“I have to focus on my mental health”. These words by the four-time Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles will go down in history. The American artistic gymnast, who was gunning for glory at the world’s most prestigious tournament, decided to pull out from the team finals of Artistic Gymnastics at the Tokyo Games, to prioritise her mental health over a medal. Biles’ brave decision has received support from all quarters, with many hailing her as the ‘Greatest of All Time’ in the true sense. There are others who have called out her ‘betrayal’ to her country, and that she used her mental health as an “excuse” for underperforming.
Biles’ withdrawal from the Olympics comes close on the heels of tennis star Naomi Osaka’s choice to step back from The French Open to protect her mental well-being.
“Physically, I feel good. I’m in shape. Emotionally, it varies on the time and moment. Coming to the Olympics and being [the] head star isn’t an easy feat,” Biles told the media, adding she has been carrying “the weight of the world” on her shoulders, and “making it look easy”.
So, what is it about intense pressure and mental health? How are they linked, and is there a solution to cope with it? Preeta Ganguli, psychologist and mental health consultant, has the answers to all these questions. But before we get to that, let’s understand why athletes are more prone to pressure.
It wasn’t just Biles who opened up about her struggles at a public forum. Skateboarder Nyjah Huston also spoke about his mental health, as he finished seventh in the street skateboarding tournament at the Tokyo Games.
He poured his heart out in an Instagram post, where he wrote, “The pressure of being an internationally renowned athlete isn’t easy at times,”, adding that he has often been “really hard on himself, when he doesn’t win.”
These candid confessions highlight that athletes are finally considering the mind as an integral part of their bodies. For the longest time, the focus has been on being physically fit, but slowly and steadily, winds of change have finally begun to blow.
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In fact, there’s a specific study by the British Journal of Sports Medicine that reveals that in elite athletes, including Olympians, the rates of anxiety and depression can be as high as 45%. This is alarming to say the least, and brings us back to the argument around intense pressure and mental health.
“Pressure is defined as the use of persuasion or intimidation to get someone to do something. At times, it can help us do things we’ve really wanted to, but haven’t been able to, due to some challenges or resistance. But it is important to remember that high amounts of pressure can be particularly harmful,” shares Ganguli, adding that the capacity to endure pressure varies from person-to-person. It can be extremely debilitating for those who are already living with a mental illness.
Although pressure can affect anyone, it hits differently for athletes, who have the pressure of performing for multiple stakeholders, at a large scale. “Their acts affect a country’s standing, pride, spirit, and maybe even politics. So yes, the type of pressure they face is very different,” she adds.
Ganguli explains that rest, calm, and relaxation are all essential for mental well-being. “Even the rest that one gets in that scenario may be diluted with intrusive thoughts and worries,” she adds.
More often than not, there’s a lot of self-inflicted pressure on us. The sources of pressure may vary for an individual, since everyone’s perception of pressure is different. “Some common examples of pressure we may face are the pressure to earn money, pressure to meet expectations of people around us, pressure to get married, pressure to keep working at jobs that don’t excite us but they meet our needs,” says Ganguli.
1. Self-awareness: The first step is to identify the cause of the pressure, and how it shows up for you. “Notice how different things and tasks make you feel. Check in with yourself about your feelings and beliefs about things that are making you uncomfortable,” advises Ganguli.
2. Set boundaries: While it may not be possible to simply move away from what’s causing pressure, making boundaries around it helps to an extent. “Decide time limits, take breaks, and have clear ideas of what you will and will not do. Make sure to implement these,” she says.
3. Have a strong support system: Sometimes, there are situations of excess pressure that cannot be avoided. In such scenarios, having a strong support system goes a long way. “Take a few minutes a day to do things that spark joy in you, engage in self care, and make sure to seek support from friends and family,” says Ganguli.
“Remember it is fine to make decisions for yourself and your mental health. It isn’t possible to do anything else, if your mental health is affected. After all, you can’t pour from an empty teacup,” she concludes.