Faster, Higher, Stronger? - Yes. Invincible? - No.
With over a decade of experience in Elite Sport, we’ve got first hand experience of the demands on professional athletes. In a world where you are expected to deliver results no matter what life throws at you, athletes don’t always want their competition, their coaches or the other athletes in their team (who are often competing for the same places and the same funding) to know they are struggling.
Battling through it can often be seen as ‘tough’ or ‘courageous’... but it’s definitely not smart.
The world watched on recently as Andy Murray, a man who has become one of our national heroes, suddenly announced that his career was potentially over, the pain and anguish etched on his face visible to anyone who was watching. A true champion in every sense of the word, but clearly not invincible.
Public Perception vs Reality
It may come as a surprise to find out that a lot of these incredibly talented men and women that you watch on television or read about in the paper, who are out there competing for our country, are hardly even ‘professionals’ at all. A lot of them receive little to no funding or sponsorship money and a large percentage struggle through their careers juggling jobs around training schedules and surviving on help from family, friends and fundraising activities.
For a lot of athletes, even at the highest level, life often consists of months and years of pain, hard work and sacrifice in exchange for a few seconds or minutes where they finally get to perform and compete at their best, if they are lucky. Injuries, crazy travel and competition schedules, along with relentless pressure to perform in order to hit performance and funding targets can really take their toll on anyone. Add into the mix everything else that people go through on a daily basis, such as managing intimate relationships, money, family, work, career and so forth, things can quickly become overwhelming.
There are some athletes who are lucky enough to be a part of a well-funded sport in the UK. These athletes can receive ‘world class’ support from coaches, physios, doctors, psychologists and nutritionists. However, even though these services are offered to athletes, it certainly doesn’t mean that they are indeed ‘world class’ by any means, nor does it mean that these services are truly independent. Staff employed by an NGB are often conflicted between congruently serving the needs of the individual athlete and doing what is in the best interest of the programme as a whole. Just because these services are offered, access to help can still be limited and it certainly doesn’t mean that an athlete can get everything they need from within the structure of a sports’ national governing body. There may be a conflict of interest or an inability to communicate the real issues. There may be concerns that coming forward with a problem may impact selection or funding decisions, give away a competitive edge, or sometimes the support given is just inadequate. In these cases, we can offer an impartial and discreet solution, with the best interests of the athlete at the forefront of any treatment or support offered.
Granted, it is a choice to follow such a path in life, and the trials and tribulations would be there nonetheless. However, a lot of these athletes are choosing to truly follow a dream, engage in activities and lifestyle choices that are positive, and act as inspirational role models in a time where there are a huge number of people who will benefit from seeing these people achieve things that most would consider to be impossible. An athletes’ needs and rights should always be paramount, yet the feedback from so many athletes that we speak to is that they are treated as a commodity. They come to us because they don’t or can’t get the support they need from their NGB.
“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth” - Mike Tyson
National Champion -> European Champion -> World Champion -> Olympic Medalist -> Olympic Champion -> Defending Olympic Champion -> Retire.
Sounds like a dream career plan, right? Absolutely.
But as Mike Tyson eluded to so eloquently, very often life doesn’t always end up the way we planned. In fact, it very rarely does. For every Olympic or Paralympic champion there are thousands who never make it. Injury, selection issues, personal problems, debt, family matters… whatever it may be, often an athletes career ends in a way that they never expected, and almost certainly never planned for. This can have a devastating impact on someone’s well-being and mental health.
Even with a natural conclusion to a sporting career, or after what so many would consider to be a truly spectacular life at the top of their game, the transition into the world outside of professional sport can be incredibly challenging. Andy Murray’s recent announcement that his tennis career is likely to be cut short imminently due to chronic pain and injuries is a stark reminder that even the best of the best can struggle coming to terms with the end of a career in sport. This is a man who has made millions of pounds and achieved things that most tennis players will only ever dream of.
So how can the prospect of saying goodbye be so hard for an athlete, even after such a successful career?
The identity thief
06:00 - Random Drug Test (Brian from UKAD watches you pee while you’re still in your pyjamas)
06:30 - Breakfast (as directed by nutritionist)
07:30 - Physiotherapy (plenty of pain)
08:15 - 90 Minute Gym Session (more pain)
09:45 - Ice Bath and recovery shake
10:15 - Team meeting to discuss travel plans for next competition
11:00 - Photoshoot and media Scrum (forced smiles for the cameras please)
12:30 - Lunch
13:30 - Try to get 5 minutes for yourself but bombarded with favours from sponsors
14:00 - Afternoon training session
16:00 - Recovery meal and video debrief from last tournament
18:00 - Massage (because who doesn’t love an elbow in their adductors?)
19:00 - Dinner
20:00 - Read some abusive messages on social media about your appearance
20:30 - Quick phone interview for BBC Sport
22:00 - Sleep. Finally.
Imagine that life for a minute… Then imagine waking up the next day, and it’s all over. You can eat what you want, do what you want, sleep when you want, and there are no more crack-of-dawn urine samples demanded by anyone. No more packed out stadiums, no more trophies. What would you do with your day? What would you do with your life? That novel sense of freedom will only last so long, before the distinct lack of routine and purpose to your day becomes a struggle. The money helps, but it doesn’t fix everything.
If you’re not a professional athlete anymore, then… what are you?
And more crucially to an individual who has spent their whole life identifying themselves by what it is that they do… Who are you now?
At some point along the journey, a lot of athletes find that they need some help with something and don’t know where to turn. With a vast amount of experience in elite sport, and the unique skills to help people physically and psychologically thrive no matter what the circumstances, we’re here to provide that support for people. And if we can’t help, then we’ll find you someone who can.