Tokyo 2021 Olympics - The Fallout
I'm sure you have all witnessed the lovely scenes of athletes arriving back at London Heathrow to flag waving, cheering and emotional friends and family. As a step mum to a silver medallist, it was a lovely occasion to meet my stepson and his crew off the plane with other parents. A fitting celebration to a remarkable achievement.
But what happens when it's all gone a bit awry and athletes are arriving home feeling like they have underperformed or let people down? What's the best way to manage that?
Well my stepson's journey to that Olympic final has not been straightforward. There have been many ups and downs, and many occasions where there has been crushing disappointment to be managed. In my experience, dealing with the immediate practicalities is a good way to start. What does your athlete need? Food, money, sleep, solitude, company, the laundry doing etc? Getting through the first hours like this with hour by hour simple, practical support helps the first few days to take care of themselves.
I would not suggest initiating a conversation about the outcome of the competition or any of the mistakes that may or may not have been made. If your child wants to talk about it, they will, and it may not be to you, or it may be in weeks, months or years time. Everyone processes things in different ways and at different speeds, giving them the space to do this is a real skill. Also, I would caution you against trying to shield them from what has happened in their competition by dodging the realities or embellishing their performance if you do talk about it. Although this is the hardest things to do as a parent when your child is hurting, sitting alongside them with the pain and being honest about it is probably the best policy.
That is absolutely not to say that you shouldn't be proud of them. In my opinion, the process of involving yourself in sport, putting yourself in a position where you might fail, publicly and putting yourself through hours of exhausting training to get there is worthy of HUGE pride. The Olympic stage is the biggest of them all, and the risk of failure is massive, there simply are no guarantees in sport, so to be there at all is a remarkable feat of performance and bravery in itself.
But equally, if as a parent, you have heard all the hype, supported and believed the statements of intent, funded large parts of the journey, ordered the bunting and organised the watch party – don't beat yourself up, if when things fall short in competition, the first emotion that you feel as a parent is NOT pride. In fact, the fallout for a parent from this kind of experience of high expectation, high emotion, expected elation which turns suddenly and sometimes publicly to horror, upset, disappointment and sometimes shame, can be akin to PTSD. Body and mind quite simply go into shock. Sit with it, and hopefully the pride will come with time.
When an athlete has had a disappointing result at a big competition, or has made a mistake that has changed the outcome or may be seen as letting people down, the emotions they go through can be compared to bereavement. Obviously different athletes react in different ways, but denial, disbelief, rage, despair, bargaining (what if I had done this?) and depression may all rear their heads before a state of equilibrium and acceptance is found (if it ever completely is). Some of these emotions can cause young people to react in rash ways with uncharacteristic outbursts, turning on team-mates or unwise public posts on social media. As a parent this is really difficult to deal with, but cutting them some slack and understanding that their behaviour comes from a place of deep, deep distress is probably the best way to go. And also realising that these things blow over, another story comes along, tomorrow's fish and chip paper and all that.
And that brings me on to the issue of social media. This arena is a very difficult place in which to clock up an underperformance. I have been flabbergasted by the vitriol of the armchair critics who are passing judgement, often anonymously and usually without much knowledge, within seconds of a disappointing result. Many athletes choose to withdraw from social media at a major championship because of the negative distraction it can present, but that needs to be up to your athlete and their own perspective. It's a hard one, because equally I have seen some of the most heartwarming posts and wonderful congratulatory messages sent to athletes facing the fallout from a poor competition. But it's a fickle audience and you never quite know what you are going to get, so proceed with caution. And, as a parent try not to do what I have fallen foul of this time, and get embroiled in any kind of social media spat. I did come to my senses eventually, but it is hard to resist when the criticism is so nasty and the victims of it so undeserving. Try your best to walk away!
I saw a few athletes who apologised to the public for their performances, communicating an overwhelming feeling of letting people down. The research into what the public want and enjoy about major sporting events like the Olympics tells us that people are uplifted by the joy winning medals brings them, so that's what they want. I get this, of course. I have been looking at the medal table and rejoicing as athletes make it to the podium, it is uplifting. I think what many spectators fail to realise though, is that EVERYONE is doing their absolute best, for some this will be winning, for others this will simply getting selected and both of those are brilliant.
In the words of the Zimbabwean Olympic flag bearer and men's single sculler, Peter Purcell-Gilpin who finished 21st “To give everything you have, is all you can do, and if that's not enough, that's ok”
In all our deliberations, conversations and thinking about our young athletes, our children, and what they have done we should perhaps go back to the Olympic motto
Faster, Higher, Stronger – Together
Note, the motto is NOT Fastest, Highest, Strongest. It's not about being the best of everyone, it's about being the best of ourselves and striving to improve. And the word 'together' which was added in 2020 is obviously about pulling together, being a team - be it a sports team, a nation or a family. Hug them close and strive on together.