Author Archives: Karen Howells

About Karen Howells

Karen is a Lecturer in Sport and Fitness at the OU. She is a Chartered Sport Psychologist and has provided sport and performance psychology support to athletes from a wide range of individual and team sports. Her sporting passion is swimming and she is also a UKCC Level 2 swimming coach.

‘Super-human’ athletes are at risk from the post-Olympic blues – here’s why

Karen Howells, The Open University

As nations all over the world welcome their Olympic athletes home, many of us will take a moment to reflect on the whirlwind of psychological pressure, physical strain, elation and disappointment, which they have just experienced. But whether they’re revelling in the glory of hard-won medals, or recovering from heartbreaking defeats, Olympic athletes won’t have long before our attention shifts to the next spectacle.

So what happens to elite athletes when their moment in the spotlight is over? Sadly, it seems likely that many could suffer a case of the post-Olympic blues. Research following the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics found that the return home can be accompanied by confusion, depression, anger, resentment, abandonment and emptiness. We have only to browse the media or peer into the lives of Olympic athletes through their autobiographies to appreciate that dark times await many of these seemingly super-human beings – irrespective of their successes or failures.

Anecdotal reports suggest that the post-Olympic blues are common, with many athletes finding the return to normality difficult to handle. Some even appear to develop symptoms that are in keeping with a diagnosis of depression.

While there’s no consensus in the research that the incidence of depression is any different for elite athletes, research has identified that the public perception of athletes as being mentally tough means that athletes can find it harder to speak out about their struggles.

Even so, the stories of depression following previous Olympics serve as a warning to those leaving Rio; Amanda Beard, Ian Thorpe, Allison Schmidt and McKayla Maroney have all disclosed their experiences of depression. Cassie Patten, bronze medallist in the ten kilometre open water swim at the Beijing 2008 games said:

In the year after the games, I felt lost. I got really depressed … I would come swimming and just sit on poolside and just cry. It was horrible, because I loved swimming.

The curse of celebrity

Previously known only to the staunchest of swimming fans, Adam Peaty is now a household name after 57.13 seconds of record-breaking speed. In this age of social media, celebrity is easy to come by: within seconds of success or failure, the result has been interpreted and reported, and a celebrity is born.

Oh what a feeling – but can it last?

The notion that athletes are “great” is widespread throughout mainstream media, and for a golden moment in time that would positively impact on athletes’ sense of worth and self-esteem. But within weeks – if not days – of returning home, the harsh realities of life as a professional sportsperson will return.

No longer will the athletes be celebrities, who are loved and instantly recognised by their adoring fans. Instead, they will be at the start of another four-year cycle of gruelling training and fierce competition, working toward that distant goal of qualifying for Tokyo 2020.

The impact of this return to the daily grind on elite athletes has not been explored in depth. But it is likely that there is some negative impact on self-worth that may well contribute to the development of mental health issues.

The athletic identity

Issues surrounding identity – that is, someone’s sense of who they are – can also contribute to the likelihood of depression occurring, especially for those who are transitioning out of sport. Olympians whose identity as athletes to the exclusion of other roles may be at the greatest risk. For athletes who are used to measuring their success and worth in terms of their speed, strength and stamina, it can be very difficult to find fulfilment in other domains.

In an interview with NBC, US swimmer Michael Phelps spoke of his debilitating experiences with depression. Following London 2012, he said: “I thought of myself as just a swimmer, and nobody else.”

Phelps’ experiences highlight how important it is for all elite athletes – even those for whom sport remains their number one priority – to prepare for futures after their sporting careers.

Looking forwards

Sport psychologists and coaches stress the importance of setting process, performance and outcome goals in the years before the Olympic Games. Research has shown that the setting of goals can provide focus and markers of progress, as well as serving to maintain self-esteem and promote resilience throughout the difficult training schedules.

But when the Olympics are over, those goals become irrelevant. Accordingly, many athletes lose focus, feel lost and lack direction. As London 2012 gold medallist Victoria Pendleton stated:

You have all this build-up for one day, and when it’s over, it’s: ‘Oh, is that it?’ You’re relieved but kind of sad and numb. It’s over … people think it’s hard when you lose, but it’s almost easier to come second because you have something to aim for when you finish. When you win, you suddenly feel lost.

So irrespective of success or failure, it is vital that athletes re-evaluate their post-Olympic lives, and set new goals – whether they are remaining in sport or not.

As the public divert their attention to other events, and national sporting organisations shift their focus to the next four years, it is important that coaches and teams spend some time focusing on returning athletes, to address the negative impacts of sudden celebrity and dominant athletic identity. At the earliest opportunity, athletes need to form new goals, to move forwards into post-Olympic life.

Karen Howells, Lecturer in Sport and Fitness, The Open University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Rugby – A Blow to the Head, a blow to the sport?

Tonight on BBC Panorama “Rugby and The Brain – Tackling the Truth” the Chief Medical Officer of the World Rugby, Martin Raftery, will announce plans to alter the laws of the game to limit the risk of players suffering concussion. He will confirm that there will be a specific focus on tackling. Only a few days ago, The Telegraph reported that “Jonathan Thomas quits with epilepsy caused by multiple concussion”. Following mild seizures and memory loss that he believes was the result of sustaining multiple concussions, the Worcester forward and former player for Wales, announced that he was retiring from rugby on medical advice. He is not alone, in the media this year, it has been reported that a number of high profile rugby players such as Rory Watt-Jones (Cardiff Blues) and Declan Fitzpatrick (Ulster and Ireland) have had to retire from the sport due to concussion related injuries.

Rugby World Cup (Land Rover MENA) Creative commons license Downloaded from

Now in light of those stories, with the Rugby World Cup underway and all the excitement that has already been ignited, the pragmatic and perhaps more curmudgeon-like souls amongst us may turn our attention to the dangers associated with a sport that kindles our national passions. Of all the injuries that can occur in rugby, concussion is now the number one cause of missing matches through injury at elite levels.

Concussion can occur in any situation where a blow to the head occurs, such as in road traffic accidents (RTA) or as a result of a work-related accident, however, its incidence is becoming increasingly common in athletes who are prone to knocks to the head as part of their sport. Certain sports are more susceptible than others such as: rugby, NFL football, boxing, ice-hockey, rugby, football (soccer), equestrian sports, cycling, and diving. It is so topical an issue that in December a Hollywood blockbuster featuring Will Smith will be released simply entitled “Concussion”. In the United States there has been a prolonged debate about the health dangers of NFL football following the mounting evidence that repeated concussions can lead to degenerative brain disease (Chronic traumatic encephalopathy [CTE]). CTE is a neurodegenerative disorder that is characterised by a diminished ability to think critically, slower motor skills, and can lead to volatile mood swings. Unfortunately, at the current time CTE can only be definitively diagnosed post-mortem. These risks alongside the large financial settlements that have been awarded to former NFL players who have suffered multiple concussions should make us ponder whether rugby may be the next sport in the concussion spot light and whether the risks associated with rugby comprises a price worth paying.

But it is not all doom and gloom, although researchers have found that concussions in rugby are common, it has been found that concussion accounts for 29% of all injuries associated with illegal play, but only 9% of injuries sustained in legal play (Gardner, Iverson, Levi, Schofield, Kay-Lambkin et al., 2015). Accordingly, Roberts, Trewartha, England, and Stokes (2015) investigated collapsed scrums and collision tackles, and found that injury prevention in the tackle should focus on technique with strict enforcement of existing laws for illegal collision tackles. Furthermore, World Rugby is taking a proactive stance on concussion identification and management heading towards “a cross-sport and society approach to concussion to ensure consistency of research, education, prevention and management strategies to further protect athletes and members of the public”.

Sports such as rugby carry risks, but through legal play and active pitch side management of suspected head injuries, we can but hope that this World Cup is remembered for exciting play and home nation success rather than media reports of players with serious head-related injuries.

Concussion in Sport will be covered in a new OU Sport and Fitness module coming soon.


What to expect from the IPC Swimming World Championships (13-19 July 2015)

As Wimbledon heads into it final weekend, another international competition begins on home soil.  Glasgow, a year on from hosting the Commonwealth Games, is the location for the IPC Swimming World Championships which takes place from 13 to 19 July 2015. The Championships will see over 650 swimmers from more than 50 countries looking to perform at the Tollcross International Swimming Centre ahead of the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games.  If you are unfamiliar with the event here is what to expect:

 Team GB

Seventeen swimmers, competing in front of a home crowd, will make up Team GB and comprises a number of world class athletes including multiple gold medal Paralympian Ellie Simmonds, four-time European champion Andrew Mullen, and Sascha Kindred who is competing at his seventh IPC Swimming World Championships.  As the build up to the championships gathered momentum, there was a British upset with S14 Paralympic Champion, Bethany Firth being forced to withdraw after she fractured her wrist in training with just two weeks to go.

Andrew Mullen (used with permission of Scottish Swimming)

Andrew Mullen (image used with permission of Scottish Swimming)

The rise of Disability Sport

Following the success of the London 2012 Paralympic Games an additional £8 million of National Lottery funding was provided to encourage more disabled people into sport.  This has been partially successful with 44 projects, mostly at grassroots level, receiving funding to increase participation in sport.  Last year Sport England identified that although the participation of disabled people in sport had risen, significant barriers still remain.  In their evaluation of their inclusive sport programme, Sport England recognised that swimming was one of the most commonly cited sports that disabled wanted to take part in, but had as yet been unable to do so.  The Paralympics in 2012 had a positive impact on the public perceptions of disability sport, but there is still more to be done.  The most commonly identified barrier cited was the ‘Attitude of Others’, which is in contrast to the practicalities that disabled people have typically identified as being the major barrier to participation in the past.  Although not every individual may aspire to perform at the level that we will see over the coming week, perhaps the excitement and live coverage of the event will not only inspire more disabled people to take part in swimming but also start to challenge some of the more negative attitudes that some people may hold about their participation in sport.

 The event

The event will take place in the 50m pool at Tollcross International Swimming Centre which was the venue for the 2014 Commonwealth Games.  Races will consist of swims in all four strokes (Freestyle, Backstroke, Breaststroke, Butterfly) and in the Individual Medley (IM: all four strokes in one race) across distances that range from 50 metres to 400 metres.  Swimmers are classified according to their disability and compete in events alongside other competitors who have been evaluated as having a comparable level of impairment.

 How are the swimmers classified?

All Paralympic sports involve a classification system to minimise the impact of impairments on the sport, in this case swimming.  Having an impairment is not sufficient for classification, it has to be shown that there is an impact on the sport.  Paralympic swimming caters for three impairment groups – physical, visual and intellectual and athletes compete in the same strokes as able-bodied swimmers namely Freestyle, Butterfly, Backstroke, Breaststroke and the Individual Medley (IM).  The sport class names in Swimming consist of a prefix “S” (Freestyle, Butterfly and Backstroke events), “SM” (Individual Medley), or “SB” (Breaststroke) and a number. The prefixes stand for the event and the number indicates the sport class the swimmers competes in.

The classification number indicates the impairment. Classification 1-10 involves some form of physical impairment, the lower the number the more severe limitation of the swimmer’s impairment.  Classification 11-13 involve visual impairment, and 14 indicates an intellectual impairment where the swimmer has an IQ below 75.

Classification is not a simple task and there have been a number of high profile controversial disputes over classification in recent years.  In the build up to the last World Championships in Montreal in 2013, gold medal Paralympian swimmer, Victoria Arlen (USA) was ruled ineligible to compete. Victoria had spent three years in a vegetative state because of an autoimmune disorder and woke with paralysis of the legs and a number of other symptoms consistent with the neurological condition transverse myelitis.  However, after winning a gold medal in London 2012 in the S6 100m freestyle the International Paralympic Committee ruled that she was ineligible to compete in disability swimming events as she could not provide evidence of having a permanent impairment with no hope for recovery. More information on classification can be found at

With a multitude of events, the scheduled appearance of many Paralympic stars, and several British medal hopes this competition looks set to be an exciting one!  Follow the excitement of the event and the fortunes of the Team GB stars at



Can Jamieson overcome adversity to compete at Rio?

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.

Whatever you do, DO NOT think of a pink elephant…

I walked across a University campus last week following a sport psychology consultation with an elite athlete. As I walked, I reflected on how the session had gone and started thinking about some of the psychological skills we had been working on. This particular athlete was more inclined than others to be negative in his thinking. We had spent some time during that session focusing on the use of positive self-talk and the reframing and the countering some of his common examples of negative self-talk. The athlete had talked about the preparation for his race and explained that he worried about what might go wrong, that he may tire too early in the race, that he may false start, that he may fall behind his competitors, and that he was scared of disappointing his coach. We discussed the link between his thoughts and subsequent behaviours and started to counter some of his more irrational thoughts. For example, we talked about the number of times he had false started, which he admitted was none, and resolved that the concern had little value other than to create a negative state of mind and, more importantly perhaps, by focusing on false starts he was increasing the likelihood of them occurring.

As I reached my office, I saw a sign scribbled hastily on the side of a cardboard box propped up against a railing . . . “Wet paint – do not touch” it said. The child inside me took over from the sport psychologist; it took all my willpower not to touch the railing, just to check. Was the paint really wet? Until that point I had not been aware of any desire to walk over to a random railing and touch it. Where did that urge come from?

It made me think back to some other instances where I had noticed the ubiquitous use of the word NOT or DON’T when giving instructions. As part of a recent observation of a gymnast who was struggling with a ‘mental block’ on some of her moves, I noted that her coach told her: “don’t stand for too long”, and “don’t worry, you are not going to fall”. The effect on the gymnast was immediate and powerful. She paused before her move, looked at her feet, shuffled and paused again, and she looked frightened and concerned. In both of these examples the coach was effectively creating negative self-talk in the gymnast’s mind – she was thinking about standing for too long and was worrying about falling. It is possible that without the instructions the gymnast would have executed her move quickly without fear of falling. In swimming one of the habits that coaches detest is seeing their swimmers breathe on the first arm pull after a turn. I have heard many coaches bark at their swimmers: “don’t breathe out of your turn” and observed the swimmer nod dutifully and accordingly breathe on the very first stroke. The use these negatively framed statements is two-fold. On the one hand it primes the athlete to think negatively, to worry about making a mistake, and it does little to assist the athlete in identifying the correct desirable behaviour.

So, as good practice coaches should try to frame their coaching instructions in a positive manner; tell your athlete what you want them to rather than what you don’t want them to do. In the examples that I have come across, the gymnastics coach could have encouraged her athlete to “start your move as soon as your feet are in place”, and “you are going to be steady and stick it”, and the swimming coach could have encouraged “three strokes before you breathe after each turn!” Using these positively framed instructions as opposed to the negatively framed statements will start to encourage positive thinking and to reinforce the desired behaviours in athletes. And whatever you do, don’t think about the pink elephant.

British Athletes on Fire in Korea

So how well do you know your sport? Can you answer these three questions?

  1. What event is the second largest multisport Games in the world after the Olympics?
  2. At what event have 48% of all recent medallists at the Olympic Games, including Beth Tweddle, Jessica Ennis-Hill, and Michael Jamieson medalled at?
  3. What event is taking place in Gwangju, Korea between 3 and 14 July 2015?

If you don’t know the answer to these questions, then you may not be aware that the Summer Universiade, or the World University Games as it is more commonly known, is currently underway in Gwangju, Korea, and will run until the 14 July 2015. The World University Games is held every two years for student athletes and this year between 12,000 and 13,000 athletes from 141 countries are competing for medals in 21 different sports. Sixty-seven athletes from Great Britain and Northern Ireland have travelled to Korea to compete across 12 different sports to attempt to improve on the medal haul from the 2013 Games held in Kazan, Russia when Great Britain took home 1 gold, 1 silver and 4 bronzes.

Many of the events are already underway and by day five GB has already surpassed its success from two years ago and currently sits in ninth position in the medal table with 2 golds, 2 silvers and 1 bronze. Medals have already been won in the Artistic Gymnastics (Kelly-Jay Simm, Women’s Individual All-Around, GOLD), and in the Swimming (Jay Lelliot, Mens 400m Freestyle, GOLD, Men’s 800m Freestyle, SILVER; James Wilby, Men’s 100m Breaststroke, SILVER; Craig Benson, Men’s 100m Breaststroke, BRONZE). Kelly-Jay Simm is also in with a good chance of more medals as she competes today in the final of the vault, the uneven bars, and the floor exercise. Hopes are high for more medals in the pool as Craig Benson goes into the 200m Breaststroke later today (Tuesday 7 July) with the fastest qualifying time from the semi-finals. He is joined in that final by fellow Scot Calum Tait.

A positive start is likely to have filled Team GBR with confidence as more sports start over the coming days. Follow the medal successes of the team via the British Universities and Colleges Sport (BUCS) and the Games websites.