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The Reality of Mental Health and Olympic Athletes

Back in summer 2021, the world learned a big lesson about Olympic athletes and mental health when Simone Biles, a highly decorated gold medalist gymnast, pulled out of the competition. She later shared her struggles with the “twisties” and sent a powerful message to the public: It’s okay to sit one out—even when a gold medal is at stake.

“When high-profile athletes like Simone Biles speak out, it helps to show the realness of the athlete—the actual person behind the athlete,” says France A. Davis II, MSPAS, PA-C, a lead advanced practice clinician at Huntsman Mental Health Institute (HMHI). “This is what people want to connect with and what drives the closer connection between athletes and fans.”  

As we watch the Summer Olympics, it’s important to remember that these inspiring athletes face many mental health struggles as they push their bodies and minds to the limits.

Olympians Are Humans, Too

There’s no doubt about it: Olympic athletes are truly incredible to watch. Yet despite their seemingly superhuman abilities, they have the same health care needs and vulnerabilities as the rest of us.

“They are no different than what one might consider to be a ‘normal person,’ except for the fact that they are in the top 1-5% of athletes in the world in their specific sport,” Davis says.

To achieve optimal performance, Davis advises athletes to incorporate these basic, yet highly effective, healthy living habits into their daily routines:

“These athletes need to make sure they are caring for their minds and bodies by incorporating the concept of ‘brain food’ (habits that increase cognitive and emotional productivity) into their daily regimen,” Davis says.

Mental Pregame Strategies

While watching close-ups of Olympic athletes on the big screen, it’s a wonder what they must be thinking just before they take that big tumbling pass or dive into the pool. According to Davis, athletes can take several steps to collect themselves before and during these high-pressure moments.

  • Visualization: Athletes can build confidence and alleviate anxiety by mentally rehearsing a performance. This can be done by closing your eyes and imagining a big-picture view with a victorious outcome or a step-by-step progression from start to finish.
  • Goal Setting: This strategy helps athletes stay focused, motivated, and positive. Before the competition, athletes use goal setting to break down large objectives into manageable, actionable steps. During the competition, they can focus on a specific attainable goal that challenges them to reach their highest potential.
  • Relaxation Techniques: While under pressure, athletes can address self-doubt and anxiety by practicing simple relaxation techniques such as positive self-talk, deep-breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, visualization, and sound therapy.

The Unseen Struggles of Student-Athletes

Practice makes perfect, which is why Olympic athletes spend most of their waking hours in training. This workload is even more daunting for student-athletes who have little to no room for a work-life balance.

“Unlike athletes who focus solely on their sport, student-athletes are juggling school schedules and work along with training and competing,” Davis says. “They are also dealing with the pressure of social expectations from peers as they try to build their social identities.”

Davis says it’s important for student-athletes to be aware of their unique challenges and to seek help when they’re feeling overwhelmed.

“The pressure to earn scholarships, gain college admission, or even transition to professional sports can be extremely overwhelming,” Davis says. “All of these challenges can lead to sleep issues, burnout, poor academic performance, and the inability to maintain peak sports performance.”

Changing the Conversation About Toughness

Now, as more athletes are sharing their vulnerabilities around mental health, Davis says it’s time to change the narrative about mental toughness.

“I don’t like the phrase ‘mental toughness,’ as it implies that athletes can’t feel or express certain natural emotions. I think it should be changed to ‘competitive emotional agility,’ which refers to an athlete’s ability to quickly adapt their emotional responses to dynamic high-pressure situations in the sport.”
France A. Davis II, MSPAS, PA-C

Understanding the art of emotional intelligence in sports, also known as “Sports EI,” can be a game-changer, Davis says—especially when athletes are constantly under pressure to push through physical and emotional pain to show their “Olympic spirit.”

“Pushing through pain, ignoring injuries, or suppressing emotions over extended periods of time can cause an athlete to erupt in a way that yields negative consequences both in life and performance—all in the name of ‘toughness,’” Davis says.

When “Tough Love” Turns Toxic

Bad coaches can do a lot of damage, especially when professional athletes spend more time in training than they do at home with their loved ones. Here are some red flags to keep in mind:

  • Verbal abuse such as name-calling and public humiliation
  • Pushing an athlete to compete or train while injured and disregarding their need for rest
  • Neglecting an athlete’s mental health concerns or needs
  • Creating a toxic sporting environment by showing favoritism and unfair preferential treatment
  • Fostering an environment of fear and discouraging open communication

The Power of Speaking Out

In the future, Davis hopes to see more athletes using their platforms to share their stories and help others feel less isolated.

“It’s important for these individuals to speak out because it breaks down the stigma wall surrounding the issue of mental health and normalizes the struggle,” Davis says. “As the saying goes, it’s okay to not be okay. This can resonate even more when coming from a high-profile athlete.”