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Facing Mental Health Challenges for Olympic and Pro Athletes

August 12th, 2021


Every two to four years, we distract ourselves from the demands of daily life by focusing on one of the most exciting events on the globe, the Olympic Games. We watch athletes from every corner of the Earth prove that they truly are elite athletes. Performing remarkable feats of strength, speed, agility, power, and mental toughness, these people awe us and inspire us.

The fact that these games were once the domain of amateur athletes only, allows us all to dream that we, too, have a chance at performing on this world stage – we have a chance at greatness.

Professional Athletes Are Placed On A Pedestal

We embrace Olympic athletes and professional athletes as our own. We feel like we know these people through numerous social media posts and endless television and web coverage.

We refer to them by their first names and know their partners’ and children’s names, as well. They share with us what they eat, what they wear, where they shop. We learn about where they went to school, what classes they hated, their ascendance in their sport, their workouts, their vacations. We believe we know them and come to think of them as our friends.

Professional Athletes Are Placed On A Pedestal

The great ones always perform with a smile and make it look easy. Even as media coverage has intensified giving us in-depth backstories and access to the once private lives, training routines, and regimens, we never truly know how much they give to their sport. This year, leading up to and during the Tokyo Olympics, we have witnessed the toll being an elite athlete takes on one’s mental health.

We forgive these athletes for run-ins with the law, drug use, DUI’s, injuries, foolish or ignorant statements, bad social behavior. We post to support our athletes when they are injured, empathize with their pain, and wish them a speedy recovery. We highlight and imitate their posturing, primal yells, and chest-thumping. We roll our eyes and laugh when an athlete is “eccentric”. We tweet our sympathies when an athlete’s family member is sick or dies. We dedicate hours of our time to watching them and knowing their every statistic. We pay outrageous sums to wear their names on our clothes and buy products they get paid to support.

However, we seem unwilling to forgive any kind of athlete’s mental health or psychological struggles – we see this as weakness, a failure, a loss of heart.

Unique Mental Health Struggles Facing Olympic & Elite Athletes

Unique Mental Health Struggles Facing Olympic & Elite Athletes

Just take a look at the things said most recently about Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka. Strangers to these women - talk show hosts, sportscasters, podcasters, former athletes, etc. - are calling them cowards and weak. These are folks who have never met or had a conversation with these athletes and usually get their information via press releases, tweets, and other 3rd party sources. Even Texas’ deputy attorney general went out of his way to call Biles a “selfish, childish national embarrassment”.

Athletes are expected to be superhuman. We, their coaches, teammates, and competitors expect the athlete to compete no matter what – leave nothing on the field. They are held to standards no other would be expected to meet, such as competing with torn ligaments, stress fractures, pulled muscles, head injures.

If they don’t, they are made to feel guilty by letting their fans or teammates down. They are made to feel small and weak by not being mentally tough enough to push through the pain. If they feel this kind of pressure to endure visible and measurable physical issues, how must they feel when struggling with psychological problems.

How do you think any other athlete with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or any type of mental disorder feels when some of the most famous and decorated athletes are attacked for the same issues? Why would anyone come forward and admit they need help? Imagine struggling with your social anxiety, depression, or loss of confidence and hearing your friends or family tear into an athlete for feeling the same thing you do.

Tackling Mental Health in Olympic Sport

Tackling Mental Health in Olympic Sport

Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history, has been bold enough to share his own experience with depression and suicide. He has been at the forefront of bringing mental illness out of the closet.

In his excellent documentary “The Weight of Gold” on HBO, he illuminates his and other Olympic athletes’ struggles with mental health issues ranging from grief to substance abuse, to suicide. A constant theme that emerges in the film is how the athletes feel weak, different, stigmatized for experiencing these issues. The film further highlights how these issues are outright discounted or ignored by coaches/support staff.

The Fight To Put Atheletes’ Mental Health First

The fact that these athletes whom we idolize are humans gets lost. Like any other human, they have lives outside of their sport that bring sadness, distraction, stress, and anxiety. They must navigate unhealthy relationships, sick parents, children or siblings with special needs, social injustice, addictions, just like everyone else.

If the past year has taught us anything, it’s that we all are vulnerable human beings and we all have a breaking point. There comes a time at which no matter how hard we try, no matter what strategies we use, we can buckle under emotional/psychological strain. To pretend otherwise is just that … pretending.

Written By: Frank Sassetti, PsyD

Clarity Clinic

At Clarity Clinic, we have highly trained mental health professionals who specialize in therapy and psychiatry services. Call Clarity Clinic on (312) 815-9660 or schedule an appointment today to learn more about how we can support your mental health.

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