Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps admitted at the The Kennedy Forum in Chicago last week that he had battled depression for years and contemplated suicide. With his multiple decade athletic career, the most decorated in history, how could an Olympian find life so unlivable?
Other decorated athletes have suffered from depression as well: Terry Bradshaw, Darryl Strawberry, Larry Sanders, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and Oscar de la Hoya to name a few.
Post-athletic activity depression (PADD) may ensue when the high levels of exercise aren’t maintained and the mind isn’t prepared for losing or being surpassed by another athlete. As you will see biology as well as psychology play huge factors in the mental health of an athlete.
Michael Phelps admitted to going into a depression after each Olympics. His workouts leading up to each of the 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016 Olympics were illustrated by Arizona State coach Bob Bowman at the American Swimming Coaches Association, and demonstrated thousands of hours and yards swum each week.
Multiple studies have proven that exercise wards off depression. This is in part due to multiple mood enhancing hormones being released during athletic activity such as:
So if after a meet, marathon, playoff or Olympic race ends, does the average athlete keep their rigorous training schedule? Probably not. Hence these hormones that the body has become accustomed to seeing aren’t there at their previous levels, inducing a depression. If someone is at risk for depression, the drop in these hormone levels could, in theory, depress one to the point that they contemplate suicide.
They say winning is addictive and from a psychological standpoint, that’s correct. Once you win you reform a new identity. Those psychologically mature and stable will not find their win their only identifying factor and additionally will understand that you “win some, lose some”. However those who struggled for years to win, especially if the prize is an Olympic medal, may not deal with “lose some” so easily.
Once you own that Superbowl ring, first place blue ribbon or gold medal others look at you as “one of the best”. How much higher can you go? Usually an athlete only has two choices. Maintain their “top” status, difficult to do with aging and younger up and comers vying for their spot, or start losing. Most athletes aren’t preparing for how to lose. They can’t. They use all their waking hours preparing on how to win. So when the loss does come, they’re unprepared.
I believe so. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a progressive degeneration of brain tissue and function from multiple hits to the head. Many who suffer from CTE have mood changes, anxiety, anger and impulsivity. CTE tau protein build up in the brain contributes to this but hormones can play a role as well.
What needs to be studied are the mood changes incurred by athletes after each season or race to see if a “funk” sets in because their exercise regimen is not being maintained.
Moreover all athletes should have access to counseling to thwart depression and suicidality because losing is inevitable for everyone.