In light of the ongoing Tokyo 2020 Olympics, let’s get real about the impact of sports on an athlete’s mental health. Gymnastics fans were shocked when Simone Biles, dubbed as the G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All Time), withdrew from four events (Team Finals, Vault Finals, Uneven Bar Finals, and Floor Exercise Finals) to prioritize her mental health. According to her teammate Jordan Chiles, Simone was giving them the “twisties” during practice, which Simone confirmed.
The twisties, a term all gymnasts know, is when a gymnast loses focus while tumbling. They lose count of the twists they’re making in the air, risking themselves for a serious injury or an error that would result in a massive score deduction. As this was experienced by Simone, her fellow gymnasts, including the retired ones, sent their empathy to her and posted on their own social media pages that prioritizing her mental health is a brave move from Simone.
They called her a good role model for other athletes and commended the progress U.S.A. Gymnastics has made in caring for their athletes’ well-being. It is known that American elite gymnasts experienced abuse from the harsh training methods of their previous head coaches, Bela and Marta Karolyi.
Michael Phelps, the most-decorated Olympian in history, has also opened up about his mental health multiple times. He also commented on Biles’s withdrawal with nothing but kind words. However, his fans weren’t aware that during Phelps’ competitive days, his mental health was in a terrible state. In fact, after retiring in 2016, Phelps said in a documentary that he thought himself of just a swimmer, not a human being.
Playing sports has plenty of physical health benefits. Studies show that it’s beneficial for mental health as well. But why are elite athletes experiencing the opposite on their mental health?
The Impact of Sports on Mental Health
Sports are a form of exercise. As such, it releases endorphins, the chemical in your brain that relieves stress and pain. At the same time, exercise reduces stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol.
According to studies, exercising 20 to 30 minutes each day can make you feel calmer. This calmness will carry on for several hours after your exercise. However, this might not be the case for elite athletes because of the pressure they face daily.
For Simone Biles, who is a four-time Olympic champion, the pressure is colossal. Aside from the great expectations from her fans, country, and even her competitors, Simone is also pressured by the stress she’s experiencing. And for gymnasts, stress can mean losing their body’s connection with their brain. This puts them at risk of a potentially life-threatening injury.
In golf, the Yips is the equivalent of the twisties. Yips is the anxiety golfers experience, rendering them unable to hold the club or causing them to fall to the ground.
Not all elite athletes experience anxiety, though. And it might be because of the sport they’re playing. A 2011 study has discovered the difference between team sports and individual sports when it comes to an athlete’s mental health. The study has found that team sports players were less likely to become anxious, depressed, hopeless, and suicidal. That’s because playing for a team develops important mental and social skills.
The support and acceptance team players feel can reduce depressive symptoms. On the other hand, individual players, like gymnasts, swimmers, and golfers, have an increased sense of accountability, leading to strong feelings of guilt if they lose. While their sport can also improve their concentration and mental strength, they have their limits, too. Without psychological treatment and proper self-care, their guilt can evolve into shame and depression.
Dealing With Injuries
Injury is a different challenge altogether for both team and individual players. All athletes fear a major injury, and so do their coaches. But pressure can lead to an increased risk for injury, as the twisties’ explanation says, even more so if they have low personal coping skills.
Even if you’re not an athlete, you’d also feel the effects of stress when you’re doing other things, like working. Stress puts your attention all over the place, so you can’t focus, and your brain is restless. For an athlete, losing attention can be a disaster for their physical health, mental health, and reputation, especially if they’re chasing after medals.
If the injury would require an intensive medical procedure, like a scrupulous maxillofacial surgery or open reduction for broken bones, an athlete might blame themselves. Thankfully, many athletes recover from serious injuries and play again, thanks to sophisticated medical procedures.
Some retire from elite sports, but it doesn’t mean they can’t play anymore. They can continue playing the sport as an exercise or become coaches to help younger athletes avoid injury and poor mental health.
Even if athletes are vulnerable to poor mental health, the toughness they develop from their sport helps them recover fast and become an inspiration for others. Despite the struggles they experienced, they don’t regret being an athlete and making their teams or country proud.