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How Olympic Athletes Have Prioritized Their Mental Health

By Shannon M. Duffy, MFT, LCPC

I love the Olympics, the competition, the drive, the teamwork, the perseverance, all of it. This year at the Olympics all of those were on display along with the honesty on how each athlete has dealt with their own mental health. Front and center were discussions of how the athletes are handing their personal struggles. The pandemic was especially impactful for those Olympic hopefuls who were forced to postpone their dreams of competing in 2020 and hope they can stay healthy and ready for the rescheduled Olympics of 2021. Athletes have been consistently utilizing psychology in analyzing their sports performance, recovery from injuries, and especially with the disappointments felt within their sport in addition to pressures felt from outside. 

There have been athletes over the years who have been vocal of their mental health concerns such as swimmer, Michael Phelps. However, during the recent Olympic trials numerous athletes have been outspoken about experiencing symptoms of depression, suicidal ideations, anxiety and panic attacks, grief, and self-doubt in how to continue to stay focused on their dreams. It seemed as if every athlete wanted to express their vulnerability and voice the need for more openness towards mental health. The past year presented many challenges to the world and especially for those athletes who financially survive off races, meets, and endorsements. In addition to the unknown of what their sport will be for the upcoming years, many addressed feeling these stressors that added another layer to their mental health concerns. This created more barriers in how to receive help or realize the benefits of reaching out for help. 

Many overtrained, got injured, or even quit their sports as they had to find other ways to finically survive. Many of our favorites and hopefuls did not make it through the Olympic trials. It was noted that athletes were not able to find comfort in training as the past year of uncertainty created added discomfort. With social distancing and Covid-19 protocols many athletes in team sports were not able to practice with their teammates for an extensive period. Adding pressure and stress of reassessing and reassigning goals and shifting expectations to remained focus for another full year of uncertainty. 

I was moved by so many athletes, one athlete who disclosed her story during the trials was Olympic Shot Putter, Raven Saunders. She disclosed past trauma and how she had utilized her sport as a distraction from her trauma. Assessing her first Olympics and not medaling created pressure and disclosed she felt hopeless and suicidal. Watching her make the team was inspirational in how she noted psychotherapy was beneficial in allowing her resilience to guide her to achieving her goals and winning the silver medal. Impacted by the outside world of oppression and social injustices, athletes commented on how they felt additional pressures. Olympic Swimmer, Simone Manuel disclosed how she struggled with social injustice and how that impacted her need to excel again in her sport. She addressed the media by admitting vulnerability is a strength and not a weakness which is changing the definition of mental toughness amongst athletes. We all watched in shock as Simone Biles was not able to perform for part of her competition. The impact that she had in publicly putting her mental health first and the outpouring validation from the world also represented that mental health is something we need to continue to make a priority. They are still human beings who can excel in the highest level, however, the delay in training can create doubt, insecurity, added pressures. The past references to “suck it up” is over and now more athletes feel the need and benefit to talk more about their struggles with mental health. Training the body is one thing but training the mind is much harder and overall, more important. 

As the discussion continued through the events, we heard from the commentators of which athletes sought out help from sports psychologists, mental skills coaches, etc. The Olympic committee itself disclosed that they would have a clinic setting in the Olympic and Paralympic village for those to seek support while in Tokyo. Ensuring athlete wellbeing remains the goal and having mental health be included in that definition is of high value. There is still more ground to cover in bringing mental health to a priority not just for elite athletes but for athletes of all levels. 

Reflecting on this Olympics has been inspirational in many levels from knowing how far many have overcome not only in the physical realm but within the emotional and mental health, I truly support those who have been vulnerable and continue to strive to be the best versions of themselves. Thank you, Olympians!

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