Competing as an Olympian

 In Professional & Olympic Athletes

Have you been watching? There’s a lot to watch!

As a fan it’s exciting. As a sports psychologist it’s an interesting perspective on the human condition. The media spends a lot of focusing on the winners and the ‘agony of defeat’ losers but there’s not a lot of conversation about the thousands of other athletes. What happens to them? How do you think they feel about being in Rio?

This topic came up because a client who’s in Rio who worked just as hard as everyone else to make the Olympic team felt a little ignored because she wasn’t considered a ‘winner’. She was happy to be there and tried as best she could to take it all in but it was challenging for her. This seems to be the ‘tradition’ of Olympic dreams. I’ve heard similar stories from other Olympians I’ve had the pleasure to work with. But it doesn’t start at the Olympic Games. It’s starts much earlier than this.

You’ve worked hard and made the USA (or another) Olympic Team. You must feel amazing? From what I’ve heard, the feeling of accomplishment and amazement is short lived. The reality is, the Olympics is all about money and medals. In that way it’s really no different than the NFL, NBA or the MLB. Anyone on the outside of the ‘money makers’ are jilted and jostled; basically left in the cold. Leading up the Olympic Games, I’ve been told that the rules for the Olympic trials change so that the money makers ‘get in’ and everyone else is left out. The managers and coaches cater to the #1 & #2 athletes (maybe #3) while the rest of the team is left to fend for themselves. But you’ve made the Olympic Team. You’ve worked hard. You’ve dedicated your life to your country and your sport…where’s the love? If you can’t bring home the Gold, there is no love!

Before I started working in sports psychology, my perception was that being an Olympian was glamorous. I assumed that everyone was lavished and thought that they must all make a lot of money for dedicating their lives to their sport (similar to the NFL, NBA or the MLB). The life an Olympian for most is a lonely struggle and without much compensation. Most of my clients have had to give up everything to be on the team, figure out how to put their own training plan together, barter with support staff in their home towns and live a meager life so they could continue to train as an Olympian.

Take all of this in. How do you think this impacts how they compete as an Olympian? Not only does it impact them before and during the Olympics but for some, what they’ve given up they can never get back and the transition to life after being an Olympian is horrifying and terrifying. They’ve given up their lives but gotten nothing in return. How can that be? For some, their identity is so engulfed in being an Olympic athlete that when it’s over, they are left with nothing. Their dreams have been shattered. They’ve been treated cruelly and unfairly. They didn’t make any money so have no retirement. And mentally they have to repair themselves from the damage and figure out how to move forward.

We see what they want us to see: the glitz and glammer. It is that but only for a very few athletes. What makes athletes stay in this kind of environment? We idlized ‘Olympians’ and the Olympic dream means something. What does it all really mean?

Dr. Michelle

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