Using research to overcome the psychological hurdles of the Olympics


11 Aug 201615 Shares

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Irish Olympian Jessie Barr writes about how her sporting passion has become a research interest as she studies the impact of the Olympics on the minds of the competitors.

For athletes across a number of sports, the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro represent the culmination of four long years of dedication, discipline and hard work. More than 10,500 athletes will follow the #RoadtoRio, undeterred by the scandals and stories that have preceded the Games, to perform on this most prestigious of sporting stages.

With a heavy heart, I am facing up to the reality that I am not one of the lucky few making the journey to compete. Despite running at London 2012 as part of the women’s 4x400m team, I have been marred by injuries for the past three years, and, sadly, will not be toeing the line on 15 August at my second Olympics.

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While athletes anticipate injuries as an occupational hazard, they can still cause significant psychological distress. In sport psychology, injuries have been recognised as a threat to an individual’s very identity. The more strongly an athlete identifies themselves as ‘the athlete’, ‘the runner’, ‘the swimmer’, the more detrimental an injury can be to their psychological well-being.

Insider’s perspective

I developed an interest in researching athlete mental health after witnessing a close friend and training partner experience depression. As a PhD researcher in sport psychology at the University of Limerick, I am in a unique position in that I not only have a vested interest in what I am studying, I also have first-hand experience. Call it an insider’s perspective.

‘But I thought taking part in sport was good for your mental health?’ I hear you say. You are not wrong. Physical activity of any kind, be it through exercise or organised sport, has been proven to be hugely beneficial to our mental well-being. It can improve your mood, boost self-esteem and confidence, for example.

‘There is a definite line between being physically active a few times a week and training and competing for elite level sport, which exposes athletes to a number of challenges, physically and psychologically’

However, there is a definite line between being physically active a few times a week and training and competing for elite-level sport, which exposes athletes to a number of challenges, physically and psychologically.

In my research, I am focusing a number of my studies specifically on Olympic athletes – both athletes who have been to the Games and those who came very close to qualifying.

Psychological pressure cooker

The Olympic Games is unique in terms of elite-level sport, and for the majority of Olympians it is the only time the public will watch or perhaps even have heard of their sport. These athletes are very much aware that the Olympics is the event that matters, and it feels like every other competition they partake in will pale in comparison.

Athletes must first achieve very tough qualifications standards, and the margins are small. One-tenth of a second can mean the difference between sitting on the plane to Rio or watching the Games from home.

Yes, there is always the next Games, but the four-year Olympic cycle in the short shelf-life of an athletic career can feel like a lifetime.

‘Almost 11,000 athletes compete during the Olympic Games, but only 9pc will return home with a prize for their effort, a tiny 3pc with first prize’

Thrust into the public eye, athletes who do qualify feel the ever-increasing weight of expectation. The Games is a pressure cooker. Village life is artificial. Eat, sleep, train, repeat, all in the confines of a miniature town from which you rarely stray, eating from trays, learning to be content with boredom.

And then, you finally compete in front of 80,000 people and millions watching on TV.

It is the most terrifyingly exhilarating experience I have been lucky enough to be a part of. While the sheer excitement and adrenalin can spur many athletes to lifetime-best performances, many will underperform in the moment when it counts most.

Almost 11,000 athletes compete during the Olympic Games, but only 9pc will return home with a prize for their effort, a tiny 3pc with first prize. Medals are very, very difficult to win.

Olympics Blues

For those lucky few who do return to a hero’s welcome with a medal around their necks, they may still not have the happy ending they expected. Sometimes achieving the one goal you have always dreamed of – the goal you worked for your entire life – can leave you with a sinking feeling. Now what?

Olympic Blues are a very real thing that can be experienced by athletes who perform well, those who underperform, and, especially, by those athletes who came so close but just not close enough. Believe me, I am one of them.

The pressures and challenges, defeats and triumphs that an Olympic athlete has to encounter pre, during and after the Games can leave them vulnerable to depression and other mental health issues unless they are psychologically equipped in advance with the right coping mechanisms.

As a researcher, I am lucky that I can combine my academic pursuits with an area I am so passionate about. I hope that, with my insights and experiences, I can bring a unique perspective to this area where research has, so far, been limited.

By Jessie Barr

Jessie Barr is a researcher, athlete and former Irish Olympian. She competed in the 4x400m relay in the London 2012 Olympic Games and made the final at the European Track and Field Championships in Helsinki, placing eighth in the 400m hurdles. She is now a PhD student in sport psychology at the University of Limerick.

This article originally appeared on the Irish Research Council blog

Hurdles image via Shutterstock

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