The Biles Saga: How Mental stress is killing dreams of elite athletes

11:05 AM Jul 29, 2021 | Dr Swaroop Savanur

It culminated into a dream Olympics for Simone Biles — at the age of 25, she was already a G.O.A.T in US Gymnastics and she was on her way to win back-to-back Olympic Golds, a feat no woman has achieved since 1964. But at the end, the unthinkable happened — the only thing that came in the way of making history was her own mind.

People at times do not realise the amount of mental stress that elite athletes face while competing at the Olympics. Because the Olympics is a once-in-four-year event, most athletes are unsure whether they will last another four years and thus, it’s a now or never situation. At the same time, the mental energy expended in maintaining that kind of practice routine and perfect body, sacrificing on so many aspects of ‘normal living’ over so many years, and still not knowing whether that effort will pay off at the end, is so much, that eventually, the pressure gives way to a meltdown. The player no longer finds the right reason to compete. The mind simply can’t take that stress any longer. The joy is over.


Many people wonder, why so close to the events are athletes pulling out? Couldn’t they realise this earlier?


What we need to understand is that any mental stress is not a sudden occurrence, but a slow build up of pressure. Even without the player realising, stress can start taking a toll on the mind. The initial signs and symptoms are so subtle, that the player realises it only when he/she gets exposed under stressful situations such as crucial competitions or matches. That’s the reason why the players ‘really experience’ the physical and mental signs of mental stress so close to their most important events.

This is compounded by so many myths and prejudices about the mind, that players either find it difficult to talk about it or do not think it's as necessary, thinking ‘things will get fine’. This is aggravated by the fact that the support system keeps thinking they are well-equipped to manage the player’s mindset without the need for a sports psychologist.

Also, the player is supposed to be ‘mentally tough’, and thus seeking support for mental challenges feels or a weakness for the player. When I started Mental Coaching 18 years back, there was so much resistance by coaches, parents and players towards this area and the resistance is still there even today.

The silver lining in this dark cloud is the fact that Simone Biles came out and expressed her mental stress as openly as Naomi Osaka did at Wimbledon. Players and sports organisations are taking note of this and more players are talking about it at the elite level.

Today, many players are demanding the need for a Sports Psychologist and once players start demanding it, the system has to change and it will surely change. I hope this becomes a trigger point for the sporting fraternity to become more proactive in managing the mental stresses of elite athletes, so that such instances of pulling out of competitions they so desperately dreamed to be part of, will never ever happen again.

(The writer is a senior Sports Psychology Consultant, Mental Conditioning and Peak Performance Coach)

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