Facing Mental Health Challenges as an Olympic Athlete

drawing of olympic swimmer amidst olympic rings

Verywell / Bailey Mariner

Key Takeaways

  • Olympic athletes will compete in Tokyo this summer under strict restrictions. The journey to get there over the past year has been mentally taxing, to say the least.
  • One study found that, between mid-March and August 2020, 22.5% of professional athletes felt down or depressed at least half the week. Before COVID-19 restrictions took effect, the number was only 3.9%.
  • Athletes and mental health professionals stress the importance of normalizing discussion around emotions in the world of sports.

Simone Biles, the face of the US Olympic gymnastics team, and greatest gymnast of all time made the call, on July 27th, to withdraw from the final all-around competition. Why would she put the US gymnastics team's hopes of winning gold on the line like this? It wasn't due to a physical injury, it was a choice she made for her own mental health. The decision shook the athletic world and made the bold statement that Olympians are far more than well-honed athletic machines—they're people too, and their mental health deserves to be taken seriously.

The stress of being a professional athlete is enough to affect someone’s mental health under the best circumstances. Throw in a pandemic, postponed Olympics, and then, when the games finally start, a lack of loved ones there to support you in the stands, and the stress can become overwhelming. As athletes gear up for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, they reflect on the taxing year they’ve had preparing and the stress still to come once the games begin on July 23.

The delay alone created plenty of anxiety for athletes. Olympic fencer Curtis McDowald recalls wondering, “How do I train for an event that means so much but might not happen?” He explains, “I tried my best to simply train as best as I could every day I could. If Tokyo happens, great, I’m ready. If it doesn’t, guess I’m getting a head start to prepare for Paris 2024.”

With self-described “tunnel-vision” for the Olympics, “it was difficult dealing with finally having to look at my emotional and mental well-being,” says McDowald. “Many of us choose to neglect mental health till after our competitions.”

An October 2020 study found that professional athletes were much more likely to experience anxiety or depression during COVID-19 than pre-pandemic. Between mid-March and August 2020, 22.5% of athletes felt down or depressed at least half the week, compared to 3.9% before restrictions started that year. Anxiety and nervousness followed a similar pattern, with 27.9% of participants reporting feeling these emotions, compared to 4.7% pre-pandemic. 

Kim Plourde, MSW, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker at Thriveworks Lynchburg and a member of the Alliance of Social Workers in Sport says that elite athletes may have experienced “stress, depression, and anxiety due to changes in regular routines which occurred abruptly with no planning. They have had to adjust and adapt, which has been difficult for some, causing increased anxiety and depression with some losing their last season as an athlete or having to readjust plans for the following year.” 

Curtis McDowald, Olympic Fencer

We’re Olympians. We’re supposed to be the image of strength and stability, mental toughness, and victorious emotions.

— Curtis McDowald, Olympic Fencer

Now, while he’s part of the first U.S. men’s epee team to go to the Olympics since 2004, there’s still one more hurdle weighing on McDowald: The potential of catching COVID during travel to Tokyo and being disqualified from competing. “We are all trying our best to stay safe and protect ourselves and those around us, but the traveling itself is a big risk, and athletes have contracted COVID from travel,” he says. 

Regina Salmons, who will represent the U.S. as part of the women’s rowing team’s “women’s eight,” shares McDowald’s concern about contracting COVID at the last minute. It’s a stress that comes after a long-held fear of getting the virus and losing her chance to compete. “With rowing, your aerobic base is huge, and so to have your lungs affected is really crushing,” says Salmons. “Not only was I worried about potentially losing a month or two of training, but I was also worried about COVID potentially ending my career.”

After spending a few months training alone at her parents’ home or socially distanced with her high school coach, Salmons and her teammates returned to the training center in July 2020. At the center, her anxiety around COVID increased. For months, Salmons saw almost no one but her teammates, a group that she says relied heavily on each other when COVID stress became all-consuming.

Mentally Preparing To Compete

Triple jumper Tori Franklin faced similar levels of anxiety and depression as her fellow athletes throughout the pandemic but, with the Olympics finally in view, she says she feels good. Track and field is a space that has regularly brought Franklin sanity. She credits it as a “saving grace” for her during bouts of undiagnosed, mild depression.

Franklin attributes part of her current calm going towards the games to a daily, intentional ritual. She mediates and relays positive affirmations to herself before looking at her phone each morning. Also, as a self-described “introverted extrovert,” she balances spending quality time with loved ones and time alone organizing her thoughts and overall self. Franklin also writes about her feelings in online posts and is writing a mental health book to open the door for others to share their own experiences with mental health and high-level athletics.

After the Olympics conclude on August 8, more athletes will head to Tokyo for the 2020 Paralympics Games which kick off on August 24. While most did not welcome the delay, it provided swimmer Morgan Stickney an opportunity to compete. “If the Games weren’t postponed, I wouldn’t have made the team because I just lost my legs and had minimal training,” she explains. After learning of the delay, she began training three times a day to earn a spot on the team.

Stickney’s hard work paid off but her excitement is coupled with anxiety about her first time competing on an international stage. “When it comes to the big stage, I tend to get nervous, and it drastically shows in my performances. So I’ve just been trying to work on being confident in who I am, my training, and not worrying about anyone else or what other people are doing,” she says.

Overcoming Mental Health Stigma in Elite Sports

Facing mental health challenges as athletes is made more complicated by the prevailing stigma in elite sports around sharing feelings. According to a 2019 review of 13,000 elite athletes across 71 sports, multiple factors are to blame for a lack of mental health care and discussion in high-level athletics. Across 52 included studies, stigma was the primary deterrent elite athletes reported as to why they didn’t seek help for mental health issues. A lack of mental health literacy, previous negative experiences when seeking help, and busy schedules were additional barriers named. Athletes who didn’t identify as white males also stated factors points such as feeling a lack of acceptance in sports and finances.

“I think for anyone, it’s difficult to speak about mental health issues. And then when you ask someone that is the best in whatever they do, it can be even harder,” explains Stickney. “People don’t like to talk about mental health because it can be seen as a weakness, but I think it’s so important to express your feelings and emotions, especially in sport. When you get to the top or elite in sports, the majority of it is mental. We all train so hard, but it comes down to the mental aspects.”

Salmons echoes Stickney’s sentiment: “I’ve yet to meet a single professional or elite athlete who doesn't have bad days or doesn't have a hard time with mental health at one point or another. Just like getting sore from weights or being injured, your mental health gets broken down and gets built back up too.” Salmons is thankful that, throughout training, her team created a positive environment where anyone could speak out and for the two team psychologists who worked with them as individuals and a group throughout the pandemic. 

Regina Salmons, Olympic Rower

I’ve yet to meet a single professional or elite athlete who doesn’t have bad days or doesn’t have a hard time with mental health at one point or another. Just like getting sore from weights or being injured, your mental health gets broken down and gets built back up too.

— Regina Salmons, Olympic Rower

Acknowledging and asking for help with potential mental health issues allows Olympians to gain insight into healthily dealing with them. “Knowledge is power,” says Julia M. Kim, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. “Getting the help you need, allowing yourself to be vulnerable and human, shows wisdom, courage, and strength.” 

Support from loved ones has acted as a steadying force for Olympians as they navigate this difficult time. McDowald and Salmons each credit their families’ continual love and support with helping them through training and pandemic anxieties. Franklin’s mom and grandma are organizing viewing parties so her loved ones can show their support and be with her in spirit as she competes.

Stickney says that while she had hoped to have her family and surgeon with her in Tokyo, knowing they will be watching her from home is comforting. Plus, she admits not having crowds watching in person takes the pressure off a bit. 

The pandemic has spurred new conversations about mental health in mainstream and athletic circles. It’s an openness Kim hopes will allow athletes “to experience mental health care as acceptable, encouraged and considered part of one’s overall training.” 

“We’re Olympians. We’re supposed to be the image of strength and stability, mental toughness, and victorious emotions,” McDowald says. But the pressure these elite athletes are under is immense. “Medal or not, many athletes who compete at the Games will feel some level of depression. The reality is, many athletes [have been] working hard since childhood for a moment that may only last mere seconds, where the difference of winning and losing is a fraction of a second, and millions of people all over the world are watching.” 

What This Means For You

The pandemic has left many people dealing with mental health issues. For elite athletes, this has been coupled with a need to stay at the top of their game and portray a strong persona. But, they have faced challenges like anyone else. “Olympians are not superhuman,” says Kim. “They are humans with exceptional abilities, who also have a life outside of their sport. They undergo tremendous stress and pressure with both internal and external high expectations.”



1 Source
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  1. Castaldelli-Maia JM, Gallinaro JG, Falcão RS, et al. Mental health symptoms and disorders in elite athletes: a systematic review on cultural influencers and barriers to athletes seeking treatment. Br J Sports Med. 2019;53(11):707-721. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2019-100710