For athletes, “the retail world has given way to a blurry period”

Does containment promote the development of depressive disorders in professional athletes? A recent study by the medical service of the International Federation of Professional Football Associations (FIFpro) tends to show this: 57% of footballers have shown signs of depression since the end of competitions. Edouard Philippe’s announcements do not reassure them since the Prime Minister hissed on Tuesday for the end of football and rugby competitions. Meriem Salmi has been a psychologist for almost forty years, more than half of whom are in the sports world. She notably held the post of head of psychological monitoring at the National Institute of Sport and Physical Education (Insep, renamed in 2009 National Institute of Sport, Expertise and Performance) from 2000 to 2013, before to return there as an expert in 2017. She analyzes the impact of this period during which depression awaits athletes.

How is the period of confinement, which takes place in high season for many athletes, likely to cause depressive disorders in some of them?

They are primarily human beings. The fact that everything ends like this, in a rather brutal way, is a very violent phenomenon. For them, sport is not a hobby but a profession, and above all a story of passion. It’s about their identity. We are talking about a very special, extremely demanding world. Even before the Covid-19 arrives, whether on vacation or in the resting phase, these athletes must constantly pay attention to their diet, the way they recover, live and exist. They consume their days differently from others. What confinement does not allow. This is where it can be complicated for them, even if they are aware that today the health crisis has priority.

Retirement and injuries are often considered to be factors of depression. What can be special about the Covid-19?

With this coronavirus, there is a lot of data that we do not have. This is a paradox for very high performance athletes, who are used to adjusting everything to the nearest millimeter. The retail world, where everything is reviewed, has given way to a period of vagueness, where they no longer have control, especially over the dates of recovery. And an athlete’s tempo is competition. Take the Olympic athletes: they hear that the Olympic Games could be postponed to 2021, without being sure that they would take place. Ditto for team sports: the championships may not resume, or so this summer … but it is not sure. These incessant contradictions mean that they cannot build anything. At the same time, they are used to living and managing uncertainty. They prepare extremely well without being sure of winning. But already, when we have dates, even distant, they will not experience this moment in the same way. That doesn’t mean they’ll be delighted. They will probably be confused, frustrated, anxious, impatient, but they will have a goal.

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Are some athletes more at risk of depression than others at a time like this?

Behind athletes, there are more or less fragile people. The family context, the romantic relationship, the financial sacrifices vary according to each. This balance necessarily plays on whether or not to live this stage well. It will not be the same for athletes who have been affected by the Covid-19, from near or far. I have had some who have experienced terrible things, with parents hospitalized in intensive care. On the other hand, and contrary to what some people think, I do not believe that athletes suffer more from confinement than we do. They are used to constantly adapting. Likewise, I do not believe that certain sports would cause more psychopathological disorders than others.

Can’t such a forced break also have the opposite effect, and boost them psychologically?

There are some for whom it does a lot of good. At the moment, we have more time to work on the background, since the time is no longer reserved for the preparation of competitions. Pre-competitive stress management is no longer taken into account. We can therefore do a more serene job, even if the situation is anxiety-provoking. Some take the opportunity to make more appointments with me. There is no more pressure, the round trips by plane, the jet-lag. It is also this rhythm which is stressful.

Over the past decade, the prevention of depression has grown in the world of sports, where speech is gradually being freed. Should we intensify the psychological monitoring of athletes after confinement?

Rugby players Mathieu Bastareaud and Pascal Papé have done a lot of good for the sports world by exposing their depression. At the same time, many things have been put in place in recent years, as at Insep, to strengthen this psychological support, even if we still have work. To tell the truth, I am less worried about people who are followed than those who are not. It is still necessary to be vigilant for the first cities. And you have to add the coaches and the coaching, because it’s not easy for them either. But I notice that nobody really stopped the follow-ups. And we are already watching over this issue of recovery, preparing for post-containment.

Read alsoDepression: when professional athletes lose ground

What aspects are you working with them to manage this period and prevent any psychological disorder?

I’m trying to set up athletes over time, without having that sword of Damocles tied to future announcements. We don’t wait for a date, we move forward, we learn to train differently, to build something else, because nobody knows today when we will resume completely and without risk. Psychological work makes it possible to accept reality, even if it is difficult to accept. If we want to go under the illusion of being able to control everything, we will find ourselves very quickly in anxiety. The idea is to build something, using the means that we have at our disposal. In any case, I hope that what we are working on there, we can keep at the exit, because it contributes to the good balance of the athletes.

Roman Métairie


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