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Sustainable Stretch: Olympians, achievers out there, are you really all driven by dark internal restlessness?

I am an apparent ‘overachiever’: current Paralympic Champion in handcycling; once World Paratriathlon Champion and World Trail-Orienteering Champion, a seeker of challenge ; an adventurer. I have a list of degrees and higher degrees – most recently in sports psychology, and am fascinated by psychological issues connected to performance. I question the stigmas around high-performance sport that I have been exposed to: that to achieve at the elite level you have to be selfish, obsessive, have dark places, that success will be followed by a crash, that Olympians will get post-Olympic depression, that addiction, self-loathing, even suicide are common paths for many.

Olympian and adventurer James Cracknell commented on his victorious boat race win this year, saying it demonstrates that “anything is possible that you set your mind to”. His estranged wife, Beverley Turner, offered a more frightening and intriguing suggestion for his consistent elite performance, and maybe for all top level athletes. Her view is that “dark internal restlessness drives all overachievers to success…”, that Olympic ambitions rarely arise from a healthy psychological place, but are driven by external validation.

The spotlight on Cracknell sparked an inner debate in me, and amongst some fellow team mates. Are we are all harbouring a dark inner restlessness? Are we psychologically unhealthy? Are we driven by external validation?

“Noooooo!” something deep inside me calls. Or is that just a voice of resistance, unwilling to want to accept the possibility that I may not be balanced and psychologically healthy?!

For me, the physical and emotional challenges of becoming a Paralympian began as an exciting opportunity. When you like being physically active and are in a wheelchair, its incredible how many people ask you “Have you ever thought about going to the Paralympics?”, as if you can just enter it like your village fun run. I naively began to believe that it could be that easy and began a four-year journey of trying to qualify to participate in the London 2012 Paralympic games, in the sport of handcycling.

When I sit and reflect deeply, I don’t believe my drive has ever been for validation, or cheering crowds, or to avoid some dark place lurking inside me. The latter was done long ago: in the years following paralysis through a rock-climbing accident, I immersed myself in activities and distractions to avoid the painful emotions of accepting my life in a wheelchair. I came to Paralympic sport 15 years after being paralysed, and it has always been driven by passion. I love to ride my bike. I love to be outside, with friends, with the breeze in my hair and the skies yawning above. I don’t actually think about cycling much, and actively tend to avoid too much time in the company of keen cyclists as I find it a dull topic of conversation. The fact that I can combine passion with career is on the whole, a luxurious dream. There have been plenty of moments though, where I have questioned the limits, and have had to draw my own.

Whilst it is generally agreed that being active has a positive impact on physical and mental health, where do the limits lie? How easy is it to become addicted to the endorphins that exercise produces…to the point where healthy becomes unhealthy and enjoyment becomes obsession? Both at elite and amateur levels, I see people pushing way beyond what is healthy or balanced. The pressure to train and perform, whether for self-satisfaction, an imminent performance target or forthcoming race leads to over-training, stress, injury, emotional struggles, and if prolonged, potentially to more serious problems. “Sport changes lives” is so true, and generally in a very positive way. Physical activity has been a salvation for me, a source of health and sanity in the face of paralysis. However, like anything – if taken to the extreme, it can be damaging.

After the Rio 2016 Paralympics where I won gold, I experienced my first significant sport-related health challenge, a feeling of burn out. I didn’t seek professional diagnosis or help, but instead chose to retreat, to hide away from all post-Games events, publicity, activities and celebrations. I had not one watt of energy left to give anyone, and I had to do everything I could to conserve my energy and hope it would return. Over a period of months, and careful management of my energy, a focus on spending time with close friends, on genuine, authentic relationships and regular but not excessive exercise, it fortunately did.

Mental health charity MIND recognize that sport can be used to reduce stigma and start positive conversations about mental health. But the reality, if you are immersed in elite sport, is that the stigma and role-models for being ‘psychologically unhealthy’, or for your life becoming a wreck of some shape or form are pretty strong! Examples are profuse: from Cracknell’s unending pursuit of challenges, to Victoria Pendleton’s struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts, ex-arsenal captain Tony Adams alcoholism, the depression and drug issues of Michael Phelps, mental health problems of Frank Bruno….the list is long. I muse the connection between performance sport and psychological health, whether in many instances there are pre-existing issues that sport seems to offer focus and relief from but which ultimately cannot solve, or whether the participation in high-level sport is the cause itself of various psychological issues.

I have now completed two and a half Paralympic cycles – that is ten years of high performance sport – and 15 months out from the next Paralympics in Tokyo 2020, I contemplate the balance between the benefits and costs of continuing. People seem a little surprised that I am still training with an eye to Tokyo. “You’ve got the gold. You’ve achieved all you can” they comment, and I have a sense that I should fear the downfall, and move on to something new whilst I’m ‘on top’. I feel almost ready – for something new – but there is still something else left to learn, and I am eager to explore that.

I fundamentally believe that ‘performance’ is still very possible without the pressure of pushing beyond limits. ‘Sustainable Stretch’ is a phrase I coined many years ago whilst working as a geologist in the office of a large multi-national. I was surrounded by wonderful, intelligent, special people, yet it felt that everyone was stifled by pressure, to the point that their brilliance couldn’t shine as brightly as it should. If we want to perform to our best, then surely we need nurturing not torturing? Surely medals can be won by athletes with a healthy balance of the physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual? Can high-performance really only come from constant pushing, pressure, lurking darkness, gremlins and psychological ill-health?! I don’t believe so.

I am regularly asked to speak to audiences about ‘achieving the impossible’ or about ‘overcoming challenges’, subjects which I have not sought to become expert in, but topics which seem to have found me. I believe that whatever roles we have in life – athlete, business leader, parent, partner – the key to being our best is in listening deeply within ourselves. We have to learn to stop when we need to without fearing the consequences. We need to administer self-care, to stay in balance and healthy as a person. We need to learn to say no to constant demands that could crush us. Nurturing ourselves, our relationships and taking time out is as important as the times we get our heads down and focus.

It has been a long learning journey, and one that will never end. Having goals and aspirations is generally positive and motivating, but we also need to know when to press pause. I have not always practiced what I preach, but I hope that a journey to Tokyo 2020 will be one that allows me to explore stretching myself in a sustainable way.

Karen Darke

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