Mental Health: Battling loneliness in individual elite sports

Mental Health: Battling loneliness in individual elite sports


By Kim Fairley

While promoting the new documentary “McEnroe,” former tennis great John McEnroe opened up about the pressures and challenges of an elite athlete in an individual sport—including being in the spotlight alone. Individual athletes (e.g., Serena Williams, Michael Phelps…) also have made headlines this year talking openly about their mental health. These are important issues for individual athletes, but there is something else we need to talk about: Loneliness, which can profoundly influence an athlete’s mental health.

Many athletes, whether they’re famous or not, train for five or six long hours every day in individual sports. Swimmers, for example, may swim three or four to a lane, and yet the vast majority of time they spend racing at top speed with their eyes fixed on the black line at the bottom of the pool. As a former elite swimmer, I’ve been there. I’ve also seen that swimmers not only face intense pressures to perform, but they often have to endure abusive coaches and survive workouts that stretch the limits of what their bodies can withstand, all without the benefit of strong bonds with teammates or peers. 

In writing my recent memoir, Swimming for My Life, I was reminded of the loneliness inherent in individual sports and the need for parents and coaches to be on alert for signs of isolation early on.

Here are five things an individual athlete might say that signal loneliness and social isolation -- and some pointers to help parents and coaches respond: 

“You have no idea what my life is like!”

When young elite athletes express that nobody understands them, this is a sign of isolation. Even when athletes train on the same playing field, they often are separated and don’t really know each other, which can feel like prison. They share a bond only because they’ve gone through something together. 

As an elite competitive swimmer, I remember being sleep-deprived, ravenous from an inadequate diet, and ready to quit from the pressure. I had friends, but they were experiencing the same daily weigh-ins, overtraining, and verbal abuse from our coach that I was. There seemed to be nobody I knew who understood my unique situation.

Parents can provide a balance and offset the isolation of an athlete by checking in regularly. When kids know their parents will jump in at crucial moments to say “Enough is enough,” this lessens a child’s feelings of isolation. 

“I have to do well at this meet! Nothing else matters!”

When elite athletes in individual sports are so focused on the pressure of performing that they are unable to complete basic self-care, like bathing or nutrition, this can be a red flag. I remember times as a swimmer when my mother had to tell me, “I don’t mind if you need special food, Kim, but if you can’t lift your head at the dinner table, there’s something wrong with the diet.” 

Sometimes it is difficult for others to recognize when an athlete in an individual sport is struggling. Teachers or friends of the family would tell me that I looked organized and on top of things. To myself, I thought, “Are you kidding? I’m a complete wreck!”

If athletes must be on their game at all times, there is a façade that goes up naturally and creates isolation. Coaches and parents—those closest to the athlete—can help by encouraging kids to talk about what’s really going on for them, even if it includes negative feelings. The more opportunities for an athlete to talk, the less isolation and loneliness.

“I will be in so much trouble with the coach!”

When an elite athlete is so focused on avoiding abuse from a coach, it is important for parents to step in and ask questions. It is not enough to say you’re open to hearing what the child has to say. It is important to be direct and encourage kids to say more. The coach makes you feel uncomfortable? Why? Like what?      

If a child is unwilling to talk, it is crucial that parents help the child identify those people—a teacher or other parent—who might provide a listening ear. Many elite sports reinforce that athletes should be focused on themselves, but when athletes feel singled out by a coach, they need to have someone they can trust in order to prevent isolation.

“With this injury, I’m finished as an athlete!”

As part of the culture, elite athletes are told they must ignore what their body tells them. With the adage “No pain, no gain,” so prevalent in most individual sports, an athlete’s very survival requires obedience to a coach who may or may not be tuned in to the athlete’s needs. This can lead to a high risk of physical injury and additional isolation.

When I injured my knee swimming an all-out mile timed trial in breaststroke, my worst stroke, I complained of the pain to my coach. He said, “This knee thing and your worrying are all connected. You have analysis paralysis.” It wasn’t until he slammed on the brakes during a lecture in his car that tears shot out of the corners of my eyes and he realized that I wasn’t faking.

If coaches and trainers keep an athlete involved with the team during the athlete’s rehabilitation from an injury, they can positively influence the athlete’s self-esteem and reduce the isolation during their recovery.

“I don’t know what I think!”

Athletes do better when they believe they have other talents and can survive without participation in their sport. Sadly, most individual sports require kids to follow the rules and do what they are told to a point of feeling their sport is all they have. 

In my teen years as a competitive swimmer, I remember thinking I was trapped on a treadmill that I couldn’t get off. Had I believed swimming was my choice and I could leave at any time, I probably would’ve felt less powerless and stuck as an athlete.

We hear a lot about famous athletes and their struggles in the limelight, but loneliness is a complicated feeling that has an impact across all elite individual sports. For me, the loneliness of swimming evolved into a list of can’ts in adulthood—I can’t leave this relationship, this house, this job, this life—and I’m still working to understand what loneliness is and how my years as a swimmer shaped my life as an adult. But for young people, we can help to eliminate their long-lasting relationship with loneliness by taking it out of the darkness and giving it light, by talking about it, empathizing, and giving kids choices.

Kim Fairley is an artist and memoirist who writes about wrestling with secrets, healing from grief, and competitive swimming during the early years of Title IX. Her three books include Swimming for My Life, and Shooting Out the Lights: A Memoir, which was a finalist in the International Book Awards Parenting & Family category and was named a Distinguished Favorite Memoir by the Independent Press Awards. After attending USC, Fairley earned an MFA in mixed media from the University of Michigan. She lives in Ann Arbor.

Mental Health Loneliness Isolation Pressure Stress Swimming

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