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Reimagining elite athletic performance: The promise of Internal Family Systems

Elite athletes, in their quest for excellence, frequently face mental health challenges. From the relentless push for performance to the psychological pressures of maintaining top-tier status, they grapple with symptoms ranging from mild stress to severe disorders. Recent statistics are alarming: up to 5% of elite athletes experience burnout and adverse alcohol use, with nearly 45% grappling with anxiety and depression. Many prominent athletes, such as Simone Biles, Ben Stokes, Virat Kohli, and Naomi Osaka, have bravely come forward to share their own mental health battles, sending a powerful message to the world: being the best in one’s field often comes at a significant mental toll. Their testimonies shed light on an essential truth – possessing a gold medal does not guarantee golden mental health.

As a psychologist practising the Internal Family Systems Model (IFS), I have discerned patterns in elite athletes’ mental landscapes. Despite their unique challenges, these individuals’ internal systems mirror the complexities found in the general population. This pattern reveals a significant opportunity: to tailor and apply IFS strategies specifically for the unique challenges faced in elite sports and performance. In this article, I aim to present my perspective on the potential application of IFS principles to the elite sporting world.

The Internal Family Systems model

The IFS model, an evidence-based approach, has shown efficacy in treating various DSM disorders, including PTSD and depression. At its core, IFS posits that our psyche is composed of “Parts” that interact and have distinct roles, often formed during our formative years. These Parts play out like characters in a well-scripted drama – the managers, our diligent caretakers, proactively control emotions through activities such as planning, judging, and self-criticism. The firefighters are our emergency responders, reactive Parts aiming to alleviate pain through extreme behaviours. Finally, the exiles are the wounded parts, holding onto traumatic memories and often stuck in a state of overwhelm. Alongside these Parts is the Self, an innate aspect of our being with powerful healing and rejuvenating qualities. This Self, akin to the playfulness, presence, and connectedness experienced during activities like laughing wholeheartedly or being in awe of a beautiful sunset, is often obscured by Parts assuming survival roles.

By understanding these roles and interactions within the IFS framework, we gain a powerful lens to view our behaviours and patterns. A strong internal relationship between the Self and the Parts fosters “Self leadership,” empowering individuals to confront previously avoided challenges, take risks, and tap into their true potential.

The IFS and sport relationship

At first, it might not seem like IFS model and sports have much in common. But if you look closer, there’s a fascinating connection. The relationship between IFS and sports provides a unique lens to understand the multifaceted nature of athletes. Athletes often carry a duality: while they may showcase physical excellence on the field, internally, profound struggles can brew. The rigorous conditioning and high demands of elite sports can lead to deeply ingrained mindsets, emphasizing pushing past one’s limits, often overshadowing their core essence or Self.

This can result in a conflict where the athlete’s internal Parts, formed over years of training, might both fuel their performance and yet, in some instances, sabotage their well-being. Additionally, the support systems around athletes, while well-meaning, may often misunderstand their internal battles, amplifying their challenges. The IFS model in therapy serves as a tool to unravel these deep-seated beliefs, emotions, and memories, guiding athletes to reconnect with their Self and make choices aligned with their holistic well-being.

A poignant example of this intricate relationship between IFS and sports is reflected in the journey of an athlete I encountered and helped.

Case example

I worked with an athlete who had just returned from the Olympics and also suffered from PTSD. While her physical prowess placed her at the pinnacle of her sport, mentally, she grappled with a tumultuous storm. This duality of being an emblem of physical excellence while internally confronting profound distress was both intriguing to me and heart-wrenching.

Her support system, comprising coaches, friends, and family, often misunderstood her internal battles. Though well-intentioned, pressures of team selections, societal expectations around athletic stoicism, and the relentless environment of high-performance sports amplified her struggles. She found herself caught in a whirlwind where the challenges of her mental health and the demands of elite sportsmanship collided, impacting basics like eating, sleeping, and even communication.

Our therapeutic journey together as therapist and client, rooted in the IFS model, faced challenges right from the start, primarily because of the deeply ingrained Parts of her within her psyche. These Parts had been meticulously shaped through her rigorous training and experiences as an elite athlete from a young age. They were reinforced by each training session where she was taught to exile her fears and inner voice, push past her body’s cries for rest, and continuously aim for better performance, even at her own physical and mental detriment.

The Self in IFS is the core essence, embodying clarity, compassion, and confidence, serving as a calm and balanced centre untouched by external pressures or traumas. In the case of this athlete, her connection to this inner core had been overshadowed by dominant Parts that had developed rigid rules over time. As we delved into each session, we sought to access this Self and cultivate relationships with these dominant Parts, be they managers, firefighters, or exiles. We embarked on an exploration to understand their inception: How and why had these Parts adopted such stringent roles? What experiences had instilled the belief that, for example, one had to push oneself beyond limits to attain success? And most crucially, what apprehensions did they harbor about loosening their control?

Creating dialogues between the Self and these Parts, we unveiled layers of emotions, memories, and deeply ingrained beliefs. Past instances, such as the conditioning from youth to override fear or the unrelenting lessons of never yielding despite the cost, were explored.

For instance whether it was the instinctual fear she felt or the natural desire to rest after pushing herself to the limit, she was consistently advised against yielding. The “no pain, no gain” mentality became a driving force, with managers upholding the belief that she should never quit, no matter what. Her internal joke about athletes asking “how high?” when told to jump was a telling example of this conditioning. Her bewilderment during an exercise class, when others stopped at 17 reps instead of pushing to the stated 20, epitomized how deeply rooted this rigid mindset had become. One stark illustration of this mindset was an incident during a cardiovascular exercise. When instructed to go “to failure,” she sought clarity on the term. For many, “failure” during such an exercise might indicate a certain level of discomfort or fatigue. But to her, conditioned by her elite training, it meant pushing herself to the absolute limit. She drove her body to such an extreme that she ended up with blood emerging from her nose and mouth. This wasn’t a sign of giving up; to her, it was the true embodiment of “failure” – total, unreserved commitment, even at the risk of self-harm.

As the athlete developed a compassionate relationship with these Parts, she began to differentiate between the directives of the managers and the fears of the exiles. This clarity allowed her to be with, witness, unburden and welcome back those exiles which previously where shamed into darkness because they were once seen as threatening the chance of winning. Her exiles were able to be shown affection and given a sense of belonging.

With these exiles felt and acknowledged, the managers started to loosen their rigid grip. They realized she wasn’t the same young girl anymore, and she could handle things differently. As the work continued, these once steadfast manager Parts began to see the merit in this new approach. Recognizing the stability, trust, and Self-energy within the system, they began to adjust. This was evident in her increased trust in her body’s signals, her capacity to assert her needs, and her improved athletic consistency and performance.

Real-life choices began reflecting this shift. She started pondering whether to race or take breaks, listening to her body instead of the internalized voices of her past coaches. She began asserting her needs, even if it meant confronting a coach or requesting changes during international trips.

Even though we’ve made significant progress, the journey is still ongoing. This process wasn’t always easy for her, and there were moments of facing tough truths. The success we achieved speaks volumes about her courage to explore, confront, and change deep-seated beliefs, especially within such a demanding profession.

The potential of IFS in the world of elite athletes

It’s evident from the transformative journey within the case study that the IFS model offers a ground-breaking approach for elite athletes. The intense pressures of professional sports, while equipping athletes with unmatched physical abilities, often create a myriad of internal conflicts. These aren’t merely struggles that pertain to performance but touch the very essence of their being.

Imagine an entire world of elite athletes equipped with the knowledge of their internal Parts and an understanding of their Self. This isn’t merely a therapeutic solution but a revolutionary shift in how athletes train and understand themselves. The potential extends beyond individual athletes. Coaches, team psychologists, and the entire support system around an athlete could benefit from understanding and employing the principles of IFS. By doing so, they could foster environments where athletes not only reach their peak physical potential but also grow into well-rounded, emotionally healthy individuals.

Furthermore, for athletes transitioning from their professional careers, the tools and insights gained from IFS can help navigate the complex emotions of retirement, identity shifts, and reinventing their life’s purpose. Recognizing and appreciating their internal parts can provide clarity during these challenging transitions, creating a smoother path towards their next adventure.

Conclusion

Elite athletes represent the pinnacle of human physical achievement. Not only do they stand at the zenith of their respective fields, but they are also often role models for our children and ourselves, embodying discipline, perseverance, and resilience. Yet, beneath their muscular exteriors and glittering accolades lies a complex web of emotions, beliefs, and memories.

Internal Family Systems presents a promising approach to untangle these complexities, offering athletes a path to holistic well-being that complements their physical prowess. As more athletes, coaches, and support systems embrace the IFS model, we stand at the cusp of a new era in sports — one where mental and emotional well-being is as celebrated and pursued as physical excellence. It’s a future where champions aren’t just defined by their medals but by their mastery over their mind, body, and spirit. In fostering this mastery, we not only uplift these athletes but also provide inspirational stories of resilience and mental fortitude for the next generation as they look up to these winners.

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  • Azaan Vhora

    Azaan Vhora is a psychologist using IFS for mental health with a focus on sports and performance psychology, complex trauma, and OCD. www.azaanvhora.com

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