The Olympics – it’s been ‘mental’

As the Tokyo Olympics closes and steps away from the podium of our minds what do we remember of this sporting celebration and pinnacle of human performance? We can probably all agree that Simone Biles’ decision not to compete in the team gymnastics event, because her head wasn’t in the right place, was extremely courageous. Her actions immediately ignited the debate about the ‘mental health’ of athletes when they are under intense pressure to perform and the eyes of the world are on them.

Following Simone’s leadership many other athletes spoke out about their own struggles with ‘mental health’ issues. Such narratives are often applauded by media commentators. The ‘mental health’ story was often cited, by an athlete or pundit, as a reason why Olympians may have failed to meet their own, or the public’s, expectation of their performance. Today ‘mental health’ seems to be so widely invoked, in all walks of life, that it appears we’ve created a global mental health pandemic to rival the viral pandemic.

Are we all at risk of this ‘mental infection’? If so, can we inoculate ourselves against the ‘mental health pandemic’? The answer is: we can vaccinate ourselves with the truth – and the truth is that:

1. The problem isn’t ‘mental’ and it is not ‘health’

2. The problem is emotional and a failure of normal development

When athletes, or frankly anyone, suffers with performance anxiety, panic, intermittent bouts of depression, fear, or loneliness their mental processes and cognitive abilities are normal. They are not suffering with a mental illness. The normal processes of the mind haven’t suddenly snapped under the glare of competition. What they are really struggling with is controlling their emotions.

Mental health conditions exist, but we suggest the term ‘mental health’ should be reserved for conditions where cognitive functioning is significantly disturbed. For example, in cases of schizophrenia, where cognition is abnormal, people hallucinate, have delusions of control, disruptions of time perception, jumbled ‘word salads’ and other classical ‘first rank symptoms’ diagnostic of such psychosis.  

Such mental health conditions are not evident in the recent Olympic experiences we have witnessed. Simone Biles is not a ‘mental case’. Katarina Johnson Thompson didn’t have a mental problem compounding the physical injuries she was carrying. No, they were simply struggling to manage the intense emotions they were experiencing.

Depending on where you get your stats, it’s claimed that at least 25-40% of the population suffer with ‘mental health’ issues and it’s estimated this may have doubled as a result of the pandemic[1]. The incidence of ‘mental health’ issues in athletes, who have honed their physical prowess to near perfection, seems to be about the same[2]. And this is despite an army of sports psychologists attached to most squads. Little wonder then that the British Athletics Commission set up a help line to support the GB Squad and Paul Ford, the GB team’s deputy chef de mission, employed a dozen ‘mental health’ champions.

Despite the increasing volume of noise about ‘mental health’, the availability of help lines and sports psychologists, the problem persists and may even be worsening. Why? We believe it’s because the problem is being misdiagnosed and therefore mistreated.

As we said the problem is not ‘mental’ and it’s not a ‘health’ issue. What athletes are really struggling with is controlling their emotions. Therefore, we must stop compounding the issue by labelling the issue as ‘mental’. It is massively counter-productive and stigmatising. In fact, there’s evidence to suggest that in 60% of cases the word ‘mental’ causes more harm than the anxiety or depression.

Given Olympians are under significantly greater pressure and public scrutiny than most of us, they need to develop significantly greater emotional regulation capabilities. The army of sports psychologists attached to most squads tend to focus, because of their own training, on cognitive processes. But as we’ve discussed the problem is not cognitive it’s emotional. So, until we start to help our athletes develop a much greater level of emotional sovereignty, we will continue to see proclamations of ‘mental health’ problems.

Without emotional sovereignty, medical problems can eventually arise, but the lack of emotional skills is not itself a ‘health’ issue it’s a developmental issue. If children are not taught how to effectively manage their emotions, we can’t expect young adults to cope, particularly under the intense pressure of Olympic competition.

We should not then compound the issue by implying there is something wrong with the individual or brand them as having ‘mental health’ issues. It is not their fault. No-one has taught them how to develop the skills they need. And the lack of emotional development isn’t corrected by the cognitive focus or narrative of a sports psychologist, nor by the availability of a helpline or mental health champions. 

The inability to regulate emotions is simply because these capabilities were not cultivated at school. We must stop medicalising what is a failure of normal development. Someone’s lack of numeracy is not seen as an ‘illness’ or a ‘health’ issue and neither should a lack of emotional literacy and sovereignty.

Every human being should develop the ability to effectively regulate their emotions. Failure to do so is a failure of development not a failure of the person. Such people are certainly not ‘mental’. They do not have a ‘condition’ called ‘mental health’. They are not helpless victims. It’s just that they have not been taught to ‘read’ their emotions and change how they feel.

We must get off the ‘mental health’ bandwagon and start helping people develop their emotional literacy and emotional regulation. Most athletes are wonderful human beings who need help to ‘read’ and ‘write’ their emotions, i.e., develop emotional literacy and emotional sovereignty. If they develop, they are much more likely to succeed even in the most intense pressure cooker environments like the Olympics.




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