Is the pressure of competitive sport flattening athletes’ passion and hindering their mental health?
Foolish, Wise, Fearful, or Brave?
Everyone will have their own opinion about four-time Olympic Champion Simone Biles’ decision to drop out of the Tokyo Olympics due to her mental health concerns. The recent opinions of Piers Morgan are a prime example of the backlash Simone received for putting her mental health before the Olympics. Piers criticised Simone saying, “you let down your team-mates, your fans, and your country”. Contrastingly, Simone received ample support for her decision to put her mental health before the Olympics, commending her as a brave role model for this decision.
If you cannot tell, I am one to think this was a wise and very brave decision.
From loss of passion to disregarding for a balanced lifestyle, Simone sheds light on some of the important issues in competitive sport and how the effects on mental health can be a risk to physical health. And that’s what we’re going to discuss briefly today.
Loss of passion: “What I love has been kind of taken away from me”
Quoted in a recent Guardian article, Simone conveyed a very important message about the impact of pressurised competitive sport on athletes’ passion:
This Olympic games I wanted it to be for myself, but I came in and I felt like I was still doing it for other people. It hurts my heart that doing what I love has been kind of taken away from me to please other people.
I just want you to pause for a moment. Think about that one thing you are most passionate about; how it excites you; how it clears your mind of every worry; how at that moment you can feel so content and free.
Now imagine this feeling being taken away from you.
That excitement turned to nerves; that clear-mindedness turned to worry and fear; that freedom turned to confine pressures. I cannot speak in expansion for Simone or any other athlete on what they truly feel, but I can share statistics and anecdotes to give a sense of their experience. From a personal perspective, I have seen the effects competitive bodybuilding can have on athletes’ mental health; development of eating disorders, muscle dysmorphic disorder, and exercise addiction as a result of the pressure.
Loss of interest in activities that we usually love is a common symptom of anxiety and depression, known as anhedonia. Given high rates of anxiety and depression (up to 45%) in elite athletes, it is unsurprising that the pressure of Olympic sport can lead athletes down a path of dwindling passion and continued performance just to please other people.
Though loss of passion may not occur in all athletes with anxiety or depression, and vice versa, it is important we take seriously these potential warning signs. While it’s hard to grasp the true issue of these mental health difficulties with simple statistics and reported quotes, I just want you to take a moment to think about these athletes below:
Naomi Osaka- Olympic tennis player
“suffered long bouts of depression since her first major tournament victory in 2018 when she defeated Serena Williams at the US Open.”
Michael Phelps — Olympic Swimmer
“Contemplated suicide after the 2012 Olympics while wracked with depression.”
Liz Cambage — WNBA player
“Relying on daily medication to control my anxiety is not the place I want to be right now. Especially walking into competition on the world’s biggest sporting stage.”
Simone Manuel — Olympic Swimmer
“had been experiencing depression, anxiety, and insomnia as a result of overtraining syndrome."
These are just four examples of Olympic athletes whose mental health have suffered at the hands of a pressurised sport.
Disregard for a balanced lifestyle: “We’re not just athletes… There is more to life”
Something that really struck me about Simone’s decision was her statement that:
It’s concerning that under the pressure of public expectation athletes feel that we only appreciate them as athletes; that other components in their life do not matter.
Jenny Rissveds, the youngest women’s cross-country mountain biking champion, deeply instilled this point when she said:
Not just the race. But all these years, to not have to carry that title anymore. I have a name and I hope that I can be Jenny now and not the Olympic champion because that is a heavy burden. I hope that I will be left alone now.
Though we may think we give these athletes the praise they deserve, it’s apparent we need to change the way we address their achievements. The way Jenny mentions she has “a name” and hopes to be “Jenny now” really saddens me; for her to think her entire identity is centred around her Olympic career and that we only care for her achievements we are truly doing Jenny — and other athletes – a disservice.
But how can athletes feel like ordinary people when they’re expected to live a life with such high expectations? Naomi Osaka raised an important point that Olympic athletes do not have the same possibility to take a step back when their mental health is suffering. Recently Naomi said:
Perhaps we should give athletes the right to take a mental break from media scrutiny on a rare occasion without being subject to strict sanctions…In any other line of work, you would be forgiven for taking a personal day here and there, so long as it’s not habitual.
These statements only reiterate the point that we have been failing to support the mental health of Olympic athletes and have been ignorant to the fact they are more than the medals they were. The risk of continuing when struggling with mental health To finish, I would like to leave you with a really important point that Simone Bile made when standing down from the Tokyo Olympics:
But at the end of the day, we want to walk out of here, not be dragged out of here on a stretcher… I didn’t want to go out there and do something dumb and get hurt and be negligent.
Waivered concentration is well-knowingly associated with many mental health disorders and poor lifestyle changes, many of which are highly prevalent in Olympic athletes. Common examples include poor sleep quality, excess stress, anxiety, and depression.
If we continue to push athletes to perform under such conditions, we will inevitably push them to their breaking point…. Quite literally.