Sophrology and Sport

Blog article by Florence Pasteur

What an incredible summer season of sport!

A feast of football with the Euros (and England’s determined journey to the final) followed by the Tokyo 2021 Olympic Games – a diverse display of 33 sports watched and enjoyed by millions of people across the world.

International sport competitions are fun. They bring everyone together, giving an opportunity for the public and sports amateurs to watch athletes in their prime perform at their best level on the world stage.

But of course, not everyone can win.

Olympic winners and failures

We marvelled at medal-winners and applauded new records. But we also witnessed defeats and disappointments as athletes performed below expectation or withdrew from injury. When this happened it was traumatic. We felt the pain as tears ran and visible stress was etched into faces, regardless of the gender, age, nationality or social level of the participant. Despite their talents and training, the athletes experienced emotional vulnerability, just like you and I.

And yet, it is how sportswomen and sportsmen deal with both triumph and disaster that marks them out.

Two Amazing Women

In this article, I’d like to share the story of two athletes whose individual stories became public knowledge during the Olympics. Simone Biles (USA gymnast) and Helen Glover (British rower partnered with Dr Polly Swan). These women, each incredible powerhouses, demonstrated tenacity in how they met their success, failure and challenges, and became a catalyst for generational change in the process.

Simone Biles

American gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from the women’s team final at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. In fact, she broke down in tears as she explained her decision to protect her body and mind: “Whenever you get in a high stress situation, you kind of freak out,” she said. “I have to focus on my mental health and not jeopardise my health and wellbeing.”

What a statement from the most decorated American gymnast of all time!

So, what was happening to make an experienced athlete stall?

Well, when we win we feel great. It releases ‘feel good’ hormones, and this feeling good means you just want to keep going! It’s how you can continue to win even more competitions, in Simone’s case, reinforcing the record of being THE GOAT: the Greatest Of All Time!

But sometimes the body speaks louder than the mind…

Simone experienced what gymnasts call the “twisties”. She lost her sense of space and dimension in the air; she lost control of her body and failed to land as assertively as usual. Figures and moves her body knew at a cellular level, and that she had executed many times, felt ‘wrong’.

… and yet she quickly recovered

Simone’s response was swift. She took some days out. She pulled out of some finals to give her mind a break. Amazingly, just days later, she won a bronze medal on the beam.

And that’s the difference between athletes and the rest of us… an extraordinary ability of recovery.

Most of us would have packed up and gone home. Simone bounced back (literally!) and found her balance in record time.

How did she do it, and what can we learn?

Of course, we don’t know exactly what each stage of her coping mechanism was. However, we could imagine that these steps from Sophrology practice were included within her personal comeback strategy: 

  1. Observe the situation with an honest mind

We all know that a glass can only contain a certain amount of water. Adding even one more drop means it will pour out of the glass. Simone was mindful of the situation. This doesn’t mean being negative: on the contrary, she raised her awareness. She understood the consequences for her body; if she’d landed badly she could have sustained an injury – and if her mind was not at her best she would not win anyway. Her action of withdrawal was a preventative and positive choice.

“Honesty is the best policy. If I lose mine honour, I lose myself.” William Shakespeare

By taking a more observational view of the situation, you can gain control.

2. Choosing a positive version of events is an attitude to life

Switching into Sophrology mind and practice

“Instead of worrying about what you cannot control, shift your energy to what you can create.” Roy T. Bennett, The Light in the Heart

We must prepare ourselves for the ups and downs of life’s journey with whatever we have at our own disposal. This might include:

  • Using resources from the past
  • Being in the present
  • Leaning on a faith or belief system
  • Understanding our competences and life experience
  • Knowing our ecosystems of values
  • Emulating the attitude of a strong role model

Simone Biles ‘paused’ and found a way forward. We often need to pause, taking a moment to integrate the events that happen around us, and reaching a still point before we move on again.

It isn’t always easy to see these solutions and paths at first, but Sophrology can help you discover the path that enables you to make the best of the situation.

  1. Choosing a positive filter through reflection and resolution

The key point in Sophrology practice is to learn to let perceptions and sensations emerge with no suggestion or direction – only a positive filter.

Once you have this skill, you can begin to feel fabulous. It isn’t hard work trying to feel good because you are able to face more things. I liken it to a competent swimmer about to enter unknown water. They feel safe, and even excited. Even though they don’t yet know the depth, the temperature, the current or any other factor, they know that they will be all right.

When you have the confidence to know that you can deal with everything, that’s a wonderful realisation. You begin to choose to have new  experiences again and again!

“The forces of good and evil are working within and around me, I must choose, and in a free will universe I do have a choice.” Martin Luther.

This is one of the pivotal transcending points in Sophrology. I call it the ‘1001 positive possibilities’. Sophrology practice keeps us connected with our inner ‘boussole’. It’s an extremely reliable navigation system because it’s linked to the full power of your free will. This guides you to make decisions with full consciousness, and with your own pace and rhythm aligned with your own Self. 

Helen Glover

Another athlete who found her own resolution point was British rower Helen Glover. Helen’s motivation is incredible. Already a winning and accomplished sportswoman, she was the first rower to return to competition as a mum and was indeed dubbed ‘the mother of all comebacks’ before the Olympics even began.

Helen has three kids under three years old, giving birth to twins a mere 18 months ago, having sadly lost one twin from her first pair of twins during her first pregnancy. A ‘must-watch’ I recommend is the BBC documentary that covers her journey back to full fitness. She mastered the art of her sport as well as that of motherhood, which speaks more than a thousand words.

Helen achieved greatness by taking gold medals at both London and Rio with Heather Stanning. She then teamed with new partner Dr Polly Swann (a junior doctor in Scotland who put her training on hold to work during lockdown, and is already now back working for the NHS). At Tokyo the pair finished fourth, narrowly missing a place on the podium and a chance for glory.

Was this a terrible failure or an amazing success?

Or neither?

In her message at the end of her endeavour, Helen gave a lasting legacy to her children and to the rest of the world with this simple yet so truthful statement:

“Failing is no problem, as long as you try.” Helen Glover

So well done. Not only to Simone Biles, Helen Glover and Dr Polly Swann and Simone Biles, but to every single athlete and person who has worked to develop their own ‘super resilience system’. In a living world, where anxiety is in every corner of our lives, being equipped to deal with it is a must. For those who haven’t found yet what works for them, Sophrology is one of many tools we can access for living better now, and for future generations.