Olympics puts mental health of elite athletes in the spotlight

To perform on the highest stage for a prolonged period of time, you need to not only work on your physical foundation, but your mental foundation,” says UCLA Health sports psychologist Doug Polster.

The cerebral supercomputer that directs an Olympian’s body to execute staggering feats of athleticism is the same one that deals with the mental pressure of a lifetime of training and a fleeting moment in the global spotlight.

“Your brain is one thing. It controls everything, mental and physical,” says Doug Polster, PhD, a sports psychologist at UCLA Health.

When world-champion gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from competition at the Tokyo Olympics over mental-health concerns, she became the latest elite athlete to make clear that physical and psychological health are inextricable.

Tennis star Naomi Osaka, who represented Japan in the Olympics, made headlines in June when she prioritized her mental health over playing at Wimbledon and the French Open.

Swimmer Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history, has been candid about his struggles with post-competition depression, narrating a 2020 documentary, “The Weight of Gold,” about Olympians’ mental health.

“What athletes should take away from this,” Dr. Polster says, “is the importance of recognizing that in order to perform on the highest stage for a prolonged period of time, you need to not only work on your physical foundation, but you also need to work on your mental foundation.

They’re tied together.”

Identity tied to sports

Most Olympians have spent their lives training for competition, usually to the exclusion of other youthful diversions. Phelps says he was laser-focused on the Olympics as a young teen. Biles skipped out on school dances and romances to concentrate on her training.

Dr. Doug Polster

This kind of singular pursuit can lead to the sport comprising the whole of an athlete’s identity, Dr. Polster says.

“If that’s all you believe you are — you haven’t explored the other parts of your identity because of the time and effort you’ve put into your sport, especially since a young age — anything that could potentially threaten or pop that bubble can be crumbling,” he says.

Even Biles, who has rounded out her life in recent years with a boyfriend (pro football player Jonathan Owens), leisure travel and being a “pizza connoisseur” (according to her Instagram profile), says she didn’t recognize her worth beyond her sport until these Olympic Games.

“The outpouring love & support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics,” she posted on social media, “which I never truly believed before.”

Physicians, executives and other professionals who excel in their fields can be subject to the same narrow-identity issues, Dr. Polster notes, only without the glare of worldwide media attention.

“You don’t hear about the doctor or the lawyer or the journalist who has to take a step back because they’re feeling overwhelmed or stressed or the pressure is getting to them. You don’t hear about it because they’re not on TV,” he says. “These athletes aren’t facing dissimilar battles, by any means. It’s just happening in front of millions and millions of people.”

Letdown after competition

The pressure of the Olympics is also unique. Beyond the global visibility, it’s a stage only available every four years. And after a lifetime of training and sometimes less than a minute of competition, only the top three victors are glorified.

“The guy who won, we celebrate, we look to, we love,” Olympic gold medal speed skater Apolo Ohno says in “The Weight of Gold.” “The guy in fourth, you never hear from that person. He disappears. He dissipates. He becomes a civilian.”

For Olympians and other elite athletes, the end of competition can lead to a profound letdown, which, for some, can spiral into clinical depression.

“We’re just so lost because we’ve spent four years grinding for that one moment, and now we don’t know what the hell to do,” Phelps says in the documentary. “I think it’s probably safe to say that a good 80%, maybe more, go through some kind of post-Olympic depression.”

The comedown is not just emotional, but physical, Dr. Polster says.

“It’s a double dagger when you end a season or competition,” he says. “You have the emotional — what I’ve worked my entire life for, I’m now done with. And if you’ve wrapped your sole identity in success and nothing else, you’re going to have an emotional letdown. But you also have a physiological letdown. Your body has been prepped and training and the adrenaline has been pushing and you almost have, for lack of a better phrase, withdrawal.”

Some sense of letdown after competition is normal, Dr. Polster says. Having a social-support network and knowing how to recognize and communicate emotions can help athletes from slipping into a more prolonged depression, he says.

The United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee established a division dedicated to the mental well-being of Team USA athletes in 2019.

Still, Biles opening up about the mental toll of Olympic competition takes great courage, Dr. Polster says, and stands to make a profound impact on our collective understanding of mental health.

“I think, as a public, what we need to take away from this is that athletes are human,” he says.

“If anything, I think it makes athletes feel more relatable. And I hope it makes the general public recognize that if this can happen to the best in the world, it can happen to me, and I need to recognize it and be aware of it.”

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