Gutierrez: “I have been hospitalized 11 times because of self-harm”
Iván Gutiérrez is a former pro cyclist, was the U23 World Time Trial Champion in 1999, a 3x Spanish Time Trial (TT) champion, a silver medalist at TT Worlds, rode on the UCI WorldTour Team Movistar (2011-2014), competed in all three of the Grand Tours, including 10 appearances at the Tour de France.
The story of Iván Gutiérrez is not an isolated one. The list of pro athletes sharing their struggles with physical and mental challenges is growing, and the pace of growth is accelerating. Once upon a time, the life of pro athletes was once portrayed as a glorified existence which alternated between fame and fortune; now, the true extent of the strain and the consequences of the strain are being revealed.
In a courageous interview, Gutierrez opens up sharing the challenges he encountered in his years as a pro athlete including how at the age of 35 “facing his decline as a pro”, “he attempted suicide for the first time.”
If you train in a manner where you have been taught to inflict self-harm (i.e. endless amounts of mindless HiiT) then what happens when you hit an impasse in training or racing performance? If mindless HiiT training is what got you to this point, if mindless HiiT training is the process you have been taught as the rungs in the ladder that you climb in search of your potential, then its no stretch of the imagination that when reaching for the next level of performance, you will do even more mindless HiiT training.
If you have been taught that progress is made by inflicting greater and greater amounts of harm to yourself with the goal being to learn to “take the pain”, then to cause yourself the ultimate pain… to destroy your reputation, your identity by cheating, by doping or by committing suicide is nothing other than an extension of this line of thinking.**
What saddens and infuriates me is that the typical coach today believes that the entire goal of being a coach is to hurt people, to inflict as much pain as an athlete can tolerate, and then push them to ‘take’ more. What passes as coaching today is not coaching, its ignorant individuals suffering with unresolved pains who believe that teaching others to suffer and endure pain (instead of healing those underlying issues) is the foundation of health, healthy exercise, of training for sport, for performance, for life. These coaches inflict onto others, the pain they refuse to heal.
Its the equivalent of an alcoholic trying to solve their problems by wanting everyone else to become an alcoholic. Its a drug addict who believes that if everyone else just did their drug, then all life problems would disappear. Its an exercise addict who gets their fix from HiiT and believes that everyone else’s health issues would be solved if they just shut up, grew a pair, and sacrificed themselves in a HiiT session… just like them.
To harm yourself, especially in the belief of “no pain, no gain” is not an indication of health or wellness, but the opposite: of mental impairment.
The fact that we encourage people to harm themselves, creating narratives around it to make it acceptable, reveals our collective mental dysfuction.
To harm yourself is unhealthy. It is not what sport is about, its not what training or competing, or pursuing your potential is remotely about.
The media feeds this frenzy for agony, disappointment, suffering, even despair by focusing on and repeating images of pain, while streaming narratives which should be reserved for periods of great societal tragedy, for times of mourning, not to describe athletes striving for a finish line.
Despite there never being a time when we had more access to health clubs, training facilities, to coaches, trainers, even to pro athletes, or information on the subject… as a society we are the sickest we have ever been collectively. We are the most medicated, most diseased, most overweight, most diagnosed and treated population ever to exist. Many look healthy, but their combination of pills, HiiT and protein shake smoothie routines have resulted only in cosmetic health as they suffer in silence with their physical, mental, and emotional ailments.
Its time we stop the madness, re-evaluate how we are training, and consider that although our intent may be appropriate, our approach is anything but.
There are two predominant schools of thought on training:
- MINDLESS HiiT / EXERCISE ADDICT: train hard, then harder, then harder still with the goal to force yourself to hold a particular pace, to endure the pain of holding that pace, where success is measured by how long you can “take the pain”. It starts backwards, by the athlete identifying a pace they want to hold, and then trying to hold that effort for longer and longer periods. To force themselves to achieve, these athletes are taught that the outcome is binary: “ER or PR”, as in either you set a personal record, or you end up in emergency room from trying… anything else is a cop-out, a failed attempt, evidence of a lack of drive or willpower, with this metric applied universally to training and racing, to life.
- MINDFUL TRAINING: train smart, then smarter, then smarter still with the goal being to learn the fundamentals of movement, upon which sport specific technique is built, with all aspects of movement which inhibit flowing fluid movement trained individually by gaining flexibility, mobility, then agility, balance, and coordination. It starts at the beginning, from the skill level, capacity and knowledge level of the athlete today, and builds up. These athletes are taught that the outcome of any effort is always a lesson which points to what else can be improved so that the process continues, unfolding in a never ending progression of discovery.
Athletes who are shown from the start that performance in sport is based on developing the skill to move the most efficiently, maintaining the focus on technique and encouraged to enjoy the process, to have fun and play, are the ones who rise to the level of legendary status.
Each sport has its handful of legends (e.g. Bruce Lee, Wayne Gretzky, Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, Chrissie Wellington). The fact that there are so few, points to how few truly train smart, mindfully. It also reveals how many fail to rise to their potential because they were seduced by the belief that to truly succeed they need to train hard, really hard, no I mean taste blood in your mouth hard.
Learning how to wound yourself, over and over again, physically, mentally, and emotionally is not training. That we fail to connect the resulting pain and disappointment with the pain that we self inflict is a testament to how mindless exercise, training, racing, sport in general has become.
** Autobiographies of pro cyclists who admit to doping all follow an eerily consistent pattern… an athlete who was stoically opposed doping in their early career (e.g. David Millar, Team Garmin) are applauded by their team manager and team doctor. That is, until they start to have difficulty in delivering results. In a depressive low typically after a string of sub par competitions, where the athlete is unable to conceptualize “hurting” any more yet knows that more is needed in order to meet the expectations of the team… all of a sudden, the team which stood by the athlete’s opposition to performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) offers them a pill packaged and sold to the athlete as “help for them to recover”. In that moment the athlete bends, because to hurt any more without “help” is inconceivable to them.
When all you know is to hurt yourself, or when the joy that you initially found in sport is lost because the focus on results has become obsessive and hurting yourself to achieve those results is made acceptable by your coach, by your training partners… then PEDs, suicide… its all on the table because its just another form of hurting yourself.
When you have hurt yourself for so long that you are numb to it, then hurting yourself ultimately – as in where the consequences are career or life ending – do not register as irrational. They cannot impact one who has numbed themselves to the point that inflicting self harm has been normalized as “part of the job”.
On the other hand, read the autobiographies of those athletes who started, were trained, and remained in love with the sport because they were mindful of how they trained and raced and those are the athletes who in addition to enjoying consistent success in sport, are also able to transition to life after retiring from sport.