Mental health is on full display at the Winter Olympics

Snowboarder Jamie Anderson, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, fell several times during the women’s inclined style competition and finished in ninth place. This week, she spoke about the incident, saying that the cause was not physical but mental.

Winter athletes took notice.

“I think what Simone did at the last Olympics was extraordinarily inspiring and really allowed all athletes to feel, ‘Hey, we’re important as people, not just athletes,'” figure skater Nathan Chen said in October.

“And I think it almost set a precedent, like… I didn’t even realize it was an option, what she decided to do. And I was like, ‘Wow, that really makes me feel a lot better about who.’ I am too as an athlete. Knowing that, you know, when it comes down to it, I can choose my destiny.'”

Other athletes, such as snowboarder Anna Gasser, have echoed those sentiments upon arriving in Beijing.

“I feel like it was a game changer,” Gasser said. the new york times. “The message from Simone Biles was that we are not just athletes, we are also humans and not robots.”
Alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin, one of the best female skiers in the world, has also seen trouble at the Olympics, not having met expectations entering the games. Although Shiffrin has not specifically addressed his mental health during these Olympics, observers have made comparisons to Biles’ performance last year in Tokyo.
“It’s wonderful to train and compete alongside all these brave and incredible women, who have overcome so much in their lives, just to get here.” Shiffrin wrote on Twitter. “But being here can also hurt a lot.”
On Saturday, after finishing the first women’s downhill training race, Shiffrin said It has not been decided whether he will participate in Tuesday’s event.

“Today it gives me a little more positivity,” the three-time Olympic medalist said. “I’d love to run this downhill so that’s the plan. But we’re going to have to see how things go as the days go on because there are sections of this track where some of the more speed-savvy skiers are going to go. excel and improve already tomorrow. And I’m not sure exactly where, how I can improve.

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The pandemic and ongoing isolation add to the stress.

As the Beijing Olympics continue, the pressure cannot be overstated. The stressors are everywhere: the weight of representing an entire country, of only getting one chance every four years to compete at this level, of living up to gold medal expectations. And that’s just during a normal Olympic race.

With Covid-19, it’s even worse, said Megan Buning, a teaching specialist at Florida State University’s Interdisciplinary Athletic Training Center.

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There are no fans cheering you on, no family or friends to lean on. And for some athletes, there is the added geopolitical pressure of competing in China, a hotbed of political problems, he said.

For many people, covid-19 has been a difficult time: they have lost loved ones, jobs or have become ill themselves. On top of that, there’s the general exhaustion of living through a pandemic, and many Americans have reported feeling Burned and stressed as a result. Even Buning is exhausted, she said, and she hasn’t gotten sick and has been able to work during the pandemic.

So now imagine that you are an Olympic athlete. In the same way that seasonal athletes practice and train differently in the preseason, actual season, postseason, and off-season, Olympians do the same thing: the difference is the timeline. While a seasonal athlete may try to peak in the postseason, these athletes train for four years and time their peak for the Olympics, Buning said.

Of course, these athletes are trained to be flexible and adapt to uncertainty. But they are also human, which means that many have also felt the strain of the pandemic and its resulting exhaustion and exhaustion, just like the rest of us.

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“When you have things like the added stress of Covid, at some point you get fatigued,” Buning said.

Then there is the threat of contracting the virus, which for these athletes could mean wasting the moment for which they spent years training. Such was the case for 21-year-old Vincent Zhou, who was forced to miss a figure skating competition after a positive test.
“I’ve taken every precaution I can, I’ve isolated myself so much that the loneliness I’ve felt in the last two months has been crushing at times,” he said, in an emotional five-minute video. posted on instagram. “The enormity of the situation, the pain of it all is pretty crazy… but I recognize that this doesn’t define me at all as an athlete, as a person.”

Conversations about mental health predate the last two Olympics

Mental health struggles also existed before Covid-19. Nick Goepper, a freestyle skier who won a bronze in 2014 at the Sochi Olympics, spoke four years later about his struggles after that performance.

Nick Goepper of the United States competes during the Freestyle Skiing Men's Slopestyle Ski Final at the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics.Nick Goepper of the United States competes during the Freestyle Skiing Men's Slopestyle Ski Final at the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics.
“That summer of 2014, I really experienced this emotional distress. And I really started to slide emotionally,” Goepper said on an interview from 2018, before the Pyeongchang Games. “It got to a point where I was drinking every day and constantly thinking of ways to end my own life.”

Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams and Venus Williams have also been outspoken about the pressure of being a top athlete in the past.

What parents can learn from Simone Biles walking awayWhat parents can learn from Simone Biles walking away

At the Tokyo Olympics last year, Osaka finished the games without a medal, an unexpected result for the four-time Grand Slam champion.

“I definitely feel like there was a lot of pressure for this,” Osaka said at that time. “I think maybe it’s because I haven’t played in the Olympics before, and for the first year (it was) a bit excessive.”

Some say these athletes simply collapsed under pressure, as was said of Biles in Tokyo, Buning noted. There is an idea among some that athletes should smile and endure any pain, physical or mental, exhibited by that memorable line from “A League of their Own”: “There is no crying in baseball.”

Naomi Osaka of Team Japan walks off the court after losing her women's singles third round match against Marketa Vondrousova of Team Czech Republic at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.Naomi Osaka of Team Japan walks off the court after losing her women's singles third round match against Marketa Vondrousova of Team Czech Republic at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

“Men have always been told not to show emotion, just get over it. But women have been told that too. And we’re just not connected that way. No one is,” Buning said.

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Why the latest conversations about athletes’ mental health matter

The fact that so many people, so many women, have come forward and been honest about the pressure they’re under is huge.

“I feel like women think they can’t say things sometimes or they’re going to get a lot of backlash. And I think with the Williams and Biles sisters, and those who have spoken out since, it takes courage to get where they are. And they’ve just said, ‘I don’t care what you think, this is what I’m experiencing,'” Buning said.

In 2020, the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee hired a director of mental health services. The committee also maintains a record, one in which Buning is located, of approved mental health and performance providers. At least on some level, the mental health of athletes is being taken seriously.

Although it is not clear how many athletes are actually using these resources or managing their mental health in other ways, there is clearly a growing normalization around the issue. Talking about it, at least, is a step.


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