.
In reading about Phelps’ experiences and training around the London Olympics, it’s not surprising what transpired. He didn’t know what else to do. So he did what he knew best and swam. His mom, friends and family all shared that they saw warning signs that there might be an issue.
Developing and understanding one’s identity should be proactively addressed throughout any person's life, but especially if the individual is an athlete. Yes, there is some truth in that those who are more elite may focus more on the fact that they are an athlete, but that does not mean that all their eggs need to go in one basket. There is a way to balance and diversify, while still being elite. By taking a more holistic approach and simply changing the conversations we have with athletes, we can start to address this head on. And perhaps what Phelps was feeling wouldn’t have been so dependent on him performing for others.
By taking a more holistic approach to working with athletes, I believe we can improve performance. If athletes are treated more like human beings and less like commodities, that they will be ultimately happier and more satisfied all around. That their chances of being “in the flow” will be higher - resulting in better performances on and off the field.
This is a big change from the current mindset of many sports fanatics, coaches and athletic administrators out there, but I think it’s one that can be beneficial for sports as well as the individuals that play them. This will allow athletes to understand who they are and why they matter, well before they reach the point of experiencing any issues with their identity.
Like Phelps shared, there is a lot of personal exploration and work that goes into finding ones identity beyond athletics. But despite the clutter that surrounds us, digging deep, surrounding yourself with support, and listening to what's true within you can ultimately be the best path towards finding it.