On August 21, more than 11,000 Olympic athletes will leave Rio, some carrying medals, others lugging the weight of falling short of expectations. Despite their varying degrees of success, many will have the same surprise waiting for them back home: a feeling that life suddenly seems ordinary.
This emotional drop, in its most acute form, might be called post-Olympic depression—or, to borrow a phrase from the sports psychologist Scott Goldman, the director of the Performance Psychology Center at the University of Michigan, an under-recovery.
“Think about the rollercoaster ride prior to the Olympics, and just how fast and hectic that mad dash is,” Goldman says. “This ninety-mile-per-hour or hundred-mile-per-hour ride comes to a screeching halt the second the Olympics are over. … [The athletes] are just exhausted; it was such an onslaught to their system. And when it’s all said and done, they’re just physiologically depleted, as well as psychologically.”
The experience, according to Goldman, is not that different from the drops we all feel after major milestones, such as getting married or giving birth or having a book published. But in the case of Olympic athletes, some find themselves at such a loss they can’t stop the slide—and wind up in a clinical depression.
Take the Michigan-born swimmer Allison Schmitt. After winning five medals, three of them gold, and setting a world record in the 2012 London Games, Schmitt sank into a hole from which she couldn’t emerge. She had no idea why she felt depressed—especially considering her undeniable success—but realized she needed counseling. The decision didn’t come easily; depression is still a dirty word in the locker room.
“I didn’t want to show my weakness,” she said in an interview with Channel 4 in Detroit. “I didn’t want to ask for help, but in this situation I found out … that I couldn’t keep fighting it by myself. … There’s this thing that they call post-Olympic blues and I think I had a little bit of that and I kept isolating myself and isolating myself.”
Before the Rio Games, in which Schmitt picked up two more medals (a gold and a silver), she elaborated in the Huffington Post on an athlete’s way of thinking: “We’re taught we can push through anything, we can make it wherever we want to go, and we’re always told to not ask for help. At the end of the race, we’re not having our coach finish for us, anyone finish for us.”
Schmitt’s was far from an isolated case. Her U.S.A. teammate Michael Phelps took an emotional dive after winning a record eight gold medals in Beijing, in 2008. “I took some wrong turns and found myself in the darkest place you could ever imagine,” he told Bob Costas days before Rio. He said he barely trained for the 2012 London Games, but after a DUI in 2014, checked himself into rehab and was able to reignite his passion for competitive swimming.
Mark Spitz, the Michael Phelps of the 1970s, won seven gold medals and set seven world records in the ’72 Munich Games. Perhaps the most telling statement made by Spitz—in that it exposes an athlete’s internal mind games—was his comment to ABC’s Donna de Varona before the start of the seventh race: “I know I say I don’t want to swim before every event, but this time, I’m serious. If I swim six and win six, I’ll be a hero. If I swim seven and win six, I’ll be a failure.”
Spitz, of course, won that race. He then retired at the age of 22, and spent years trying to find his identity outside of the swimming pool. He scrapped plans for dental school. He tried acting. He started a real estate business. At 42, still hungry for Olympic competition, he attempted a comeback but failed to qualify.
Caroline Silby, a sports psychologist and former competitive skater, spent 14 years training to make the National Figure Skating Team. “Some athletes go through a period of time … where they feel like an impostor,” she says. “They recognize that with a blink of an eye the result could have possibly turned out differently. … The instant idolization of their achievements can lead to intense and constant worry about rejection, criticism, and being ‘found out’ that they aren’t as good as everyone thinks—or that they themselves think.”
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.”