What is it about performing at the highest level that is addictive?
One of the hardest things about leaving the sporting bubble and grounding myself in the real world is a sense of “chasing the dragon”. This is a phrase that originates from Hong Kong and actually refers to a method of heating heroin or opium and then inhaling the vapour (the dragon). The moving smoke is ‘chased’ after with a tube through which the user inhales to receive their high. Now I know what you’re all thinking, “Is athlete transition so bad that she’s turned to drugs?!” Fortunately, amongst the many things I have recently been trying for the first time, heroin is not one of them. But chasing the dragon, in a much more metaphorical sense, is something that is very relevant to me right now. Let me explain…
Sport is a strange world, full of challenge and tests, of winning and losing, of achievement and loss. For athletes involved in elite sport, this world is our everything—it’s our home, our comfort zone, our niche. The emotions that accompany existing in this world become heightened and catapulted out of context even though, fundamentally, they relate to fairly superficial concepts. In fact, it’s almost comical that we place so much value and consequence on the results of our athletic pursuits. For example, I have cried multiple times over the result of a swimming race, where my ultimate objective was to be best at backward arm-splashing. How crazy is that?!
The athletics world is the same—how can running in circles hold so much meaning? And likewise for other sports—gymnastics is somersaults and circus tricks, hockey involves hitting a ball with a stick whilst trying to avoid getting whacked in the face, weightlifting is a test of who’s spine can sustain the most compression without a horrible injury occurring, and boxing is repeatedly punching someone you probably don’t even dislike that much!
Of course, I’m trivialising sport here—the training and performance of an elite athlete is anything but a frivolous leisure activity. Lay sport bare, it really is just a glorified game, yet for those playing the game, it becomes our entirety.
I’ve spoken in previous blogs about the feeling that comes with knowing that you’re operating at absolute maximum capacity, of existing at the very edge of your limits. Sportspeople commit a huge amount of time and effort to a continual cycle of self-improvement (how selfish!)—constantly pushing for the next marginal gain that might give us an edge over our competitors. For many sports (mine included), athletes prepare with a seemingly ridiculous amount of training for a relatively short competitive discipline. I’m not great at maths, but swimming 60 kilometres a week, almost every week of the year, in preparation for a 2-minute race, seems a little like overkill… And even after the training is in the bank, we still have to get it right on the day. There are still a million things that can go wrong during competition, still a hundred ways to mess up the minutiae of preparation, still a chance of making a tiny mistake on the start, a turn, a single stroke.
So, after years of preparation and sacrifice, when we’re so prepared that things do go right on the day—we come away from the competition arena with a personal best, a medal, a new highest ranking, a record of some kind—the emotions that accompany the achievement are indescribable. It’s pride in its purest form, confidence that isn’t reliant on inflated ego or bragging rights. It is elation based on knowing that your investment has paid off, that what you’ve given in blood, sweat and tears, has been worth it. Of course, the practical side of achievement is pretty cool too—hearing a national anthem, doing a victory lap or having your name inscribed into the history books.
Recently I’ve found myself yearning for what has passed, and I thought, naively, that it was this sense of achievement I was missing. I think I will always feel some kind of nostalgia for winning the medals, qualifying for a first Olympic Games, or racing in front of a home crowd, but I’ve started to realise that what I’m craving isn’t medals and personal bests, it’s the emotion that accompanied performing at the highest level, regardless of result. Most of us don’t do sport because we want to add to our collection of metal; we do it for the emotional fix that accompanies executing performance. In a very real sense we do it for a ‘high’, albeit a cleaner one than most addicts are trying to attain. Achieving great things in sport is a transcendent experience, nudging those who play the game towards the realms of human potential—a pretty special place to be.
It’s difficult to describe what it actually feels like to perform a task that you’ve spent the majority of your life preparing for. When you stand up on the blocks (or jump in the water for me) you enter a state of mind where time slows down. Some athletes talk about having tunnel vision, like nothing on your periphery can influence you—your sole focus is the road (or lane) ahead. Some say they go into ‘the zone’, which to me still sounds like the play area at an average shopping centre. Some psychologists call it ‘flow’, meaning a state of mind in which you are entirely immersed, with unwavering focus, in what you are doing. Abraham Maslow, known for his famous ‘Hierarchy of Human Needs’, called it ‘Self-Actualisation’—a concept describing a state in which the person feels true purpose and the fulfilment of their highest needs as a human being.
It’s a feeling shared, I imagine, by anyone mastering a particular task at a supreme level—conductors, musicians, artists, surgeons, athletes, soldiers, writers—all have recorded a similar state of ecstatic energy when ‘performing’. Anyone who has committed hours and hours of meticulous practise for one task will experience this state of mind. Our actions become automated, and yet we simultaneously experience absolute self-control—a weird paradox. An Olympic athlete does not have to think, in the moment, about the placement of a foot, or a hand—we have practised these movements a million times, so our bodies perform on autopilot. A conductor does not consciously hear the separate notes that an orchestra is playing, he feels the music as a whole and reacts with instinctive precision to the tiniest changes in pitch and timing from a hundred instruments. A soldier in combat does not weigh up the options before he responds to enemy gunfire—his instincts, honed from incessant drills, take over and react for him, in synchrony with the people around him. Of course, the stakes are different for different people, but the emotions are the same—adrenaline courses through your body, endorphins jack up your system, and yet your mind remains sharp and focused, your movements fluidly faultless.
It’s worth noting here that it’s not just competition day that gives people this feeling—athletes also get ‘micro-doses’ of dopamine throughout training cycles, when we smash targets, do personal bests in the gym or fastest laps in the pool. It’s why most athletes don’t have to work too hard on motivating themselves, because in the right environment our hunger is being perpetually fed by mini achievements and accomplishments, of temporarily entering this state of being. The big ‘hit’ is saved for competition day though—it’s why you’ll regularly see athletes sobbing as they stand on the top of an Olympic podium or hold the Tour De France trophy above their head. For those who give it their all, this is far more than a game.
Emotions in sport tend to be polarised in an exaggerated way. The highs are higher than most ‘normal’ people’s, and the lows have the potential to be lower, all because we invest so much of ourselves into the pursuit. Out of the sporting bubble, it seems that, for most people, real life offers a slightly more consistent fluctuation of emotions, that often settles around average. Most people are ‘fine’, or ‘okay’—not great, not awful, just nestled somewhere unremarkable in the middle. I’m not used to existing in this space, so there’s a risk of interpreting that feeling as flat and unmotivated.
Now that I’ve moved on from professional competition, finding ‘the zone’ and achieving that emotional high in different capacities is much more difficult because, out here, with a million different focuses, people tend to invest less into singular pursuits. I haven’t practised for years and I don’t need to push my body to the point of physical collapse to get a result in a corporate environment, so even when positive outcomes occur, it’s harder to attribute as much joy and contentment to them. Yet I find myself constantly looking for a place in which I can feel the ‘flow’ again, trying to find the opportunity for mastery, hidden in the corners of new roles, tucked away behind targets and tasks. As a result, I’m currently spending a lot of time feeling slightly anticlimactic—even when I’m achieving what I want in a new area, I feel a little bit flat because my investment isn’t what I’m used to.
This isn’t to say, at all, that the real world doesn’t offer the capacity to feel great emotion, or that there aren’t other arenas in which athletes can regain that idealised condition of consciousness. But it seems that that the majority of people don’t experience this polarisation of emotion on a regular basis; most people don’t seem to have found their flow state. Some people, apparently, don’t even know it exists. I do count myself lucky to have spent so many years in an environment where those emotions came as part of the package—only a small percentage of people know what it feels like to exist, repeatedly, at that slightly elevated level of human fulfilment.
Realising that other pursuits can offer the same heightened awareness and elation is key to getting out of the slump, but there’s a real risk of chasing after that feeling in a slightly frenetic and desperate way. I’m so familiar with knowing the environment that gives me the opportunity to thrive (a swimming pool), that it’s very odd to no longer have that security in other places. When I was training hard, I would go to the pool with an anticipatory excitement, eager to see what heights could be reached, nervous about how I was going to feel in the water, motivated to see how far I would be able to push myself. In a way, athletes are junkies—it’s why we persevere through those brutal training regimes, because the resulting emotional fix is absolutely worth it. I no longer get that feeling because I haven’t practised other pursuits so much, I don’t have such intricate knowledge of my new environments and, perhaps most importantly, I’m still learning how to push myself in other areas.
Chasing the dragon is a term I’ve made up (or at least nicked from somewhere else), but I think it’s a fairly common experience for retiring athletes. It’s why, unsurprisingly, some ex-athletes turn to actual drugs, because an artificial high is the only way they can satiate the addiction that sport has given us. To add another level of psychological intricacy, much of our self-worth also tends to be tied up in our ability to fuel this fire of ours—we gain confidence from knowing how to push our bodies so hard in training that, on race day, this supreme mental state is inevitable. It’s alienating and challenging, not only to manage the sudden lack of adrenaline and dopamine, but also to feel like your self-assurance has plummeted because trying to artificially recreate environments in which you can get your ‘hit’ feels clumsy and fruitless.
On a more positive note, it is genuinely exciting to be trying my hand at so many new things, and there’s still an anticipatory excitement in having no idea where my potential lies in other areas. Emotions are a complex notion, and the capacity of the human brain is astounding. There is no logical reason why splashing backwards in a swimming pool could induce feelings of euphoria, and yet that is what I regularly experienced. Other areas of life may not give us identical feelings, but there is comfort in knowing that we are capable of finding this state of mind. I suspect some people never find the ‘dragon’ they’re chasing, but I fully intend to, even if my dragon doesn’t look exactly the same as it has for the last fifteen years!