Olympic Mental Health Lessons: 12 Tips to Go for Gold in Everyday Life by Dr. Judy Kuriansky
Tennis superstar Naomi Osaka stood high on the Olympic stairs, arms high, broadly smiling to the crowds after she lit the cauldron at the Tokyo Games’ open under the world’s watchful eyes, only to days later announce that she would drop out of competing.
Her admission was hardly surprising given her bowing out of Wimbledon and refusing to do mandatory press interviews after the French Open, admitting in a tweet that she had “suffered long bouts of depression” since the 2018 US Open, and wears headphones to “dull my social anxiety.”
Social anxiety plagues millions of youth and adults, whereby the prospect of facing people triggers tremendous fears and withdrawal to safety at any cost.
Osaka is joined by U.S. superstar gymnast Simone Biles, who initially pulled out of competing to focus on her mental health.
Photo: Olympic champion Simone Biles competing on the balance beam at women's all-around gymnastics at Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
TV ads running during the Games feature 18-Gold medalist-turned mental-health advocate Michael Phelps, promoting the online counseling service Talkspace. Phelps admits that in 2014, he hadn’t left his room in five days and questioned whether he wanted to be alive. “Please talk to a licensed therapist as soon as you realize you need help” he advises, with the service’s coda, “Therapy for all.”
An increasing number of once-stigmatized anxieties of the finest physically fit athletes are coming to light during the present Tokyo Games, with reports and interviews about emotional traumas, some of which have been overcome, others dashing medal high hopes.
Recognizing the syndrome of “social anxiety” has come a long way since the 1980s when the New York Times ran a story about this “new” condition, and I pitched covering it to my News Director at the TV station for which I was then a feature reporter covering psychological news. He snuffed it off, saying, “Oh that's just another one of you therapists trying to drum up business by making up a name for some condition.”
He was so very wrong then and proven wrong now.
“Mental health is so important,” said gold medal swimmer Katie Ledecky in an interview, empathizing with Biles.
Normal emotional challenges of competing were understandably exponentially increased for Biles given the shock and mourning for her aunt.
The motto “United by Emotion” chosen by the Tokyo Olympics organizers for the Summer Games says it well, as emotions run deep for all and can overflow in triumph and defeat. The motto is strengthened by the theme #StrongerTogether, since research proves that shared experience shores self-esteem and confidence. I know this well from my years of giving advice on the radio, where callers and listeners were comforted knowing “you are not alone.”
Mindset matters. Back in 1976, I produced an audiotape about visualization and mindfulness for tennis excellence with a psychologist friend Dr. Henry Grayson. Those more-Eastern style techniques have become popular for relaxation and concentration essential for success.
Photo: USA Men's 4x100m medley relay team Ryan Murphy (L), Cory Miller, Michael Phelps and Nathan Adrian celebrate victory at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
Texan Olympic diving champ Hailey Hernandez could relate to gymnast star Simone Biles dealing with “the twisties” – involuntarily feeling out of control, disoriented, and out of sync in your mind and body when doing movements mid-air, so you don’t know what’s up or down, like being in outer space.
Biles wisely bowed out for her safety and deserves even more credit for bouncing back so quickly mentally, to re-enter completion and win bronze. That's true resilience.
Kudos to the Olympic committee for providing a 24-hour free “Mentally Fit Helpline" service for short-term support and counseling in 70 languages by psychologists and psychiatrists available before, during and for three months after the Games.
Such professional support, and also music, can calm performance jitters. Hernandez said in an interview that the song “Give Me Everything” by American rapper Pitbull transformed her anxiety into motivation.
Participating in sports itself can allay anxieties, as even amateur athletes know, when the brain floods with oxytocin, the pleasure chemical. BMX freestyle Olympian Nikita Ducarroz reportedly said cycling helped her heal from debilitating anxiety in high school.
Here are 12 tips for all reaching for the Gold in everyday life:
- Keep your eye on the ball, whatever your goal. Let it drive you past inevitable doubt and lulls. Tap into your own passion or that of a supporter’s push and pride.
- Strive for perfection, despite critiques that striving for flawlessness can be debilitating. Aiming for the top gets you there; stopping short doesn’t.
- Never let your guard down. When I looked behind me and saw I was way ahead as the anchor in my high school relay race and felt so confident that I didn’t push harder, the runner behind me raced ahead of me to the goal line.
- Mentally hear cheerleaders in your head. Olympians were inspired by knowing their family and friends were cheering them back home. Ignore naysayers. Spain’s Sandra Sanchez who won Gold in Tokyo in karate at 39 years old didn’t listen when told at 33 that she was too old.
- "Dream big and take what's yours!" I agree with USA sprinter Gabby Thomas.
- "Be yourself!" It’s what her coach told middle-distance runner and Bronze medalist Raevyn Rogers told her. I’ve been giving this advice to everyone at all ages to do every moment of life.
- Imaging works. Picturing and practicing an outcome in your mind, and feeling it in your body, makes it more likely it will happen.
- Take on the biggest challenge. One female Olympian basketballer, when faced with choosing between playing for France or Spain -- neither language which she spoke -- chose Spain, which she thought would be the biggest challenge. Stretch yourself.
- Say “no” really loud when you first don’t want to do something, as you can surprise yourself when the strongest resistance can transform to embracing “yes.” That happened for USA freestyle wrestler Gold medalist Tamyra Mensah-Stock who reportedly first disdained the sport but after encouragement by her twin sister, found she really liked using it to channel her strength and aggression.
- Like Phelps advises in his TV ads promoting therapy, don't hesitate to seek professional help. When? As soon as you feel you need it; when troubles last more than two weeks; when problems interfere with your performance in any aspect of your life; when others notice a change in you.
- Remember my 3 S’s: No stigma. No shame. No silence.
- “It’s OK to not be OK” Osaka cited in TIME magazine. The phrase is interestingly the title of a 2020 Korean TV romance series about a caretaker and a children’s book writer who has an antisocial personality disorder. It’s also the title of a song by Demi Lovato, who like Phelps, is a spokesperson for the online therapy service Talkspace. But it is also a popular anti-stigma phrase in the psychological community, meaning, accept all feelings.
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