When Compensatory Behaviors No Longer Work — The rise in “mental health” “cracking”.
I love Simone Biles. I love Naomi Osaka. I love Michael Phelps. I love Tiger Woods.
I value their passion, focus, determination, work ethic, goals, and dreams.
I don’t care if they win. I don’t care if they lose.
They’re simply people doing their best to exist in this world and, more specifically, survive their environment. Their activity, their sport, has become their habit, their lifestyle, and their identity. Hopefully they experience happiness, joy, and peace along the way. I think they do. That’s all I really desire for anyone and everyone.
It seems like more and more elite athletes are “cracking” under the pressure to win. The expectations society (i.e., people) has, as these individuals rise to the top, seems to be increasing exponentially. It’s almost as if the more humanity (i.e., people) struggles with our pain, and subsequent destructive [or extremely constructive] behaviors, the more we rely on these elites to distract us and, I don’t know, give us hope that “greatness” in this world is possible even if it seems impossible in our own world.
Why is it we pursue “greatness” so adamantly? Why must winning be the only thing that matters? Why are we so fixated on being “better” than someone else or everyone else?
It’s difficult to provide a deep explanation in an article like this and, at the risk of oversimplification, the reality is, we humans are driven mostly by our need for love. That’s right, I just blurted it out right there and it’s not “woo woo” in any way, shape, or form. It’s certainly not a weakness. It is human. Period. It is required for our basic survival. It’s built into our biology as humans, as primates, and actually, as mammals.
We are literally designed for love and connection and when we don’t get it we experience pain. In our Hunter-Gatherer days, if we were exiled from the tribe then we’d likely die, literally. The pain we experience when we don’t feel love, connection, and belonging is not physical or mental but rather, it is emotional. A human will do anything to avoid feeling pain and in the absence of feeling truly loved unconditionally, just for being us, we turn to behaviors in order to compensate.
The more extreme the behavior, the deeper the emotional pain.
If you’re feeling triggered by these words. If you’re getting agitated by the idea. If you’re thinking, “this guy is full of shit.” If you’re feeling any resistance at all, I would argue that it is your subconscious mind attempting to protect you from your own emotional pain and any unmet need for love you’ve experienced, buried deep down, because that is how you learned to survive your environment, most likely, starting as a very young child.
Humanity continues to raise its young on conditional love. While I believe parents love their children unconditionally, that is not the message being delivered or received. Instead, we give praise and attention (i.e., love) when a child “succeeds” and we withhold love (often in the form of shame, judgement, or disapproval) when they come up short.
Think about it… even in kindergarten, when Sally puts all of her things in her cubby she is praised and told, “What a good girl you are!”. Meanwhile, little Johnny, who didn’t put his things in his cubby, is shamed and punished and told, “Oh Johnny, that’s not how we do things at school so you’ll have to wait an extra 10 minutes before going to recess.”
Love is expressed in many forms. Have you heard of The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman? Two simple ways we show love is by 1) paying attention to someone and 2) listening. Imagine how loved Naomi Osaka felt when she played tennis with her father for 8-hours a day starting at age three? (see Naomi’s Netflix documentary) And the better she performed the more attention she received. In other words, the subconscious mind operates primarily by emotions and feelings and it feels really good when a person who matters so much to you, such as a parent or coach, is loving you. In fact, current neuroscience tells us that 95% of our actions and behaviors are subconsciously driven. No wonder we struggle to understand behaviors such as addiction and gun violence, cognitively. Why would a person do something that is so obviously destructive? Answer: Because they’re in emotional pain.
But a 3-year-old playing tennis 8-hours a day? Does that sound healthy in any way? Did she even have a choice? Is she even capable of discerning for herself if that is the activity she really desires? Children are not self-aware until age 6–7. However, her father was determined to make Naomi a great tennis player. While I believe he truly loves her and wants the best for her, this kind of conditioning, at such a young age, creates deeply reinforced narratives, neural pathways, and chemical signatures in our body. Playing tennis was pretty much all Naomi knew and she received constant attention (i.e., love) from her father as she continued that behavior. And the more she succeeded, the more “love” she received.
The more we succeed the more valuable we feel and the more we feel like we matter in this world. It feels incredible so we keep doing it. The opposite would be to not feel loved and that hurts. In the case of elite athletes, it’s easy to see how they can become addicted to that feeling just like someone might become addicted to drugs or alcohol. Our brain and body makes chemicals, such as oxytocin, and we can become addicted to our own chemicals (see Joe Dispenza, Neuroscientist). You can argue it’s not the same but using a substance is a behavior just like doing sports is a behavior and you don’t become addicted to a substance until you’ve used it (or been exposed like from mother to unborn child).
We are driven to “succeed” because that registers in our brain as being valuable. If we’re valuable then we’re worthy of love, won’t be exiled from the tribe, and will continue to live. If we’re not valuable then we subconsciously conclude we don’t deserve to be loved and that hurts. The pain is 100% real and it’s no joke.
The pressure on Simone to succeed, the expectation that she would, the disappointment (i.e., shame and judgement) of people if she didn’t, and the devaluing of (and degrading) her for not succeeding translates to not receiving love and that is devastating. Our human brain cannot distinguish between physical pain and emotional pain. All you know is, “You’re in pain, do something about it right now!”
When we’re valuable we are desired. In other words, we will “belong to the tribe” and be loved and that nurtures our emotional health. In fact, love and connection is the key to lifelong happiness (Harvard 2012). Plus, for the first 175,000+ years of homo sapien existence, belonging meant our chances of physical survival were much greater. Humans thrive when they’re connected and working together. We struggle in isolation and disconnection. (Feel free to search for the countless research articles on connection and loneliness.)
When a person has lived their whole life according to a deep belief (which experience has taught them is true) that their value is based on the success of a certain behavior (e.g., gymnastics, tennis, etc.), and now the expectation (i.e., pressure), from others, is higher than ever to execute on that behavior, it’s easy to see why they might “crack”. Their identity is connected to that behavior. Their worthiness of love is directly linked to that behavior. In their subconscious (and possibly conscious) mind, if they do not succeed at that behavior then they will not be loved.
In the 2021 Summer Olympics, Simone posted on Instagram, “I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before.” It took her 24 years, becoming the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) gymnast, the “weight of the world”, and experiencing the “twisties” during warm-up to realize this. In an interview she said, “We hope America still loves us.” [if we don’t win]. The conditional love has finally taken its toll on Simone and the action she took was to stop her compensatory behavior of gymnastics. Good for you Simone!
These athletes are not “cracking mentally”. They’re simply exhausted and overwhelmed and have reached a tipping point where they can no longer continue the behavior they believe is the basis for being loved and worthy of belonging.
It’s no wonder athletes struggle with anxiety to perform and depression when they don’t or it’s over. Their performance, in their subconscious mind, is directly linked to their identity and value as a person no matter how much their parents or others say otherwise. Their performance (i.e., behavior) is linked to their belief of their worthiness of love and if they will be loved at all.
Some people use the pressure to perform to drive them even further. Their emotional pain, unmet need for love, or desire to continue feeling loved, based on their behavior, is so great they may even push themselves to compete in five Olympics like Michael Phelps did. And then, when what has been his identity for his entire life is finally no longer in the forefront, it’s easy to see how depression and drugs can become the new compensatory behavior as he attempts to survive his environment. Afterall, in his subconscious mind, what is his “value” if he’s not winning swim meets and Olympic medals? What’s his purpose if he’s not training everyday? Why does he even get out of bed each morning? Who is he, as a person?
Elite athletes aren’t “cracking mentally”. It’s not a cognitive process that makes a person feel valuable, loved, connected, and like they belong. We don’t “think” love. How many people have you dated that looked perfect “on paper” but you didn’t feel a love connection with them? If it was as simple as a cognitive, mental, thought process based on numbers and facts to fall in love then I don’t think we’d struggle with it so much. That’s because “Love is more powerful than reason.” said Tyrion Lannister from Game of Thrones, and it’s true.
Feelings are rooted in our emotions and our emotional health is rooted in our subconscious mind and a more basic area of the brain than our cognitive, mental processes. Just because these chemicals are primarily made in the brain doesn’t mean it’s a “mental health” issue. Afterall, our heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration is also controlled by our brain and we don’t consider a heart attack, hypertension, or hyperventilating a “mental illness”.
When an elite athlete, or anyone, reaches their limit of behaving a certain way and they cannot continue with it, then they “crack”. But it’s not a failure which “cracking” implies. Word choice truly matters because the idea of “cracking” is a form of judgement and shaming and a claim that you’re broken in some way. Kudos to Simone and Naomi for recognizing this and stopping before they were seriously injured or killed. The acrobatics Simone performs, if failed, could easily break her neck and/or kill her in an instant. Her choice to stop the behavior and withdraw from Olympic competition, most likely, saved her life.
I believe a more accurate way of describing the “stopping of behavior”, which has been their catalyst for love, is simply that their compensatory behavior can no longer be maintained. I’ve read that many drug addicts “age out” which means a person gets “old enough” where they are simply exhausted from the behavior, in every form of the word, and can no longer maintain their drug habit (See Gabor Mate’s work). That’s when they really do stop using drugs and are ready to accept help to do it.
It’s not a matter of “pushing through” or “sucking it up”. When a person reaches their emotional limit, when their means for feeling loved have been exhausted, they simply begin to shut down. When their state of emotional health has been so completely compromised then it most certainly will negatively impact their mental and physical health. Since all elements of health influence the others, it’s easy to see how chronic injuries or ailments can present or how Simone Biles can no longer focus and concentrate, mentally, in order to prevent the “twisties” from occurring while tumbling along six-degrees-of-freedom (i.e., translating and rotating about the X, Y, and Z axis, in space) during a vault.
Not to leave out Tiger Woods, hopefully the above helps to provide insight as to how Tiger’s father’s influence in his younger years and his promiscuousness and substance use behavior in his later years, impacted his success in golf. When those actions and behaviors were no longer serving as a way to manage his environment, his world came crumbling down from work to home to how he’s “valued” or conditionally loved by people.
I feel incredible compassion and empathy for Simone, Naomi, Michael, and Tiger. Every human has a basic need to feel loved, connected, and a sense of belonging. We’ll do anything to get it and maintain it. Hell, how many wars have been started because of love (not just romantic) or not receiving it?
When the basis of your identity and your feeling valued and loved is directly linked to your behavior, no matter how constructive or revered it is (e.g., gymnastics, tennis, swimming, golf, school grades, work productivity, etc.), there comes a point when that behavior can no longer be maintained. There comes a point when that behavior no longer works to meet your basic, mammalian, emotional need for love. So, we either stop or self-destruct. If it’s the former, hopefully we’ll finally experience the unconditional love all of us humans need just for being the unique individual, in the universe, that we are.
Peace. Love. Connect.