What Can We Learn From The Struggles of Olympians & How They Cope With Mental Health?

By Aditi Sivaraman, Legends Report Writer

The celebration of athletic strength, determination and creativity is spoken of around the world through the Olympic Games. Representing their country's proudly in the hopes of obtaining medals and Olympic glory through the single largest sporting event every 4 years is a dream come true for many athletes. While it may look natural, training for the Olympics is by no means an easy feat and causes Olympians to be at higher risk of mental health issues. We have seen this recently, as Simone Biles at the Tokyo 2020 games withdrew from the all-around team events to preserve her mental health. Mental health issues are prominent worldwide and even though the UK is a developed country, there are very few helplines providing timely support. 

The key question is: What can we learn from the struggles of Olympians and how they cope with mental health?

How Is Mental Health Intertwined With The Olympics?

Over the last year, the likelihood of Olympians developing psychological related illnesses such as depression, anxiety etc has increased. To quantify this, researchers from Strava and Stanford University conducted surveys between March and August 2020. The results indicated that stress-induced anxiety affected 27.9% of participants post-pandemic Vs 4.7% of athletes pre-pandemic.

There are key reasons for the seven-fold increase in mental health issues.

One of the major reasons for the increase in mental health issue is the strenuous training that all athletes must endure to develop the strength, stamina and agility required for their respective disciplines. Although for short periods, these types of exercises can be extremely useful to maintain a healthy body but for long periods they can have an opposing effect often leading to detrimental muscle damage, sprains etc. Apart from physical damage, the sheer exhaustion faced by athletes training through the day and night to perfect skills contributes to stress.

Research from Strava found “that professional athletes exercised for 92 minutes per day on average before COVID-19 restrictions, and 103 minutes per day during COVID-19 restrictions” which shows the immense pressure they put themselves under to strive for perfection and excellence and in turn undermines mental health of athletes.

A further reason is loneliness. Although many events are team sports — athletes are very often not accompanied by family members and are training in other countries with different coaches. This causes them to feel isolated and out of touch with loved ones and carers and hence is seen as a rising issue within the sporting world, leading to depression. 

Many professional Olympians this year were affected financially which put a huge strain on mental health. “71% of athletes surveyed worry about receiving financial compensation for their athletic activities during COVID-19 restrictions” as stated by Stanford University and because of this, many were stressed about loans which added to the pressure of working past their physical limits when doing exercise.

“Mental Health counts for 90% of sporting success.”

Charlotte Worthington (Freestyle BMX Olympic Gold Medalist)

Embed from Getty Images

Tokyo 2020 And Mental Health...

The Tokyo 2020 Olympics brought mental health issues to the global stage, albeit briefly. This eye-opening sporting event has allowed numerous athletes to come to terms with mental health and understand the foundations of what mental health is all about. On July 27th, Simone Biles undertook a powerful stance by withdrawing from the USA gymnastics all-around team events to put her mental health first over winning medals and gaining Olympic glory.

This sent a strong message to all across the globe that these athletes are human and that their mental health mattered as much as their physical health and influenced people to be more honest about mental health issues. Furthermore, Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open and TV interviews by multiple athletes on emotional well-being enhanced the message of speaking boldly and unashamedly about mental health which brought it more into the public eye. This even influenced larger online support groups and encouraged more people to organise sessions to talk about their feelings.

“But even if I didn’t want to see such comments, they reached me, and it really made me feel terrible. That was really upsetting and sad.”

— Mai Murakami (Artistic Gymnast Olympic Bronze Medalist-Floor exercise)

Lessons To Be Learned And Implemented From Olympians: How To Overcome Mental Health Struggles?

Many of the athletes have opened up on the struggle to conquer mental health which is an ever-growing battle. Mental health does not discriminate between people but rather affects people in different ways.

It is true to say that mental health is hard to control and has many ways of affecting our daily lives and so athletes have shared how they take control of their mental well-being through various methods. Some rely on expert advice such as sports psychologists and therapists to help them understand fundamental behaviours and actions which lead to mental health issues arising and how to cope and recognize these patterns.

Normalising the use of therapy helps to break the stigma surrounding mental health and enables people to have someone to talk to on days where they are struggling or feeling unhappy. However, these specialists are not accessible to everyone so even talking with family and friends in confidence and being open about any doubts and worries will help to cope when dealing with problems.

At the Legends Report, we have a team of mentors, coaches and counsellors available to talk to if you would value support with your mental health.

Finally, many athletes choose to undertake mindful practices for example meditation or writing positive thoughts in notebooks or keeping a journal to reflect upon on later. These practices encourage more positive ways of improving mental health.

“It’s OK not to be OK”

— Naomi Osaka (Four-time Grand Slam singles champion)

The Olympic Games provide a sense of happiness and joy whilst watching our favourite Olympians compete in the largest sporting event. It can teach us about having determination, perseverance and resilience which can enable us to achieve great heights of success. It has shed light on how we as a society should encourage breaking the stigma surrounding mental health. Moreover, the Olympic Games allowed us to explore methods as to how we can improve and develop our mental well-being in mindful ways to help us be the best we can be. 

The Legends Report offers a wide range of support for mental health through counselling, mastermind sessions, workshops and more to help put mental well-being first and foremost. We build a community that is supportive and encourages younger and older people to speak about their own experience with mental health in a safe and comfortable environment. For more resources and information on supporting your mental health please contact us in the form below. 

“It is during our darkest moments that we must focus to see the light.”

— Aristotle

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