Mental health and determination: what athletes taught us this year

After the suspension of many major sporting events due to the pandemic, 2021 started with a lot of uncertainty. In addition to the Olympics, plenty of championships also took place around the world that demonstrated how things should change.

Historically, athletes have inspired us to move toward our goals. Today, they also teach us that we can use our talent to help others, that shared victory tastes good, that it is important to fight for what we believe in, that we should respect our bodies, that age is just a number, and that we should take care of ourselves, because without wellness, triumph is not as enjoyable.

Here’s what we have learned from athletes this year:

Mental health matters as much as physical health

Vulnerability is frowned upon in sport, but this seems to be changing. Until recently, the words depression, anxiety and quitting were vetoed. However, some sportspeople have raised their voices to say that they are not machines, that they are not always prepared to deal with pressure and that all the weight they carry on their shoulders often becomes unmanageable.

Gymnast Simone Biles and tennis player Naomi Osaka have been some important figures within the sports world who have put their mental health first. The prized number one spot, for which they worked so hard, was put on hold when they decided not to continue.

Biles declared that she should have resigned much earlier due to the consequences of the sexual abuse she and many other gymnasts experienced from Larry Nassar. However, a part of her didn’t want him to take away the happiness of living a great moment in her career as well. Certainly, she deserved to experience the rewards after all the work she had put in since she was 6 years old, but not getting help took a toll on her mental health.

For her part, Osaka said that, because of all the public scrutiny, she was afraid to go out after leaving Roland Garros, but later realized it was the best thing for her. The athlete has been dealing with pressure and overexposure and, like Biles, is working to improve not only physically but also mentally, which is essential for a healthy and fulfilling life.

Support from others is helpful

It’s hard for one person to make a difference, but there’s strength in numbers. After several athletes spoke publicly about mental health in sport, many more supported the cause. What in the past was named, but with greater apprehension, in 2021 began to be normalized, which may help to change the way these disciplines have worked so far.

Yulimar Rojas
Yulimar Rojas

Biles and Osaka, for example, received messages of support from athletes such as Michael Phelps and Nadia Comaneci, who confirmed how hard it is to carry the stigma of perfection, and how difficult it is to ask for help. Statements from elite athletes, after their retirement, speak of toxic, abusive and unwell sports environments, where professional triumphs can be achieved, but at what cost?

Some justify the damage that athletes have to live through, they think that adversity makes them stronger. Some people say that if they can’t cope with the pressure, they are not made for the job. But there, we can observe the dehumanization of athletes, when it is believed that results are more important.

Should they sacrifice themselves to achieve their goals? Definitely not, there are healthier ways to achieve it.

Effort pays off

When the world stopped in 2020, many of us found ourselves locked in our homes with no idea what we were supposed to do. Planning schedules and routines was difficult for some, but more complicated for those who needed to keep their bodies active because it’s part of their job.

British swimmer Matthew Richards didn’t stop his workouts, he bought a canvas pool and set it up in the backyard of his house. The athlete used bungee cords to swim statically for hours so as not to lose contact with the water, but the effort was worth it, he won gold in his first Olympics.

For her part, Venezuelan Yulimar Rojas did not stop her training; a few years earlier, the triple jump athlete had set herself the goal of being the best. In the Olympics, she not only won gold, but also broke the world record established in 1995. She focused her life on sport from a very young age and did not let economic hardship stop her.

Meanwhile, British diver Tom Daley won his first Olympic gold medal in his fourth Olympics. He didn’t stop when he was bullied at school, nor did he keep quiet when he fell in love. Since then, he has been fighting for the rights of LGBTI athletes, working to break the taboos surrounding sport and trying to make sure that everyone can compete while being free.

To achieve the results, they consistently get from a very young age, athletes have to make a lot of effort and accept a life of sacrifices and hard work. That’s inspiring, but it’s also inspiring to see how they are putting themselves in first place. They have shown us that we can obtain our goals and, at the same time, be worthy of an emotionally, physically and mentally healthy life.

Image credits: Yann Caradec and Secretaría de Deportes

 

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