So what can Olympians do to avoid a post-Games crisis? According to Kristin Keim, a clinical sports psychologist who runs a performance consulting business, the key is in an athlete’s readiness to build an identity off the playing field.
“The result is not who you are,” she said from Rio, where she’s working with a female athlete who barely missed qualifying in 2012, and has spent the last four years preparing mentally and physically for Rio. “You have to separate the individual from the result. This is something you do, something you enjoy—it’s a gift, enjoy the process, enjoy this moment. … If you can get a medal, amazing, but look beyond that to a bigger life objective than just being an Olympian.”
She added that having long-range plans can prevent an athlete from slipping into a clinical depression. “It’s going to feel weird because you’re not training, but it’s important to have a support network, and to keep busy, travel, or do something else physically not related to your sport.”
The judo athlete Taraje Murray-Williams, who grew up in New York City, competed in two Olympics, the second in Beijing when he was 23. He described his experience in a blog entry written with fellow martial-arts Olympian Rhadi Ferguson, “Post Olympic Stress Disorder: The Dark Side of Going for the Gold.” Life back home seemed “sickeningly mundane” when compared to the “superhero status” experienced at the Olympics, they wrote. “Ordinary life is a lot different than viewing the world from the lofty vantage point of ‘Mount Olympics.’” Murray-Williams retired soon after Beijing and struggled to define his self-worth apart from his athletic career.
Dr. Goldman, the Michigan sports psychologist, agrees that when athletes over-identify with their sport they can lose a sense of who they are—and find the separation difficult, or in some cases, impossible. In other words, it’s easier to say, “I am a swimmer” than “I was a swimmer.”
“I need to remind athletes that the skills and personality traits that they possess, that pushed them and propelled them to such excellence in the domain of sport, are transferable,” Goldman says. “If they find something else that they love, then they can transfer all of that passion and work ethic, grit, and resilience and creativity and adaptability into their next phase of interest.”
Keim has a similar view. “If you’re transitioning out of something, you should always have something you’re transitioning into. You should always have future goals. Even if it’s just setting up trips to go travel. Because stopping cold turkey, that’s a slippery slope.”
Murray-Williams’s case is a success story, because he developed a new identity by going to graduate school and opening a financial services business. He named his company Coroebus Wealth Management after Coroebus of Elis, who sprinted to victory in the first Olympics in ancient Greece. When asked what advice he had for those heading to Rio, he didn’t hesitate before giving his answer.
“Plan beyond the Games.”