Olympic athletes are used to pressure. Before every Games, a handful of stars from each country get singled out as medal contenders, their faces plastered across billboards and newspapers, on social media and in yogurt ads.
They work with sports psychologists and performance coaches to help them handle the weight of expectation, developing mental coping strategies to ensure peak performance: visualization, breathing exercises, adaptability. But the Tokyo Olympics has thrown up unique challenges that have been impossible to prepare for. Shorn of their support systems, some athletes are feeling the pressure.
These Games have been unique because they’ve brought the mental health of athletes front and center. US gymnast Simone Biles has withdrawn from two events citing concerns over her own state of mind, and Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka—the face of these Olympics—also cited her mental health after being knocked out of the singles tournament. They won’t be the only athletes facing these challenges.
Sports psychologist Josie Perry has witnessed a huge rise in people contacting her for help with performance anxiety during the pandemic. “With so many differences in our lives, we’re all a lot closer to the edge of anxiety,” she says. “Certain environments push us closer to the edge—being in a place we’re not used to, being around people that annoy us, being hungry, being in a pandemic.”
Anxiety can affect performance by triggering what’s known as an amygdala hijack. The primitive parts of the brain short-circuit, bypassing more rational areas and flooding the body with stress hormones. This can lead to fight, flight, or freeze response—athletes may panic and make bad decisions, or may focus too much on skills that should be easy and automatic. But as well as affecting their performance, anxiety also exerts an emotional toll—and that’s finally starting to be recognized as the pandemic has pushed underlying issues to the fore.
When Covid-19 first emerged, few could imagine the eventual scale of the pandemic. For athletes whose entire training schedule was timed to peak in the summer of 2020, the delay was a body blow—some faced the challenge of training without access to equipment or venues, not to mention dealing with getting the virus and the potentially debilitating long-term effects of returning to action too soon.
It’s only in the last month or so that we’ve been able to say with any certainty that the Games would actually even go ahead in 2021. “Any time you put uncertainty into a situation, it comes with psychological stress,” says David Shearer, professor of elite performance psychology at the University of South Wales. “Some athletes thrive on that and rise to the challenge; for others it may impact their well-being.”
The environment of the Games is far from what athletes will have expected—from the holding camps they were placed in on arrival to the absence of support staff who would normally be on hand but are now stuck behind a video call. Athletes may be distracted by the situation at home, or comparing themselves to rivals from other countries—did they have to follow the same stringent rules? Has their training been affected? “It opens the door for the possibility of negative thinking spiraling out of control,” Shearer says. “At that point it’s the individual’s skill level in dealing with those thoughts.”
“The whole tournament has been so different to what I'm used to,” said Great Britain’s Jade Jones, who was the favorite going into the women’s tae kwon do but lost in the round of 16. “Usually I have my whole family there, so when I am scared when I come out, them cheering gives me that extra push to go for it. I got trapped in that fear mode today.”
Social media can make things worse. It reduces this distance—letting Olympians stay in touch with their friends and families at home, but also meaning that they’re hooked up to a 24-hour stream of commentary and abuse from the general public. This is unprecedented. As The Guardian's Barney Ronay points out, star athletes are now expected to be “always on”—to carry the weight of a nation during competition and to be model citizens the rest of the time too. Where before, they could go to a hotel room and unplug the phone after a crushing defeat, now they get people tagging them on social media, criticizing their performance, or even bombarding them with racist abuse.
But for many athletes, their livelihood is also linked to their online presence—medals might make the headlines, but sponsorship pays the mortgage. “It’s a horrible cycle,” says Perry. “We also see with social media squishing everything down into a few words, this black-and-white thinking. Did you get a medal or not? It takes away their personality and makes them one sentence, and that can feel like pressure.” The athletes she has interviewed say it’s the nasty comments that stick in the mind, even if they are far outweighed by positive ones.
One potential benefit of social media is that it can allow athletes to control their own stories. The fact that Biles has been outspoken and honest about the challenges she’s faced is refreshing—in the past, athletes facing mental health issues may have feigned a physical injury or made up another excuse. Until very recently, the sports science setup around athletes has prioritized performance, says Shearer. “If you did really well you survived, and if you didn’t, you were gone,” he says. “It was a very outcome-focused coaching process that tended to diminish the role of well-being.”
But that’s finally starting to change. The Tokyo Olympics have been tough, but they could prove to be a turning point in the way we talk about mental health in athletes, and the way we think about it in our own lives. “We all have our own version of this—the driving test, the speech that goes horribly wrong—and the more we acknowledge it the better,” says Perry. And ultimately, open discussions about mental health will lead to better performances in the long run anyway. “My focus as a sports psych is always on well-being first and performance second,” she says. “When an athlete is comfortable, they are more likely to perform better—without worrying about being judged.”
This story originally appeared on WIRED UK.