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Acing the Mental Game

We gape at their athletic abilities. We commend them for their triumphs and profane them for their mistakes. Athletes are constantly in the limelight and their lives pirouette around their sport. While their achievements and glorious feats, enumerated in broadcasts around the globe, may make it seem like Olympic athletes live charmed and angst-free lives, that’s far from the case. More and more athletes everyday are reporting mental health issues.

The exact percentage of Olympic athletes with mental health concerns isn’t clear, since it’s never been documented. But given the incidence in the general population, conjugated with the added pressures of the global pandemic and Olympic competition, it’s no doubt that the majority of athletes should be seeking mental health support.

The significance of sport psychology has been realized for decades but many coaches and athletes pay too little attention to how it can help them perform better. “I felt like the loneliest guy in the world,” said Indian cricket team skipper Virat Kohli, while speaking to former England cricketer Mark Nicholas on his podcast. Kohli revealed his battle with depression back in 2014. Like him, in the past years, many famed sports persons across the sphere have spoken up about dealing with anxiety and depression, but still India is a step back when considering the mental health of athletes.

In May this year, when tennis star Naomi Osaka chose to withdraw from the French Open after she skipped press conferences on mental health grounds, it sparked off a much needed debate about the mental health of athletes. And the discussion had continued well into the Tokyo Olympics. There is no denying the fact that sports benefit mental health. However, the same cannot be the case for professional athletes who commit their lives to it.

Regrettably, mental health is a stigma that is considered to be a sign of weakness in our society. This is in contrast to everything that the athletes want to portray on the global stage.

Team Great Britain sent a mental health expert team to support the mental needs of their athletes and staff, Australian softball team monitored their athlete’s and staff’s mental well being through an app and Singapore delegation included three sport psychologists to support their athletes and support staff.

But with the Olympics folding their tent and leaving town — forsaking not just Tokyo but our consciousness — this can’t be a once-every-two-years debate, because then we’re neither listening nor tending to our athletes.

We talked about it today. Will we talk about it tomorrow?

Sports are a microcosm of society. When elite athletes such as swimmer Michael Phelps and basketball player Kevin Love speak out about their mental health struggles, it reflects a growing awareness of mental health among society at large. When Olympic champions speak out about the sexual abuse they endured from USA Gymnastics national team doctor Larry Nassar, it adds gold-medal weight to the #MeToo movement. Athletes have seen their pre-Olympic training disrupted by lockdowns and the restricted access to athletic facilities, and the postponement of the Games powered concern about qualification schedules and the ability to travel internationally without contracting the virus.

As athletes navigate these difficult topics, sport psychologists are playing an expanded, and increasingly important, role.

Sport psychologists are best known for helping athletes overcome mental roadblocks and enhance their performance. While that performance emphasis remains a bedrock of sport psychology, it’s only a small piece of what sport psychologists are now doing to support athletes. Their expanding roles include helping athletes navigate interpersonal issues and addressing mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and stress etc. Competitions can bring out the best or the worst in athletes, and the psychological demands are especially high when individuals or teams are striving to achieve the same goals. In such cut throat situations it becomes important for a sport psychologist to be present as they help the athlete take care of their game mindset.

Getting into the correct mind-set prior to competition is one of the most crucial aspects of top performance. In fact, a study of Olympic athletes by Orlick and Partington showed that the combination of mental and physical readiness was a key factor that distinguished more successful athletes from their less successful counterparts in the Olympic Games. Perhaps even more impressive is the finding that, of the three states of readiness assessed (mental, physical and technical), only mental factors were statistically linked with final Olympic rankings.

Athletes should not feel compelled to mask the problem, instead be encouraged to address them. This becomes an extremely important point to remember during such competitions. Competing in an Olympiad is often the high point in an athlete’s career, something that they have dreamed about and worked towards for all of their life. It’s no doubt that the sense of uncertainty and the unforeseeable future because of the pandemic has contributed to significant psychological distress in athletes. In such an environment the role of the psychologist is to help athletes perform their best in spite of all the pressures and distractions that go along with the Olympics and any other major competitions.

“ Sports can be very challenging and mental health is key at every level, from building resilience to dealing with the rigours of training and the pressures of competition, while maintaining equilibrium through wins and losses. After a certain level, athletes who are physically on par with each other separate themselves from the rest of the field due to their mental strength and stability at the most crucial moments in their game.” (Olympian swimmer Rehan Poncha)

It’s important to understand that the way any coach supports their athletes by teaching them about all the athletic techniques related to their respective sport and standing tall behind them during competitions, a sport psychologist helps the athletes on the mental front of the game.

So as we get ready to bid adieu to these Summer Olympics and gear up for what lies ahead, let’s all remember that athletes on that stage are struggling with something we can’t see.

Tokyo has taught us that. It’s our job not to forget.

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