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A Take on Olympians and Mental Health

Hearing the word “Olympian” brings up ideas someone resembling a god or infallible force. And, to a certain extent as these athletes at the Olympics showcase their supernatural abilities which are often born from a combination of genetic predisposition and unwavering dedication to their sport. These Olympians are certainly gifted in terms of physical strength and talent and are a cut above the rest of us. Even research support that there are often genetic and physical differences in their anatomy but while we have been so focused on their physical abilities, until recently there was very little discussion about mental health.

Athletes Face Massive Pressure

Everyone is susceptible to mental illnesses, and these athletes are no different. Even though the mental health topic is considered taboo in the field of sports, some top athletes like Naomi Osaka and Simone Manuel have spoken out about their struggles with mental health. And, it seems like people are hearing what they have to say. Researchers and trainers are heavily evaluating ways to minimize mental health challenges faced by these athletes due to all the competition and training. Additionally, their voices have started to disconnect the idea that in order for one to be strong and successful, that they must not have mental health needs or that struggling with mental health issues is “weak.” It has given us as a society some space to reflect upon our biases (implicit or explicit) that performance is the only thing that matters.

Mental Health Struggles at the French Open

Naomi Osaka is a Japanese tennis professional who made headlines back in May, citing withdrawal from the French Open. She decided to withdraw from the competition after continued disputes with tournament officials. The issue here was Naomi didn’t want to attend the post-match interviews as they were affecting her performance and also was making her anxious. When she skipped the first post-game interview, the officials penalized her $15,000 and also threatened to expel her from the tournament. In response, Naomi withdrew from the tournament as she wanted to prioritize her mental health. This was a shock to the media and fans watching around the world. These reactions really highlight the pervading notion of performance and production above all other costs. Seeing someone so skilled and successful taking a different route was and continues to be the start of a mindset shift for many people. It also helped humanize athletes-they are humans just as we all are.

Overtraining Burns Out Athletes

Simone Manuel is a professional swimmer and an Olympic gold medalist. This year, she was diagnosed with overtraining syndrome. She spent six months battling symptoms like rapid heartbeat, depression and fatigue. After failing to qualify for the 2021 Olympics, she was honest about your condition and wasn’t ashamed to speak out about her mental health. In fact, speaking up about her mental illness was a victory for her. Simone said during a press conference, “This was the first time before I even dove in for a race that I was actually proud of myself.”

Focusing on mental health is just as important as staying in top shape for your sport. However, the athlete’s training aspect is often overlooked. Besides being susceptible to overtraining syndrome, around 34% of the athletes will suffer from depression or anxiety at some time in their active careers. According to BMJ journals, 45% of male players in team sports may suffer from anxiety and depression, while around 25% of female athletes may suffer from eating disorders or some form of mental illness. While mental health disorders and struggles are rampant, support and intervention is a huge unmet need. What these key athletes have done is started the discussion, which is where progress and change is born.

Athletes Are People Too

This year’s Olympics has been eventful and will inspire us for the years to come. We will definitely congratulate and reward these athletes for their remarkable achievement at the Olympics and for showcasing their superior physical abilities. We will also celebrate their ability to perform under such immense pressure and their ability to prioritize themselves, despite pressures to do otherwise. They have started a conversation that has been a long time in the making and as a mental health professional, I am so grateful for the precedence they have set. By taking a stand, these athletes have helped set framework for anyone of us who struggles with perfectionism, depression, anxiety and other challenges.

If you are battling with overachievement yet under fulfillment, pressure to perform and the struggles that often accompany that, you can reach out to us at Thriving Lane. Working with a therapist can help you gain more insight into your motivations and help with decreasing stress, anxiety and depression. We hope that if this resonates with you, you will prioritize your mental health today! 

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