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The physical and mental health of 32 (former) elite athletes


by Leon Janssen Lok | 3 June 2021

As a elite athlete, how do you cope with change, what can you do when things don’t go like you expected and hoped? What is the secret to success? And how do you transition to a life after a professional sports career? Margriet de Schutter recorded the stories of 32 active and retired professional athletes and learned how these athletes sought and found balance in their physical and mental health. Their stories have been published in the book The Secret Balance of Champions. Inspiring not just for other professional athletes but for anyone, Margriet believes.

SecretBalanceChampions-1Margriet de Schutter has been there. As a shorttrack speed skater she did not qualify for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver in 2010. In retrospect, it has made her the woman she is today. ‘People made me feel like I was a failure and that did something to me. I also learned that the follow-up care for professional athletes left much to be desired. That became my starting point. If you don’t realise your dream, you can see that as a learning opportunity. What’s more: being a professional athlete is a lifestyle. Retiring from sports is huge.’

Physical and mental health
Margriet began by making a documentary called ‘Going Deep for Vancouver’, which told her personal story, and won an international award. She set up the website and wrote ‘Stoppen & Doorgaan’ (‘Quitting & Continuing). In this book she described her life after professional sports, including the accounts of fifteen former Dutch professional athletes. She was host of the Olympic Club in London, Sochi, Rio and PyeongChang and started giving lectures.

‘A background in sports, giving presentations, communications and media, those are the four pillars of my work these days.’ At the beginning of this year The Secret Balance of Champions came out. De Schutter is one of the three authors. The book comprises eight scientific chapters about physical and mental health during and after a career in professional sports. The other 32 chapter are each dedicated to an active or former professional athlete interviewed by De Schutter.

‘We are happy that we can share our knowledge and insights with today’s athletes, to give them the opportunity to benefit from that already during their careers.’

Intangible and mysterious
So, The Secret Balance of Champions. Where did the title come from? ‘When unravelling the road to success, ‘balance’ kept coming up. Balance between the athlete and the person, between physical and mental, between performing and resting. Everyone has his or her own point of balance, and that point varies depending on the situation. That makes the search for a champion’s optimal balance interesting. At the same time, it is a little intangible and mysterious, which explains the ‘secret’.’ De Schutter co-wrote the book with Vincent Gouttebarge and Gino Kerkhoffs, who were responsible for the scientific chapters.

‘Vincent is a former professional football player, medical scientist and Chief Medical Officer of FIFPRO, the international union of professional football players. Gino is an orthopaedic surgeon and head of the orthopaedic surgery department of Amsterdam UMC. We share a passion, for they too have done a lot of research into the physical and mental health of both active and retired professional athletes. We are happy that we can share our knowledge and insights with today’s athletes, to give them the opportunity to benefit from that already during their careers.’


Renowned professional athletes
The athletes interviewed are not just any athletes. Arjen Robben, Pieter van den Hoogenband, Chris Froome, Petr Cech, Epke Zonderland and – one of Margriet’s personal heroes – shorttrack speed skating champion Apolo Anton Ohno, all make an appearance. Marco van Basten wrote the foreword. De Schutter explains how the group of respondents came about:

‘We wanted the distribution male/female, active/retired, strength/endurance, individual/team to be as fair as possible, with respondents from different cultures and different parts of the world. Almost everyone immediately agreed to take part: the topic appealed to them. Plus, the fact that I was interested as a fellow athlete, that added to their understanding and cooperation. At times just a look was enough, even via Zoom. For me it is proof that mental health is increasingly considered one of the preconditions in becoming a champion’.

’Arjen Robben spoke candidly about his frustrations and his search for the right balance’

Marit Bjørgen
Margriet, of course, thinks all stories are special, and she has built a special relationship with all respondents, But to demonstrate the physical, mental and emotional diversity of all 32 accounts, she highlights two. One is the story of Marit Bjørgen, the former Norwegian cross-country skier, and with fifteen medals the most successful athlete in Winter Olympics history.

‘Her key to success was always to go all out when training. When she felt that her body was giving up, she realised she would have to change her training style: train smart instead of hard. It was not until 2009 when she returned home from the World Championships that she could flip the switch. She was 35 and needed new motivation, wanted to have children, and had to reinvent herself as an athlete and as a human being. And she succeeded, for in 2017, eighteen months after her son was born, she reclaimed the world title.’

SecretBalanceChampions-3Not just for athletes
Arjen Robben’s tale is a different one, about two types of fitness. ‘According to one of the most successful Dutch football players, there is “stamina, speed, strength”, all of which can be trained. The second type of fitness has to do with your joints, tendons and muscles. This is in part a matter of aptitude, and you can get lucky or unlucky. Arjen feels this is his most vulnerable side, while he gets the highest scores on ‘fitness type 1’. ’Arjen Robben spoke candidly about his frustrations and his search for the right balance. An example that can inspire us all.’

Initially the book was targeted at professional athletes and former professional athletes, but: ‘We felt it would be a waste to confine the content to this limited group. The pandemic has shown us the importance of our mental and physical health. This subject is more topical than ever, and anyone can learn from how professional athletes regain optimal balance.’ And the proceeds? They will be used to print a new edition to make sure that even more professional athletes can benefit from these experiences.

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