Thursday, February 4, 2021

Words Matter

I'm in the process of moving things over here:

Earlier today, I saw that Oiselle posted the following on Twitter:

When we separate the athlete from the person, we are essentially saying, “You need to sacrifice your mental well-being to achieve success in the sports world.” This is not okay.

Since I had basically just written the opposite regarding separating the person from the athlete, I read the post several times before thinking, "What the fuck?" When I clicked on the link to the article Oiselle had referenced, I quickly realized that there was an error in wording. The bigger message is something I absolutely agree with and endorse, that of being open and willing to talk about mental health, and Karelle Edwards did a lovely job of sharing her story and encouraging others to do so as well. After all, according to a well-researched article published in 2019, "elite athletes experience broadly comparable rates of mental ill-health relative to the general population in relation to anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, and sleep disorders." There's no reason anyone in sports should be ashamed to come forward when close to 35% of elite athletes will suffer some form of mental health issue. It's critical that people in general, but athletes in particular, move away from any negative stigma associated with mental illness. 

The wording in the Oiselle post and article is an issue, though, and this is unfortunate because, as I said, the larger message is a very good one. I don't fault the author, really. Her overall concepts are spot-on; I fault those who published the article and then spread a potentially harmful message on social media. The Twitter post is misleading. The author's sentiments are actually fairly clear despite the error of suggesting "you can't separate the athlete from the person." Not only can you separate the athlete from the person, you absolutely should. What the author seems to mean is that one should take a holistic approach when dealing with athletes. Being allowed to show emotion, be emotional, show vulnerability, and support others in need is a healthy approach both on and off the athletic field. Integrating being human with the experience of being an athlete is not the same as being enmeshed with your emotions or tangled in your identity as an athlete, though. It's very, very important to be able to make the distinction, and Oiselle did not. 

To a degree, forming a positive "athletic identity" can be beneficial, but when it goes too far and an individual can't separate himself from that role, the label becomes problematic. A sport is an activity a person does, not who she is. In 1918, the journal of Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health published a study that suggested that adapting to retirement is more difficult for elite athletes than for the general public. When elite athletes are no longer competing at a high level, they may struggle to find a sense of purpose in their lives, especially if they haven't allowed for growth in other areas or if they are too wrapped up in their identity of being an athlete. When it comes to athletes, Malcom Lemmons cautions, "What they did in sports should never become who they are. And this goes for every athlete, currently playing or retired. Your ability as an athlete and the success you used to have should never overshadow your other abilities as a person." 

When I speak of the emotional, physical, mental, and even spiritual bodies of a person, I'm not moving into woo territory. This is just a more well-rounded look at the individual as a whole. My first college coach used to ask, "Are you physically tired, or do you feel like you don't want to do the workout?" Physically tired meant my legs were sore, I didn't sleep well, or I was drained and lacking energy. Emotionally tired could present as physical symptoms, but, in that case, we took a "warm up and see" tactic. If, after a warm-up jog, I was still fatigued, it was time for an easy day or a day of rest. If my body felt better, I could jump in the workout. The best thing about my coach was that he always looked at us as individuals first, athletes second. If you nurture the person, the positive results should spill out in all areas of life, including athletics. 

I don't want to take away from Edwards' necessary and heartfelt message of getting help and being free to open up about mental health issues; I just hope that everyone can be more aware of how much words matter. The idea that a person be allowed to be who she is in everything she does is a good one. The problem is Oiselle wording the social media post in a way that suggests merging identities, which can be very unhealthy and doesn’t appear to be what the author means anyway. A little caution on social media can go a hell of a long way. 

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