- Athletes Are Shifting the Narrative Around Mental Health at Work
- Check in with your senior leaders
- Embrace vulnerability
- Monitor and prioritize mental recovery
- Foster a support network
- Mental Health and Athletes
- Check Out Resources
- Share Your Story
- Call to Action!
- Olympic athletes are being more open than ever about mental health and the pressures of competing
- Other Tokyo Olympians have talked of the pressures of this year's games
- Psychologists say the athletes are making important strides to fight the stigma of mental illness
- Olympians may be particularly ly to develop mental health issues
Athletes Are Shifting the Narrative Around Mental Health at Work
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In an act of bravery and vulnerability in May 2021, tennis superstar Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open, citing concerns for her mental health. Popular and social media quickly ignited, with Osaka facing both global admiration and admonishment.
Other prominent athletes, such as Serena Williams, Usain Bolt, and mental-health advocate Michael Phelps, quickly voiced their support, and the mental wellness app Calm went viral as the organization offered to cover Osaka’s fines.
Not long after, gymnast Simone Biles voluntarily sat out several events at the Tokyo Olympics, sparking a global discussion about mental health in sports.
These instances of high-profile athletes prioritizing their mental health, along with organized efforts from the sports industry, have triggered an important shift in the narrative of mental health in sports.
They’ve increased awareness of the numerous career dynamics that pose mental health risks to athletes: unsustainable expectations for perfection and constant improvement, enormous public pressure to win, pervasive demand to outwork or outlast an opponent, and relatively short career spans that can end in the blink of an eye due to injury.
Conversations about mental health have also proliferated in organizations due to the clear negative impacts of the pandemic on workplace mental health and well-being, and many companies are revising and refocusing their organizational health strategies as a result. For example, leaders at several prominent organizations (including BHP, Clifford Chance, Deloitte, and HSBC) have launched a global collaboration to drive change.
There is much that company leaders can learn from the momentum of the highly publicized world of sports. Here are four strategies for leaders seeking to support their employees’ mental health.
Check in with your senior leaders
One clear takeaway from the mental health in sports movement is that a person’s objective success in a particular field does not imply mental health success.
Not only that, but being thrust into the leadership spotlight can actually increase pressure, scrutiny, feelings of isolation, and pressure to hold everything together for others during challenging times.
For example, Liverpool FC soccer player Andy Robertson admitted he struggled the most with mental health when he had “made it” — when he rose to fame and people stopped asking him, “how are you?” After all, he was a high-earning player in one of the best soccer leagues in the world. What could possibly be wrong?
In the world of management, we need to dissociate objective performance from mental health and ask even the most successful leaders, “How are you?” Senior leaders might, for example, be offered executive coaches to give them an outlet and regular mental health check-ins.
Another strategy is to have regular, quick check-ins at the beginning of meetings, where each participant (including senior leaders) shares how they’re feeling. This ritual provides a space where everyone’s voice is heard, drives both self and collective awareness, and helps surface warning signs of mental health issues.
Team psychological safety plays a critical role in ensuring everyone feels comfortable to share without fear of judgement.
The dominant culture in both sports and management has historically been one of strength, power, and invulnerability. Indeed, the original motto of the IOC was “Faster, Higher, Stronger,” which could reinforce a stigma or trigger shame in disclosing vulnerability or “weakness.”
The old notion of building mental toughness by yelling at and shaming people who make mistakes has now largely been turned on its head.
Sports psychologists have long understood that coaches who bully don’t prepare athletes to be peak performers, but rather make them afraid to take risks and make mistakes, create performance problems, and drive them to quit.
wise, abusive leadership in the workplace can lead to anxiety, emotional exhaustion, insomnia, alcoholism, and depression.
While statistics show that one in four individuals will confront a diagnosable mental health condition in any given year, research also shows that the stigma surrounding mental health is still pervasive and continues to erect a barrier to seeking help.
This stigma can lead people to evade questions about their mental health, drive them to erect a surface-level facade of happiness, and avoid getting to know their colleagues on a personal level.
These behaviors can be exhausting and further isolating, and the individual can unfortunately feel — and be perceived as — less authentic by peers and supervisors.
Leaders can normalize conversations around difficult emotions and mental health through leading by example — for instance, by sharing personal stories of vulnerability. Take Virgin Money’s CEO, Jayne-Anne Gadhia, who has been open about her battle with postpartum depression and suicidal thoughts.
Leaders can also explicitly encourage their teams to be open about their emotions, particularly during difficult times.
Kaspar Schmeichel, a Danish professional soccer player, addressed the mental health of the team shortly after a teammate went into cardiac arrest during a game at the Euro 2020:
…no matter how you twist it, the experience we went through together was very, very rough and very traumatizing…the role of the leaders in the group is to make sure that everybody feels it’s a safe space, they can be heard and there’s not, , a wrong feeling…There’s nothing wrong with smiling. There’s nothing wrong with laughing. There’s nothing wrong with crying. It is what it is, and people react in different ways.
Setting a good example is no simple feat. It means leaders need to develop self-awareness (am I OK?), embrace their own vulnerability (maybe I’m actually not OK), and strengthen their sense of empathy and awareness of others (are they OK?). Finally, they need to have the courage and commitment to ask for, offer, and actually receive help.
Monitor and prioritize mental recovery
In sports, it’s well known that minds and bodies need to recover before athletes can perform at optimal levels. Mental health and physical health are two sides of the same coin.
Research journals in the field of sports performance, sports psychology, and sports management address how to measure physical and psychological recovery after phases of extreme performance and why it matters.
Athletes and their medical teams also use apps to track indicators sleep, performance data, and biomarker results to monitor their health, prevent injuries, and manage their schedule and training load.
On the other hand, management research and practitioner journals and press spend far less time addressing the need for post-performance and post-stress recovery in the workplace.
In fact, the world of management has often glorified insufficient rest or recovery, to the mental health detriment of employees. On top of that, the idea that sleeping less allows us to do more work is not borne out by research.
According to neuroscientist and cognitive psychologist Daniel Levitin, “Sleep is among the most critical factors for peak performance, memory, productivity, immune function, and mood regulation.”
Sleep is a critical element of mental health recovery, but it’s just one part of a whole. People must also be proactive and continually ask themselves: how can I mentally recover from the intensity of the day, the week, or the last 18 months? British hockey player and Olympic gold medalist Helen Richardson-Walsh illustrates the challenge of mental rehabilitation:
There are similarities between physical and mental rehabilitation. But mental illness can be more difficult to recover from. If your body is broken, and if it’s capable of repairing itself it will.
I think the mental side can feel harder because it won’t just happen with time. Although time is really helpful, you’ll only recover if you’re doing the right things.
You really need to have the right processes in place to be able to get back.
Organizations are catching on, noting the importance of mental recovery. For example, the LEGO Group’s London HQ has private “relaxing caves” for rest and contimplation, and ’s HQ contains a four-acre rooftop garden with a walking trail, capitalizing on research that shows the energizing effect of nature.
In the hybrid or virtual world, leaders may also consider online mindfulness or yoga sessions, or give employees specific opportunities to completely disconnect. At On, employees go for runs together during office hours, and LinkedIn recently surprised their workforce with a paid week off to combat burnout.
Leaders can encourage their colleagues to celebrate what they do disconnect and recharge and share tips for how and when to take breaks after periods of intense work (e.g., the Pomodoro Technique, “breathe” reminders, and shared sports apps for social motivation).
All employees need to learn to identify what stressors may be chronically depleting their own mental (and physical) resources, and develop a personal toolkit of boundaries and strategies that work best for them to help recover from work before they reach the point of exhaustion — and potentially burnout, or worse.
Foster a support network
The catchphrase, “Alone we are small, but together, we become giants,” originates from the #StrongerTogether campaign launched by the IOC, along with their historic motto change to “Faster, Higher, Stronger — Together.
” In addition to highlighting the importance of unity and solidarity in sport, this shift also points toward the power of teams and a support network. One of the accelerators of mental health symptoms and disorders is social isolation.
When Helen Richardson-Walsh was struggling with mental health concerns after a career-threatening injury, she started to isolate from her teammates. She ultimately realized it only made things worse. Being able to share her struggle with her team helped considerably:
The support I got from the whole squad was amazing and I think it just goes to show that people are accepting and supportive; otherwise, if they don’t know what’s going on, they can’t help…It helped me, but I think it also helped the team know what was going on inside my head, which in turn helped our relationships.
The virtuous circle that supportive cultures create can lift the pressure and burden team members may carry. As Liverpool FC soccer manager Jurgen Klopp put it: “We all feel, it’s not about me alone to fulfill [the high expectations set for the team], we do it together.
So, if I’m not perfect today, the other ones will step up and help.” wise, Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney encourages open communication between players and coaches: a culture of “no matter what, it’s okay and we’re here to help.
” He also installed a “psychiatrist’s couch” in the middle of one of the team’s rooms and regularly invites players to share their life stories.
In the world of sports, it’s customary — and often considered necessary — to have a support team.
This team is crafted to provide specialized performance coaching, as well as emotional, physical, and psychological support for athletes throughout their journeys. Many organizations are similarly moving in the right direction.
For example, employee assistance programs with trained professionals, peer-support networks, and targeted employee resource groups are increasingly normalizing social support.
Leaders of all organizations have the power to ensure everyone feels physically and mentally safe at work. The learnings from the world of sports are clear: Stop making assumptions about people’s well-being — instead, just ask.
Hiding your vulnerabilities can reinforce the stigma around mental health. Recovery is as important for mental health as it is for physical health.
And fostering support networks can unlock a virtuous cycle of employee and organizational growth.
Mental Health and Athletes
Approximately 46.6 million people are living with mental illness in the US. That’s 1 in 5 adults who will be living with a mental health condition at some point in their lives. Many manage symptoms with therapy, medication, eating a healthy diet or exercise.
Research has shown that the benefits of exercise can boost moods and improve overall mental health. By moving our bodies we can increase our endorphins and enkephalins, two of the bodies naturally producing hormones that make us feel better.
It also allows us time to concentrate on ourselves instead of our busy lives, a much needed break many of us.
However, playing sports does not make athletes immune to mental health challenges.
With pressures to perform in the game, as well as in the rest of their public lives, being an athlete can be incredibly challenging for a person’s mental health.
Student-athletes have additional pressures to maintain their classwork and grades on top of practice and games. When athletes get hurt, they receive time to heal, but what about when those injuries are invisible?
With young adults, especially college athletes, the statistics are startling: 33% of all college students experience significant symptoms of depression, anxiety or other mental health conditions. Among that group, 30% seek help. But of college athletes with mental health conditions, only 10% do.
Among professional athletes, data shows that up to 35% of elite athletes suffer from a mental health crisis which may manifest as stress, eating disorders, burnout, or depression and anxiety.
We’re inspired by athletes such as Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, USC Volleyball player Victoria Garrick, NBA player Kevin Love and those who are telling their stories and inspiring others to seek help to support the cause.
While it may seem scary, there are small steps you can take to help your mental health. Talk to your family, teammates, coaches or support staff; someone who you feel comfortable sharing what’s happening with you.
Make an appointment with a therapist or trusted medical professional to help you identify sources of stress and manage your symptoms.
Create a Self-Care Plan for yourself to make sure you’re setting aside time from training, academics and pressures of daily life to do something for yourself each day, such as meditate, practice yoga, take a walk, listen to music or walk your pet.
Here’s a self-care plan worksheet from SocialWorkTech.com to help get you started:
Check Out Resources
Here are a few resources if someone you or someone you know is struggling with a mental health crisis.
Share Your Story
Sharing your personal mental health story can make a difference. Breaking down the stigma can help others find the strength to get health. Dr.
Emmett Gill, Clinical Assistant Professor at the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at The University of Texas says, “Athletes are becoming true champions for mental health.
Athletes are not just talking the talk, but they are sharing their walk, through their own mental health challenges, and in doing so these courageous men and women are not just changing sports, but forever changing society.”
Victoria Garrick of USC shares her personal story in this TEDxUSC talk called Athletes and Mental Health: The Hidden Opponent
Call to Action!
What can you do to help? Here are a few options to consider about ways to take action around mental health.
- Talk to a friend. Listen or share your story around mental health challenges and connect with a friend or family member. Sometimes that one on one interaction may be just what you both need to connect and feel better.
- Share on social media/share resources. Consider sharing messages of support or retweeting mental health resources for others to see. Use #mentalhealthawarenessmonth or #endthestigma to join the online conversation.
- Share your story. If you are in a safe place and feel ok about sharing your own personal story, it can be a powerful tool not only for yourself but for others who may be struggling.
- Donate/connect to a cause. Want to do more beyond social media? Consider connecting to a mental health charity or make a donation to support their mission.
Talking about and dealing with mental health can be tough. However, athletes are natural leaders and courageous self-starters and can be the key we need to tackle the challenges and stigma around mental health! If we work together to bring mental health into our regular conversation, we can open the door to create real change in the way we think and talk about mental health.
by Robin Kuik, UT MSSW & MPH Candidate 2019 and Suzanne Potts, LMSW, MPH
Olympic athletes are being more open than ever about mental health and the pressures of competing
Athletes at the Tokyo Olympics are more outspoken about mental health than ever before, and psychologists are lauding them for helping to break the stigma of mental illness.
Gymnast Simone Biles, the most accomplished athlete in the history of her sport, made headlines around the world Tuesday morning when she withdrew from the team finals event, citing mental health concerns.
«It's been really stressful this Olympic games… it's been a long week, a long Olympic process, a long year,» Biles said after her team won silver in the event, per ESPN's Michele Steele. «I think we're a little too stressed out — we should be out here having fun and that's just not the case.»
Her statements and actions put a megaphone on a mental health movement that's been swelling among Olympians for years.
Other Tokyo Olympians have talked of the pressures of this year's games
Biles is not the only Tokyo athlete to speak publicly about her struggles. Skateboarder Nyjah Huston also talked about his experience this week. Huston placed seventh in the street skateboarding tournament on Sunday, despite being a favorite to medal at the games.
In an Instagram post shared Monday, Huston said the pressure of being an internationally renowned athlete «isn't easy at times» and that he's often «really hard» on himself when he doesn't win.
A post shared by Nyjah Huston (@nyjah)
Tennis star Naomi Osaka, who withdrew from the French Open and Wimbledon over mental health concerns earlier this year, told Insider the time off helped calm her nerves and «dismantle some of the pressures that come with the stage» ahead of Tokyo.
Olympian Simone Manuel, who failed to quality for the women's 100-meter freestyle at the Olympic trials this year, said in an emotional press conference that she had been experiencing depression , anxiety, and insomnia as a result of overtraining syndrome.
Sprinter Allyson Felix, meanwhile, told Essence earlier this month she is learning to make mental health a «priority» and know when to seek help from others.
Psychologists say the athletes are making important strides to fight the stigma of mental illness
Mental health professionals are applauding the athletes for understanding that their minds are part of their bodies — and should be cared for with the same diligence.
«The sooner we are able to consistently connect the two, and not always see them as separate, the better we will be as a society,» Ben Miller, a psychologist and president of Well Being Trust, said in a statement praising Biles for living up to her reputation as «the greatest of all time» by honoring her mental health.
Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, also issued a statement thanking Biles for using her platform to put mental health front and center in Americans' minds.
«Due to the chilling effect of that [mental health] stigma, especially in the sports world, we often only learn about mental health's role in such a decision through rumors or media reports,» he said. «But today, Simone's transparency enabled mental health to take its rightful place in the public discourse.»
And psychologist Jill Emanuele of the Child Mind Institute said in a statement that athletes Biles can inspire young people and their parents to speak up when sports and extracurriculars go from fun to mentally damaging. «It's a brave decision to make to take care of yourself and go against all of the pressure being placed on you,» she said.
Olympians may be particularly ly to develop mental health issues
While mental illness can affect anyone, Olympians may be especially vulnerable due to their innate natures, public and financial pressures, a lack of identity outside of sport, the post-Olympic crash, and a lack of mental-health resources.
A consensus statement from the International Olympic Committee found that in elite athletes, including Olympians, rates of anxiety and depression may be as high as 45%.
«Being an Olympian is advertised as this amazing thing, and they leave out all of the side effects,» including eating disorders, depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation, figure skater Gracie Gold said in «The Weight of Gold,» a documentary narrated and co-produced by famed swimmer Michael Phelps, who's been championing mental health for years.
«And then when all those side effects do happen, there's nothing in play to help you,» Gold continued.
The pandemic and the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics was expected to make athletes' mental health even worse.
Athletes' training plans and goals were upended, and many had to train alone — on top of reckoning with racial justice issues, COVID-19 related deaths, and financial hardship.
Now, the strict protocols, lack of fans, and absence of familial support are ly taking a toll.
«For those who are struggling with mental health, know you're not alone: There are days where I want to curl up into a ball and sit in the corner,» Phelps previously told Insider. «But it's just taking a little step forward, taking a deep breath from time to time. It really helps.»