The view from the top – managing the descent from major events

Last Friday saw the opening ceremony of the 2022 Winter Olympics. Similarly, the Winter Paralympic Games starts on the 4th of March. Both Games are the culmination of four years of extremely hard work from athletes and staff. For many it’s the pinnacle of a lifetime of work. A friend and former Olympic swimmer once remarked to me that the Games were an ‘itch he had to scratch’ – he was simply relieved to have made the Olympics after years of dedication. Similarly, a gold medallist I spoke with stated that although delighted to have won his medal, he went about his business the next day without much additional excitement. He saw it as something ‘ticked’ and was thinking already about his interests post sport. For those who look on, it can be tempting to think that attending a major games, or obtaining a medal, will result in euphoric athletes. Yet, we know that such experiences can vary hugely between the performers involved. A recent paper by athlete Holly Bradshaw, Karen Howells and Mathijs Lucassen highlighted the ‘post-Olympic blues’, with some returning from major Games experiencing difficulties with what comes next. These authors are not the first to highlight such issues, but it illustrates a mismatch in the way we anticipate an event and how it actually turns out. Simply put, when we get to the top of our own particular ‘Everest’, the view may not be what we expected. Yes, we may feel delighted but depending on the manner of our investment, we may be simply relieved, or indeed disappointed and regretful. 

There is numerous ways in looking at why we may be disillusioned as we stand atop our goal. Prof. Nancy Schlossberg and her colleagues suggest that at such moments we can experience a ‘non-event’. Such an event doesn’t simply mean the goal was not achieved, but rather our perception of the achievement is not what we hoped it would be. Specifically, if you hope your external accomplishment may provide the internal validation you seek, then you may find moments at the ‘top’ hugely depressing. For many of us, we can easily fall into a trap of conditional acceptance – ‘I will be happy with myself when….’. You can insert anything you want into the end of this sentence – ‘when I have a PhD’ ‘when I am the manager’ ‘when I earn 100k’, ’when I am an Olympian’ etc. Our perception of such events is nearly always an inside job, and it can be psychologically unhealthy to over invest in extrinsic factors at the expense of exploring how you feel in relation to the goal or task. Following his 2003 rugby world cup win, England player Jonny Wilkinson seemed to have it all. He remarked though, ‘I had this amazing house in the quiet countryside with a jaccuzi. I had a roof over my head, money, people looking after me – I had everything I could possibly need. I was sat in that jacuzzi and I could not have been less happy.’ For all Wilkinson had achieved he still felt somewhat ‘empty’ after it. Importantly, we cannot predicate our self worth simply on our accomplishments – we need greater psychological nourishment than that. 

There is a lot we can all learn from post Olympic and Paralympic decompression in managing our own ‘major event’, whether achieving a qualification, or that ‘dream job’. A starting point is to thoroughly explore what is of value to us. When I use the term ‘value’, I do not mean some abstract word diarrhoea that sits on the wall. Instead, I refer to what we prioritise in terms of personal meaning. For example, do I value the adoration of strangers over the love of family? Do I value extrinsic success over internal self care? Do I value money over health? These are examples of questions we must ask at the foot of the mountain so we don’t feel disappointed at the summit. A classic work book that may help here is called ‘Values Clarification’ by Dr. Sidney Simon and colleagues. Another issue of course is identity foreclosure – basically a narrow form of identity in which we associate our sense of self completely with a particular role or goal. With such an identity, once our objective is complete (like an Olympic qualification), we may feel at a loss to who we are and what we do next. A useful activity here is called a ‘Role Pie’ – this involves drawing a circle (or ‘pie’) on a page and then breaking it down into particular ‘slices’ or roles like athlete, parent, student etc. Although we may identify primarily with one role, it is important that we have plenty of other things going on in our lives to ease the loss of this major ‘slice’. Any trip to the top of our professional mountain should entail a satisfactory view from the summit – there is plenty therefore that can be done in advance to ensure blue skies dominate this vista. 

Worth a read:

Anderson, M. L., J. Goodman and N. K. Schlossberg (2012). Counseling Adults in Transition: Linking Schlossberg’s Theory with Practice in a Diverse World. New York, Springer Publishing.

Bradshaw, H., K. Howells and M. Lucassen (2021). “Abandoned to manage the post-Olympic blues: Olympians reflect on their experiences and the need for a change.” Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health Ahead-of-print: 1-8.

Simon, S. B., L. W. Howe and H. Kirschenbaum (1995). Values Clarification: A Practical, Action-Directed Workbook. New York, Warner Books Inc.

Jonny Wilkinson extract from: