Olympic Lessons

Like a lot of people, I enjoy watching the Olympics whenever they come around, and this year has been no exception. However, what I’ve followed more closely than the medal counts or individual sports has been the discussions of mental health.

It started with Naomi Osaka, the world number 2 in women’s tennis, who was representing the host nation of Japan. She had taken two months off since her last tournament to focus on her mental health. She said the time off was what she needed and indeed she looked very sharp in the first two matches, before coming up short in the 3rd round. And one thing frustrated me, which was that some of the commentators didn’t seem to know how to talk about her time off. Rather they seemed to have a hard time wrapping their head around a tennis player taking time off for reasons other than injury. However, taking time off to address mental health concerns shouldn’t be treated any different than taking time off for physical health concerns.

And what was more frustrating was how some seemed to treat her as the face of athlete mental health. While it is commendable that she took time off to focus on her own mental health, someone who makes the decision to advocate for themselves should not be forced to become the face of mental health. While some are willing to take on that role, it is no one’s duty to educate others about how to be more compassionate and inclusive of mental health needs, especially in the age of Google.

However, the biggest discussion of mental health at the Olympics has off course been spurred on by American gymnast Simone Biles, who pulled out of the team all-around and individual all-around competitions this week due to mental health concerns. By comparison to the discussions surround Osaka’s mental health, I was encouraged to see NBC bringing in swimming great Michael Phelps for his perspective. Phelps, who like Biles was at the top of his sport when he was in his prime, has been open about his own experience with mental health, the enormous pressure of having the hopes of a nation on your shoulders, and the difficulty of asking for help.

And what was most telling was when he said that Olympic athletes need someone who can allow them to be themselves, be vulnerable, without trying to fix them. While the Olympic Village and most Olympic teams do have sports psychologists available, one wonders if the focus is getting them back out competing when what these athletes might need is time away from the sporting venues and a space where someone can meet them where they are.

Because while we have constantly held up Olympians as super-human, the fact is they need what any of us need, which is a safe space where they can be vulnerable, and where they can be accepted not for their athletic achievements, but for who they are as humans.

And hopefully, that Olympic lesson will last much longer than any of the records that are set at this year’s games.


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