Tuesday, 13 May 2014

The person comes first. Always

A  few days ago, I picked up a copy of Sport magazine from April 25th  - nothing like being up to date!  As the week in which the latest Manchester United manager received his marching orders, Moyes understandably receives considerable focus, and the cover story remembers Formula 1 legend Ayrton Senna, 20 years on from his tragic death, but it is two more minor stories that are of particular interest to Athlete Life Development, and the work that we do.

This first, an article entitled ‘Life After Sport’, looks at the difficulties faced by athletes when they retire from sport.  One of our recent blogs looked at this issue, and this article gives further real-life examples of the challenges that sportspeople such as boxer Ricky Hatton, middle distance runner Kelly Holmes and footballer Mick Quinn faced when retiring from their chosen sport, and how they coped with this major life event.

A lot of the current career transition research in sport is centred around encouraging sports men and women to view themselves as people, and to centre their self-image around his or herself as a person rather than his or herself as a an athlete, something which dual careers and interests outside of sport can help with.

Of course, we’re all about the person rather than the athlete at Athlete Life Development, and it is from this viewpoint that I can’t help but look at the commentary of David Moyes’s time at United, and feel a certain sense of regret.  Of course Moyes knew the pressures and media focus that he would face when he left Everton for the greatest job in football management, but still, wouldn’t it be nice if the media and those who comment on social media, took the time to think of Moyes as a person with feelings, just like me or you.  Nobody will be more disappointed with United’s results than Moyes himself – and in typical catastrophe theory fashion, bad results led to increased pressure, trying too hard, and an unbreakable downward spiral -  but maybe it wasn’t just a case of the wrong man for the job.  Perhaps it was the wrong job for the man.

Speaking of people with emotions brings us nicely (almost seamlessly) to the second piece of interest to us in Sport - an advertising feature on mental health.  The piece, publicising the work of Time to Change, England’s biggest programme to challenge mental health stigma and discrimination, looks at the mental health issues that British boxing legend Herol ‘Bomber’ Graham faced following his retirement from sport.  This is a common theme across sportspeople after they retire, but sportspeople can face depression at any stage in their careers.  Injury, disappointing results, and financial concerns can be trigger events, but even positive events like achieving lifelong goals can cause the most hardened of competitors to experience this most common of diseases. 

We discussed depression in sport in a previous post, but, with one in four people experiencing a mental health problem each year, it is an important issue to bring back into the spotlight.  Last week, Spanish long jumper and former European record holder Yago Lamela was found dead at his parents’ home.  Though the cause of death has not been formally announced, his family have revealed that he had been suffered from periods of severe depression and anxiety attacks since late in his athletic career, and that there had been at least one previous suicide attempt.

What can coaches and support personnel do to help?  

Firstly, always think of each of your athletes as a person, not just as an athlete, and focus on supporting the person as much as supporting the athlete. 

Encourage the athlete to follow other pursuits and to have interests outside of sport.  Recognise times of stress and anxiety in their lives – exams, job interviews, increasing media attention – and adapt training accordingly.  Not every athlete will become an Olympic Champion, but coaching provides the opportunity to make a positive impact on each and every person that you coach.  Athletes look up to their coach, and as coaches we have the opportunity to positively influence their lives in so many ways.

Remember that results should never come before the welfare of the person.

This, Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK, and the Green Ribbon awareness month in Ireland, is a good time to increase our awareness of the causes and symptoms of depression, anxiety and other mental illness.  If you know someone that has mental health issues, there is some good advice on starting the conversation here.

Educate yourself on eating disorders, overtraining, and other welfare issues which may affect athletes that you coach.  You don’t need to be able to solve issues, but you may need to signpost athletes to help.

Maintain an open and understanding approach to your coaching.  Athletes may find it difficult talking to a parent about welfare issues that they are experiencing, and coaches and other support personnel may often fill a crucial listening role.

This report of an event held in Dublin last January, sums up the role of the coach nicely.

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