Updated: Nov 3, 2021
We also have to focus on ourselves, because at the end of the day, we’re human, too, So, we have to protect our mind and our body, rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do.”
- Simone Biles (Mental Health Champion)
Current Scenario in Sports
Simone Biles, one of the greatest gymnasts that the world has seen, received immense support from the world as she took courage to step back at the Olympics to exercise self-care. Her words demonstrate fierce self-compassion as she chose to pause to practice mindfulness and regulate herself from all the pressure she was experiencing during the Olympics.
Today, mental health in sports has become an important topic of discussion at every platform as athletes speak up and share their struggles from their journeys.
As a Sport Psychologist who interacts with and trains athletes regularly, I see this as a defining moment in the history of sports that will shift the narrative from applauding performance perfectionism and shaming weakness, to acknowledging the essence of humanness that athletes experience while training for tournaments.
It's only recently that famous sports persons like Virat Kohli, Dutee Chand, Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka, Ben Stokes and Sania Mirza have shown courage and chosen to speak about their depression, anxiety, panic attacks, pressure to meet expectations and above all, be vulnerable to the world without knowing how to address their feelings while experiencing them all.
The need to normalise mental health conversations
These stories emphasize the need to normalise mental health conversations in order to address it better. The pandemic has taught us that mental health struggles do not discriminate. At some point during the pandemic, we’ve all experienced fear, anxiety, worry, disturbed sleep to name a few - in different intensities. While athletes participate in organised sports, they are in it to win. It demands performance and results. So, experiencing pressure, having fears and doubts, feeling lonely is only natural and needs to be noticed, addressed and spoken about.
The more athletes choose to share the adverse honest realities of playing professional sport, the more they are viewed from the lens of being humans and not machines. This reality needs to be recognised not just at the elite and professional level but also at the grassroots level while children are trained relentlessly to perform in organised sport. To prevent chronic mental illness, we need to learn to be open and normalise mental health awareness and make mental skills training a part of athletes' regular training routine.
A few takeaways from our mental health champions.
Taking care of yourself is not a luxury but a basic need to survive. To thrive in situations, we need to practice bringing our awareness inward and provide ourselves with what we need in that moment. No matter where you are, however important a platform it may be, if you’re not feeling it, pause and acknowledge your feelings in that moment and ask yourself, “what do I need right now?”. Exercise self-care instead of pushing yourself in the name of mental toughness that will only leave you feeling exhausted.
Seek Professional Help
Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka have emphasised the significance of therapy in their lives. It enabled them to pay attention to their mental health needs while training relentlessly to meet their goals. There is no shame in asking for help. Unlearning and relearning are the only ways we evolve and grow. Choosing to learn healthier ways of coping with demanding situations is a sign of strength. So be open and honest with yourself and if you think you do not have the capacity to manage the stress you’re experiencing, it’s a sign that maybe you need to offload and seek professional help.
Accept and acknowledge your humanness
Being perfect is an illusion. The quicker you accept it, the better your life will be.
The very essence of being human is that we are flawed, mortal and bound to experience suffering in life so it's ok to make mistakes. We don’t need to hide our pain since pain and suffering are part of a larger human experience and we all experience it in different intensities. Allow yourself to recognise and embrace your humanness with an open heart. This will help you feel more connected and won’t let your distress overpower you.
Nicole Menezes is the Mental Conditioning Coach for the U-17 Indian Women’s National Football Team and the Co-founder at GRIT Sport & Exercise Psychology Consultancy. She trains professional athletes with psychological strategies, preparing and enabling them to build mental resilience in demanding situations. She’s also partnering with BecauseYOU on a year-long engagement with a global non profit to build a culture of psychological safety. Reach out to her directly on firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re interested in training individuals & teams to navigate through challenging roles.