This week is National Suicide Awareness week, so I wanted to talk about mental illness, sports psychology, and the suicide of one of my favorite and most successful coaches.
In David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech at Kenyon College, he opened with a parable about 3 fish. The first two fish are young fish who are swimming along, and they pass an older fish who says “Good morning, water’s great today”. The younger fish swim along for a while, and one says “What is water?”
Wallace says that the immediate point of the parable is that the most obvious and most important realities are the hardest to see and talk about.
This is where mental illness lives. It’s the water. We all swim in it, we all know it’s there, and for some reason none of us talk about it. We don’t ask for help. We don’t reach out. And when someone we’ve worked with, trained with, loved, or cared about dies from The Disease, we grieve quietly. We don’t wear yellow wristbands or pink ribbons or run in 5Ks. We mask our grief, and we never know that we are constantly surrounded by other Survivors, hiding in plain sight, who have experienced the type of loss we have experienced, but who never talk about it because of the taboo that still shrouds mental illness.
Jerry Heidenreich was the best swimmer Dallas, Texas ever saw. He won 2 gold medals in the medley relays with Marc Spitz, a silver in freestyle, and a bronze in butterfly all during the 1972 Munich Olympics, while his fellow athletes were kidnapped and murdered by Palestinian terrorists.
Marc Spitz came back to California and made millions in endorsement deals. He was America’s hero. He was on the Wheaties box.
Jerry came back to Dallas and eventually took a job doing the one thing he vowed he’d never do- coaching. He coached me at Hockaday during the school year, and then at TBarM during the summers. It is because of him, I can assure you, that I am a triathlete today.
In 2002, Jerry ended his life.
I don’t want to simplify or trivialize the experiences he went through. He was a deeply complex person. He was an alcoholic, an abused child, and often rumored to be bipolar. However, he was also a second place athlete, and that’s what I want to talk about today- the psychology of second place.
There are plenty of social psychology experiments that demonstrate that second place athletes are generally more dissatisfied than 3rd place athletes. The general theory is that athletes engage in counter factual thinking, meaning they compare themselves to what could have been. Second place athletes compare themselves to gold medalists, while bronze medalists compare themselves to 4th place finishers, making them happy they received a medal at all.
Perspective is relative.
There’s some interesting work on Decision Affect Theory, which takes the concept a step further by factoring in the athlete’s expectations before the event in addition to the actual outcome. It’s complicated and nuanced, and probably not appropriate for this blog, but if you’re interested, I highly encourage you to research the subject. It’s fascinating.
My (probably too optimistic) hope in writing this blog is that people who read it become interested or at least aware of sports psychology and mental health in general. After all, like Wallace said, it’s all around us. It hides in plain sight, and we on the best of days with the best intentions, fail to see it. It is the water.