TL;DR (3-minute read)
- The discussion surrounding the mental health of athletes has become prevalent at this year’s Olympics.
- Prominent athletes such as tennis player Naomi Osaka, gymnast Simone Biles, and track runner Sha’carri Richardson have described mental health having an effect on their performance.
- Osaka has pulled out of the last two Grand Slam tennis tournaments to focus on her mental health and be with her family, Biles was forced to forego some of her Olympic events due to excessive media focus on her and the death of her grandmother, and Richardson could not even compete in the Olympics due to being banned for using marijuana, which she used to cope with the recent loss of her birth mother.
- These athletes and others coming forward with their struggles with mental health is helping their fans realize that they are human as well, and that they may not always be in the right headspace to compete and represent their nations.
Storylines have been formed in almost every sport, and Americans such as Suni Lee in gymnastics and Caleb Dressel in swimming have made names for themselves in the media with gold medal wins. However, there have been new and arguably more important discussions surrounding the Olympics; discussions about mental health. In recent years, athletes’ mental health has been a big topic, especially in American leagues such as the NBA and NFL. But mental health hasn’t always been an openly talked about topic. In fact, it wasn’t long ago that what was going on inside athletes’ heads was regarded as taboo. They were told to toughen up. To suck it up. To focus on the competition in the present.
But, society has evolved and with that, came a better understanding of what athletes go through mentally. The grind, competition, and media attention athletes go through can take a toll on them and can even affect their own relationships with others. Numerous competitors at this year’s Olympics have spoken about their own struggles. Naomi Osaka, the #2 ranked women’s tennis player withdrew and didn’t attend the last two Grand Slam Majors (there are only 4 each year) due to being overwhelmed by the spotlight and pressure she felt from the world around her and not being able to spend time with loved ones. Even after reportedly feeling better for the Olympics, she still stated after her third-round exit that the Olympic scene was just as overwhelming.
Another American, Sha’carri Richardson, was heavily ostracized for being suspended for certain races in the Olympics due to testing positive for marijuana, one of the Olympics’ prohibited substances. However, Richardson used these substances to cope with the pain of losing her birth mother. Even Simone Biles, a highly accomplished gold medalist gymnast, made the tough decision to withdraw from some of her gymnastic events due to not being in the correct headspace to compete. She later spoke after the events publicly stating that on top of her being overwhelmed by the Olympic scene, she was taken aback by the sudden death of her grandmother and realized she just wasn’t in the right state of mind to compete for medals at that point. Another prominent Olympian who discussed mental health wasn’t a competitor, but rather someone on the broadcast. Michael Phelps, the winner of a record-breaking 23 gold medals and widely considered the most accomplished swimmer of all time, spoke on broadcast about his own struggles after the 2012 Rio Olympics.
Even an esteemed Olympian like Phelps himself battled depression and suicidal thoughts at points in his swimming career. These three athletes are just a few examples of the struggle all athletes face. As it was mentioned earlier, mental health struggles aren’t just found in the Olympic games. NBA Players such as Kevin Love of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Demar DeRozan of the Chicago Bulls and NFL players such as Adam Thielen of the Minnesota Vikings have all spoken out about the mental struggles of playing their sports. The battle against mental health is universal and it isn’t even limited to athletes who can appear to live on a peak but may struggle within.