Health & Fitness

What Olympic Athletes Can Teach Us About Prioritising Mental Health

August 12, 2021   By Ecosa Dream Writers

It’s been all over the news — Team USA’s golden girl and defending champion has withdrawn from the Tokyo 2020 Games. 

Olympic gymnast Simone Biles cited mental health concerns and wanting to prioritise her wellbeing as the reason for her stepping back from several gymnastic events in the competition. 

It’s been all over the news — Team USA’s golden girl and defending champion has withdrawn from the Tokyo 2020 Games.

Olympic gymnast Simone Biles cited mental health concerns and wanting to prioritise her wellbeing as the reason for her stepping back from several gymnastic events in the competition. 

Biles was one of the 150 victims — of sports doctor Larry Nassar — to testify in court, and she opened up about her depression due to that experience.

So, while it came as a shock to Americans that 24-year-old Simone Biles withdrew from the team competition — as Biles was poised to bring home gold medals — it shouldn’t be a surprise if you really think about it.

Despite some criticism from radio commentators and conservatives, she was commended by her countrymen, praised on social media and received support from USA Gymnastics for her decision to back out of the Tokyo Games. 

Outside of the Tokyo Olympics, tennis star Naomi Osaka of Japan withdrew from the French Open despite being a crowd favourite and ranked first by the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association).

Osaka exited from the French Open to focus on her mental health issues — mostly stress due to the relentless hounding she received at press conferences and in the media; not only have detractors questioned her athletic abilities but also her ethnicity.  

Back in Australia, running champion Catriona Bisset was driven to a four-year break from competitive sport a few years ago, when hurdles outside of the track, such as an eating disorder, depression and anxiety, took a toll on her mental and physical wellbeing. 

And in 2014, Olympic gold-medalist Michael Phelps checked into treatment for ADHD, trauma, depression and anxiety, wrestling with mental health even now that he’s behind the booth as a commentator. 

For those who are struggling with mental health, know you’re not alone: There are days where I want to curl up into a ball and sit in the corner,” he told Insider. “But it’s just taking a little step forward, taking a deep breath from time to time. It really helps.”

The recent withdrawal of a gold medal-winning Olympian — Simone Biles — and a top-tier athlete like Naomi Osaka serves as a reminder of the massive role our mental health plays in our performance and lives off-camera.  

So, have we learnt anything from our Olympic athletes about prioritising mental health? Well, let’s see…

What Does It Take To Be an Elite-Level Olympian?

Being at the highest level of elite sport requires a sh**t tonne of skill, athleticism, hard work, training, and determination, to even have the chance of aiming for Olympic gold. It’s not something that can happen overnight. 

It’s often a lifetime commitment of relentless coaching before the dream is even in sight. 

Pushing the Limits of Body and Mind

With the proper training and body conditioning, pretty much anyone can be decent at a sport; when you push your body to its limits, you’re more than likely to excel beyond the rest. 

Elite athletes are experts in pushing their bodies to their maximum potential, which leads to success in competitions and, sometimes, to injury and defeat.

If we expect every athlete to perform at the highest level, how does an Olympian aspiring for the gold medal set themselves apart? It takes perseverance to get pushed down but get up again, to imagine the impossible.

Olympic athletes have proven time and time again that the games aren’t just physically taxing. They’re also mentally and emotionally exhausting: you can condition yourself to adapt to the emotional difficulties of the competition, BUT that doesn’t always get you to the finish line. 

Even the world’s best athletes get tired of having to be strong all the time.

Ability to Work under Intense Pressure

Athletes prepare for up to four years for their specific event in the Olympic Games. It’s ALL OR NOTHING for them. Four years of hard work, sweat, and tears culminate in just a handful of events over the span of a few days.

The Olympics is something that competitors have waited to be part of for a long time, maybe even their whole lives. Being invited to an international sporting event is a privilege accorded to a negligible number of people.

According to The Conversation:

“Anxiety is also a common experience for athletes when they’re under pressure. Anxiety can increase heart rate and perspiration, cause heart palpitations, muscle tremors and shortness of breath, as well as headaches, nausea, stomach pain, weakness and a desire to escape in more severe cases.”

Olympians feel all the weight on their shoulders knowing that they’re going head-to-head with the best of the best, and with the enormous expectation to come home with gold, it can put an athlete under immense scrutiny.

Being under the Spotlight

Elite athletes are highly celebrated; they’re considered the heroes of their country to the extent that some are even given celebrity treatment. 

There’s a lot of attention directed at these athletes, affecting their mental health, especially when they prefer to exist out of the limelight.

Many athletes experience the dilemma of embracing the celebrity status or keeping their head down and focusing on the sport since the exposure can lead to sponsorship deals and partnerships that can contribute to the funding of their training and conditioning programs.

What Can We Learn from Our Elite Athletes?

We’re All Human

Regardless of if you’re the fastest man on earth, can lift the most weight or swim the longest distance, you’re still human, and it’s good to remind ourselves of our vulnerability. 

We have our limits, and it is our duty to ourselves to honour those limits.

In the words of Simone Biles: “It was something that was so out of my control. At the end of the day, my mental and physical health is better than any medal.”

More than the medals, championships and accolades, our sanity and our wellbeing is of utmost importance. Even after the closing ceremony, a healthy balance between our physical, mental, and emotional health is the key to success.

There’s More to Life than Winning

While a gold medal hanging from our neck might sound like a dream come true, we have to ask ourselves at what cost are we willing to fight for it — hopefully, not our health and sanity!

Most athletes begin a sport out of passion; they excel because they enjoy the immediate satisfaction that the practice provides them.

But, once an athlete begins to play the sport at a career or professional level, winning becomes the primary goal, even more so when reaching the world stage.

We should ALL be reminded that whatever it is that motivates us, it’s worth taking a step back to enjoy the simple pleasure it brought us as a rookie when the pressure becomes too much.

After all, wasn’t the reason we started in the first place for the love of the game? (Or whatever it is that inspires you.)

There’s Nothing Wrong with Seeking Help

Elite-level athletes are some of the toughest people you can meet. They have a killer mentality and a gritty attitude that keeps them persevering through each challenge. When it comes to mental and emotional strength, they’re aware of what’s at stake.

But, tough as they are, even athletes are beginning to realise that sometimes asking for help is the best option, and there’s no shame in that.

If people strong enough to overcome the most difficult obstacles in the world can admit to suffering from mental health issues and needing help, then there’s absolutely no reason for us not to consider therapy, downtime, recovery and rest whenever it’s needed.

We Must Get To Know Ourselves

The easiest way to prevent burnout is to admit that you’ve reached your physical or mental capacity before it gets the best of you.

There’s no need to push through it out of shame or fear, and there’s definitely no reason for our bodies to undergo the exhaustion and pain that comes with an untreated mental health battle (yes, even us mortals who run out of breath climbing the stairs). 

Read our article on the viral sustainable beds at the Tokyo Olympics.

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