Italian athlete Lamont Marcell Jacobs won the 100m gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics. The victory of the Italian sprinter in the short distance race is a prominent case, given that Europeans haven’t won it since 1992. As soon as Jacobs set a new European record by completing the dash in 9.80 seconds, this sensational triumph quickly prompted the whole world’s attention, not only due to its skill-related component but also the athlete’s drama that leads to his victory. The sprinter recounted how timely mental health counselling and the subsequent reconciliation with his father propelled his success.
Reconnecting With His father Helped Jacobs Win Gold
Remarkably, Jacobs scored several victories in another discipline — long jump. In 2016, Jacobs won the national long jump title. With a personal best of 8.07 m, he finished tenth in the world rankings for the 2017 indoor season.
His life story is peculiar. He was born in El Paso, Texas, to an Italian mother, Viviana Masini and an American father. Despite this, he considers himself 100 per cent Italian and even jokes: “I feel Italian in every cell of my body, I even struggle to speak English!”
Lamont started speaking with his father only a year before the start of the Olympics. He was just one month old when his mother moved with him to Italy, and his father left for South Korea to continue his military service. They didn’t talk for more than 20 years, and the future Olympic gold medalist declined his dad’s attempts to become close again.
Things took an abrupt turn with the onslaught of the COVID-19 and consequent lockdowns. It was then when Lamond faced his vulnerabilities and took the liberty to admit that his failings were rooted in his upbringing; reuniting with his past catalyzed something that made him find inner peace and eventually win the gold medal.
As a kid, he used to create an alternative image of his father to explain his absence: “An ex-Marine, in the war, whose heroic acts forced him to be on other side of the world, that was the version I preferred,” he wrote.
After Jacob’s mental coach advised him to reunite with his father, he changed his mind. “I considered him a stranger, he looked for me on Facebook and I didn’t answer,” Jacobs said in March 2021. “Fortunately, recently, also thanks to the work with my mental coach, a relationship has been recreated. And I’ll go and see him in the U.S.“
Looking back on his childhood, Jacobs confesses he was a restless kid and had little appetite to be on books. He tried many sports, from swimming to basketball, before finally choosing athletics. “At school I was in trouble. Draw your family, the teacher told me: I only had my mother to draw and I suffered from it. Who is your dad, friends asked me as a kid: he doesn’t exist, I replied, I barely know that I bear his name. For years I have built a wall. And when my father tried to contact me, I didn’t care.“
After reconciliation, the athlete communicates with his father regularly.
Social Support Network Strengthens Mental Health of Athletes
Family, friends and peers are all components of a person’s social support network. The influence such relationships play on anyone’s mental health state cannot be overestimated. For a long time, childhood trauma hindered Jacobs’ progression.
As it might seem at first glance, the social support network only affects psychological well-being. However, it also spurs athletes to perform better. For example, within the study carried out by Tim Reese and Paul Freeman, sport and health science undergraduate students with either bit of experience or no experience in golf were requested to complete a golf-putting task. It was found that golfers with high levels of perceived support performed at a higher level than those with low levels thereof.
Participation in contests, victory and public approval contribute to athletes’ motivation. Their implementation implies a complex of activities performed by athletes themselves and coaching staff. However, each sporting life is unique. It turns out that psychological assistance is not always professional.
Encouragement and support from friends and family are crucial in building confidence resulting in improved performance. Athletes’ relatives, friends, coaches create a sort of “social support” circle. Such support is essential if the athlete experiences psychological trauma, including deprivation, the resentment they can’t let go of or disregarded affectional needs. All of the above affects not only everyday life but directly disrupts the career.
When Parents Get Involved in Children’s Sports Career
The presence of parents at competitions can motivate athletes to win, especially if a parent is also a coach. Jade Carey’s story is a case in point.
According to the two-per-country rule, Jade didn’t initially qualify for the gymnastics all-around competition in Tokyo. After Simone Biles withdrew from it to focus on her mental health, Jade stepped in as her replacement. She entered two apparatus finals, vault and floor, as a medal contender. However, those chances vanished after Jade made a mistake during her run-up to her first vault. Carey tripped as she hurdled for the round-off onto the springboard. She eventually had to bail out of the skill and took the last place in the competition.
But there was still a chance on another apparatus a day later—floor exercise. This was a time when her father and coach Brian Carey addressed Jane with the parting words:
“You might feel like yesterday was one of the worst days of your life, but today can be one of the best days of your life.”
The consolation had the desired effect of restoring her confidence just 24 hours after the stumbling during the vault final. She took the gold medal in the women’s floor final at Tokyo Olympics.
“Having my dad here means everything to me — this is all we’ve ever dreamed of. And it’s just really special to be able to get this medal with him out there by my side. And he’s supported me 100 percent the whole time,” Jade said.
What’s the secret to Jade’s success? Was it just that her coach, as a parent, knew her strengths better than anyone? Probably, the answer can be found not so much in the sports training techniques, but in the family environment.
A study conducted at the University of Alberta examined good parenting in a competitive female youth team sport. They asked coaches to choose some of the “best” sports parents they had ever worked with. The study findings reveal that those parents encouraged their daughters’ autonomy in different ways. These include cultivating independence and understanding their daughters’ goals for the sport. Researchers found the idea of sharing goals important; these exemplary parents shared their children’s goals rather than imposing their plans on their children.
Other studies confirm that athletes perceive parents and coaches as the most critical individuals during their athletic careers.
The relationship between parents and athletes affects the lives of athletes both within and outside the sports realm. Parents shape athletes’ philosophy and morale by establishing their initial sense of commitment and resilience. This seems to determine athletes’ behaviour even after leaving their parents’ house. In addition, parents influence the trajectory of children’s sports careers and their overall approach to sports.
In the modern world, athletes’ issues are drawing more attention than ever. Their achievements, defeats, family business — everything becomes the object of consideration from professional sports circles and a wider audience. Lamont’s story has shown us how receiving social support can strengthen the individual’s mental state and push him to dramatic changes. He found the missing piece in his support network puzzle.
Reuniting with the lost is sometimes akin to regaining your footing and self-worth. And family becomes such soil. Often, having a social support circle is taken as a matter of course, an athlete has by default. Probably, this is why we are so surprised when once again we get convinced that behind success stories, there is often a decision that seems ordinary for us but is critical for one person.
How Counseling and Coaching Can Help Anyone Improve Professional Performance
High performance and achievements in sports are impossible without having strong morale. Making peace with themselves gives athletes calm confidence leading to winning outcomes.
Support from family and friends should go hand in hand with seeking help from a qualified mental health provider. The service from sports psychologists is just a specific case of how counselling supports people in improving their professional performance. A mental health counsellor will help you understand if your psychological problems cause career setbacks and develop strategies to move forward. A significant professional failure, when addressed properly, can serve as a springboard to success. Looking at yourself through the coach’s eyes, you will realize and accept your psychological traits, learn to handle stress, or change a direction in your career without compromising your self-esteem. It is counselling that is the best way to get an accurate idea of yourself.
Article by Lydia Zhigmitova