Mental Health Problems Can Affect Anyone – Even Olympic Champions

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July 27, 2021

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It can be assumed that the physical health of the average Olympic athlete falls somewhere between “excellent” and “specimen” – and that their mental health is probably tops, too. After all, competing at that level requires not just great talent and physical conditioning but also a mental fitness that only comes from years of practice and dedication. But elite athletes are human, too, experts note, and even they can suffer from problems with their mental health.

Consider Simone Biles, the most decorated American gymnast ever and perhaps the most dominant gymnast of all time, who just withdrew from the Summer Olympic Games. According to ESPN, she says it wasn’t a physical injury that affected her performance and forced her withdrawal, but rather that she wasn’t in “the right headspace to compete.”

Ms. Biles admitted that when the 2020 Games were postponed last year due to COVID-19, she thought about walking away from the sport. “One year on a gymnast’s body is kind of like five years with all the wear and tear, and I didn’t know if I could do it again,” she said in an interview last week on NBC Nightly News.

And what about competitive swimmer Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympic medalist of all time with 23 Golds, three Silvers and two Bronze medals earned over five different Summer Games? Even Mr. Phelps has struggled with his mental health, revealing that he has battled depression and alcohol and drug abuse for years and even had thoughts of suicide.

Resource editors spoke with Chantis Mantilla, Ph.D., MPH, an exercise physiologist and manager of Community Health for Baptist Health South Florida, who provided insights on the mental health challenges for athletes competing in the Olympics.

Resource: Regardless of their sport, elite athletes have to be mentally sharp to compete at such a high level in the Summer Olympic Games. Can you talk about what it takes for them, mentally, to make it this far?

Chantis Mantilla, Ph.D., MPH, an exercise physiologist and Manager of Community Health for Baptist Health South Florida

Dr. Mantilla: For an Olympic athlete to be at peak performance, it’s essential to prioritize both body and mind preparation. Mental training is equally as important as physical training, especially during intense competition. Most elite sporting teams and events have sport psychologists who collaborate with coaches and athletes to help prepare athletes for peak performance.

Resource: Some of these athletes are so young and they’re performing on the world stage for the very first time. Do they get stage fright? How can they overcome their nerves and stay focused on their performance?

Dr. Mantilla: Mental training – developing skills to deal with stage fright and performance anxiety, for example – is essential, whether it’s a young athlete competing in the Olympics for the first time or a seasoned veteran like Simone Biles, whose physical skills have redefined what is possible in gymnastics.

For athletes, actors or anyone readying themselves for a “performance of a lifetime,” there are some simple techniques that can help calm their nerves:

  • Practice: Being proficient and rooted in the fundamental skills provides sense of confidence and relief.
  • Visualize it: Set a clear intention and image of achieving your goal.
  • Breathe Mindfully: Simply focusing your attention on your breath – the inhale and the exhale – releases muscle tension and creates a sense of calm.
  • Pick a Focal Point: Shift focus and concentrate by picking one or a few points in the space (helps you shift focus without getting distracted).
  • Get Support: A support system of friends, teammates, coaches and mental health experts can help alleviate the stress and pressure.

Resource: This Summer Olympic Games is unique in that it was postponed from last year due to the coronavirus pandemic. The shadow of COVID-19 still hangs heavily over Olympic Village, and some athletes have already been forced to withdraw. How do you think this affects athletes and their ability to compete?

Dr. Mantilla: Competing in the Olympics puts an immense amount of pressure on many athletes. This Summer Olympics layers in even more pressure, with many athletes concerned about the risk of getting COVID-19, which can affect their participation in competition. The pandemic has also influenced audience participation. Audience support is encouraging for athletes and can be a source of positive reinforcement. With most venues being relatively empty, it may have a significant impact on athletic performance. Going through the pandemic has been difficult for every one of these athletes. The key for them is to have a strong support system, open communication and the ability to focus only on what is within their control.

Resource: Do elite athletes have a different attitude than ordinary people that enables them to perform at such a high level?

Dr. Mantilla: Athletes need talent and physical abilities to excel in their sport. Determination and passion is what sets an Olympic athlete apart. The level of commitment needed for countless hours of training and patience to become an expert are fueled by this determination and passion.

Resource: What mental traits would the average person or “weekend warrior” want to emulate from an Olympic athlete in order to lead an active, healthy life?

Dr. Mantilla: Three things: gratitude, confidence and a willingness to challenge yourself. Developing a practice of gratitude helps build humility and resilience, and helps you remain flexible and adaptable to change and challenges. Confidence is important because having a strong sense of self-belief is a quality that drives you to keep going, regardless of what everyone is doing. And embracing new challenges offers opportunities for you to push your limits and abilities.

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