The US Open came and went, giving us great tennis and excellent stories: Serena vs. everybody else; Serena vs. Venus; Federer vs Drop Shot; Serena vs. Serena; Italy vs. Italy; Djokovic vs. Federer. Every time I looked into the eyes of the players as they embarked on matches that would last for hours, it underscored how difficult it must be to manage their emotions for so long. Getting psyched up and holding it together for 90 seconds of laser focus in a perilous ski race is a totally different kind of feat. That said, the mental preparation needed to be at the top of your game is no less complicated.
The thing that stuck with me the most in the midst of all this tennis was an article in The Players’ Tribune by Mardy Fish, who retired as planned at the end of the tournament. The article, entitled “The Weight,” details his struggles with anxiety attacks that led him to quit the US Open in 2012, on his way to a match with Roger Federer. In addition to being a courageously written and fascinating look at one athlete’s struggles and how he worked through them, Fish brought home an issue in all sports that isn’t talked about much. The issue is mental health, and the way that it can be jeopardized by the very things that push you to the top.
For me, the article touched off an inner conversation I wrestle with all the time. There are so many good things cultivated and reinforced through athletics and sports—things like discipline, perseverance, mental and physical toughness, confidence, etc… But some of the very attributes that drive an athlete to greatness are the same ones that conspire to make life really tough in the world beyond the athletic arena. Overconfidence, egocentrism, hyper competitiveness and obsessiveness are tolerated, justified and even celebrated on the way up the ranks in the sporting world. They do not, however, make you an ideal roommate, teammate, soulmate or contributing member of society. Those traits, when left unchecked, can manifest as anything from antisocial annoyances in the “does not play well with others” vein, to entrenched habits and compulsions that inhibit personal growth and relationships, to joy-limiting and even life-threatening conditions that take control of your life.
In Fish’s case he could identify a point in time, in 2009, when he underwent an unhealthy transition, and when having a good career (Olympic silver medal, grand slam results, an ample paycheck) was not enough. He intensified his diet, training and entire approach, replacing job satisfaction with a relentless, single-minded drive to be better. Always better. “Stressful” and “destructive” are some of the words Fish uses to describe the effects. Rather than creating any security his improved ranking only pushed the stakes—and his anxiety— higher. “Doing great wasn’t something that my frame of mind back then had time to process. All I could focus on was doing better. It was a double-edged sword,” Fish explains.
This is not to minimize the positive and even therapeutic effects of pursuing excellence in sports. The intense focus can be a providential escape from social awkwardness, bad life circumstances or physical and emotional pain. It can be a way to positively enlist aspects of your makeup that are challenging elsewhere. Michael Phelps put his ADD energy to work in the pool, Tyler Hamilton cycled his way through the low spots of depression, endurance athletes support their high from endorphins and action sports athletes get their fix from adrenaline. Sports can be a legal, effective and healthy way to compensate and even medicate for a host of issues. That part is all good.
It gets dicey when the single-minded pursuit leads to antisocial or even destructive behavior: when self-confidence becomes Narcissism; or when self-control becomes an eating disorder; or when self-discipline becomes compulsive overtraining; or when a higher bar becomes crippling anxiety; or when enviable fearlessness becomes reckless irresponsibility. It gets dicey when the internal focus can no longer be diverted outwards, towards a wider field of view that includes contentedness, happiness, social connection and enduring, sustainable well-being. Call it empathy or call it being a decent human being—actively caring about people beyond yourself actually lightens your load, and becomes a form of strength.
Edie Thys Morgan is a two-time Olympian in Alpine Skiing (1988, '92), who grew up in Squaw Valley and competed on the US Ski Team from 1985-1993. She lives with her husband and two ski racing sons in New Hampshire where she is a full time mom, part time coach, freelance writer and contributor to SKI, Ski Racing and Skiing History magazines. Get more scoop at racerex.com and bringiteats.com.