What We Can Learn from Olympic Athletes About Building Mental ResilienceReading Time: 6 minutes
Olympic athletes sometimes seem almost superhuman. Despite immense pressure and the millions of eyes upon them, they remain focused, calm, and collected as they push their bodies to achieve at the highest levels imaginable.
But what’s really beneath that façade? Recently, elite athletes have begun to open up about the toll that competition, unrealistic performance expectations, and media scrutiny has taken on their mental health. Gymnast Simone Biles dropped out of the women’s gymnastics final at the Tokyo Games on July 27, sharing that the pressure she was feeling was so intense that she was afraid she would be injured. Tennis player Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open in June after she was fined for opting out of a mandatory press conference, events that she said cause her intense anxiety. She also skipped Wimbledon in order to prepare mentally for the Olympics. Swimmer Simone Manuel, and former champion Michael Phelps are among the Olympians who have spoken out about their personal struggles with depression, anxiety, and traumatic stress.
While most of us will never be world-class athletes, we can still relate. If you’ve ever felt pressured to achieve, whether in sports or academically, and believed that your self-worth and identity rested on that achievement, you’re experiencing the same stressors that these young people face.
“Any time a public figure opens up about their struggles, they have the potential to help others who may be in a similar situation, letting them know they are not alone,” says Caroline Ahlstrom, LMFT, Newport Institute Clinical Director. “Especially as young adults, [they] can inspire other young athletes and even just young adults in general who are struggling to set boundaries in order to protect their mental health.”
People don’t get that we have anxiety, that we break down. They just think we’re perfect.
most-decorated American gymnast in the world
Elite Athletes and the Mind-Body Connection in Young Adulthood
High-level athletic competition isn’t just about physical training; building mental resilience and stamina is equally and perhaps more important for success. The prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that exerts the mental control involved in athletics, such as goal-directed behavior, reasoning, problem solving, and planning, isn’t fully mature until the mid-20s (the average age of most Olympians). But research shows that participating in sports may promote the development of these executive functioning skills.
However, the prefrontal cortex also controls emotion regulation. So while young adults are in their physical prime, they may not have the emotional ability to handle the demands of training and the pressure of competition, let alone the inevitable failures that come with the territory. Elite athletes learn to control frustration and anxiety while competing, because the physical effects of these emotions—such as muscle tension and difficult breathing—interfere with performance. But if they don’t have ways to release those suppressed emotions after competing, and to process both wins and losses, the stress keeps building up.
Moreover, the intense physical activity at the elite level, and the high rates of injury and burnout, can lower well-being and negatively impact mental health in athletes. In addition, young adulthood—the peak competitive years for elite athletes—is also the time when individuals are at the highest risk of experiencing mental heath disorders. For college athletes, the pressures of competition are one more stressor added to the challenges of academics, relationships, and adjusting to life away from home.
Know the Facts
A professional sports career can include more than 640 stressors that may induce common health mental disorders.
The Mental Health Pros of High-Level Training and Performance
What is the mental health impact of maintaining a single-minded focus on one skill or talent throughout the adolescent and young adult years? Whether a young person is zeroed in on athletics, chess (think Queen’s Gambit), playing a musical instrument, or getting a 4.0, there are both upsides and downsides from a psychological perspective.
The pros are plentiful: Young people gain self-mastery and empowerment, and (hopefully) derive enjoyment and pleasure from doing something they love, and doing it well. They build positive connections with teammates, band members, coaches, and study partners.
In addition, the structure and clear goals provided by academics, sports, or musical or theatrical performance offer security and stability. In a time of life when there are often more questions than answers, having a clearly laid-out path can give young adults a built-in sense of meaning and direction.
But There’s a Downside…
Alongside these beneficial impacts, however, are numerous psychological stressors. Here are some of the reasons why mental health in athletes and other high-achieving young adults can suffer.
- Feeling that they’re constantly falling short of unrealistic performance expectations
- Pressure from parents, coaches, and teachers
- Believing they’re only good at one thing
- Sacrificing supportive relationships and friendships because they don’t have time or energy for them
- Social anxiety and/or delayed social-emotional development due to limited interactions and experiences outside their sphere
- Self-loathing and self-criticism when they don’t succeed
- For athletes, disordered eating and unhealthy body image
- Lack of life skills for everyday functioning outside their area of focus
- Heightened risk of abusing painkillers or stimulants in order to cope with physical pain and/or improve performance
- Reluctance to seek help because they don’t want to appear weak or tarnish the high-achieving image they project to others.
Furthermore, eventually being forced to step away from one’s area of specialization, due to age, injury, or declining ability, can be devastating. Even leaving voluntarily may be emotionally challenging. A survey of former NCAA student athletes found that 44 percent of them were struggling to find purpose after leaving sports behind. When the identity they’ve cultivated for a decade or more is stripped away, young people are often left flailing—increasing the risk of depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, and other maladaptive coping strategies.
I feel like I’m failing in everything that I do.
the most successful Olympian of all time, recounting his emotions after retirement
5 Things We Can Learn from Olympic Athletes About Building Mental Resilience
Anyone who struggles with the pressure to achieve and succeed, at the expense of other essential areas of life, can benefit from the wisdom of elite athletes who have recovered from mental health challenges.
Find other interests. Triathlete Greg Billington likes ballroom dancing, three-time gold medal–winning gymnast Gabby Douglas likes to knit, snowboarder Kelly Clark makes furniture, and sprinter Rai Benjamin spent the pandemic learning to play the guitar. Exploring varied interests not only broadens your mind and skills, it may also uncover talents and passions you want to pursue more seriously.
Create balance. Simone Biles says she takes every Sunday off to relax with her family and her boyfriend. Swimmer Simone Manuel had to take time off and create a more balanced routine after being diagnosed with overtraining syndrome, which catalyzes mental health symptoms like depression and lack of motivation as well as physical issues.
Prioritize well-being over performance. Naomi Osaka’s difficult decisions to withdraw from one major tennis tournament and skip another were bold and brave choices to value her own mental health over achievement and other’s (and even her own) expectations. She has been advocating for the sport to give athletes days off from press commitments in order to support their self-care and mental health.
Let go of striving for perfection. Gymnast Sam Mikulak says that after the 2020 Olympics were postponed due to COVID, he had to surrender to the realities of having his training disrupted and the Games pushed off another year. “I’ve had to like change my whole circuit … of just how to find appreciation in the imperfect,” he said recently. “And those are the types of things that have really made me a lot happier now.
Don’t be ashamed to seek treatment. Following a DUI arrest and the subsequent media frenzy, Phelps found himself contemplating suicide. He eventually sought help and spent 45 days in treatment for depression, after which he was able to return to the 2016 Olympic Games more physically and mentally healthy. Biles also overcome mental health stigma and began seeing a therapist to process her emotions, including the trauma of surviving sexual abuse by former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar.
I do hope that people can relate and understand it's OK to not be OK and it’s OK to talk about it. There are people who can help, and there is usually light at the end of any tunnel.
four-time Grand Slam singles champion
Treatment That Builds Self-Worth and Authentic Connections
At Newport Institute, we guide emerging adults toward building mental resilience, executive functioning, and social skills that help them navigate a world in which achievement is valued over well-being. Our approach addresses the underlying causes of depression, anxiety, and maladaptive behaviors, by healing the trauma that can catalyze perfectionism and self-judgment. Contact us today to learn more.