This week we celebrate exactly 20 years since the Sydney Paralympics. The well-known story is the incredible success of this momentous international event, the unknown story is that the Paralympic Games almost did not happen.
Cate Campbell’s shortcoming in the Rio Olympics 100m freestyle final was disappointing, but still expected.
I have been a clinical psychologist for the last 10 years, and have worked with my fair share of patients suffering from performance-related anxiety. I don’t pretend to be as experienced as the clinicians working on the Australian swim team, so take this with a grain of salt, but if I were to be presented with a client who presented to me with the symptoms mentioned by Cate in her interviews after the races, I’d say it would be very unlikely for them to ever be able to perform to expectations under pressure.
To help a patient like that, cognitive behavioural therapy is recommended, and treatment would focus on challenging the belief that performance was of paramount importance.
Anxiety results from the belief that this is an all-or-nothing proposition – some people perform well under those circumstances, but some don’t. Psychologists understand, unfortunately, that it is impossible to teach someone who doesn’t thrive under pressure to be taught to thrive under pressure.
They can learn to cope. They can learn to perform. They cannot be taught to revel in that pressure, to process it into something transcendent and to use it to help them to surpass their limits. It is always going to be an impediment for them, whereas for certain others it is the exact opposite.
In every sport, there has existed a ‘great’ remembered not just for their ability, but for their ability to produce their absolute best when it really mattered. It is a kind of bottled lightning.
It can’t be reproduced or taught or trained, and it’s equally as important as the more obvious physical gifts which our elite sportspeople possess.
For someone like Cate, the best you can hope for is to help them to be able to feel that there is no pressure.
You can teach someone who suffers from performance anxiety to cope well enough to perform, but you can’t teach them to peak. They are always going to perform better when the stakes aren’t high. Always.
This is important because the whole nature of the Olympics – the public expectation, the spectacle, once every four years, the media scrutiny – would all work against the therapeutic approach.
To cut a long story short, any progress I could make with a client like Cate would be constantly undone by everyone else in her life saying the exact opposite of what she would need to hear to perform to her potential.
The situation – her anxiety standing on the blocks – wasn’t missed. It simply could not be controlled. There was no way of pretending that this one didn’t matter, that everyone wasn’t expecting the gold, that her life wouldn’t completely change based on the result of that one race.
It was do-or-die. It was the Olympics. By the time she got there, it was already too late to do anything for her.