BBC Sport has recently reported on Olympic gold medallist David Wilkie’s predictions about the relative chances of Scottish swimmers Ross Murdoch and Michael Jamieson being selected for the British team for the 2016 Rio Olympics. Michael Jamison competed in London 2012 and was one of our few medal winners in the pool winning silver medal in the Men’s 200m breaststroke. However, he has seen a drop in form since then being beaten into silver in the Commonwealth Games by then relative newcomer Ross Murdoch and then failing to qualify for the World Championships this year. However, there has been some indication that Jamieson is heading in the right direction as he decisively beat Murdoch in the 200 breaststroke at the Scottish Nationals in Tollcross, Glasgow several weeks ago. He is currently ranked 28th in the world this year. Murdoch’s success has been somewhat more consistent, having won Gold at the Commonwealth Games, he qualified for the World Championships behind the world record holder in the 50m and 100m breaststroke, Adam Peaty.
Wilkie is reported as saying that Jamieson will find it difficult to make the team and that “I think it mentally destroyed Michael for a while and he had to go away and take stock and work out where he wants to be. . . . He’s a class swimmer but he took a big mental hit”. Both swimmers have a hard task ahead of them – the 200m breaststroke is one of the most hotly contested events in British Swimming with a number of swimmers posting FINA A times in 2015 and being in with a real chance of GB team selection, their current world ranking as at 8 July 2015 is shown in the brackets: Adam Peaty (2), Andrew Willis (5), Craig Benson (10), Calum Tait (16) and James Wilby (25), all being in with a chance of qualifying for the two positions for Rio.
So David Wilkie is probably right that Jamieson will struggle to make the team. However, this is possibly due to the high number of high quality world class breaststrokers that Great Britain has produced over the last few years, rather than the mental hit that Wilkie refers to. Academic research that I carried out as part of my PhD, suggests that the mental destruction (which could characterised as adversity) that Wilkie refers to may be in Jamieson’s favour rather than being a debilitating factor. In research that involved an analysis of Olympic Swimming Champion’s autobiographies (Howells and Fletcher, 2015), we identified that swimmers competing at the highest level experience (adversarial) growth following negotiation of adversity. Adversity was characterised as comprising developmental stressors (e.g., dyslexia), external stressors (e.g., organisational stressor), embodied states (e.g., injury), psychological states (e.g., body image concerns) and externalized behaviours (e.g., self-harm) and involved a threat to the individual’s identity as a world class swimmer. The growth that followed a transitional process, which included seeking meaning and the enlistment of social support, was characterised by enhanced relationships, increased spiritual awareness, prosocial behaviour, and importantly in the context of discussion about Michael Jamieson’s fortunes, superior performance. Furthermore, in a study of psychological resilience in Olympic champions, Fletcher and Sarkar (2012) found that “most of the participants argued that if they had not experienced certain types of stressors . . . including highly demanding adversities such as parental divorce, serious illness, and career-threatening injuries, they would not have won their gold medals” (p. 672).
Maybe Jamieson can use the disappointment of the last two years to grow psychologically and achieve the superior performance that he needs to qualify for Rio next year. But even if he can he will be up against some of the world’s best breaststrokers just to qualify.
Fletcher, D., & Sarkar, M. (2012). A grounded theory of psychological resilience in Olympic Champions. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 13(5), 669-678.
Howells, K., & Fletcher, D. (2015). Sink or Swim: Adversity- and Growth-Related Experiences in Olympic Swimming Champions. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 16, 37-48.