Image above: American athlete Simone Biles
Coverage of the mental health of Olympians raises the question ‘should you push on through or step back?’
One of the differences about the Tokyo Olympics seems to be the increased focus on mental health. Sports psychology is nothing new but it seems that the decisions of athletes and their behaviours is causing a lot of debate, some about the existence of mental health struggles but also the way in which people should be behaving.
It seems that, as usual, observers feel compelled to take a position, judgements can be seen on completely opposing ends of the same spectrum – some voices saying that the athletes are right whilst others wrong. Some advocate “sucking up and pushing through” others “you must do what you feel”; some well-meaning whilst others have possibly more murky motivations.
Ultimately it is a common mistake to think you can know what another person needs when they are struggling emotionally and if you are really honest about it, your offering advice is because you find the struggle of others uncomfortable as you cannot cope with the possibility of disappointments in your own life?
Anyone who has experienced mental health struggles knows that the voice most absent, the one with the greatest wisdom, the one that really needs to be heard is one’s own. The “should’s”, opinions, labels and psychopathologies put forward, often without invitation, result in taking up precious time and energy needed for the sufferer to be able to hear their own exhausted and weakened voice of reason.
Of course it is counterintuitive to ask a person who seems completely out of control what they want but often, lost in their pain, it is the one question they have forgotten to ask themselves. Possibly Olympians face such pressure and attention, not because of who they are but what they represent? Their successes and achievements giving hope to everyone around the potentiality of being human? Indeed they report a sense of burden in finding that in doing the very thing they love they find themselves feeling responsible for the hopes of millions of others.
Athletes who are participating in the Olympics, just like anyone focussed on a goal, need to add keeping a balance to their list of key things to pay attention to. For the Olympians this is not only because of the excessive physical activity and physical exhaustion but also due to the enormous pressure put on them from their supporters, press and media from their own countries, as well as the other countries, their coaches and teammates.
In a study issued last year, Human Rights Watch found that some athletes were subjected to extensive physical, sexual and verbal abuse in training. They also evaluated that it has become more common for the athletes and former athletes to open up about their struggles with depression, suicidal thoughts, physical disabilities and lifelong trauma.
An example of someone who was exposed to excessive environmental pressure at a very young age, was the case of Tsubasa Araya. A 17-year-old volleyball player lost his life to suicide, after writing a note, “Volleyball is the hardest.” “Given the systemic nature of abuse and the lack of resources for kids or athletes in trauma or distress, Japan’s lack of resources for mental health is a big concern,” Worden added.
The International Olympic Committee set up resources within the Olympic Village to help athletes facing mental health pressures, including psychologists and helplines in 70 languages. The International Olympic Committee, aware of the struggles young athletes face, increased its mental health resources ahead of the Tokyo Games. Psychologists and psychiatrists are onsite in the Olympic village and established a “Mentally Fit Helpline” as a confidential health support service available before, during and for three months after the Games. Some coaches also participate in the mental health campaigns.
Mental health resources and helplines for athletes are especially important according to the latest research. Thriveworks, a counseling, psychology and psychiatry services based in more than 300 locations, found that one in three elite athletes suffer from anxiety and depression. Also research shows how sexism is prevalent, an analysis of more than 18,000 data resources from press, online and social media sources, showed 69% of negative mentions were about female athletes compared to 31% about male athletes.
Nowadays, there are many athletes in the Olympic environment, mostly females, who have been openly talking about their mental health. The examples include Naomi Osaka, tennis player who withdrew from the French Open and Wimbledon, who has now exited the Olympics in Tokyo early this week, saying it was ‘’a bit too much to handle’’, Sha’Carri Richardson, an American sprinter, who said she used marijuana to help mask the pain of her mother’s death, to say nothing of the pressure of the 100 meters and Liz Cambage, a WNBA player who pulled out of the Olympics a week before they opened because of anxiety over entering a controlled COVID bubble in Tokyo that would have kept her friends and family away.
The tragic case of Tsubasa Araya was sadly just one among many. Aerial skier Jeret “Speedy” Peterson was 29 when he killed himself in 2011 less than two years after winning a silver medal. Australian Olympic cyclist Kelly Catlin won a silver medal at the Games in 2016. She was 23 when she lost her life to suicide in 2019. Stephen Scherer was only 19 when he competed in shooting at the 2008 Games in Beijing. His life was lost to suicide in 2010.
Simone Biles, an American artist gymnast, suddenly decided to quit her competitions as she wasn’t in the right headspace. She stepped back, assessed the situation and realised it would not be healthy to keep going.
She decided it was more important to focus on her mental well-being and participated in only one competition. “I have to do what’s right for me and focus on my mental health, and not jeopardize my health and well-being,” she said.
Before giving the last word to an amazing Olympian I offer this possibility, might it be that your reaction to the mental health struggles of others says more about your hopes and fears for your own mental health than theirs?
So over to Jenny Rissveds. She was the youngest women’s cross-country mountain biking champion when she won gold in Rio at 22. A year later, two deaths in her family triggered depression she still struggles with. Rissveds did not manage to win a second consecutive gold in Tokyo, finishing 14th, but she was glad that the competition was over.“I’m just so f—-ing happy that it’s over,” she said. “Not just the race. But all these years, to not have to carry that title any more. I have a name and I hope that I can be Jenny now and not the Olympic champion, because that is a heavy burden.“I hope that I will be left alone now.”
Psychotherapist, Counsellor, Couples Counsellor and Coach
UKCP registrant, MBACP (accred), UKRCP
PGDip, MA, Adv Dip Ex Psych
Nicholas Rose & Associates
Counselling, psychotherapy and coaching for children, adults, couples and families.
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