Elite athlete or obsessive/compulsive? When training takes over your life …
BY KIERSTIN KLOECKNER
Training. The word which equally sparks me and drives me into the ground. This simple two-syllable word has brought me to my peak and has also made me into a monster. How can a word, or an action, help you so much and yet possibly kill you? Is it that every person has a different meaning for this word? And can the meaning change depending upon where someone is in life?
When I was a teen, training only meant one thing…work. If I wanted to achieve the goals set upon me by others (coaches, father, peers), it meant dieting, hill repeats, sprints and weekly puke sessions. The only thing that made training even remotely bearable was a couple of my teammates since I wasn’t “reward driven.”
Ten years later, although I was still riding, my main focus was running and triathlons. Training became self-chosen vs. forced by others and I sadly became obsessed. I was one of “those athletes” who if I missed a day, I was in a rotten mood and a downright terrible person to be around. I actually became agitated and angry, not unlike a drug addict going through withdrawal. A large portion of my day, for several years, was not only spent training, but also thinking about training or what I was going to eat to fuel me for training. Mix that with also being a personal trainer and you can imagine what a joy I was…the life of any party. To this day, I still feel terrible my ex-husband had to put up with this behavior. Although he is, and was, an athlete himself, he always sees movement as play, not training.
Training, like alcohol, food, or drugs can become an addiction. Most only see it as being a healthy addiction, no matter what the sacrifice is; but look a little deeper, and most athletes, as well as mental health care workers, will argue training can become as destructive as any other obsession or addiction. It can not only destroy the athlete but also those around the athlete.
This addiction can rear its ugly head in 10-year olds who play soccer year-round, or in 50-year olds racing cyclocross. Addiction has no boundaries since it lights up the same receptors in everyone’s brain, regardless of age, gender, or socioeconomic placement (although those with more spare time, or born with type-A personalities often fall into obsessive behavior more frequently regarding training). There is such a fine line between “working hard is good” and “more is always better” that just because a person looks and acts healthy, doesn’t always mean their mind and body ARE healthy.
I recently spoke with Gary Sater, a well-known sports psychologist in Madison, Wisconsin, on the signs, issues and treatment for those dealing with this behavior. Although I personally work to help those suffering from this in my line of work, this is what Gary does for a living and he lays it out in a way everyone can understand.
Kierstin Kloeckner: For those in training, how can you tell if you have an obsessive/compulsive behavior?
Gary Sater: You know you are in trouble as an athlete when your overall mental health, personal and social relationships, effectiveness at work or any other aspects of your well-being are dependent on your successful completion of your athletic workout routines, attainment of your athletic goals or competition results. You also know you’re in trouble if you begin to obsess about it or slip into compulsive behavioral patterns in your routines. You’re in trouble if the pleasure or satisfaction achieved from these activities decreases and the obsessive and compulsive behaviors are on the increase. You are in trouble if you’ve given up too much in other areas of your life that you formerly valued in the service of these athletic goals. You are in trouble if you are more driven and miserable than motivated and excited. Simply said, if you’re out of balance in the big picture (that is your overall life) in the service of this small picture (that is sport and fitness), you are in trouble.
KK: In your line of work, what are the issues you see accompanying this behavior and how does it affect the athlete in other areas of their life?
GS: The typical issues athletes experience in this intersection of sport training/fitness routines and their mental health most often present when their workout routines begin to be more compulsive and necessary for their emotional and psychological well-being, rather than simply disciplined and well structured. All committed athletes and well-fit individuals know how important it is to consistently follow through on well-planned and wisely sequenced exercise routines, whether cardio or strength training in nature. When these routines become compulsive, however, commitment and discipline evolves into behavioral rigidity, cognitive distortion and increases in anxious, irritability and depressed feelings. In the clinical world, you may have OCD if you experience repeated, upsetting thoughts, images or ideas called obsessions; and you feel compelled to do the same behaviors over and over again to try and make the obsessions go away (compulsive behaviors). The tricky part is compulsive behaviors often present as seemingly purposeful behaviors, although, the person does not experience lasting pleasure or release from the tension after engaging in them. The relief is usually very fleeting and the obsessions return. Needing to continue training routines while injured, by the way, and ignoring the need to rest and rehab is a clear indication of OCD-like behavior in sport. Some of us “bring to the gym, road, trail and weight room” a predisposition to experiencing OCD simply based on our emotional “hardwiring.” Thus, as we enter into the realm of more extreme athletic training, the evolution from routine and disciplined to rigid and unhealthy is much more likely. Additionally, extreme sports likely attract a disproportionate number of athletic individuals who may be “wired up” as such. What may appear to be an early advantage in adherence to the demands of these sporting events and associated training regimens may eventually evolve into harmful compulsive behaviors, and detriments in overall mental health. Lastly, we can’t ignore the neurotransmitters, such as endorphins and dopamine that are released into our brains and bodies following a “good workout.” Just as in the development of other addictions, these naturally occurring “rewards” further complicate our attempts to keep it healthy and fun instead of driven and compulsive.
KK: What treatment or change would you suggest for those who are affected by this?
GS: Treatment for or corrections in this “out of balance,” OCD-like experience with sport and training can be of many sorts. If you are fortunate enough to be able to step back, get perspective, see the big picture, have insight and energy to transcend this unfortunate evolution into the unhealthy or smartly listen to family or friends who are telling you so, you may have a good chance of self-correction and improved mental health. This involves getting your life values, related goals and life balance back into “good shape.” You know you are making good progress when it starts to be fun again, the obsessions and compulsive behaviors lessen, other areas of your life are rewarding in their own right and you feel back in the driver’s seat over sport and fitness and not in the back seat, while sport and fitness demands are driving your life car. If, however, your predicament is more related to predisposed “hard wiring” for anxiety, compulsivity, depression or addiction, seeking a skilled clinician is in order. It is very important that you find a clinician who is sport friendly and can both understand your values and goals for sport and fitness, as well as work effectively with you to get back into balance in the big picture of your life. This can be achieved in large by simply interviewing them about their perspective on sport and fitness. Also, finding a clinician who is utilizing evidence-based treatments for OCD, addictions and emotional difficulties of other sorts is very important. We do know what treatments work for most of us. If you are as committed to improving your mental health as you are to achieving sport performance and fitness, you will most likely win at this, too. Treatment will often include purposely changing up your routine, taking healthy recovery breaks and resisting the urge to re-engage with the compulsive, unhealthy behaviors in training. Teaching mindfulness and focus-control skills to manage anxiety likely arising from these changes are also key skills that have additional benefits for performance going forward.
Many of you may blow this article off and say “no way…this isn’t me.” But please, I urge you to really think about “why” you train. Chances are, you just love movement and the outdoors, as well as the health benefits which come along with the sport of your choice; but in this day and age, when our minds and bodies seem to be occupied all the time, it’s so important to slow down and tune in with who we are and ask the basic question, “Am I healthy?”
If you would like further information on this, feel free to contact Gary Sater, licensed psychologist and certified mental performance consultant (Association for Applied Sport Psychology) at solutions for Performance.