It’s no secret that athletes commonly slip into slumps and even depression during their off-seasons. The real questions are why? Girlmentum polled a group of athletes, parents, and coaches, and many attributed the slump to lack of exercise, camaraderie, and structure. While these answers are certainly part of the equation, there seems to be more to the slump than meets the eye.
For a more scientific answer, we reached out to clinician and UPenn professor Lani Nelson Zlupko, who had an interesting perspective on the topic. As a former Harvard University swimmer, Dr. Nelson Zlupko knew exactly what we meant by “the slump” and agreed to sit down with us to explain its psychological bases and ways to combat it:
Girlmentum: What would you say are the primary reasons for “the slump”?
Dr. Nelson Zlupko: First and foremost, our bodies get used to a certain amount of physiologic exertion, and, along with that, good hormones are released, we are pushing ourselves, having a goal, having our time organized. If you take those things away and the body is not used to that new hormonal milieu and doesn’t really know what to do with that time, it’s really common and expected that someone would get into a funk. A similar thing happens after graduation, marriage, or any big life event.
Further, whether we like the sport or not – and there is something to hate about every sport – we’ve lost something when we stop. Even if we self-impose the loss or don’t want it anymore, the grief is real, and that confuses a lot of athletes. Athletes who love their sport will experience acute loss, but even those who think they’re ready to stop will grieve over relationships built on the team or perhaps for the athlete they could have been.
If it’s injury-related, there’s also a component of what if I could go back in time? What if I had done this differently or this or that? And of course that’s a trick. We can’t go back; all we can do is apply lessons forward and try to make peace with the loss or transition.
Girlmentum: The part about grieving for the relationships rings particularly true to me.
Dr. Nelson Zlupko: Girls tend to feel it stronger than boys, but boys can feel that attachment acutely too, particularly around athletics. The feeling of belonging in humans kicks off certain hormones that are positive for us. Most humans like to belong to a tribe. They enjoy a sense of camaraderie, and especially if an athlete had positive experience with their sport and really had a sense of positive attachment, taking even a short amount of time away, let along a protracted time away, can be really painful and hard. There’s also fear that comes in – what if I don’t reattach? What if they don’t need me or love me anymore? Will I ever attach again? So those become challenges.
And then the other area that I was thinking about was this thing of identity. So, if a person is identified as an athlete, and a lot of elite athletes are, they become known as “that girl that’s great at” something. The world puts that on you. You act a certain way and dress a certain way and then all of the sudden, what? You’re the girl that watches? You’re the girl that goes? What are we? And just as we’re trying to get our brain around all of that, the world is looking to us for cues. So, when they go, “how are you?”, “what are you up to?”, we don’t have a way to express it and that becomes awkward for them, so there becomes a social awkwardness with it too.
Girlmentum: Grief, attachment, identity . . . so the slump is more than just our bodies missing the exercise?
Dr. Nelson Zlupko: Yes! Everybody, or most people, are going to go through a lot of what we just talked about. The blues, or the slump, is normal with any transition in life, whether we impose it, or whether it’s imposed on us. We need to recognize that we are always going to have these slumps; life isn’t always on the up. It doesn’t make us crazy, it doesn’t make us weak. It is actually a sign of someone who attaches and likes to belong. So, the good news about the slump is that you are someone who probably attaches, belongs, and identifies well, which means you’ll do it again.
Girlmentum: I’m sure knowing that the slump is a normal response to a life transition will make many of us feel better. Is there a point at which it crosses the line into unhealthy?
Dr. Nelson Zlupko: Here’s when it’s not normal – anyone for whom these feelings of sadness, loneliness, and depersonalization are going on for months, and they are not finding their new happy, and they are just globally sad and starting to bump into a mild depression, you really want to get help for that and re-structure that. There will certainly be doctors who want to prescribe medication, but it’s really not indicated to have medications during a transition. So, I like to try other things first, because now we’re just putting a medicine on something, so the person is not developing the skills to understand and cope with the situation. Now, when medication would be indicated is when someone is feeling so depressed that they are feeling self-injurious or they can not get out of bed or they can’t get through the motions of daily life – we want to disrupt that, we want to help that.
Short of depression, though, in general, our goal is for people to learn to come to terms with the transition. I’m rather pro-active; I feel like people should get themselves around skills and strategies to manage these feelings when they’re not in the middle of it.
Girlmentum: I think what we’re looking for here are both mindset strategies and action strategies. How can I be thinking about this differently? What can I be doing differently?
Dr. Nelson Zlupko: View the slump as something that has a beginning, middle, and end. We can call it whatever we want, but the bottom line is it doesn’t feel good. And there’s almost no way to avoid it, even understanding that it’s going to happen. It’s like a flu – miserable, but we’re gonna get through it.
And similar to a flu, give yourself a little TLC. Be good to yourself. Be gentle. Try not to be overly self-harsh. This is where athletes really struggle! Self-scolding in the middle of a slump is like self-scolding when we have the flu. Try emotional chicken noodle soup. Instead of saying “I need to snap out of this”, validate your own emotions and gently self talk.
I want to mention grief again too, because sometimes we do need to actively grieve. Either the loss of a potential season or a goal. Let’s say they wanted to make a certain time or be recruited to college, or they wanted to make a national team. If they didn’t achieve everything, particularly goal-driven athletes might not think it’s ok for them to grieve. Learning how to move past that and gain resolution from what they did achieve is critical. People having interesting relationships with their goals. What we want to do is to make sure our goals move us towards something we want without crushing us. We can’t control all the factors around us, so we want to maximize what we can control. For high achievers in general, that balance of setting a goal and of having it be a motivating goal – as opposed to a threatening goal – becomes a lifelong technique. And it probably won’t be the only time we don’t achieve something, so being good at this is important!
When we go through transitions, a lot of people feel doubt. They doubt that they were ever good. They doubt that people liked them. They doubt that they were effective in the world. And it’s a trick. A transition is a time not only to look forward with hope, but to look back with pride. Maybe we didn’t achieve everything we wanted, but what are we proud of?
Girlmentum: Thinking about the slump differently sets the framework for managing the time, relationship, and identity changes too.
Dr. Nelson Zlupko: If you’re an elite athlete and you’re used to this regular thing you do every day and your circadian rhythm is developed around it, what are going to do with those two hours or three hours or five hours depending on your sport? Are you sitting at home? Are you watching other people, and that makes you sad? Let’s get proactive. So, when I help people encounter a transition or a slump, I start with “let’s predict” . . . this could be sad or challenging or lonely. You could feel depersonalized or disconnected. What might help you feel the opposite? What might feel a little energizing? What would give you something valuable or purposeful to do? Get out of yourself a little. Most people say they experience more severe symptoms of the slump when they’re sitting ducks. At home, alone, at night, or when we’re sedentary. And there are lots of neurological reasons for that, but the bottom line is if we don’t like those feelings, go get active. Go organize a shelf or clean out your room. Go visit a retirement home or people who need your services. Put yourself to use productively in another way. At the same time accepting the low feelings, being a little more proactive and not just developing cement boots around those feelings.
Similarly, if we feel lonely or we don’t feel attached, what are we gonna do to honor and know that we like to belong, we want to belong, but we can’t belong in the way that we did? Let’s say you have to take a season out. Somebody busts their ACL and they’re out for the season and all of their friends, their entire group, is at practice and games. Some athletes are okay attending and being a spectator, or they give themselves a job like water person or whatever. But for other people that’s just really painful, and admitting that and knowing that, we temporarily attach to a new group. Take up singing. Diversify. This is a time to get involved in something that might actually give us a purpose. Some people continue to be competitive athletes throughout their lives; of course, there are Senior Olympics. Most athletes, even elite athletes, though, eventually have an ending. So, anything we start to foster, like a hobby, can be really useful for the day when athletics will not be in the picture.
And like any transition in our lives, think “what’s the next me?” It’s like the next iPhone. We’re at like 6-whatever version. It’s beginning to think about what’s the next version of me? What’s my identity? Who will I be in the world and what will I call her? And consider whether or not she is attached and belonging and purposeful and so forth.
Girlmentum: Thank you so much! It’s so helpful to understand what we’re feeling and also to have some practical adjustments to consider whether it’s a brief slump in the off-season or the transition after an injury or graduation.
Dr. Nelson Zlupko: Sure! Throughout this process, the word modify comes up a lot. If I’m creating a new version of me and don’t want to completely give up things, how do I modify? Is it healthy to maintain these relationships in my sport, and, if so, how will I modify them? If I’ve been exercising and then I’m not, I have to be mindful of that too. This sets us up for when we start aging anyway, and we can’t be lifting 150 pounds anymore or benching, so we’re learning to modify gracefully, whether that’s swimming or whatever it’s going to be, to modify exercise and still be “in the game” in some way.
Dr. Lani Nelson Zlupko received her bachelor’s degree from Harvard University and her master’s and doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work and Social Policy. A goal-oriented, solution-driven clinician, coach and consultant, Dr. Nelson Zlupko specializes in transition management. Her research has been published in several leading psychiatric and social work journals.