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Depression in top athletes, the end of a taboo?

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The Ethics and Sport Committee, an association whose object is to make concrete proposals on certain deviations from ethics in sport, carried out a survey on depression among top athletes. It turns out that more and more athletes are reporting, too often after their careers, the psychological difficulties they are facing, depression being one of them.

Most people imagine them to be unsinkable. It is to ignore the tumultuous life of a high level athlete, sometimes made of joy, from the top, but also of hassles that can lead into the wall, like a Formula 1 which loses its brakes.

In the survey carried out by the Ethics and Sport Committee on a panel of 1,200 athletes aged 15 and over, the phenomenon of depression is growing more and more. More than 80% of the people questioned had experienced at least one of the following situations: lack of strength or energy, feeling of sadness, nervousness, anxiety, lack of confidence.

What could alert more than anything in this survey is the following observation: more than half of 15-17 year olds (52%) dared to admit that life was not worth living. Another very striking element: the feeling of fragility and discomfort is much more emphasized by men. Finally, team sports generate more troubles.

Train sports players in the detection of the first signs of depression

« The taboo of depression exists. It is the same problem as abuse in sport. The athlete must be an immaterial person who does not suffer any suffering, who must be inhuman in the true sense of the term. He is trapped in his humanity and in this role imposed on him », Explains Laure Delisée. According to this psychologist, sports players must be trained to detect the first signs of depression. ” We must break this taboo of psychological help. Too many people think that if you go to a psychologist, you are crazy. »

Laure Delisée expects nothing from the federations, but hopes that other partners closer to individuals take action to manage an increasingly urgent problem, such as sexual assault and mistreatment in sport. The Ethics and Sport Committee is currently trying to find links with the trade union world, according to Véronique Lebar, president of the committee.

« As long as an athlete feels bad about himself, he doesn’t perform well, that’s obvious. You have to be well physically and psychologically », Says Laure Delisée. In three years, France will host the Olympic Games and expect a shower of medals … Will the Ministry of Sports and Health monopolize the subject? At the National Institute of Sport, Expertise and Performance (Insep), we rely on the skills of recognized experts, including sports psychologist Meriem Salmi. But this only affects a small part of French athletes.

« It’s a subject that is close to my heart, because I lived it », Loose basketball player Gary Florimont. ” I had depression and lacked support from the people who needed to be there. I was very poorly accompanied and I want this taboo to be broken. All athletes, without exception, go through this. Behind every champion, there is a loser. We are never taught to understand setbacks. And failure is what we most often experience in a career. As an ambassador of the Ethics and Sport Committee, it is my duty to lead the way. »

At the age of 27, after an Achilles tendon injury, Gary Florimont was shelved. He lived it badly, he felt useless. “ I was no longer sleepy, I was no longer eating. I had a hard time projecting myself into the future and finding positive things in life », Says the Guadeloupe, arrived at the age of 15 in metropolitan France to join a training center. Gary Florimont would like the world of sport to tackle the problem head on: ” We are often in the curative, but rarely in prevention. »

“Our testimonies are not heard enough”

Last September, the star of women’s tennis, the Japanese Naomi Osaka, was trying to put on a good face to journalists who were awaiting his first words after his elimination at the US Open in New York. ” It’s really hard to articulate. I feel like I’m at a point where I’m trying to figure out what I want to do. Honestly, I don’t know when I’m going to play my next game. I think I’ll stop for a while », Confessed the champion, in complete disarray, tears on the cheeks.

« Our testimonies are not heard enough. I had a complicated period and I broke down psychologically. I spent my time crying, in front of my coach and the club shrink. But I was told : “Stop complaining, watch what you do in training, it’s awesome!” », Says swimmer Ludivine Blanc. ” Physically, I was losing weight visibly. I put the word “depression” on what was happening to me and no one wanted to believe me. I changed structure after eight months of suffering. »At the end of a year, like her, a doctor finally puts the word« depression »on her ordeal. ” From there, I started to rebuild myself. But I had a hard time finding out it was depression. An athlete must always be well, always be perfect. He has no right to say that things are wrong. I haven’t been heard for too long. It needs to change “, Estimates Ludivine Blanc, who now has projects in her head.

As she points out, the coronavirus pandemic and the lockdowns have been a real trauma for top athletes. The survey, carried out from mid-October to mid-November 2020, underlines that 62% of people who responded believe that the health crisis ” had an impact on their mental health ».

In high performance athletes, depression can arise at any time. The body may well be trained, if the head does not follow, we are headed for disaster. The most significant story of the Tokyo Games last summer will remain that of the gymnast Simone Biles. While we were waiting for another rain of medals from one of the most important gymnasts in history, the American withdrew for the finals in vault and uneven bars. The queen of Rio 2016, with four gold medals, was to be crowned empress in Japan. It did not happen. The one who had been to the World Championship nineteen times had to face her inner demons. From then on, the whole world realized that a high level athlete remains above all a human being.


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