The mental health of world-renowned athletes has been widely highlighted for discussion since the 2021 Summer Olympics. After pulling out of several events to regain mental focus from the "twisties," Simone Biles prompted widespread conversation on the pressures and struggles of the Olympic competition. Biles is not the only top athlete who has shared her mental health vulnerabilities. The most awarded Olympian of all time, Michael Phelps, opened up about his battle with depression and suicidal thoughts. Additionally, Professional tennis player Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open and press conferences to care for her mental well-being.
With the Winter Olympics coming to a close, many athletes have come forward to keep the momentum in the discussion from summer 2021, noting Biles as an inspiration. Nathan Chen, US figure skating Olympian, stated that he "didn't even realize that was an option before Biles withdrawal." He feels reminded of the importance of one's well-being over athleticism.
Athletes have been courageously showcasing vulnerability when it comes to the topic. American snowboarder Jamie Anderson, who finished 9th in the slopestyle event she previously received gold for, took to Instagram, writing, "I just straight up couldn't handle the pressure…looking forward to some time off and self-care."
Outside of the professional athletics world, it can be difficult for the everyday person to understand the pressure put on world-renowned athletes. Most cannot comprehend that a world champion's specialty can be challenging for them. While the fantastic stunts may seem like second nature on television, athletes consistently tell that the more experience under their belts and the more medals they are awarded, the harder it becomes to perform. Faye Guilini, a four-time snowboarding champion, began seeing a sports psychologist for the first time over the 2021 summer due to the constant anxiety and pressure she felt to perform. She stated, "People kept asking 'Oh, this is your fourth Olympics?' or 'You're going to win it?' It's not that easy. And it only gets harder."
The exact number of Olympic athletes with mental health concerns is not recorded. However, considering the prevalence in the general population and the added pressures of Olympic competition during a pandemic, Dr. Naresh Rao, D.O., previous physician for team USA states that "the majority of athletes should be using mental health support." The percentages of people in the general population with mental health illnesses range from 40% to 50%. Because of the younger demographic and the pandemic, Rao believes Olympic athletes with mental health concerns could be as high as 70%.
It may be surprising to hear that a lack of self-confidence is a common symptom in professional athletes, which may indicate mental illnesses. Dr. Carla Edwards, president of the International Society for Sports Psychiatry, states that most of her patients, including Olympians, feel insecure in their abilities. Whether a high-achieving athlete or a spectator, mental well-being significantly impacts performance. And in an intensely stressful environment such as the Olympics, athletes' confidence can be diminished even more. Even world champions and those with world records can have trouble believing they are not good enough to perform. By impacting their athletic ability, their passion affects their lives.
Despite the growing volume of mental health conversations in professional athletics, there is a long road ahead to improve professional athletes' working conditions. However, recent advances have been made: the U.S. Olympics elected to hire a director of mental health services in the past 2020 year. As more athletes normalize treating mental health as seriously as physical health, there remains hope for a future where the well-being of athletes is prioritized over their abilities to break records and earn medals.