When Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe spoke out about his depression, he became part of a growing group of elite athletes who openly suffer from mental illness. After missing the cut for the Australian Olympic team in 2016, he faced a long and arduous journey back to the top. Regarding the process, he said, “I was about to put myself back out there as a competitor. I was surrounded by people but I still had this intense loneliness. Sport can sometimes isolate you and I’ve come to realise through all the travelling and all the hotel rooms that there is this recurring Lost In Translation moment.”
Loneliness and isolation for elite athletes is most prominent in individual sports. The preparation may often be a team effort, but ultimately it is the individual athlete who is judged. Matt Grevers, an American swimmer and six-time Olympic medalist, explained the pressures of swimming when he said, “Swimmers have to be in a good relationship with themselves, I think, to perform well. You don’t really get to talk things through or distract yourself by talking to others. Even in the ready room usually it’s silence so even right before the race you’re not talking to someone.”
This physical loneliness places intense pressure on the athlete to perform and prove themselves. Many sports like swimming also leave little room for error; often 0.001 seconds make the difference between success and failure. Grevers explained that “it’s not like a basketball game where you have time to warm up, or [if] you miss a shot you have the next one.” In swimming, he said, “You miss your start, you have a bad breakout, even a couple of bad breaths or a bad turn, whatever it is, one mistake and you’re out of luck. You have to be so perfect and that can get to you.”
This aim for perfection is suffocating, especially in combination with constant competition. A friend stops being a friend and instead becomes another competitor, another person to beat. At the end of the day, the goal is to win, and while different athletes are willing to go to different lengths for this, the impossibility of perfection and constant victory is hard to digest.
Yet team sports can foster just as much loneliness despite the presence of teammates and the less solitary nature of the sport. England cricketer Marcus Trescothick explained that he felt uncomfortable discussing his depression with his teammates, while sports psychologist Carol Seheult explained that athletes often insist on masking their depression because “they worry that they’d be seen as wimps.” Athletes often hesitate to open up to their teammates with whom they spend most of their time; instead, they remain silent and alone for much of the day.
The sense of failure, inescapable in any sport, is also isolating in team sports. Former professional cricketer Richard Doughty explained that because the sport is not individual, failures are shared by everyone on the team. “If you’ve under-performed, a dressing room is a very small place to be.”
The media add to this feeling. Sports psychologist Dr. Steve Peters explained that “some athletes get the feeling that the whole world is against them, especially when the media might be involved too.” The public assessment and 24-hour news cycle constrains freedoms and distances athletes from society.
Another source of loneliness for athletes is the rapid shift from frequent and extreme highs to lows. This is felt strongly by athletes who play sports that only allow them a few chances to prove themselves. Contrary to sports like soccer and football that fans follow throughout the year, sports such as swimming, diving, and figure skating rarely gain worldwide attention outside of the Olympics. Michael Phelps becomes the best-known man in the world for two weeks and then returns to relative obscurity for the next four years. These transitions can be extreme: during the Arena Pro Swim Series, Grevers swam in front of a few dozen fans, while the University of Texas football team plays before a stadium, just across campus, that seats over 100,000.
The loneliest time for an elite athlete, however, likely comes after retiring from the sport to which they dedicated much of their life. When their career ends, athletes lose something that is integral to their identity. This end is always inevitable in elite sports. As distance runner and two-time Olympic champion Kelly Holmes described, “The biggest thing I felt was loss of identity and purpose.” Holmes explained, “Suddenly the structure, the people you call on, it all goes. But with no idea of what you want to do and who you want to be and that’s a really lonely place and I got quite depressed around that time.” Many former athletes reported a need for transition programs to help avoid depression, addiction, and self-harm.
Athletes are almost always surrounded by fans, teammates, and coaching staff who rally around them. In the end, however, the swimmer is alone on the diving block and the soccer player is alone when they miss that shot. The pressure isolates, but still the athlete plays on.