Is it better for athletes to stick together when it comes to relationships or are there more benefits from being able to lean on someone from outside of the sport? Verity Ockenden examines affairs of the heart
In sport, we often talk about the importance of the people we surround ourselves with. We are influenced to work hard if those around us are also working hard and we consciously seek good “team culture”, knowing that happiness, motivation and success become contagious given the right environment.
We live and breath our work, paying close attention to the minutiae of our daily routines, but we don’t often talk about the roles our personal relationships play in our careers. Understandably, the desire to maintain a certain level of privacy and professionalism around our romantic lives is what keeps this topic off limits most of the time, but that doesn’t lessen the impact that it can have on both an athlete’s wellbeing and their performance.
Speaking from my own personal experiences, as well as listening to those of my peers, it’s clear that creating and maintaining healthy relationships while dedicating oneself to an ambitious goal has its complexities, and these vary from person to person, depending on their scenario.
One only need watch the concern with which Gjert Ingebrigtsen reacts to news of his sons’ relationships on their YouTube documentary in order to understand the gravity of their potentially disruptive consequences to the elite lifestyle.
It is an expenditure of energy that isn’t considered available to spare, and a potential catalyst to changing priorities. Embarking on a relationship (or deciding to leave one, for that matter) can feel like a leap into the unknown at the best of times, and belonging to a community that tends to value continuity and “control of the controllables” can make it seem even riskier.
However, as the Ingebrigtsen documentary goes on to show, making space for good relationships can actually also bring out the best in an athlete. As single-minded as we might like to be, most humans, at the end of the day, need love.
Finding that love and keeping it isn’t always straightforward, though. Even with the best of intentions, most people make a bit of a mess of it along the way. For athletes, it becomes an even greater minefield.
By nature we can be a demanding, selfish, boring and frankly confusing lot. When dating, people’s preconceived perceptions of us can differ wildly from the reality of our existence. While competing and indeed on social media, we usually come across as strong, fearless, confident competitors with everything going for us and so the person that we really are at home is often quite different to the idealised version of us that somebody has imagined.
Many are surprised by the fragility and insecurity exposed behind closed doors, finding themselves faced with challenges they weren’t necessarily expecting from the relationship. This, topped with the practicalities of a strict training and sleep schedule and lengthy absences due to camps and competitions, can make us pretty difficult people to spend time with.
When it does go wrong, regardless of fault, of course our mental health is likely to suffer and this in turn can affect athletic performance. One might well assume that an unhappy personal life would directly correlate with poorer results, but often this is not the case. One athlete I spoke to noted that during an unhealthy relationship they actually trained harder and more consistently than ever. Though they felt isolated and suffocated by their situation, their emotional response to it was to use running as their only outlet and distraction from reality. Looking back they recognise that their performance during that period was elevated, but now realise that the “fight or flight” survival mode that motivated them to throw themselves into training so intensively was not sustainable.
Emotional angst can only fuel the fire for so long before burnout occurs. Unfortunately, many athletes also find it difficult to get out of relationships that are not good for them. There’s an unwillingness to “rock the boat” during important phases of the season or cut ties with people who are involved in facilitating a lifestyle that works well for the athlete.
Some athletes consciously choose partners who share the same sport or discipline, benefitting from a shared understanding of each other’s goals and needs, while others find the intensity of this kind of relationship too much.
Take, for example, distance star Eilish McColgan and her partner, Michael Rimmer, a now retired three-time Olympian over 800m. Eilish acknowledges that, for her, having a partner who understands the sport makes life a lot easier.
“Being an athlete is a strange life – involving a lot of time travelling and being around other professional athletes,” she says. “I found, in previous relationships, my athletics was an issue.
“Other people picture it as glamorous and that whilst they are working a ‘real job’ – you’re living the high life. And so it used to cause friction as the reality of being an athlete is actually very far removed from what others think it is! Having a partner who gets the sport removes the mystery of what your profession truly is. We have a really good understanding of each other and what is important to us – both career wise but personally, too. We are a team and we find happiness being together.”
As well as providing invaluable practical assistance for Eilish, Michael is also a key source of emotional support. Understandably, Eilish feels the pressure of wanting to perform well on behalf of her partner and family, knowing that they invest just as much effort into her career as she does, and so of course it “can be upsetting to feel you’ve let them down.” Thankfully, having found a partner such as Michael, however, Eilish always has his reassuring perspective at hand.
Similarly, Irish middle-distance talent Georgie Hartigan and partner to reigning men’s 1500m world champion Jake Wightman shares that, when leading such an unusual lifestyle “it’s nice that someone gets that you have to go up to the mountains for four weeks at a time or probably don’t want to spend too much time on your feet between training sessions”.
Georgie is also lucky enough to live and train with her partner, so the logistical problems of spending time together are reduced by the similarity of their seasonal plans. They both understand that they only have “a short window to achieve [their] athletic goals and therefore just do [their] own thing and support each other through it”.
Georgie also recognises that athletics can be a selfish sport but is willing to accept there will be times when each of them have to put their training before everything else. Jake has also had a positive impact for Georgie in terms of inspiring her to better her own performances.
She remembers being “quite lazy” with training before she started seeing him, and has since learned from him exactly “what it takes to compete on a high level and how to be more professional”. Being in an athlete-athlete relationship is not without its challenges, however, as periods of success and failure are not always going to be in perfect synchronisation.
For Georgie, last year was a good example of how that can be difficult as “Jake had the best season of his life and I couldn’t race due to having glandular fever. It actually was really fun for me to just be able to watch his season without worrying about my own races so that helped to take my mind off it, but it was sad not to be in Oregon to watch him, which I would have been had I been healthy.”
As painful as it was spectating those championships from the sidelines, Jake’s complete understanding of ow heartbreaking athletics can be was a hugely comforting element of their partnership, and Georgie also appreciates being able to celebrate together when things go well as they both know exactly what work has gone into the achievements.
This isn’t a formula that works for everyone, however. I’ve met many an athlete who has found the “hyperawareness” of living with a sporting partner difficult.
Sometimes a partner’s extremely high understanding of athletics’ ups and downs has caused unhealthy levels of scrutiny in a relationship, and made it feel difficult to switch off.
For one athlete I chatted with, their relationship with a non-sporty person enabled them to feel far more stable mentally. Allowing space for their authentic self, for new experiences and differing perspectives made their relationship with running a lot healthier and created an environment in which they felt relaxed and fulfilled. It helped them to cope with periods of injury better and their time spent together on holidays provided a welcome energy boost.
It’s also worth noting that just because a person does not understand the particulars of athletics doesn’t mean that they cannot draw parallels to their own experiences and passions. In fact, we can often learn the most interesting and useful things in life from those who bring a fresh approach that we are not familiar with.
Either way, I think people are increasingly coming to the realisation that emotional wellbeing and performance are inextricably linked. We’re learning that balanced lives which include other interests outside of our niche world can often actually add to, rather than take away, from our ability to perform at our best.
My personal takeaway given my own experiences of unhappy relationships, break-ups, periods of loneliness and of course happy relationships is that, at whatever point you find yourself, it’s important to put your own happiness ahead of your athletics performance (that will follow of its own accord!) and to remember to nurture who we are both outside of our sport and outside of our relationships, before losing ourselves completely in either of them.
» This article first appeared in the April issue of AW, which you can read here