Being a professional athlete can’t be easy. The constant pressure to be number 1 can take a toll on your body and mental health. A study from the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that 34% of elite athletes will suffer from depression or anxiety at some point in their active careers. Throw in a pandemic, a postponed Olympics, which later becomes an Olympic event where your loved ones aren’t allowed to attend to support you, and you’ve got a mental health sports crisis.
In recent months, the mental health of athletes has been thrust into the spotlight, especially since Naomi Osaka decided to prioritize her mental health and take a step back from sports, missing Wimbledon. The Tokyo Olympics will be the first time she’s competed since taking a sabbatical.
“I think it’s been a very, very rough 15 months for a whole bunch of athletes,” Steven Ungerleider, an Oregon-based sports psychologist and executive board member of the International Paralympic Committee, told the New York Times.
“They’re obsessed with getting up in the morning and eating certain things and getting out for their run and seeing their trainer and talking with their coaches,” Ungerleider said. “So when things were getting a little uncertain, that’s the worst thing that can happen to an elite athlete. It was driving them crazy.”
The Olympics: Mental Health Hurdles
“We’re Olympians. We’re supposed to be the image of strength and stability, mental toughness, and victorious emotions.”
— Curtis McDowald, Olympic Fencer
Like the rest of the world, super athletes had their own personal routines, most of which were integral to how they made a living and survived. Unfortunately, when the pandemic hit and they were left, for lack of a better term, stranded, they were forced to adapt and this created increased cases of mental health issues.
How did the pandemic affect athletes?
- Prior to COVID, 9% of athletes were feeling down or depressed for at least half the week. Between mid-March and August 2020, the number rose to 22.5%.
- 7% of athletes experienced anxiety and nervousness before the pandemic. Between mid-March and August 2020, 27.9% of athletes began feeling this way.
- 71% of athletes said that they were worried about receiving financial compensation for their athletic activities during COVID-19 restrictions.
The (Mental Health) Road To The Olympics
As they prepared their bodies to qualify for the Olympics, it became clear to a lot of athletes that the real battle was less of a physical one, and more of a mental one.
“Olympians are not superhuman,” says Kim Plourde, a licensed clinical social worker, to VeryWellMind.“They are humans with exceptional abilities, who also have a life outside of their sport. They undergo tremendous stress and pressure with both internal and external high expectations.”
Sam Parsons, Long Distance Runner
Speaking to the New York Times, the German-American distance runner revealed that he used the Olympic postponement last year to harness his skills by increasing his training so that he could qualify for the Olympics. Unfortunately, like other fellow athletes, the pressure increased with the training,
Parsons competing in Doha Qatar in 2019/Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images
“I could feel that tension constantly,” Parsons said. “And I know so many athletes who pushed themselves into an unsafe space, just because we all wanted to get to the Olympics so badly. So many people kept their foot on the gas for so long, and you can only give so much.”
Unfortunately, the pressure got to him and Parsons suffered a panic attack during the qualifying race, which resulted in a 10th-place finish.
Funny enough, Parsons meditated daily and studied mindfulness prior to the panic attack. However, with the Olympic postponement came added pressure, and that evidently took a toll on his body.
“You have all this locked-up energy when the Olympics get postponed, and you feel like you have to carry that forward and keep it going for another year,” Parsons said. “It definitely took a toll, and I think that led more and more people into dark places.”
Thankfully, a meeting with a sports psychologist managed to change Parsons’ perception of things,
“It’s a privilege to get even this far,” he said, “and to have the support staff and the talent to put me in this 1 percent position where I might be able to represent my country.”
Simone Manuel- Swimmer
In addition to the global pandemic, the world also had to grapple with the fact that we are far from an equal society. While this is a reality that many people have accepted (and tried to start), the idea can still take a toll on one’s body, especially if you’re an Olympic athlete.
“I do think that being a Black person in America played a part in it,” said Simone Manual. “This last year for the Black community has been brutal, and I can’t say that wasn’t something that I saw. It’s not something I can ignore.”
If that’s not enough, this past March, the four-time medalist was diagnosed with overtraining syndrome. As she battled with symptoms of muscle soreness, weight loss, and fatigue, she also shared that she battled depression during this period and that she isolated herself from her family.
Now, while Manuel failed to qualify for the 100-meter freestyle race, a race for which she won an Olympic gold medal five years ago, she did manage to qualify for the 50-meter freestyle.
Sam Mikulak – Gymnast
Unfortunately, we’re all guilty of tying our self-worth to our achievements. Now if you’re an Olympic athlete, this feeling is heightened, so it’s no wonder gymnast Sam Mikulak fell into a depression when the event was postponed.
Thankfully, he sought help and this allowed him to reevaluate his perspective on things,
“I’ve had to like change my whole circuit … of just how to find appreciation in the imperfect,” he said. “And those are the types of things that have really made me a lot happier now. But it was a very hard and dark time to go through to get there. And quarantine was the only time that I’ve ever had in my life where I could actually go through that process”
Athletes are people too
Yes, they can achieve incredible, Herculean things with their bodies, but that doesn’t mean that they have no feelings. Their bodies may be made of steel, but that doesn’t mean that they are.
“We’re having to change the definition of mental toughness,” said Dr. Jessica Bartley, a sports psychologist and the director of mental health services for the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee.
“We’re starting to better understand the science what it does to actually emote or to talk with someone,” Dr. Bartley said. “We want to highlight that everybody struggles. The literature actually says athletes struggle just as much as the general population. Why would we not talk about that?”
Going for mental health gold
“When viewed within the context of the worldwide COVID pandemic; increased protests against social injustices, inequities, and systemic oppressions; the political unrest globally, the upcoming Olympics — from a mental health perspective — represent the most challenging environment in which athletes from across the globe will be asked to compete,” said William Parham.
Parham is the director of the mental health and wellness program for the NBA players’ union. Parham is also a professor at Loyola Marymount University, and he serves on the USOPC’s mental health task force.
So, while the Olympians take care of the matches and races, who’s going to take care of their mental health?
- A mental health clinic will be set up in the Olympic and Paralympic Village.
- Countries such as Australia, Japan, and Great Britain have selected mental health teams and created mental health support lines that will help to provide counseling and support to those who need it.
“For every athlete going to the Games, we started doing a mental health screen,” said Dr. Bartley, “And so we’re getting baseline mental health information on all of our athletes, every single sport that’s going.”
The pandemic has definitely left us reeling with our mental health, and that includes those whose bodies can win gold medals and break world records. However, the pandemic has also provided us with an insight into the worlds of people who seemingly have it all, and this can help to make us feel less alone,
That said, as you watch the upcoming games and cheer on your favorite team, remember that, like you, they are fighting a battle that people can’t see and that itself deserves a gold medal.
Gouttebarge V, Castaldelli-Maia JM, Gorczynski P, et al. (2019). Occurrence of mental health symptoms and disorders in current and former elite athletes: a systematic review and meta-analysis British Journal of Sports Medicine 53:700-706.