Our Athletes Are Coming Home
On July 23, 2021, some of us watched the opening ceremony of the 2020 Summer Olympic Games. The global pandemic pushed the start date back an entire year and forced an experience that was vastly different from all other prior games. Athletes spent years in deep anticipation for these games and now, just 20 days later, it’s all over. Can you imagine spending years preparing for an event that only lasts for as short an amount of time as this? All the training, sacrifice, and discipline that occurred over the past several years was displayed for the world to see in just a span of two weeks.
More than 11,000 athletes travelled to Tokyo to compete at the highest level in their respective sports and now they are returning home. Some will go through the grueling process again, others will retire, and some will continue to dream of getting there. It is a feat and an experience like no other. Whether or not the athletes left Tokyo with a medal, all of them are returning home as Olympians, an accolade only 0.0001% of the world’s population will ever attain.
While becoming an Olympian is one of the greatest honors in the life of an athlete, it can also be one of the most challenging experiences from which to recover. Being an Olympian is both mentally and physically taxing. The non-Olympian could never fully understand the weight of it. It is easy to see the physical labor that comes with being an elite athlete, and there are programs designed to address the physicality and to support optimal recovery. Every team has athletic trainers and medical doctors. The physical aspect of sports is very well taken care of. Mental labor, on the other hand, is more challenging to observe and, as a result, it’s not as readily tended to.
I’ve been watching the Olympics since 2008 and this was the first year that I truly considered what it takes mentally to make it to that stage, as well as the effects of being on that stage. As a Sports Mental Health Clinician, I am constantly thinking about how athletes are mentally affected by participating in their sports and what pressures come with being on the main stage. Having the privilege of working with athletes gives me insight into their experiences and solidifies my belief that mental recovery programs are greatly needed and that teams are significantly lacking in this area.
Olympians battle anxiety, depression, self-doubt, negative self-talk, isolation, and so much more. Not to mention insecurities, body image issues, eating disorders, and sometimes even suicidal thoughts. Elite athletes have been vocal about their mental wellness needs for over a decade, and in the last few years they have been taken more seriously, but there are still naysayers.
Being mentally exhausted isn’t visible to the untrained eye, yet people have the audacity to invalidate the hurt others are vocalizing. When an athlete, who normally would never express hardship, says they are having a hard time, we should take it seriously. It’s the least we can do. The most we can do for them is to continue championing them, especially during the difficult time.
When it comes to mental health support, we, as the public, have a responsibility to the athletes to be more compassionate, but the organizations that house the athletes have an even greater responsibility. Just as physical recovery programs were developed, mental recovery programs also need to be developed. Mental health treatment for athletes needs to be improved and made readily accessible. As our Olympians return home, both mentally and physically drained, I hope we will support them in taking better care of the whole human, making sure that mental recovery in sports is just as valuable as physical recovery.