Elite sport and athletes, be kind to yourself and others: Jermain Defoe has shown a way


Looking out for ourselves isn’t necessarily a bad thing and in many circumstances can protect us from emotional ill-health. For example, stigma and shame can have powerful negative impacts on groups of people including families, friends and colleagues.

A better understanding of ways the ideas are related and impact on athletes and sporting cultures could contribute to improving well-being and improve performance. Examples of ways that stigma and shame impact negatively on performance cultures and the health of athletes are documented internationally.

Athletes accessing health care

Shame is considered a major contributor to athletes failing to report difficulties or access health services because of a desire to conceal emotional struggles.

Similarly, stigma is often a salient factor when accurately identifying depression. In view of the fact that there are often undesirable associations with weakness and failing, symptoms of illness are often not reported to friends, family members, teammates or governing bodies. Shame encourages a person to hide.

Courtesy stigma also occurs, when people are labeled by their links to others who are stigmatized and can equally prove damaging to mental health. While struggling with emotional concerns, an athlete might experience distance from others and this is a documented concern for athletes who fall ill.

It is nonetheless, a common coping mechanism and is much like saying ` I am not like you and this cannot happen to me.` Yet, a athlete can feel greater isolation, as they are left to struggle with troubled thoughts and emotions without a trusted support network.

This no-win and trapping situation as it is often followed by strong feelings of guilt and remorse by others, particularly when circumstances worsenfor an athlete .

Double bind – damned whatever we do!

Often described as a `double bind.` distancing is essentially a cannot-win state of affairs – `damned if you do but damned if you don’t. `

A compassionate self

Paul Gilbert, a contributor to the literature concerning shame in the United Kingdom, has developed a method of psychotherapy designed to combat anti-social or self-attacking behaviours arising because of psychological difficulties related to shame. Gilbert’s approach permits people to find ways to disentangle from psychological self-harm and heal from emotional wounds.

The method describes a situation in which a person experiencing the destructive effects of shame can feel the world is threatening and overwhelming resulting in self-condemnation.

In some circumstances, it may be possible to encourage a more compassionate stance towards ourselves and others so reducing vulnerability by a process of self-soothing – basically being kind and compassionate to ourselves and each other.

A random act of compassion – Jermain Defoe

This may be an approach worth considering athletes immersed in performance cultures. Kindness is not weakness but a legitimate human need – although it can be exploited. Footballer Jermain Defoe has demonstrated, through his generosity of spirit, the power of compassion to bring communities together and provide an important sense of unity.

In befriending a child undergoing treatment for cancer, Jermain Defoe united the football world and demonstrated the power that elite sports possesses to reach out to those disadvantaged in communities.

Sporting, performance cultures and press reporting should also take care so as not to contribute to stigma or shame by defining people in negative ways but encourage a compassionate stance to those in difficulties – the prevailing culture if individualism needs challenging.

The preventative value in terms of psychological health could benefit all concerned with elite sports, encouraging a collective spirit and in doing so enhancing performance.