Losing balance at the top

Media was full of colourful headlines about Norwegian skier Petter Northung during the Falun World Championship. We Finns have our own good-time boys as well. Surely every granny and sports fan over here has heard about the staggering ways of Matti Nykänen and Harri Olli.

Top-level and professional sports are strongly driven by money and results nowadays, and usually the back-patters tend to go away when the athlete does not succeed any more. I think that we don’t offer enough financial support for the well-being of athletes in Finland. Neither do we have enough expertise to recognise and take care of the athlete’s ailment.

Recklessness doesn’t fit in a sporty way of life. Sporting on the top demands steel-like intransigence and the ability to only give up on things that do not promote the athlete’s career. A balanced athlete is healthy with a good self-esteem. One sign of an athlete’s healthy self-esteem is the ability to accept oneself and not lose dignity, even in a moment of defeat. If the self-esteem is built too much on success and good results, there is a chance of falling deep down into a pit after an unsuccessful performance, and recovering from it isn’t easy. It’s especially hard for athletes whose characteristics demand striving for perfection, i.e. a tendency for perfectionism. In this case, a bad practice day or an unsuccessful game or competition can lead to an unbalanced mental state and the feeling of anxiety, emptiness, worthlessness and inferiority.

Based on the above, it is easy to understand why the athlete’s life is constant balancing between oneself, the performances and external forces. Each athlete has a unique ability to tolerate and manage stress arising from the expectations of oneself and others. The body and mind are good at keeping the balance, especially when it comes to athletes, whose good shape also protects them from exhaustion and tiredness. The shell shock is, however, inevitable if the athlete’s mental well-being is tested by continuous failures and underachievements.

Athletes have a lot of different dysregulations. Dysregulations are states where the body isn’t able to filter all information targeted at it and the repetitive feelings of expectation, pressure and performances. This leads to the development of bodily malfunctions, such as insomnia, difficulties falling asleep, neural overactivation, exceptional tiredness, underrecovery or overalertness.

People as intellectual beings have the natural tendency to seek solutions for fixing dysfunctions. There are several kinds of solutions, which can be called compensation mechanisms. They are usually related to the basic needs of the human being, such as eating, drinking, sleeping or sexual activity. Once the athlete has balance swings, the amount of these activities tend to change and deviate from the natural need. This leads to some overeating, some losing appetite, some sleeping too much and some staying up while still being tired. In addition, athletes can ease their balance adjustment and condition by using stimulants and medication: sleeping and anxiety medicines, alcohol, energy drinks, snuff, cigarettes and drugs.

Eating disorders are commonly come across among perfectionist athletes. Disturbed eating habits act as a vicarious way of adjusting feelings related to a lack of self-esteem in order to keep the internal emotional roller coaster from breaking the appearance of coping and getting along. People suffering from eating disorders usually appear as very strong and whole (“Who would have thought that of him!”), and emotional problems are left hidden, often at a very subliminal stage.

A serious problem has moved about in the ice hockey scene for years. Some players have used sleeping medicine like candy. How much of this problem is related to maintaining the overdrive of pressures and feelings? In addition, the match programme of SM-liiga is extremely tight and the match day evenings went on for so long that the players were able to go to sleep no sooner than in the middle of the night. The ice hockey world is known for its toughness. There isn’t any room for fanning out feelings, especially when it comes to private matters, such as self-esteem, the ability to tolerate pressure and expectations.

It’s clear that there isn’t an athlete who drinks heavily again and again because he just doesn’t learn, or makes remarks of his own eating rituals or any other everyday routine just for giggles. They have a problem. I am sick and tired of people hiding behind the old mantra “the clubs are out of money” in situations, where the athlete doesn’t need someone to pat his back or stroke his head, but another human being who sees them as a person instead of just an athlete.