Phelps' 'Mistake': De-Stressing or Chasing a Thrill?

Smoking Up to Let Off Steam?

One explanation for the bad behavior could be as a "rebound" of sorts after the high stress of performing, Spiegel said.

"Some of it is certainly the fact that these athletes feel compelled to 'let go' after the pressure of training is over," he said. "For a long period of time he was in a situation where he could not make any missteps whatsoever. ... The kind of pressure that these young people are under is extraordinary."

And the kind of round-the-clock training that athletes undergo before an Olympic performance rarely leaves room for stress management.

"I think that can build up to the point that people will really cut loose if they deprive themselves of things," Binks said, adding that he feels young athletes may underestimate the amount of stress that they will encounter when it comes to getting back to a normal routine.

"The level of stress that these folks are under is not only during competition; it's often even more after the competition is done," he said.

When Nothing Equals the Thrill of Victory

And then there is a thrill of victory. Spiegel said that focusing so singularly on a goal has its rewards while training. But he said that after the rush of the competition fades, young athletes unfortunately sometimes look to other ways to fill the void.

"In brain research we find that people often get more pleasure from the pursuit than from the achievement," he said. "In a sense we are wired to pursue goals. When we reach a point when this becomes empty, it becomes a situation where we're like, 'all right, so now what?'"

Spiegel said that sometimes the pressure to succeed may even come from an athlete's perceptions of his or her shortcomings. So even the brand of extraordinary success that Phelps enjoyed after his victory may leave room for a colossal meltdown once the competition is over.

"People want to succeed and achieve, but somewhere inside they might feel unworthy," he said. "Some people are so driven to perform the way they do to escape the fact that they are compensating for not being as good as they want to be."

Help for High-Performance Athletes

If one thing is clear, Binks and Spiegel agreed, it is that there should be more of a psychological safety net for all young athletes -- regardless of whether they succeeded as Phelps did or not.

"The support system for all young athletes is severely lacking," Binks said. "We see this too with college basketball players who get to the NBA and engage in some of the same types of risky behaviors."

"It takes a lot of coaching to achieve the ultimate goal. I would venture to say that they need an equal amount of support to deal with the aftermath of this success."

Spiegel said that a program that provided for better post-competition counseling for young athletes would be a welcome step -- and he added that he feels veteran athletes may have much to contribute in this regard.

"I think it could be a role for other accomplished athletes -- perhaps even a support group for high-achieving athletes, because they've all been there."

Spiegel said that hopefully with this counseling, a better perspective on life away from the competitive arena will follow.

"Pursuit is a big part of the reward; this is something we overlook," he said. "This reinforces the idea that winning is not everything."

Associated Press and Reuters reports contributed to this report.

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