Sports are my passion! I love the excitement, competition, and how athletes work so hard to be able to do incredible things. However, there has been a longstanding concern in sports where athletes are expected to work so hard and “do it all,” which leads to challenges managing their mental health. No athlete should feel pressure and suffer emotionally. Sports are supposed to be fun, encourage teamwork, build confidence, and motivate people to do their best. Good mental health and competitive sports should coexist, even on the Olympic level. As an athlete that cares about both parts, I think people should prioritize their mental health better and take care of themselves while continuing their training, enjoying the competition, in addition to receiving more support.
Throughout the Winter Olympics in Beijing, some athletes struggled mentally during the Games. Although this is common in sports at all levels, it is intensified as high profile global events like the Olympics. There’s a lot of pressure on athletes coming from their coaches and the media. Whether you’re a sports fan or frequent watcher, we must do a better job celebrating athletes' achievements and be a little bit less critical about who will do the “best”. Now 2x Gold medalist, snowboarder Chloe Kim, who I love, said, “After my last, I put that pressure on myself to be perfect at all times, and that would cause a lot of issues at home. I would be really sad and depressed all the time when I was home.” NBC reported that even though Kim won gold, she threw the medal in the trash, and was upset she didn’t do a new trick she had been practicing.
The media also asks athletes a lot about their opinions on issues beyond their own discipline. As an athlete and an advocate, I think it’s important that all athletes take their role model status seriously, and do the right thing. Because athletes are always defying odds in their work, we need to recognize the amount of pressure that goes along with standing up for what you believe in. Last year, champion tennis player Naomi Osaka, commented on the current state of her mental health for a Bloomberg article. “The high-profile tennis tournaments exacerbate her depression and social anxiety,” she said. Osaka, who has dealt very publicly and courageously with mental health issues, has the added burden of dealing with questions that go beyond tennis, from gender issues to the Black Lives Matter social movement. Serena Williams, one of the greatest athletes of all time, has also faced a lot of pressure from the media by being asked to comment on issues like gender and race, while facing discrimination on the tennis court. I think that one of the best ways that athletes can be advocates is to take care of themselves. They can set an example of what it means to love yourself first, and as gymnastics legend Simone Biles said so succinctly, “We’re human too.”
Athletes have rallied together to support each other while facing mental health issues. This is also an important thing to show the public. After Biles pulled out of several events at the Tokyo Olympics, another legendary athlete, swimmer Michael Phelps, who has been a very vocal and visible advocate for mental health counseling, said: “I hope this is an opportunity for us to jump on board and to even blow this mental health thing even more wide open… Nobody is perfect. It’s OK to not be OK.” Simone also cheered loudly in the stands for her fellow teammates, too. This is the best of what sports is, in my opinion: people supporting each other and taking care of one another while reaching for their dreams. Mikaela Shiffrin, gold medalist skier and World Cup champion who struggled on the slopes in Beijing but displayed great strength and composure throughout the Games, has emphasized the importance of athletes supporting each other, too. She said, “There’s a lot of disappointment and heartbreak going around in the finish area, but there’s also a lot of support.”
Although I’m not an Olympic athlete, I can understand struggles with mental health. I have a cognitive disability, Down syndrome. This can make it difficult for me to remember things and sometimes organize my thoughts, but more than that, it can be difficult to find support. I can understand why athletes are reaching out for more support, and why it’s been difficult for so many of them to do it in the past. Sometimes you can be weak or vulnerable when you ask for more support, or sometimes worry that opportunities will be taken away from you because there is a perception that you won’t be able to handle it. But with the right support, people can handle anything, and we can achieve greatness. I think mental health support might be a little scary, and hard to understand, for some people. That's ok. But by talking about it more openly and doing more research, we can all learn and support each other better.
I have been reading about, watching, and playing sports since I was a little kid. Being a sports fan with a disability can be challenging, sometimes. I know from my experiences that it is most important to take care of our mental health and our emotions, and find other athletes, coaches, and fans who support us no matter what- otherwise we won’t enjoy the game. Without teammates like Simone Biles, and examples like Naomi Osaka, without supporters like Michael Phelps and role models like Serena Williams, it will be hard for people struggling with mental health to enjoy sports. But thankfully, we are seeing more and more brave and empathetic athletes like this every day.