08 Feb Making Room for Mental Health on the Olympic Podium
With the Winter Olympics underway in Beijing, athletes from around the world are readying themselves to perform at their best. While the opening ceremony, medal counts, and displays of athleticism in snow and ice are typically the main topics of conversation, these Winter games also have an entirely new focus: mental health. For the first time, the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC) will implement mental health policies and initiatives to protect the well-being of America’s athletes as they strive to perform at the highest levels, under extreme pressure. From in-person and virtual professional therapy services, a 24/7 hotline, anxiety and depression screenings, and even special transition services for pre- and post-competition, the committee is ensuring athletes feel supported and mentally strong heading into the games.
This healthy conversation around nurturing mental well-being during elite competition is relatively new. Until Simone Biles made headlines during last year’s Summer Olympics, mental health was not a commonly discussed topic of conversation in the world of sports. Although she felt physically strong, pressure to compete and win took a toll, depleting her emotional health and impeding her ability to perform at her best. As she defined the “twisties” on national television, she started a national conversation around mental health, stigma, and awareness. She showed that being strong does not only mean competing – it means staying true to yourself and your mental health needs, even when that might mean saying “no.” Her decision to take a step back from the spotlight – while loudly cheering her teammates on to victory – was a win for those struggling with mental health the world over. Biles will be remembered not only for her dominance in gymnastics, but for showing peers that it’s okay not to be okay, even on the world’s largest stage.
Athletes and Expectations
At that moment, Biles’ message shocked the world. While unprecedented – and against all expectations – she made a difficult decision that prioritized her own well-being. Her position helped illustrate that mental health is equally as important as physical health, and we must care for ourselves on both fronts. While Biles’ decision surprised the world, she is not the first Olympian to detail struggles with mental health.
The most decorated Olympian of all time, Michael Phelps, has also been candid about his struggles with mental health out of the water. Although he struggled with anxiety and depression for 17 years, through his famous professional career, Phelps didn’t start publicly speaking about his crushing anxiety and depression until after he retired from competition.
Over the last few years, Michael Phelps has shared his journey to overcome these swinging highs and lows. He has addressed his experience with depression and bravely shared that at times throughout his professional career, he struggled with suicidal thoughts. His “all-time low” came after another successful Olympics run in 2012. While on the outside, it might seem like this moment of victory would be a time of celebration and joy, the truth is much more complex. Even at his most successful moment, Phelps couldn’t escape the burden of pressure and the years of strain on his mental health. After receiving treatment and getting the help he needed, Phelps is grateful to share his experiences with a broader audience, which helps dispel stigma, and hopefully save lives.
For professional athletes, projecting an unshakeable image of strength has long been considered part of the job. Like movie stars and standards of beauty, society has idealized athletes, setting the expectation that they are strong, fierce, and relentless competitors. Within this unrealistic standard, there are only ideals; there is no room for a range of emotions that are so core to what it means to be human – especially in the face of high pressure competition situations. While many would experience debilitating pressure, nerves, performance anxiety, unbearable burden of expectation, and even suicidal ideation, athletes are expecting to bury these deep down and go out and win.
The Unique Pressure of Being an Olympian
Because they are held only once every four years, the Olympics create a unique set of pressures for athletes, who may only have a single shot to medal in their entire career. When one has only a split second chance to reach the highest pinnacle of their sport, the odds are slim and the resulting mental strain can be unbearable. The experience of pressure to perform not only at your best – but as the best in the entire world – is a burden heavy to bear. Outside of that, pressure only builds with the desire to please fans, coaches, teammates, and make family members proud. The entire Olympic cycle, from qualifying, to representing team and country, and then aiming to earn a place on the podium, creates added stress that can exacerbate existing mental health struggles an athlete may already be experiencing.
For athletes used to being active and projecting strength, coping with injury can trigger an array of emotional responses, from sadness and frustration, anger, isolation, and changes in appetite or sleep. Fears that they may never be able to perform at the same level again–or worse–to ever be able to compete again–can challenge an athlete’s sense of identity and self-worth. If left untreated, these thoughts and feelings may contribute to deeper mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, disordered eating, and in some cases, substance use. Fear of, and coping with injury can saddle athletes with additional stressors that take a toll on mental health and well-being. Normalizing these feelings, developing support networks for injured players, and openly addressing emotional responses to injury should be established as part of the athletic journey.
No matter the trigger, mental health is inextricably intertwined with athletic performance. When she pulled out of several highly-anticipated Olympic events last summer, Simone Biles probably could have used unqualified support; however, she received mixed reaction from the public. While Michael Phelps, Justin Bieber, other prominent athletes and celebrities – and Biles’ own teammates – applauded her decision to take care of herself, the narrative was split. These others, including Piers Morgan and certain television commentators, called her “selfish” and insinuated that her decision belied a deeper weakness. This negativity has long precluded athletes from being forthcoming about their struggles and intensified pressure to bottle up their emotions and project only solid images of strength. It illustrates just how deep the image of “athlete as superhero” has been ingrained – and how important it is that narrative be changed. In fact, after Biles’ announcement, the Washington Post wrote about the unrealistic pressure placed on those we consider the greatest and asked: “What are we doing, breaking our athletes?”
With more athletes openly speaking about their mental health, we’re forced to change how we view them. As fans, we want to see them succeed in sport and play the role of celebrity, yet forget they live out their own very human, private existence. Although we often celebrate them, and share in their glory for winning championships and gold medals, the physical and mental work they put in behind the scenes is largely unnoticed. The pressures athletes put on themselves to build fortitude, be mentally tough, and perform under extreme pressure may lead to success in their sport, but can have drastic short and long-term mental health implications if not addressed.
Changing the Narrative
While mental health has not traditionally been part of the narrative, slowly, young, high-profile athletes are creating change. Just a few months before Simone Biles stepped back from competition, Naomi Osaka created a stir when she announced she would not be taking part in press conferences during the French Open. She was fined $15,000 for prioritizing her mental health – and inadvertently propelled the conversation into the national spotlight.
With Naomi Osaka, Michael Phelps, Simone Biles and many others stepping forward to candidly share the pressure, anxiety, uncertainty and depression they grapple with, the conversation is evolving. These individuals have inspired a whole new wave of athletes to open up and continue normalizing the topic heading into the 2022 Winter Games. Top female snowboarder and gold medalist Chloe Kim sourced strength from Simone Biles to open up about her own mental health struggles ahead of the Beijing Olympics. Similarly, alpine skiing Olympian Mikaela Shiffrin echoes Biles, Phelps, and Kim, speaking to the unmatched pressure Olympians deal with every four years.
The fact that so many elite athletes are now speaking out to generate awareness for mental health is an important step forward. While Olympic athletes will always need to demonstrate an ability to compartmentalize and conquer fear, their ability to perform in the moment is part of what makes their capabilities extraordinary. But the critical difference is being able to do so in a culture that also prioritizes their mental strength. When society makes room for an entire range of feelings within sports, we are truly honoring our athletes. Being able to compete for a crowd that also expresses concern for the person you are – not only the strength you project and the medals you collect – is a true success story, one we can all idolize.
Helpful Reminders for Athletes of all Levels
- Experiencing anxiety is common. The American College of Sports Medicine reports that nearly one-third of women and one-quarter of male athletes report experiencing anxiety related to athletics
- Opening up is not a weakness. By addressing your anxiety or other mental health struggle, either with a trusted individual or a professional mental health provider, you can uncover ways to cope and overcome your anxiety, so it feels less like a burden
- Injury is part of the process. For elite athletes who are always pushing the limit, injury is an unfortunate, yet not entirely unexpected element of their pursuits. Establishing injury as a normal occurrence is helpful for those unused to sitting on the sidelines. For those feeling stuck in their present state, visualization exercises can help. Imagining a healthy “you” can help athletes feel less stuck in their present state. During recovery, it’s important to set reasonable expectations for rebuilding strength. Establish SMART goals that you can build on, measure, and then track progression over time.
- Resist “gymtimidation”. Venus Williams terms the fear of inadequacy and underperforming “gymtimidation.” Rather than give in to these feelings, she encourages individuals to go easy on themselves and remember that “health is wealth.”
- Simone Biles says it best. “At the end of the day, we’re human, too,” she said. “We have to protect our mind and our body rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do.”
- Put your mental health first. Athletes often shoulder large emotional burdens, as they internalize the intense pressures from coaches, family, fans, and the general public to set records and win. Regardless of the situation, remembering that putting your own well-being first is key. Only once you are in a healthy place, can you begin to deliver for others.
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