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Mental health spotlight in top competitive athletics

Olympians and other apex athletes (professional and collegiate level) are regarded as "superhuman," with unfathomable willpower, speed, strength, abilities, and traits that ordinary mortals can only dream of. Even the word Olympian, which derives from Greek mythology. Mt. Olympus was the home of the Gods, and the label Olympian conveys some of those more than human traits to these elite athletes. This makes it difficult to accept that these folks may have the same health problems and afflictions as the general population.

When it comes to the top tier training or rehabbing from injuries, science and research have remained current for athletes; however, what is lacking is researching and studying apex athletes' mental health and psychological well-being.

Elite athletes are seen as hard-working and healthy persons who exhibit good mental characteristics such as "focused," "resilience," "confident," "resilient," and "unflappable." The long-held and now-outdated assumption was that only mentally and emotionally strong athletes could achieve and compete at the top level. This resulted in a lack of focus and monitoring on mental health disorders (MHD) and mental health symptoms in the realm of top athletics. The assumption that great athletes are free of mental health issues is being openly challenged by players at the pinnacle of their sports. Research also supports the notion that elite athletes, who are under enormous pressure to perform at the highest level, are sensitive to and battle mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, addictions, and drug abuse.

How can sports participation and exercise turn bad?

Regular exercise and sports participation have long been recognized to aid with mental health symptoms and problems because physical activity produces the mood booster serotonin.

If involvement in sports is beneficial in combating mental health illnesses, why does there seem to be a worrisome link between apex athletes and mental health concerns? What occurs for these athletes that prevent their sport from being released and instead exacerbate their mental health issues? An apex athlete is the result of years of preparation. The athlete's identity is formed by the sport, and it becomes difficult for the athlete to find enjoyment in what they once loved. They often have a pressure they carry to always perform at the top levels. For them, there is no room for failure or disappointment at that level of competition. Simone Biles remarked in Tokyo that she felt like she was carrying "the weight of the world on her shoulders."

There is now a heightened emphasis on research of MHD in athletes as a result of rising public awareness, which is due in part to the openness of apex athletes who openly share their struggles. It is now a more openly known fact that athletes can display signs, experience symptoms, and suffer from mental health illnesses.

While there are some very public faces to bring awareness to MHD, there are still reasons why top athletes may not seek out the help they need. Elite athletes are less likely to seek treatment or support for mental health issues for a variety of reasons, including:
  • The stigma associated with MHD

  • The belief is that asking for help is a show of weakness.

  • A particular sport has a culture that values physical and mental toughness.

  • Athletes are urged to hide symptoms of weakness.

  • Fears of being kicked from the squad or not being permitted to participate

  • Unwillingness to recognize mental health and its impact on performance

  • Athletes who believe they are unable to discuss their mental health concerns inside their sports organization.

Although numerous sports organizations across the globe are taking steps to disseminate sport-related health results, there is still a long way to go to enhance the prevention, detection, and early management of MHD among apex athletes. However, it is encouraging to see that different sports organizations are introducing mental health support systems for their top athletes.

The good news is that, much as we often look to our athlete heroes as the ideal for athletic skill or physical ability, we can now look to them as relatable. Several world-famous athletes are now revealing their mental issues to de-stigmatize the negative connotations associated with mental health challenges. While Biles is the most recent prominent personality to raise awareness about this issue, she is not the first athlete to experience the crushing pressure that comes with being an Olympic favorite, nor is she the first to speak out about mental health issues.

  • Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history, has been candid about his struggles with depression. Phelps, like Biles, wore the weight of a nation as the face of a whole Olympics, as he detailed in The Weight of Gold, a 2020 documentary.

  • Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open and skipped Wimbledon in the run-up to the Olympics to protect herself and her mental health.

  • Lindsey Vonn, the most decorated female skier of all time, opened up candidly about her long-standing battle with depression. Vonn shared, "I think I was misunderstood in a lot of ways. I think everyone thought that because I was successful on the mountain I was always happy and I led a perfect life, and that's not true."

  • Kaye Nye, a U.S. Olympic weightlifter showed her public support of Biles and continued to make it ok to have an open dialogue about top athletes and mental health disorders. "As someone with bipolar disorder and ADHD, I could definitely relate to the overwhelming nature of the sport. I’m of the opinion that you have to put yourself first. She should have done what was best for her, and she did.”

It is promising to note that admitting that an athlete is placing their mental health as their priority is not a career-ending move. Olympic figure skater Gracie Gold withdrew from participating before the 2018 Winter Olympics. She announced to the press that she would seek counseling for depression, anxiety, and an eating issue. With the proper mental health care and support, Gold worked to return to the world of figure skating in January of this year at the US Figure Skating Championships.

What was it about Bille's announcement that sparked such a cord with the world?

According to specialists, there are generational and environmental aspects that have pushed mental health awareness to the forefront of our minds and media. Dr. Joshua Gordon, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, expresses that it is certain that COVID-19 has brought mental health to the public in a manner that it hadn't been previously. The question is whether this increased awareness makes it simpler for individuals to communicate and admit mental health issues.

Athletes like Biles and Osaka are paving the way for more peak/apex athletes to follow in their footsteps. They demonstrate that performance and medals may be valued, but not at the expense of mental health. Athletes who have the flexibility and openness to seek treatment when required will suffer fewer mental setbacks and pave the path for more athletes at the highest levels of competition to enjoy longer and healthier careers. It should always be OK to take a break and care for yourself.

There is a hopeful expectation that this will reframe how athletes are seen. Athletes and s mere mortals are not born as top competitors, but what we can all do is strive for greatness. It all comes down to what you're trying to accomplish to be your greatest version of yourself, whether you're an Olympian, an athlete, a kid, or an adult. If it means pushing ahead and competing, so be it, but if it means taking a step back for the sake of mental health, then that is ok too.

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