Why Olympic Medal Success Led To Extreme Depression For Tom Daley
By James Mills, Associate Partner & Mentorship Coach, Lighthouse International
Tom Daley won bronze in the 2012 London Olympic Games and is now going for gold at the Rio Olympics. His journey to success has been far from smooth however, and it culminated in him having to consider quitting the sport, less than a year after he fulfilled his life-long dream of becoming an Olympic medalist. So why would someone who appeared to have it all end up in this position?
Success Requires Sacrifice
"I guess people see you on the end of the diving board in these awesome places, winning medals and all the success stories. What they don’t see is how hard it is to train six hours a day six days a week and the things you have to sacrifice. Sport isn’t a 9 to 5 job, it’s a lifestyle. And like everybody else I struggle sometimes."
- Tom Daley
Tom Daley had been competing as a diver since the age of 8-years-old, and followed a rigorous training program that enabled him to reach a world-class standard. He was close to achieving his lifetime ambition of an Olympic gold medal in 2012, followed by a short break, before getting back to training. He shared his experience of this time in an interview with the Daily Mail:
"Ten days off really wasn’t enough. After all those years of dedication I got a taste of what it was like to be 18 – I was going out with my friends and having an amazing time. On the tenth day I thought, “Oh, I’m finally relaxed”, and then I had to go back to training the next day."
Tom Daley's reflections show us that being successful and achieving international recognition doesn't guarantee happiness. We all need to have balance in all aspects of our lives. The 10 day break from training Mr Daley had post Olympics, revealed how much he had neglected the social and emotional aspect of his life.
Legends Also Face Their Own Challenges
Tom Daley was thrust into the limelight at the age of 14 in 2008, when he was Britain's youngest Olympian at the Beijing Games. His profile however, led to him being bullied, and ultimately he needed to change schools. His father, who had had a major influence in his success, died from cancer in 2011. He shared these memories with the Daily Mail:
"He always knew what to say to make me feel better. If I was doing well or not doing well he was just there to be supportive. Sometimes after training sessions he would just drive and we would get ice cream. Without even speaking he would know what was up and he would just make it all better, he just knew how to make me happy."
The combination of facing these pressures and challenges, took their toll on him, even to the point where he considered leaving the sport altogether, as he just wasn't sure where to go next.
"You’ve gone off this massive high that you’ve been working for then you kind of feel like you’ve gone down a trapdoor and you’re in the dark. I had the thought of, “I never want to do this again, I never want to go in a pool again. I don’t like this sport. I hate it."
Coming to terms with his dad's death, and falling out of his love for diving, led to him undergoing intense psychotherapy, and this enabled him to address the obsessive-compulsive thoughts that came up.
Legends Need Balance
Fast-forward a few years and things look very different for Tom Daley. He has come out as gay, got engaged, moved to London and changed coaches. Supported and advised by a former coach, many changes in his life have come about due to a 2-month trip with a friend, during which he spent time reflecting. He is now more committed to leading a happy and balanced life, and this has had a positive impact on his diving.
"It was kind of like the pursuit of happiness again, being able to love the sport... I do Spanish lessons. I have cooking lessons. Then there’s my YouTube channel, I do my own filming and editing, I like the distraction of it. It’s very important not just to be happy in your sport but in your life as well."
We can learn a lot from Tom Daley's vulnerability and willingness to share the life challenges he has experienced, along the path to success. His example shows us the potential pitfalls of success, and also how it is possible to lead a more balanced, happy and successful life when we have the right support around us.
For more on Tom Daley's story, you should definitely check out his interview with the Daily Mail. You may also want to learn the 4 ways that legends cope with the demands of success.