What the Olympics has Highlighted About Mental Health Amongst Athletes and Their Coaches

Mental Health and Sports

This 2021 Olympics has highlighted the huge challenge that athletes are dealing with stress, mental health and social media scrutiny (negativity). While Simone Biles has been the most vocal and visual, the challenge is more broad than Simone’s case.

Todd Herman, a coach to olympians stated in a private email today that in the past 24 hours he had received 56 emails from athletes and their coaches seeking help at the olympics. Todd continues, “In the 21 years working with athletes at Olympic games, I’ve never seen more stress/anxiety. (The individual sport athletes are having the hardest time behind the scenes.)”

And while this discussion focusses on sportsmen and sportswomen, the real issue is that sports is a microcosm of society at large. The issues faced by athletes are really faced with us all in some degree or another.

Unlike the media attention on Simone Biles’ social media comments and perceived bad behavior, it’s critical at this juncture to discuss that issues of stress, mental health and shortfalls in support are not confined to boundary pushing athletes. In fact, just because an athlete steps up and speaks out about their challenges or seeks help doesn’t mean they have been blessed with ‘good’ problems.

The key message is that we are dealing with a global phenomenon which will only intensify as more people from more countries compete at an increasing level of intensity for longer periods of time. And there will be no exceptions regardless of income status, ethnicity or gender.

In my opinion, there has never been a greater need for coaches to understand mental health ( psychology ), the neuroscience of performance and the role that sleep, nutrition and exercise play in support.

What happens to an athlete when they finish a cumulative stress protocol? What is happening neurochemically on a daily basis? Are you able to track performance in relation to poor sleep for example? How does an athlete with low serotonin function differ from one with high levels of dopamine/norepinephrine/epinephrine (adrenalin)? Aren’t we as coaches more concerned about how recovery might be impacted by behavioral changes such as social media usage rather than focus on linear notions of increasing training load over time?

These are just some questions to ponder. There will definitely be many more articles written in coming years attempting to explain these variables and the future of performance.

For now, we are at a critical juncture in the evolution of sports and athletes. To quote Dan Coyle’s book on elite sport: “The extreme pressures that today’s top athletes face can be likened to nothing so much as those faced by soldiers in combat.” While an emotional reaction might be for many coaches to disengage from the issue, if we don’t lead honestly with what we know — the discussion will ultimately move forward without us. The best way to support any athlete is to become more knowledgeable about the issues they may encounter.

And finally, while it might not help Simone Biles’ immediate case (egos often rule), I think it’s high time for all parties involved to step back and examine the bigger picture if we want to ensure that every athlete is supported in their pursuit of excellence.

So what about regular people, like you and me? Those trying to take care of holding things together on a daily life? Is there anything you do to deal with high stress?

Simple steps to take care of mental health:


1. Create a daily routine and stick to it as much as possible. Plan out your day in advance each night before you go to bed and wake up knowing what will be done that day.

2. Get enough sleep: 8 hours is ideal but 7 or more hours does help make up for lack of sleep from time to time. Set an alarm if you have trouble sleeping or having the energy needed for a full day’s work

3. Exercise every single day . Morning workouts are best for feeling refreshed but evening workouts are also good and may even be better because your body is warm and tired so you go straight to sleep afterwards (if you want). If you cannot exercise daily, do yoga , go swimming, try out a new dance class or even just walk around a mall. Anything counts as exercise and it is proven to reduce stress levels

4. Take time for yourself : whether you go out with friends, take a bath, watch your favorite TV show or read a book, remember that you are worth spending time on. If there is something holding you back from doing those things, work at overcoming it rather than shrinking away in isolation (this could be as simple as making an effort to call someone instead of reaching out via text). You will feel better for taking the action needed to move forward when stuck

5. Meditate every day: 5 minutes will do but the more the better – research shows that meditators have less cortisol and report less stress

6. Listen to calm music : this can be anything from nature sounds, classical or even guided meditations (there are lots on youtube!) If you have trouble sleeping or if you wake up stressed, try listening to the music as you fall asleep. It will help your mind slow down and relax

7. Eat well and take care of nutrition : it is essential in order for your brain to function optimally. I’d recommend eating half organic/vegan and allowing yourself some treats twice a week at most – that way there is no guilt involved if you do eat something high sugar/processed because the other half of your diet is healthy enough so that you won’t feel bad about splurging every once in a while!

8. Find a time of day that works for you and stick to it : if something is stressful (for example, leaving the house in the morning), do not try to force yourself into a new activity. If you already have an established routine that works (say, an afternoon workout) then continue with what works unless there are other factors involved (your job/school dictates your schedule or your partner makes it unavoidable to be home at certain points during the day).

9. Say no: don’t take on more than you can handle . I think we’re all guilty of being overworked at some point but this is not sustainable long term – otherwise you will burn out and be less productive overall

10. Stay away from negative people: they will bring you down . Even if those people are family members, it is still possible to remain polite but firm in your stance on the topic. You do not have to address every issue that comes up and if necessary, concede by trying to talk again another time. Do not let yourself be manipulated/pushed into doing things you don’t want to!

11. Give back : whether this means volunteering at a hospital or packing boxes for the needy with your friends, giving back can really give you an extra boost of happiness and positive energy

12. Practice gratitude: keeping a journal and writing about 3 things each day for which you’re grateful will help remind you of how truly lucky you are. This can also go along with meditation – find a pleasant space and write down 3 things that you are grateful for

13. Write it down : this has many benefits including helping you feel less stressed in general because of the effects writing can have on your brain . Just writing about what is stressing you out or how you feel will help to release those feelings

14. Take breaks and enjoy life : we get so caught up in our lives that we forget to live them but life is not meant to be stressful! Set aside time each week/month for something fun, whether it be going shopping, visiting friends or even just having an ice cream. It will make a difference in your attitude towards everything else, I promise

15. Learn to fight stress properly: do not hide! Deal with it head on, this is the best way to deal with stress before it builds up. That means if you’re having a bad day at work, tell your boss as soon as possible. The longer you wait, the worse it will be for everyone

16. Take regular breaks: get up from your desk and walk around or go for a quick stroll . In between classes/at night, I would encourage taking scheduled break times so as not to lose focus or burn out

17. Focus on breathing : this tip was given to me by my great grandmother who practices yoga. It’s useful because it activates all of the muscles in our bodies and can help curb any physical symptoms we may be experiencing along with helping us calm down when our thoughts get too loud. A great way to practice this is in your bed at night before you sleep. Lie down with your eyes closed and focus on breathing, allowing yourself to relax as you do.

18. Find new hobbies : I know it may seem impossible or too much effort but if you force yourself into finding new hobbies at least once a month, you will be better off for it. You will have more things to keep your mind busy, not only occupying all of that free time but also giving you something positive about which to think instead of stress

19. Get some sun: the light helps boost serotonin , which leads to lower levels of depression and anxiety . That said, there are multiple variables so just make sure you don’t overdo it

20. Speak up: if you’re in a situation with negative people, instead of standing on the fringes and listening to them complain about everything that has gone wrong or is going wrong in their lives (trust me – I’ve been there…), try to bring up something positive! Remember that it’s not your job to fix anyone but yourself so try making some light-hearted conversation along the lines of “hey did you know this happened today”, etc. This will help change the mood around you

21. Make yourself laugh : watching comedies on Netflix and regular TV networks can be an excellent way to escape stress . Also try making jokes with friends, family members or even just by yourself in your room – it can be great for your mental health

22. Don’t forget to sleep : getting adequate sleep is vital for mental health and well-being, so make sure that you’re getting at least 7-8 hours/night

23. Get a haircut: try not to put off haircuts! It’s an easy way to feel better about yourself and will give you a nice boost of self confidence

24. Be realistic : when planning out what you want in life or what needs to get done today, ask yourself if they are really possible given other commitments . Not only will this help keep your stress levels down but it can also lead to more success for you as you don’t set yourself up for failure right from the start. Remember to not make any excuses either!

25. Try a new hobby or sport: this is similar to number 18 on my list and has the same idea behind it . If you try doing something new at least once per year, I promise that you will feel better about yourself and your life overall. This could be anything from losing weight to learning how to paint – all that matters is that it’s NEW !

Contact our behavioral health clinic. We are professional healthcare counselors and providers that helps with more than medical treatments. If you’re struggling with hunger, addictions, substance abuse, worry, climate, clothing, medicine needs or other mental needs as a patient or caregiver, we have resources you can benefit from.

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