This August, a promising young Olympic snowboarder out of Britain named Ellie Soutter committed suicide. Her mental health struggles had plagued her for years and, combined with the pressure of competing at the highest level, she was unable to cope with her struggles. Even more heartbreaking is that she took her life on her 18th birthday.
As a Performance Psychologist who’s worked with many Olympians over the years, I wanted to touch on this topic as it resonated strongly with me. First of all, Ellie’s death was such a tragic loss that has touched the lives of so many. There is an overwhelming sadness that emerges with the understanding that this young women’s suffering had become so painful that the only option that this intense, overpowering emotional experience presented was to end her suffering by ending it all.
Is sport to blame?
When tragic things like this happen we want to either place blame and/or want to know how to prevent something like this from ever taking place again. I think we need to be careful not to blame sport, but rather look at how best to develop these young athletes (or insert chosen passion here such as dance, music, academics) by equipping them with the right tools and personal assets to handle the demands and pressures to be mentally well throughout the journey.
As John Ameachi said at recent World-leading Sport Psychology conference:
“As practitioners working with these athletes, you must protect the athletes’ plurality.”
Meaning, we need to help athletes develop their identity and self-worth independent of their current sport pursuit. Sport is what they DO, not who they ARE. To younger athletes that risk critical stages of identity development due to sport commitments, they can become ‘foreclosed’ on the athlete role and their identity and self-worth becomes a seamless extension of their sport. This can create invisible pressures that go untreated.
The mind needs training, too
This tragic loss reinforces the importance of developing and taking care of the whole athlete, including mental and emotional development in addition to the technical, tactical and physical elements of sport. If you are young athlete, dancer, artist or academic… or have an influence with this population, boost your immunity to some of the demands you will face by formally training your mind, taking care of your mental and emotional health and building your resilience so you can thrive.
As someone who’s spent countless hours working with Olympic athletes as a sport psychologist, having seen first hand the rigours that elite competition brings, my heart goes out to Ellie’s family and friends. A tragedy like this is felt by the wider Olympic family and our thoughts are with you during this incredibly difficult time.