US Athletes' Mental Health Was a Priority at the Beijing Olympics

drawing of a skeleton racer

Verywell / Alex Dos Diaz

Key Takeaways

  • Olympic athletes Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka put their mental health before their career in 2021.
  • Last year, Team USA vowed to give athletes more mental health support during the Beijing Winter games.
  • Experts say this is a step in the right direction, but more needs to be done.

Looking back at the 2022 Bejing Olympics, Team USA has a lot to be proud of. Highlights include Erin Jackson becoming the first Black speed skater to take an individual gold medal thanks to her superb performance in the women's 500m speed skating and figure skater Nathan Chen winning the first gold medal of his career. Altogether, Team USA won 24 medals (eight gold, nine silver, and seven bronze), its highest count since collecting 25 in Turin in 2006.

But taking the top spot wasn't the only focus for the national team at this event. In October 2021, Team USA made it clear that the mental health of its athletes was another priority.

Dr. Jessica Bartley, the US Olympic & Paralympic Committee's director of mental health services, said during a media summit that athletes would have access to mental health professionals throughout the Olympic Village and venues, as well as a crisis hotline, free wellness apps, and individual or group therapy sessions. Dr. Bartley added that most of the 200-plus athletes underwent several mental health screenings.

"The majority of our winter athletes, we actually did some mental health screens around anxiety, depression, eating disorders, sleep, alcohol and drug use over the summer," she revealed. "And then we're going to repeat that. And just trying to keep tabs on them a little bit too."

Former athlete Tiffany M. Stewart, PhD, who is now a scientist and a clinical psychologist at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Louisiana, recognizes the work Team USA is doing, but says we still have many steps ahead.

"We need to think about our athletes’ well-being in and out of sport—as individuals who want to thrive in life—not just in sport," she says.

COVID-19 Has Added to the Pressure

In the general population, living through the COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly increased the collective mental health burden—the extent of which we may not realize for some time. And it's placed super high stress on athletes, adds Stewart.

First of all, there was the worry that COVID-19 could keep them from competing. And when it came to the Olympics in particular, China's intense quarantine rules and zero-COVID-19 tolerance policy ruled out many of the things athletes do to cope in high stress times, such as getting out and walking, seeing the sites, visiting with peers, and meeting other athletes from around the world.

Tiffany Stewart, PhD

We need to think about our athletes’ well-being in and out of sport—as individuals who want to thrive in life—not just in sport.

— Tiffany Stewart, PhD

"These things also give them a more balanced and fun experience at the Olympics—a once in a lifetime experience for most," Stewart adds.

She believes that this set of variables could be a perfect storm for athletes to struggle during the Olympic games, and athletes who were already struggling with mental health conditions to begin with, e.g. depression, anxiety, etc. could have felt even worse.

"Usually the Olympics are exciting and a moment to be cherished, but all of the 'noise' during these last two games (COVID-19 anxiety, strict procedures, and social media pressures and comments) made it more difficult to concentrate and rely on the training required to get the job done," Stewart explains. "Suddenly, in that moment, there was a lot more to manage than simply doing your sport."

The Burden of Public Opinion

Regardless of the measures that are put in place to help keep athletes mentally healthy, it's difficult to ignore public opinion—particularly when social media platforms give everybody a voice. The negative impact of this was clear in the case of Team USA skier Mikaela Shiffrin, who shared some of the messages she received after she didn't finish her third event at Beijing.

In response to 26-year-old Shiffrin's fall, negative social media comments included, "Can't handle the pressure" and some people described her as "arrogant" and a "dumb bitch". After Shiffrin shared this on Twitter, gymnast Simone Biles sympathized with her fellow athlete and gave an insight into the level of mental pressure they endure.

"America is kind of like, ‘Gold medal or bust’ and so that puts a lot of pressure on ourselves, but we also put a lot of pressure on ourselves already because it’s the pinnacle of our career," Biles told TODAY.

Of course, Biles stepped down at the Tokyo Olympics in July 2021 due to mental and physical health concerns. Her decision came a few months after Olympic tennis player Naomi Osaka stepped away from the French Open tournament to protect her mental health.

At the time, Biles said taking home silver and bronze medals rather than gold wasn't how she wanted it to go, but added, "I think we've opened bigger doors and bigger conversations."

Protecting Mental Health in Athletics

While it can feel overwhelming to figure out how to keep athletes mentally healthy, experts believe one answer is to bridge the continuum between mental health and performance. Early action to protect athletes' mental health is crucial, says Jonathan Fader, PhD, a clinical and performance psychologist with experience at the highest levels of sport, who is also the founder of SportStrata, a team of mental performance coaches in NYC.

"We don't want to wait until the athlete is at rock bottom," Fader says. "Proactive mental conditioning, which can be in the form of policies and procedures to train athletes before it gets to a detrimental point, promotes mental flexibility."

Jonathan Fader, PhD

We don't want to wait until the athlete is at rock bottom. Proactive mental conditioning, which can be in the form of policies and procedures to train athletes before it gets to a detrimental point, promotes mental flexibility.

— Jonathan Fader, PhD

Fader recommends that all athletes find a coach, therapist, or person in their life that they connect with. "This helps athletes think about what they feel, which can cause some discomfort at first, but allows them to think through and process those difficult emotions. True strength is in vulnerability— being able to put yourself out there with another person in the room."

Stewart agrees that there needs to be a shift in the mental narrative. "We need to let go of the old standard of 'mental toughness' at all costs," she says. "We need to normalize conversations about mental health to release the stigma surrounding: 1) having mental struggles, 2) doing things to prevent mental struggles, and 3) getting treatment for mental struggles."

Stewart acknowledges that this is a multidimensional challenge—one that requires all of the groups aiding the athlete on their path to be on board for change.

"The athlete can’t do it alone in the context of the environment as it exists," she explains. "Hopefully, if we can reduce stigma and reinforce the importance of addressing mental struggles prior to them becoming larger problems, the whole athletic community (coaches, trainers, athletes themselves, etc.) will see the value in helping the athlete to cultivate that time and space to foster self-care and self-compassion. In the end, it will make the whole system function at a more effective level."

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  1. Team USA. Virtual media summit.

By Claire Gillespie
Claire Gillespie is a freelance writer specializing in mental health. She’s written for The Washington Post, Vice, Health, Women’s Health, SELF, The Huffington Post, and many more.