In this post I discuss problems with mental health and well-being associated with competitive cycling and suggests that the cycling community begin a discussion about taking a more proactive approach in addressing the issue
The positive effects of exercise on mental health and wellbeing are well documented and known about, and this benefit is a clear motivation for many cyclists.
However, with the approach of this year’s Cycling Against Suicide event, it may be useful to think about the potential darker side of competitive cycling and, hopefully, begin a discussion about the cycling community’s response to mental health and emotional well-being within our own ranks.
This problem is now well recognised at the professional level but we have only anecdotal evidence on its prevalence among the very ambitious and driven at the domestic amateur level.
The list of professional cyclists with depression is long and partly tragic – Marco Pantani, Frank Vandenbroucke and José María Jiménez to name but a few. Others, such as Victoria Pendleton, Bradley Wiggins and Graeme Obree have learned to manage this ‘black dog’ in their lives.
Cycling, of course, doesn’t cause depression. Propensity to clinical depression has certain biological and emotional causes, and problems emerging through cycling are just an expression of these.
In addition, high stress levels can often be a precursor to depression, especially in the context of other factors such as neurochemistry, genetics and psychosocial issues, which may already underlie the surface. Adding yet another layer, such as performance anxiety, perceived failure, embarrassment or guilt, can present further mental health and emotional risks.
Obree put this well: “It’s not that sport makes people depressed. A lot of people who suffer from depression have a tendency to have obsessive behaviour – that’s why more of them exist in the top end of sport. The sport is actually a self-medicating process of survival.”
The key message is that we should be aware of potential depression within the cycling community, just as in the wider community, and should proactively support those in need.
Indeed, I would speculate that elite-level athletes are even more at risk than the general population in not seeking support: their image will normally be associated with traits such as strength, courage, bravery, suffering and resilience, and expressions of weakness, vulnerability and a need for help may be even more difficult.
Mental and Emotional Wellbeing
But what about general mental and emotional wellbeing, not at the level of clinical depression?
Competitive sport, of course, brings great highs and we must expect corresponding lows. Sometimes these go very deep: feelings of deep disappointment, inadequacy, waste and a questioning of whether it’s all worthwhile. This is normal.
In some cases, however, the scales seem more regularly tipped towards the lows and, where this is long-lasting and pervasive, the approach to cycling is not good for mental and emotional wellbeing and ought to be re-examined.
Guarding against this should be a priority. This is especially true in how we manage and support younger riders and I sometimes wonder if the seeds for later difficulty are sometimes set at this level.
Identity and Expectation
Even at Under-16 and Junior level, many competitive young cyclists seem firmly wrapped up within the ‘cycling bubble’. This brings associated senses of expectation and identity. There is a growing weigh of expectation – will he/she ‘make it’? Within this bubble, their identity and self-worth may become primarily associated with success on the bike alone.
Also, are some coaches and managers, driven by their own motivations and agendas, contributing to this by not helping to moderate the necessary commitment and expectation with a sense of balance and proportion with ‘normal life’?
As a coach, for example, I have noticed that Junior riders are probably the cohort of our clients who exhibit most anxiety traits. Some feel strong pressures for attainment from a range of sources. Awareness of their vulnerabilities allows our coaches to provide appropriate support and guidance in the forms, for example, of realistic goal-setting, lifestyle balance, positive reinforcement, healthy attitudes, sense of mastery, shift from external to internal locus of control, improved coping strategies, and such like.
Nevertheless, success and high performance come with an inevitable cost in terms of ambition, commitment, and disappointments. Traits that contribute to high-level performance also cause vulnerabilities. Perfectionist tendencies, for example, mean that some struggle for satisfaction and happiness, whatever the results achieved.
Identity also seems to be problematic and can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, a certain shift in identity is necessary to be very successful, involving a transition from being a person who cycles to becoming ‘a cyclist’ in essence and identity. Cycling then becomes a lifestyle choice, not just a recreational sport or hobby. On the other hand, this identity, and associated sense of self-worth, can be vulnerable if success is not achieved or when competition comes to an end through injury or retirement.
Research at Trinity College*, for example, studied Irish elite athletes with depression and revealed some of the complex relationships between elite sport and identity. One of the participants expressed it well as follows: “If I was failing in sport, I didn’t feel I had anything to offer as a person.”
Therefore, within the bubble there is the danger that self-identity and self-worth had become firmly bound up with success in cycling.
One of the more vulnerable groups of cyclists would seem to be the top-level, elite domestic riders who don’t ‘make it’: that is, not ‘making it’ measured against their own intrinsic expectations and the expectations of others. Many it seems, who don’t ‘make it’ in this way or who ‘retire’ and lose their primary sense of identity, go through deep, troubling periods, even if not to the level of clinical depression.
So, when does one ‘make it’? My own expectations may be low in comparison to the ambitions of some , but I think riders have ‘made it’ when they have explored and discovered the outer reaches of their potential and, having done so, are satisfied with that. Helping cyclists of every level on this journey of exploration is one of the great rewards of coaching.
In this way I greatly admire those promising elite riders who have struggled and striven to get into the professional ranks, have campaigned abroad in the professional scene for a number of years, found the limits of their potential, and then returned to enjoy domestic competition and finding a satisfactory balance between the demands of elite racing and ‘normal’ life.
For me, outside of the top-level professionals, these are the lucky ones who have really ‘made it’ in cycling – they have discovered how good they could really become, are then became reconciled with that.
At the End of the Day
So, in summary, we should be aware of risks to mental health and wellbeing associated with cycling and, as in the wider community, not turn a blind eye to the issue. Supporting mental health charities is commendable and has a feel-good factor, but we should also be proactive within the cycling community in addressing it ourselves.
Elite riders who think they might need support in this regard should attempt to summon those traits of courage and resilience which they must have in the first place, and try to share and discuss their problems.
For all riders, if the joy and satisfaction of cycling is giving away to obsession, and becoming a draw on the mental and emotional wellbeing of ourselves and the relationships with those around us, it’s time to step back and evaluate if this is what we really want.
We should support our younger riders fully. While accepting that high ambition and achievement bring costs and pressures, we should teach them a sense of balance and proportion, especially in terms of their sense of identity and value.
At the end of the day, the essence of a person, and what is to admire and respect about any individual, goes well beyond how fast they can ride a bicycle.
[Need Help? if anyone feels that anxiety of depressive symptoms are persisting, progressing or affecting your daily functioning and quality of life, then contact your GP or seek support – see also the ‘Ask for Help’ link in the Cycle Against Suicide website.
*Doherty, S. and Hannigan, B. (2004). A qualitative analysis of elite male athletes’ experience of depression during their sporting careers. In: The Irish Psychologist, 44: 01: 2014.