'The Olympic blues': How elite sport struggles to cope with the aftermath

Adam Peaty and Siobhan-Marie O'Connor. Credit: PA

Report by ITV News digital producer Will Unwin

In recent weeks a number of high-profile athletes have announced they are taking time away from their sports to focus on their mental well-being. The likes of Ben Stokes, Naomi Osaka, Adam Peaty and Simone Biles have all made the difficult decision to protect themselves in the long term.

All four are globetrotting superstars in their own fields, who have dedicated themselves to sport since an early age.

Thanks to their talent and commitment to their chosen vocation they have all made stunning careers out of sport.

But there is a pressure that comes with being at the top of your game, knowing you have to perform on the biggest stage, where one mistake can be fatal to hopes and dreams.

Swimmer Siobhan-Marie O’Connor knows the pressure of performing at the Olympics, competing at London 2012 and winning silver in the 200m individual medley in Rio four years later. Now retired from the sport, she also has experience of the lows as well as the highs of competition.

“About a month later after I won the medal, I remember being on holiday with my family and burst into tears,” O’Connor tells ITV News. “It wasn’t because I was overwhelmingly happy, I was completely lost, thinking ‘what now?’.

O'Connor won silver in the 200 metres individual medley at Rio. Credit: PA

"I do not think there was enough support for me. Now sports are picking up to take notice but it’s about time.

"I know how I felt and others felt, it was really hard. I felt like I had no purpose, I felt lost, everyone moved on and I wasn’t allowed to talk about Rio anymore - I was told not to mention ‘the R word’ and things like that. It was really difficult.”

There are support mechanisms in place for athletes to help deal with what comes after a four-year (five in this case) Olympic cycle concludes but coping with the drop-off is very difficult, something Peaty will need to adapt to.

“I experienced really bad post-Olympics blues after Rio. I went through that big lull of feeling lost, I didn’t know what to do with myself; I’d achieved my absolute dream and Rio was the time of my life but no one prepares you for what happens afterwards.

"I really believe there is not enough being done for preparing athletes for that feeling. Looking after them not just in the pool and their performance but outside of that, when they’re at home and on their own.”

Now athletes are speaking out about the issues faced when away from the sporting arena.

Naomi Osaka. Credit: AP

People are becoming more accepting on the subject of mental health, which was previously a taboo. Sports psychologists are the norm within professional setups, allowing access to athletes, which makes them more aware of potential issues. 

“I was on the team during an influential few years in terms of mental health and psychological support,” O’Connor says.

“Back at London 2012, when I first joined the team, no one went to the psychologist. I felt it was a really big issue to go to the psychologist, as you were almost admitting there was something wrong. In sport people didn’t want to be seen to have a weakness.

"Then there was a change in the way it was perceived, people saw it as if you could manage your emotions and you’re mentally strong going into races and competitions, then you’re going to perform better, the you can use it as a tool.

"There’s been a huge shift in performance psychology and people using it to their advantage. It made a huge difference to me in the lead up to Rio. I worked really closely with a sports psychologist and I attribute so much of my success to the fact he gave me all the tools to manage was what a really stressful lead up; I had a lot of expectation, a lot of pressure on me and I needed that support. In terms of performance psychology, there’s been a huge shift.

"There is still so much more to be done, not in terms of performance psychology, but mental health."

With high-profile people at the height of their fame speaking out about issues and publicly acknowledging they need a break, it is hoped it will remove any stigma relating to mental health.

Gymnast Simone Biles Credit: PA

“I think it is absolutely brilliant, it is what is needed in sport,” O’Connor says.

“I think the fact that mental health is being spoken about more openly is brilliant for the wider public and a lot of people have benefited from it. It used to be very taboo but people are now feeling like they can speak about it and not be embarrassed and sport needed to catch up and it still does need to catch up."

There is no shortage of acclaim but there is always a bigger picture to an individual, something those on the outside can fail to recognise.

The training regimes of athletes are relentless, especially in the build up to major competitions, such as the Olympics. Peaty admits to taking an average of two weeks each year for the past seven, which would put strain on anyone.

“There is certainly a phenomenon we see after a big day or big event,” sports psychologist Dr Josie Perry, who wrote The 10 Pillars of Success, explains, “we see it after the London Marathon when people have been working towards a date for a long amount of time, you actually have a real dip afterwards, even if you have done well. 

“Your body and mind need complete rest and I think that will be worse this year than ever before as all the athletes have had that random extra year added on they weren’t really expecting to try and stay of top of things.

"I think we will see a lot more athletes over the next few weeks taking time out as they need their body and minds to have some space to do other things and get parts of their identity back.

"Time away from sport can be very helpful to find other parts of your life that you really love.

"I’ve loved seeing Tom Daley sat in the audience knitting, because that is obviously his other thing that gives him that time away - he is not just a diver, he is also a dad, a husband and a knitter. The more of these self-identities we have, the better able we are to put our sports into context."

Social media has reacted positively to the openness offered by sportspeople but there will always be some unqualified doubters questioning the decisions made by those in the public eye. 

“I would say to any athlete I work with who makes an announcement like this to come off social media for a little while and go into your bubble to focus on what matters to you,” Dr Perry says.

“There will always be trolls out there, there will always be people who don’t get it or do not want to get it and like to be vocal in that way.”

(Joe Giddens/PA) Credit: Joe Giddens/PA

Help is out there for those who need it in sport and being open to receiving it is essential to avoid exacerbating any issues in the long-term.

“I think it is really important that athletes have long-term support,” says Dr Perry.

“Most athletes would have physios they go to see, strength and conditioning people, not to fix something but to keep their bodies in the best shape they can be. “It is really encouraging to see more athletes have sports psychologists who they work with long-term, not because there is stuff to fix but because having someone to talk to and have some context on things, to have some perspective and to get some skills for when things do happen is very valuable. It is more about having long-term support in place, so you do have a good relationship, for when the tough stuff happens, so you can be very comfortable and go to seek out that help.”

Who to contact if you or someone you know needs help

  • Samaritans operates a 24-hour service available every day of the year, by calling 116 123. If you prefer to write down how you’re feeling, or if you’re worried about being overheard on the phone, you can email Samaritans at jo@samaritans.org

  • Mind also offer mental health support between 9am and 6pm, Monday to Friday. You can call them on 0300 123 3393 or text them on 86463. There is also lots of information available on their website.

  • Campaign Against Living Miserably's (CALM) helpline and webchat are open from 5pm until midnight, 365 days a year. Call CALM on 0800 58 58 58 or chat to their trained helpline staff onlineNo matter who you are or what you're going through, it's free, anonymous and confidential.

  • Sporting Minds UK is a registered charity offering mental health support to young athletes aged 16-30. For more information or to access free and confidential one-to-one support, go to www.sportingmindsuk.org.