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For Athletes, Mental Health Matters — Even at Olympics

July 30, 2021

How does the greatest gymnast of all time become even greater? By recognizing that mental health is just as important as physical health — and choosing to put herself and her safety first. 

Along with tennis star Naomi Osaka and decorated swimmer Katie Ledecky, Simone Biles is setting a profoundly powerful example for athletes the world over, showing them it’s OK to not be OK. They’re using their very public platform to raise awareness about the importance of mental health. 

Understanding the importance of mental health and offering athletes tools for coping with stress, rather than pressuring them to compete, can help erase the stigma around mental illness. 

Mental Toughness Takes a Toll 

The choices Biles, Osaka and Ledecky have made to be honest about their mental health struggles represent a sea change in the world of sports, where athletes have traditionally been expected to push through suffering — be it physical or emotional — in the name of “mental toughness.” 

Athletes often are taught to keep everything under control, pushing stress and anxiety down.. They may also feel as if they're counted on by teammates, coaches, their families and sponsors to win or perform well. This can be good motivation to a point, until it becomes too much. 

Mental Health Affects Physical Health 

The mind-body connection is particularly strong with athletes. If the expectation is that you'll always perform well -- and then you realize you're not able to meet those expectations -- it can become very stressful. 

Prolonged stress, physically manifested in the body as the hormone cortisol, can alter the body’s inflammatory and immune response. As the body heals, inflammation becomes a response to stress, and inflammation can be the root cause of many chronic ailments that can affect an athlete’s performance. 

Additional symptoms from prolonged stress and anxiety include: 

  • Stomach pain

  • Nausea

  • Headaches

  • Shaking or trembling

  • Heart palpitations 

These symptoms can hinder an athlete’s abilities, adding to the stress and pressure of the situation.  

Who Is Most At-Risk? 

Athletes who deal with preexisting mental health concerns like depression and anxiety should pay particular attention to their mental health, as the stress and pressure of performing can affect them more profoundly than others. 

Other external factors can add to an athlete’s stress. For Ledecky, the Olympic swimmer, the isolation and disruption of the pandemic exacerbated some mental issues she was already having, which in turn affected her performance. Being unable to see family and friends, train with her usual trainers and coaches, and even work out and train at her usual gym and pool were disorienting to her routine, requiring a lot more mental work and leading to exhaustion. 

Athletes should tell their trainers, physicians and sports psychologists about any issues so they can help. 

Tools for Supporting Athletes’ Mental Health 

There are several ways athletes can cope with mental health issues, including: 

  • Doing deep breathing or visualization exercises before and/or during competition 

  • Enjoying the companionship and camaraderie of teammates outside of practice and competition 

  • Regularly seeing a licensed sports psychologist or mental health counselor 

  • Taking medication 

  • Meditating and doing yoga 

  • Taking mental rest days as needed 

  • Setting clear boundaries and saying no to ease anxious feelings 

Ending the Stigma Around Mental Health 

Athletes often are put on a pedestal and seen as superhuman, which can make it more difficult for them to seek help when they need it. 

Unfortunately, the only time we hear about these concerns is when a high-profile athlete like Tiger Woods, Richard Sherman or Biles makes the headlines. But these issues are far more widespread, both among professional and amateur athletes. 

We must continue to have these kinds of conversations about athletes’ mental health. We can show our kids, the athletes of tomorrow, that it’s OK to not be OK — even at the Olympics.

 

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