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Seemingly, they have it all. Success, recognition, and wealth. What could there possibly be to feel anxious or down about?

Legendary English cricketer Ben Stokes (I am English; therefore he is absolutely a ‘Legend’) followed Olympic gymnast Simone Biles’ courageous example by citing a decline in emotional wellbeing to withdraw, at least temporarily, from the sports that have brought their unparalleled success. 

It is not for me to speculate on the unique and personal circumstances under which these two great athletes chose to withdraw from competition, but the idea of ‘pressure at the pinnacle’ and mental health is an ever-increasing area of study for psychologists, both in elite sport and business.

People at the top of their sport or business industries, are people. They have physical health and mental health. Whilst popular beliefs prevail that success correlates with good mental health, people at the pinnacle, CEOs to cricketers, have a number of unique challenges which can impact on emotional wellbeing.

The idea of ‘pressure at the pinnacle’ and mental health is an ever-increasing area of study for psychologists, both in elite sport and business.

Dr Robert Chandler

Legends and leaders operate under a microscope; their voices are louder, their every move monitored. In the digital age where everybody has an opinion, they are ever-increasingly aware of the assessment others make of their both performance and personalities.

With success comes pressure. ‘Pressure’ is the psychological stress experienced when performing in any given situation, based on the perceived or objective expectations of the self or others. And with elite athletes or business leaders, the expectations are exceptionally high, and inevitably grow with continued success. Their identities as people may become falsely fused with their performance; “If I do not perform in this match or meeting, I am an incompetent human being”.

What happens at a physical and neurochemical level, when continued pressure is experienced? Recurrent thoughts of; “What happens if I don’t win this race? What happens if I don’t nail this pitch?”, activate the body’s fight – flight – freeze response, flooding the body with adrenaline and cortisol. Prolonged activation and exposure over time leads to a constant state of ‘threat’, leading to restlessness, rumination, and racing thoughts. Given the ever-hectic schedules of athletes and business leaders, there is little time to switch off and to soothe one’s mind and body, which is absolutely required following a prolonged period in the threat system. Couple that with the expectation of a nation or company on one’s shoulders, and therein lies a perfect storm for a deterioration in emotional wellbeing. The physiological and psychological toll of endless months or years of unabating pressure can quite easily lead to burnout in even the most emotionally healthy individuals.

When one’s coping skills and resources are outweighed by life stress, this can lead to deteriorating mental health. Coping resources are too many to list, but do include sleeping well, being connected to a community of people, meditation, strategies to deal with anxiety provoking thoughts and, very importantly for athletes and leaders, time to switch off and reconnect with other values outside of one’s occupation. It may not be that elite athletes and leaders have poor coping skills, but instead, the pressure has simply become too great, and the scales tip.

In truth, our sporting idols and business leaders are human. All humans, despite their achievements and accolades, are faulty, frail and wounded to some degree. They, like us, have childhoods, grief and traumas. Achievement does not mitigate all insecurities. Their unrivaled success does not make them greater than the human condition, despite their perceived strength and greatness.

Critics of Ben Stokes’ and Simone Biles’ recent decision to rest and recuperate will do well to hold this in mind.  

Author – Dr Robert Chandler, Clinical Psychologist, Corporate and Workplace Services Lead – The Lighthouse Arabia – Center for Wellbeing