Holly Bradshaw on Post-Olympic Blues

In 2022, Holly Bradshaw published a paper on post-Olympic blues*. Later that year, I discussed the paper with her. While it is an academic study, it had a real personal resonance with her, as she told me of her experience after the 2016 and the 2021 Olympics, where she won a medal.

Why did you write the paper?

I had written my undergraduate dissertation on overcoming adversity.  I saw a post from a researcher who wanted athletes to take part in her study about post-Olympic blues, something I had suffered quite badly after Rio.  So I felt that I wanted to be part of that, and we kept in touch.

Off the back of that, she asked if I was interested in doing a piece of research together that would be co-authored and more in-depth.  She thought that through my contacts with Olympians, we would be able to get a lot of good data.  But it all started with me having a passion, from having experienced the blues to wanting to see changes in the kind of support athletes get to make sure no one else had to go through it.

Holly Bradshaw, photo by Martin Bateman

What is meant by “Post Olympic blues”?

It varies from person to person, and people have it in quite different forms.  I actually suffered with it worse after Tokyo than after Rio, which shows that no matter whether you’re successful or not, you can still experience the blues.  I think it’s coming down after experiencing something massive, something you’ve probably worked towards all your life.  You return home from the Olympics, normality resumes, and you think this is very different.  For me it was like you’re feeling down.  After Rio, I felt I’d done a really good job finishing fifth, and I was really happy, but it seemed that nobody really cared.  No one from the team said ‘well done…amazing effort’ or anything like that.  I felt I came home to being a failure because I didn’t win a medal.  For me, that was really hard because I thought I’d done a good job.

Are there different kinds of blues?

I think that athletes returning home from the Olympics experience varying levels of depression.  If you feel you have underperformed and will have to wait another four years to get another chance or if you performed really well and came home not feeling how you would have expected to have felt.  Athletes are very resilient and very mentally strong but one of the times where we are very vulnerable is after the Olympics.  I’ve known a lot of people who felt very down and found it difficult to train for months afterward.  It was especially difficult after Tokyo, which was a five-year build-up, and with all the Covid issues.  I achieved something that I wanted to achieve my whole life but when I returned home, I had no energy and felt so down for a good few months.  And that is just not me.  And it’s interesting now, a year later [we spoke in October 2022], that I’m sitting down comparing the energy I have now versus last year.  And it’s so different because now I have so much energy, I’m so proactive.  Last year, I would just lie on the sofa and get upset for no reason, which is not like me at all.  My husband would say, ‘What is wrong?’ And I couldn’t tell him because I didn’t know anything was wrong and I couldn’t explain that.  It’s a very vulnerable situation for athletes.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – JUNE 26: Holly Bradshaw of Blackburn celebrates after setting the new national record during the Women’s Pole Vault Final on Day Two of the Muller British Athletics Championships at Manchester Regional Arena on June 26, 2021, in Manchester, England. (Photo by Ashley Allen/Getty Images)

Does it only happen after the Olympics and not after a World Championship?

Some research talks about the “celebration” of Olympic athletes in a way that you don’t get with the World or European championship.  In the six months leading into the Olympics, you have things like kitting out.  The event is on the news.  Everything seems to be about the Olympics.  And if you’re part of it, you feel that you’re part of an exciting movement.  And when you’re at the Games, you feel really special.  You get a token to use in any vending machine for free, Diet Coke, etc.  Loads of things are thrown at you to make you feel special.  That is great.  But then there is that stark comparison when you come home, and you have nothing.  And that is difficult.   Athletes who have been to multiple Olympics have told me that they plan things for afterward, like a holiday, to help them move on and get over it.  I think having educational sessions just highlighting what the blues is would be helpful because I think a lot of athletes don’t think that they will feel like this.  People don’t think they’ll feel like it until they do, and then it’s too late.

My experience, and that of a lot of other athletes I think, is hearing ‘your amazing, you are special, going to the Olympics’ and then the day you get home – nothing, no support.  And, of course, a lot of coaches have been working flat out, and they want to have a break and separate themselves from sport.  But that can be really difficult for the athlete, if the coach is not around, you can feel that you just dropped back into the world and are left to pick yourself up.

Because athletes relate to British athletics, but the Olympics is BOA, is there a danger of falling between the two?

I think that could definitely be an issue because we’re competing for Team GB, and although British athletics are there to support us, there probably is a gap where you can fall between the two.  Perhaps BOA are thinking ‘Holly has British Athletics to support her’ but they might be thinking ‘she is part of team GB’.

Holly Bradshaw, MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – JULY 08: Holly Bradshaw of Blackburn competes during the Women’s Pole Vault Final during Day One of the UK Athletics Championships at Manchester Regional Arena on July 08, 2023 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Stephen Pond – British Athletics/British Athletics via Getty Images)

You used the word “commodification” – why did you mean by that?

I am an intrinsically motivated person, but I’ve not always been like that.  I had to work very hard over the years to become intrinsically motivated for the protection of my own mental health.  Being an elite athlete is a very short window in your life, and I don’t want to destroy my mental health so that I can’t enjoy the rest of my life, and I felt that it was going that way.  It’s easy to be obsessed with PRs.  We all know that everyone wants to go out and do a PR and win a medal, but that need not be your sole goal.  And for me, changing that mentality to ‘I’m doing it because I love it.  I’m doing it because it’s fun’ is important.   That, for me, has been the way I’ve changed it and that has helped me to be happier and to stay in the sport.

The other mentality can be thrust upon you from external sources, for example, by a company that will drop you if you don’t do well enough or the pressure of losing funding if you don’t hit the targets.  It is in the culture of sport that you are there to win, and that is hammered home.  There are not many organizations out there that promote an intrinsic culture.  Some sports have a ‘what it takes to win’ model, and I think that’s what’s wrong with sports.  Perhaps a better motto would be ‘be the best prepared, the best supported athletes out there’.  That’s not to say that they don’t want to win, but it’s a different motto that they’re driving.  I think that just breeds a healthier, happier culture within the sports organization.  It creates longevity in the sport and makes everyone more productive because they are happier rather than being beaten down all the time because they have not performed well.  You are being held to ransom because you have to perform well and win a medal.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – JUNE 26: Holly Bradshaw of Blackburn celebrates after setting the new national record during the Womens Pole Vault Final on Day Two of the Muller British Athletics Championships at Manchester Regional Arena on June 26, 2021 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Ashley Allen/Getty Images)

An athlete I know was 1cm from an Olympic bronze –  and 1cm from a better contract.  Do we make too much of that difference?

I think so.  I have jumped the same height – not even the 1cm difference – but missed out on a medal.  But somehow, you are so much more respected if you get a medal.  I was fourth in Doha (2019 World Championship) – the same height as third – and I think there is too much place in winning the medal.  I seem to have had a lot more respect since I got the Olympic medal. Now, I’m deemed to be ‘an Olympic medalist’ rather than just a world fourth place-er.  But I guess it’s difficult to draw the line.

I have seen Olympic medalists given a seat in First Class on the flight home from the Olympics while the rest were in the economy.  I didn’t feel comfortable with that. It sends the wrong message about what sport is about.

British athletes have spoken to me about the pressure to achieve the GB medal target.

I feel that that is everything that’s wrong with sport.  I understand that targets are there, and it’s funded money pumped into athletes, and we are there to deliver medals.  I get that but we’ve lost sight of success is not just whether you get a medal.  There’s so much more to competition and who gets gold, silver, or bronze.  You can have a pole vault competition with six athletes in contention, going back and forth, and it’s so much more entertaining and inspirational for people watching than a competition where there is a clear winner and silver medalist and the rest just going through the motions.  I know which I prefer.  I think there’s a danger that we’ve lost sight of that and how inspiring sport can be, whether you win or lose.

Holly Bradshaw, 2021 Tokyo,
photo by Stuart Weir

Can a team psychologist help athletes deal with these pressures? 

We found in the research that a lot of athletes were very hesitant about speaking to the team psychologist because they’re wondering: is this conversation confidential or will it be fed back to management?  If I ask the psychologist for help, are they going to conclude that I’m psychologically weak and not select me?  From my research and from what I’ve read, there seem to be a lot of athletes who were concerned about asking for help from a psychologist, feeling that peer-to-peer, athlete-to-athlete was better.

Let’s say there are four British women jumping 4.80 and three are going to be selected, would I feel comfortable going to psychologist and saying ‘I’m really struggling with my run throughs at the moment?  I need help getting my confidence back.  What if I share that, and it’s then used against me in the selection process?

The Tokyo 2021 Olympics, Katie Nageotte, Anzelika Siderova, Holly Bradshaw, photo courtesy of Stuart Weir

The idea of the support officer – is good, but is it realistic?

It actually happened for the Beijing Winter Olympics.  There was a psychologist with the GB team because every country was offered an additional accreditation for a welfare or care officer.  It didn’t have to be someone with particular qualifications, but Team GB decided to bring a psychologist.  She was not employed by Team GB but was self-employed there with the only goal of ensuring that everyone was OK.  She was there to support people but, not in a sports psychology capacity, but just as someone who could listen, support, and give advice.  I think if that was rolled out across the Olympics, it would be massive because she did not have a duty of care to report back to Team GB.  She was just there to support me, which I think is a really good idea.

* Holly Bradshaw, Karen Howells & Mathijs Lucassen (2022) Abandoned to manage the post-Olympic blues: Olympians reflect on their experiences and the need for a change, Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, 14:5, 706-723, DOI: 10.1080/2159676X.2021.1993974