The US Open came and went, giving us great tennis and excellent stories: Serena vs. everybody else; Serena vs. Venus; Federer vs Drop Shot; Serena vs. Serena; Italy vs. Italy; Djokovic vs. Federer. Every time I looked into the eyes of the players as they embarked on matches that would last for hours, it underscored how difficult it must be to manage their emotions for so long. Getting psyched up and holding it together for 90 seconds of laser focus in a perilous ski race is a totally different kind of feat. That said, the mental preparation needed to be at the top of your game is no less complicated.
The thing that stuck with me the most in the midst of all this tennis was an article in The Players’ Tribune by Mardy Fish, who retired as planned at the end of the tournament. The article, entitled “The Weight,” details his struggles with anxiety attacks that led him to quit the US Open in 2012, on his way to a match with Roger Federer. In addition to being a courageously written and fascinating look at one athlete’s struggles and how he worked through them, Fish brought home an issue in all sports that isn’t talked about much. The issue is mental health, and the way that it can be jeopardized by the very things that push you to the top.
For me, the article touched off an inner conversation I wrestle with all the time. There are so many good things cultivated and reinforced through athletics and sports—things like discipline, perseverance, mental and physical toughness, confidence, etc… But some of the very attributes that drive an athlete to greatness are the same ones that conspire to make life really tough in the world beyond the athletic arena. Overconfidence, egocentrism, hyper competitiveness and obsessiveness are tolerated, justified and even celebrated on the way up the ranks in the sporting world. They do not, however, make you an ideal roommate, teammate, soulmate or contributing member of society. Those traits, when left unchecked, can manifest as anything from antisocial annoyances in the “does not play well with others” vein, to entrenched habits and compulsions that inhibit personal growth and relationships, to joy-limiting and even life-threatening conditions that take control of your life.
In Fish’s case he could identify a point in time, in 2009, when he underwent an unhealthy transition, and when having a good career (Olympic silver medal, grand slam results, an ample paycheck) was not enough. He intensified his diet, training and entire approach, replacing job satisfaction with a relentless, single-minded drive to be better. Always better. “Stressful” and “destructive” are some of the words Fish uses to describe the effects. Rather than creating any security his improved ranking only pushed the stakes—and his anxiety— higher. “Doing great wasn’t something that my frame of mind back then had time to process. All I could focus on was doing better. It was a double-edged sword,” Fish explains.
This is not to minimize the positive and even therapeutic effects of pursuing excellence in sports. The intense focus can be a providential escape from social awkwardness, bad life circumstances or physical and emotional pain. It can be a way to positively enlist aspects of your makeup that are challenging elsewhere. Michael Phelps put his ADD energy to work in the pool, Tyler Hamilton cycled his way through the low spots of depression, endurance athletes support their high from endorphins and action sports athletes get their fix from adrenaline. Sports can be a legal, effective and healthy way to compensate and even medicate for a host of issues. That part is all good.
It gets dicey when the single-minded pursuit leads to antisocial or even destructive behavior: when self-confidence becomes Narcissism; or when self-control becomes an eating disorder; or when self-discipline becomes compulsive overtraining; or when a higher bar becomes crippling anxiety; or when enviable fearlessness becomes reckless irresponsibility. It gets dicey when the internal focus can no longer be diverted outwards, towards a wider field of view that includes contentedness, happiness, social connection and enduring, sustainable well-being. Call it empathy or call it being a decent human being—actively caring about people beyond yourself actually lightens your load, and becomes a form of strength.
For athletes bent on success and those who support them, it’s a tough balance. When trying to get through a grueling workout or competition, athletes are told to go inside themselves, tap into their deepest reserves for that last scrap of resolve. In these moments nobody says “ask for help” or “give yourself a break” or “surrender” because that would sound ridiculous. Ultimately athletic performance, whether in an individual or team sport, is entirely self-motivated and self-controlled. Digging deep, pushing hard, ignoring pain, risking everything—in sport all of it is considered a reasonable and virtuous sacrifice. But just as reaching inside for strength has value, so too does the ability to access, appreciate and accept resources of strength outside of yourself.
Fish’s story was its own victory, a reminder that if you have to choose between success in sports and long term health, choose the latter. Better yet, look for the third choice that includes both. Confidence can exist with humility, strength with vulnerability, self-discipline with self-forgiveness, competitiveness with camaraderie. They are among the many essential life skills athletes are wise to cultivate while still in sports. Doing so will make the transition away from sports much easier and the relationships after sports much richer. You don’t just quit competitive sports. There is a clean up involved. It’s better to know that going in.
Another great moment in the US Open was when unheralded Champion Flavia Pennetta decided to retire in the minutes before receiving her prize. It was as awesome as it is rare. When riding high it’s hard to envision coming off that wave. It takes discipline and perspective to be able to stop the moment, savor it, and know that it is the right time to move on. Knowing your limits and vulnerabilities, at every stage of sport, is an underrated strength. Fish makes a point that he did not “overcome” his troubles. Rather, he worked through them and will continue to work through them, probably for the rest of his life. Daunting? Yes. Devastating? Not really. Not anymore.