Mental health is starting to become a more prominent focus in the world of high-level sports. This summer, athletes on the world stage decided to withdraw from major events – citing their mental health. Gymnast Simone Biles stepped back from several events at the Tokyo Olympic Games; Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open.
In both instances, the athletes identified mental health concerns for their withdrawal stating they wanted to focus on doing what was right for them.
Garry Spink, PhD, a psychologist with Rochester Regional Health, gives some insight into the decision-making process and why this will likely continue.
A person’s mental health is going to become a more prominent focus before any big event.
This applies not only to elite, high-performing athletes; it applies to people experiencing common situations in daily life.
“When something is very important for us, our stress is going to be heightened,” Dr. Spink said. “You’re going to have some of those symptoms that are associated with a mental health diagnosis, like a racing heart, as the body prepares to face that stressor.”
With athletes on the world stage, they are naturally under more pressure than most other people because of the amount of attention being placed on them.
This has been part of an ongoing public conversation recently and is continuing to be brought into the spotlight.
Dr. Spink argues the discussion about mental health needs to be happening more often and praised the decisions made by Simone Biles and others. If the choice not to compete were made due to a physical injury, he said, people would be understanding of the decision. Mental health should not be any different.
“Based on the fact that [Simone Biles’s] anxiety and stress was so extreme that it was interfering with her ability to perform, the decision to look at it differently is kind of silly,” Dr. Spink said. “We know that anxiety influences your physical ability and physical health, and vice versa.”
Athletes making decisions that account for their mental health and not just their physical health will likely continue, Dr. Spink suggested.
However, it will likely come and go in waves than remain a constant stream.
Over time, more people will begin to talk about their experiences and then public discussion will begin back off as it becomes normalized.
“As more people talk about it and it becomes more normalized, you’re going to have people coming out that have been holding onto it for a long time and saying, ‘Yes, I struggle with this too,’” Dr. Spink said.
One question to ask would be: why does the reason the athlete is not competing matter?
If an athlete chooses not to compete due to a physical injury, another question worth asking is whether the person would react the same way if the decision was based on the athlete’s mental health, Dr. Spink said.
The Yerkes-Dodson Stress Performance Curve is a good illustration of this concept. If a person who is going to perform has too much or too little stress or anxiety, it can hinder their peak performance. Regardless of how high-performing an individual might be, at a certain point, their anxiety can reach levels that offset their training.
“We already know that this is something that people experience – that if you have too much anxiety, it interferes with your ability to perform,” Dr. Spink said. “In the case of Simone Biles, she’s doing an event that if she lands wrong, she could potentially die or have a serious injury that extends for the rest of her life.”
“If her anxiety is past that level where she can no longer perform and confidently land, why would you sit here and tell her to risk her life and risk all the work and all of her teammates have put in to get to this point?”
As more people begin to come forward and normalize prioritizing mental health alongside physical health, it is also important to remember that everyone will experience a brush with anxiety or depression at some point in time.
“Stuff like anxiety and depression: we all experience it to some extent at some point in our lives,” Dr. Spink said. “Whether it’s to the point of getting an official diagnosis or not is something slightly different. Feeling anxious because you have a test coming up versus feeling anxious because we’re going to be performing the vault soon – we all experience some level of that at some point in our lifetime.”
Each day, millions of people wake up and work through anxiety and depression. Talking with someone about your thoughts and experiences can help. At Rochester Regional Health, therapists and counselors will do what is best to get you where need to be.Find A Therapist
Itchy eyes. Runny nose. Sneezing. If this sounds like you this fall, you are far from alone.
Read the latest numbers on coronavirus cases in the Finger Lakes and Greater Rochester, as well as local regulations and travel restrictions news.
Potty training a child can seem like a daunting task. Tracy Maier, DO, describes how to know when your child is ready.