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Olympians face 'overwhelming' mental pressure — especially this year

Experts and fellow athletes have rallied around gymnast Simone Biles after she withdrew from two gymnastics competitions at the Tokyo Olympics.
/ Source: TODAY

The world is still reeling from the news that six-time Olympic medalist Simone Biles withdrew from the gymnastics team final competition and the final individual all-around competition at the Tokyo Olympics. In an exclusive interview with Hoda Kotb she revealed that she's not feeling her best mentally.

Experts and fellow athletes have applauded her openness and say she's helping to show the importance of emotional well-being.

“Physically, I feel good, I’m in shape,” she said. “Emotionally, that kind of varies on the time and moment. Coming here to the Olympics and being the head star of the Olympics isn’t an easy feat, so we’re just trying to take it one day at a time and we’ll see.”

Yesterday, Biles also noted that she was struggling in an Instagram post.

“I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times. I know I brush it off and make it seem like pressure doesn’t affect me but damn sometimes it’s hard hahaha!"

Biles certainly isn’t the only athlete to grapple with the pressure of intense competition on the world stage. Michael Phelps candidly shared his experiences with depression and Naomi Osaka recently withdrew from the French Open after admitting that she had struggled with depression and anxiety and the mandatory press conferences compounded those feelings. Biles' candor about how she's feeling and taking care of her mental well-being serves as a great example for everyone.

"She has really done something that people haven’t really done much before, which is to say, 'I have to put myself first,'” Jill Emanuele, the senior director of the Mood Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute in New York, told TODAY. “It’s really important when people share a message that mental health is just as important as physical health and we have to take care of ourselves fully."

'Unique pressure'

Being an elite athlete can come with loads of mental strain and even in a typical year the Olympic stage adds more stress.

“The pressure is tremendous and it can be overwhelming," James Houle, a sports psychologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, told TODAY. “It is a unique pressure because of the idea that it’s once every four years and then if you think about the fact that it is very difficult to become a two-time Olympian. So when folks go to the Olympics it may be their only shot."

For athletes at the top of their game, the greatest of all time (GOAT), the strain can become even more intense.

“Is the greatest of all time allowed to make mistakes?” Houle said. “I think so. But for the vast majority of folks, I don’t know (if they agree).”

Even though becoming the greatest comes after amazing accomplishments, athletes still feel a drive to do more and be better.

“These athletes are aware of the rest of the world’s perception of them and so to feel like you’ve got to live up to that standard is only going to add more stress,” Jeremy Tyler, director of the web and day program services at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, told TODAY.

And, making a mistake in a visible event can impact athletes greatly.

“It can feel a little overwhelming. When you have a bad day and then another bad day, like a slump, that’s very difficult to do in a public setting,” Houle said. “It comes with a tremendous amount of pressure to keep doing what you’re doing at the level that you’re doing it.”

COVID-19 impact on athletes' stress

While competing on the international stage has always been daunting for athletes, it likely feels more intense this year. The pandemic disrupted a lot of training schedules and athletes are isolated and possibly scared of what could happen with COVID-19 during competition, Tyler said. Biles honestly addressed these changes in a press conference.

"It's been really stressful this Olympic Games. I think just as a whole, not having an audience, there are a lot of different variables going into it. It's been a long week. It's been a long Olympic process," she said. "We're just a little bit too stressed out, but we should be out here having fun and sometimes, that's not the case."

What's more, their biggest fans, their families, aren't there to offer love and support.

“Imagine going into the most important moment of your present lifetime, the world watching, having the knowledge that everyone expects you to live up to your reputation of being the best … and you’ve got go into it completely alone, without any social or emotional support,” Tyler said. “I can’t think of a higher pressure or more daunting task to go through.”

'Focus on yourself'

Houle says that stepping away from competition might seem disappointing but it's important for everyone to prioritize their emotional well-being.

“Anytime we can pause and slow down it’s going to help us focus, feel calmer, get more centered and even perform better,” Houle said. “When things speed up, we make quick, reactionary decisions or behaviors. That’s when things tend to get a little out of control."

Tending to one's mental health can boost physical health, too.

"If part of you is not well, all of you is not well," Emanuele said. “She’s basically saying, ‘I’m not 100% there with my mental health and I’m concerned it’s going to cause me to injure myself.’”

Biles noted that having good mental health makes people better athletes.

"Put mental health first because if you don't then you're not going to enjoy your sport and you're not going to succeed as much," she said during a press conference. "It's OK sometimes to sit out the big competitions to focus on yourself. It shows how strong a person and competitor you really are, rather than just battle through it."

The experts say Biles' example can encourage people to feel comfortable talking about their mental health, saying "no" if it feels right or getting help when they need it.

“We’re not all competing for a gold medal. But we are all in our lives doing the things that we love doing,” Emanuele said. “We are also all together dealing with a world crisis and a pandemic and it requires us to take full care of ourselves and that includes, more than ever … mental health.”