Depression and comeback in (paddle)sport

Jonathan Males | Performance1It takes resilience to compete at the highest levels of our sport, and even the most successful competitors will experience the pain and disappointment of failure at some time in their careers.  

Normally the hurt fades into the background after days or weeks, and fuels the determination to do better in the future.  But what if it doesn’t? What if the feelings get darker, like it did for Olympic sailor Oliver Bone?  He hit rock bottom and became seriously depressed after a poor performance in Beijing.

Major depression is a recognized medical condition that afflicts between 5 and 20% of people at some point in their lives.  It affects about twice as many women as men, and there are strict criteria that mark it out from ’normal’ disappointment, sadness or a temporary loss of confidence.  The symptoms include persistent low mood, apathy, loss of appetite, disturbed sleep, fatigue, poor concentration, feeling worthless or having repeated thoughts about death.  Depression has complex causes; illness, bereavement, substance abuse, major life events – and there is a genetic influence too.  It is usually treated by a combination of psychotherapy and medication, although after six months 50% of cases have resolved themselves spontaneously.

As Oliver Bone learned, it can be much tougher to deal with a psychological problem than a physical injury. If you’ve dislocated your shoulder it’s pretty obvious to everyone else what the problem is and what the treatment should look like.  But mental health is still a taboo subject in many countries, making it harder to talk about openly.  There is often an unspoken assumption that a person suffering major depression is weak.  This assumption is both unhelpful and untrue.

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Sadly there are no guarantees that you can avoid depression, but there are a number of things that you can do to stay resilient as you pursue your paddling career:

  • Keep some perspective on your life.  Don’t base your entire self-worth on your canoeing performances because this is too fragile given the inevitable ups and downs of competition. [Self-worth and sport: Is it time to add some pillars?]
  • Maintain a strong network of friends and family, including people outside the sport.
  • Spend some time in activities that help other people, your community, or a good cause.  It’s easy to become very self-obsessed in high-level sport, and this isn’t always healthy.
  • Build a personal discipline of mindfulness meditation, yoga or another form of contemplative practice.
  • Be willing to ask for help early.  Don’t try to tough it out if you feel that your mood or emotions are slipping. Competing at the highest level is demanding on your body and mind, and both need attention!

Also read: Sports retirees rate as risk for depression

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