Sports and mental health have long had a close correlation. This can be seen in the current Olympics when Simone Biles took a stand in valuing mental health over performance. Michael Phelps and Naomi Osaka have also spoken about mental health in the past and how important it is when you’re a professional athlete. The way we can bring change is by implementing mental health services and support as part of an athlete’s routine.
Training for the Olympics can take a toll on many athletes, and with the pandemic in the mix, this year’s athletes have been pushed to the extreme both physically and mentally. There have been many historical moments in this year’s Olympics, but the most important was when Simone Biles withdrew from the competition to protect her mental health. She got inspiration from Naomi Osaka who has also spoken about the struggles of mental health for athletes, the most common being depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and PTSD. Additionally, physical issues are tied to mental health, especially for professional athletes whose careers may depend on how they recover. On one hand, medications for mental health conditions can sometimes impair athletic performance through side effects. In another respect, physical injury can spark or exacerbate emotional or mental distress. Fear of career loss or impairment, loss of income, and the weight of public perception may all factor into an athlete’s mental health struggles. Ironically, psychological distress can actually delay the physical healing process and suppress the immune system (McKenzie, 2021).
Depression, anxiety, and eating disorders in athletes can manifest from burnout and excessive pressure. Michael Phelps has discussed his post-competition depression and how losing can greatly impact your happiness. For female athletes, body images issues and eating disorders are more prominent and often lead to depression. Olympic athletes have also reported losing a sense of self-identity (Cohen, 2021). Most Olympians have spent their lives training for competition, sacrificing a normal childhood. They often miss out on school dances, events, and romance to dedicate their lives to training. This kind of upbringing can have a major impact on an athlete’s identity because they don’t know their value outside of the sport. What they find is that people value their accomplishments and performance rather than who they are as a person.
Because every athlete has a coach who plays a big role in their lives, mental health should start with them. Coaches should be continuously promoting healthy habits and mindsets for their athletes. Their goal must be to help athletes realize that staying healthy both physically and mentally can positively impact performance. They also need to be reminded of their value as people and that the pressure to perform shouldn’t rule their lives.
Bell, C. C. (1997). Promotion of mental health through competitive coaching. Journal of the National Medical Association, 89(8), 517-520.
Cohen, S. (2021). Olympics puts mental health of elite athletes in the spotlight. UCLA Health. Retrieved from https://connect.uclahealth.org/2021/07/30/olympic-games-puts-mental-health-of-elite-athletes-in-the-spotlight/
McKenzie, A. (2021). Olympic athletes champion honesty about mental health. The Meadows. Retrieved from https://www.themeadows.com/blog/olympic-athletes-champion-honesty-about-mental-health/