Mental health has been at the forefront of this year’s Olympic games, with the USA favourite Simone Biles sacrificing her place in the gymnastics as a result of, and for the benefit of, her mental health. This follows the headlines we saw back in May for Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka who pulled out of the French Open for mental health reasons. Meanwhile, numerous other Olympians, like Michael Phelps, have also voiced their struggles with mental health in recent years. So why is it only now that we are starting to recognise the importance of mental health in high-level sport? And what solutions are there to help struggling athletes?
Particularly in dangerous sports, whether it’s paddling out to face monster waves in the surf, running off a cliff strapped to a hang glider, or flipping seven times through the air backwards with the hope you’ll land on the correct limb, any adrenaline junkie will tell you that you don’t go for it if you’re not in the right headspace. If you are not confident that you will conquer the situation, for whatever reason, be it the weather conditions or waking up on the wrong side of bed, most extreme sport participants know well that the risk is not worth their life. You often hear from athletes who have had bad accidents, that they knew that something was wrong or that the feeling “wasn’t quite right,” but continued into the foray anyway, ending up regretting not trusting their instincts.
It is not only dangerous sports that require robust mental toughness for physical performance though. Mental strength is required to persevere in training any skill. Furthermore, at the competitive level, many sports involve “mind games” between competitors, with the deployment of intimidation and distraction techniques. The difficulty surrounding putting into words what the “right” feeling or headspace is for athletes in these situations, especially when entering competitions, may contribute to why mental health struggles have gone unrecognised for so long in elite sport.
The importance of an athlete’s mental strength, in accompaniment to physical strength, has always been quite clear. The pure act of training seven days a week, at unsociable hours and pushing through pain barriers repeatedly, requires a mental strength that many of us may feel that we do not possess. After all, it’s so hard just to motivate ourselves to leave the warmth of our beds in the morning, let alone with the thought of going straight to the gym too! No lay in on a Sunday? Wait, no pub on Friday? This recognition that athletes have a higher level of mental strength and determination, is another factor that has most likely led to the assumption that mental health problems do not affect elite-level athletes. To get as far as they have, they must have superhuman mind power.
Indeed, it is true that many athletes have a mental discipline and strength trained way beyond the limits of us mere mortals. However, the many unique pressures faced by most sportspeople can chip away at that high level of mental strength required to achieve Olympic-level physical performance. Financial, media, political and performance pressures are all stresses experienced by athletes at the highest level. Further, a report on mental health specifically in the Olympic/Paralympic arena, highlighted that the whole-hearted commitment required by an athlete to pursue the Games is related to high risk of disappointment, high general life stress and even confusion surrounding personal identity and sense of self. The added pressure surrounding the expectations of world records being beaten, and with performance standards constantly increasing as knowledge of the best nutritional and training practices increases with scientific and technological advancements,
athletes of the current day are constantly expected to push harder than those who came before them. At what point, will the records no longer be broken, and instead we find the breaking point of our human athletes? It is natural to speculate that perhaps we are now already reaching that critical point.
While before, we may have believed that physical strength is more important, it is now becoming ever clearer that it doesn’t matter how physically strong you are if your mind doesn’t want to, or can’t, take your body to your goal. However, while many people are praising this increased awareness of mental health issues in high-level sport, others argue that this heightened awareness is not, in itself, sufficient to tackle the problem. Various Think Tanks and committees have been working to put forward strategies to prioritise mental health throughout the various sporting environments that nurture elite athletes.
The three key principles underlying these proposed strategies are screening, monitoring and supporting. Experts suggest that athletes should be screened for mental health struggles as they progress towards the elite level so that their wellbeing and needs can be monitored and addressed throughout their sporting career. These strategies will recognise that sporting excellence is achieved through a tight-knit combination of physical and mental health and strength, with wellbeing being viewed with the mind at the centre rather than on the periphery. With the help of this support, athletes should hopefully find it easier to find that “right” headspace and get into and stay in “the zone”; that elusive state of mind where time seems to slow down, the task at hand can be focussed upon and carried out with a natural ease and enjoyment, and optimal performance can be achieved.
There will always be naysayers, and unfortunately coaches, who criticise athletes for putting their mental health first over bringing home a medal, and will label this a weakness. Sadly, these voices will now seem louder than ever to our athletes due to the omnipresence of social media. While we can’t help athletes with the personal pressure they place upon themselves, something that we can all do to help athletes with their mental health is to ensure we only ever send positivity into the online ether. We must ensure that our sportspeople know that we would never expect them to provide us a medal, under the label of our country, at the expense of their mind and body.