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

Psychological experts say the thrill of victory contributed to his misbehavior.

February 2, 2009, 2:26 PM

Feb. 2, 2009— -- As the buzz over published pictures of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps apparently smoking marijuana continued, many may ask what might have motivated the star athlete to be embroiled in such a high-profile disgrace -- for the second time in his career.

The episode is eerily reminiscent of Phelps' DUI arrest shortly after the 2004 Athens Games, at which he won six gold medals. Phelps was 19 years old at the time.

And Phelps is not the only Olympian or athlete to be called out for post-victory behavior. A decade ago, 1994 Olympic gold medalist Oksana Baiul entered an alcohol rehabilitation program following a drunken-driving accident in 1997. She said that she had begun drinking heavily several months before her crash.

In May 1998, another Olympic swimmer for the United States -- Gary Hall Jr. -- experienced a public fall from grace similar to Phelps'. After testing positive for marijuana, the 1996 Olympics medalist earned a three-month suspension by FINA, swimming's international governing body, though the suspension was later lifted after less than a month.

Australian swimmer and Olympic silver medalist Scott Miller, too, garnered headlines in 1997 after testing positive for marijuana -- a finding that netted him a two-month suspension from FINA in 1998. This black mark, however, was recently eclipsed when last December, police seized various drugs, including pills suspected to be ecstasy and powder believed to be methamphetamine, from a storage facility allegedly used by Miller.

And in October, 24-year-old Chinese Olympic table tennis silver medalist Wang Hao was sent to mandatory counseling after getting into a fight with a security guard who was trying to stop him from urinating outside a karaoke club, according to local reports.

Psychological experts say the common thread to these examples may be a reaction to the stress of victory on the international stage -- and the new pressures of dealing with their extraordinary achievements.

Dr. David Spiegel, associate chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, said that while he does not know Phelps personally and is hesitant to comment specifically on his situation, such behavior among athletes who have achieved the pinnacle of success is not unusual.

"The stress of this publicity can be overwhelming," he said. "It's an extreme amount of attention and press."

Martin Binks, director of behavioral health at the Duke Diet and Fitness Center, agreed that there exists a tendency among some athletes to act out after a victory -- sometimes to the detriment of their public image.

"It's pretty common human behavior to go out and celebrate after a major success," Binks said. "Unfortunately, athletes are put in the limelight and expected to be role models."

He said that in this instance, as well as in the case of Phelps' DUI, his actions "snowballed beyond the limits of acceptable behavior."

Phelps, who is also risking millions of dollars in endorsements with his most recent actions, had this to say in a statement released by one of his agents: "I engaged in behavior, which was regrettable and demonstrated bad judgment. I'm 23 years old and despite the successes I've had in the pool, I acted in a youthful and inappropriate way, not in a manner people have come to expect from me. For this, I am sorry. I promise my fans and the public it will not happen again."

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.

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."

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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