Thank-you to Nicole Jeffery for publishing this interview in the Weekend Australian
The post-Olympic blues is a documented phenomenon affecting elite athletes at the end of each Games and is caused by chemical reactions in their brains, according to performance psychologist and former athlete Gayelene Clews.
She believes athletes’ brains are flooded with “feel good’’ neurochemicals including serotonin and dopamine when they train and compete at the highest level.
“If you just stop, you are going to slip into an imbalance,’’ Clews said. “In some cases it’s like coming off recreational drugs. If they don’t understand what’s happening they will feel confused, flat and agitated. Sometimes they think it’s because they didn’t perform as well as they hoped but it’s more complex than that.’’
Clews says success at a Games does not affect whether they are more or less likely to drop into a hole after the Games.
“These mental health issues are always there, whether an athlete is highly successful or has not achieved what they hoped they would,’’ she said.
“We only have to look at Ian Thorpe or Grant Hackett or Petria Thomas.
“These are athletes who have won Olympic gold medals but there are a number of facets to our neuropsychophysiology.’’
Clews, who explored this issue in her book Wired to Play, has addressed two seminars organised by the Australian Olympic Committee in the past month to help athletes through the post-Olympic period.
“We are all wired to be physically active and move so when they are training they are filled with feel-good neurochemicals,’’ she said.
“Individuals can be naturally low in certain chemicals and they can be the ones who are attracted to sport. And that makes them more vulnerable (to depression) if they can’t source a healthy way to emotionally regulate themselves.’’
Clews said athletes, as with all human beings, had a finite reservoir of these chemicals and prolonged stress or high emotion burned through them, leaving the athlete needing to replenish those brain chemicals.
She said the modern world was intensifying that experience, leaving athletes more prone to burnout or depression. This week professional road cyclist Lizzie Williams revealed her battle with depression in a blog.
“In the last 20 or 30 years we have gone from being physically active to mentally frenetic through our exposure to digital technology and social media,’’ Clews said. “People are getting that dopamine high from technology but athletes are also getting it from exercise and training and competition so they are reaching that burnt-out state.
“Dopamine bingeing leads to depletion. Today’s athletes have a level of technology integrated into everything they do, but their physiology has taken hundreds of thousands of years to evolve and it’s not ready to cope with the amount of mental energy they expend. Those mental demands have escalated exponentially.
“So even if our Rio team had performed brilliantly, there would still be athletes going into a slump or a depleted space.’’
Clews said athletes needed to replenish their neurochemistry before they could make the same demands on it again.
She recommends “green space time — doing things that are active but not mentally demanding, like gardening or walking the dog. You need to find a quiet mental state’’.
She believes the trend in sport to increasingly fast-paced action — T20 cricket, Fast Four tennis, Nitro athletics — will lead to more frequent athlete burnout.
“We are changing the way sport is played to suit a frenetic mindset and we are escalating the demands on athletes and they are losing the capacity for a quiet mind space,’’ she said.
“They can’t run on adrenaline and dopamine forever. They need to come back and refill the tank.’’