With the Tokyo Olympics ending this weekend, a Cape Town-based psychologist says there should be a greater focus on the mental health of athletes. This, as Athletes for Hope warns that 35% of professional athletes face everything from eating disorders to anxiety and depression.
Elite athletes tend to avoid seeking support or help for mental health challenges, says Potgieter.
This could be for several reasons, including stigma, the perception of weakness and a sport culture of masculine ideals, placing high value on “strength and toughness.”
“We need to do better, handling the mental status of athletes,” says Potgieter in an interview with Health For Mzansi.
This sentiment is shared by Rhodes University student and long-distance athlete Sibonisipho Manqele. He says that mental health issues are not discussed as openly as other illnesses in sport – even more problematic in a pandemic.
No time to crumble
Last year, Manqele had to hang up his track shoes due to rolling lockdowns and restrictions on sport events.
He says, “Expectations are why athletes, men mostly, are less likely to ask for help and we end up finding destructive ways to cope. This masculine energy we are supposed to project even when we are feeling overwhelmed is something that society needs to let go of.”
Athletes are often dehumanised given their physical skills, adds Potgieter.
“The stressors that athletes face such as intense competition, the pressure to excel, personal issues, all have an impact on how one tackles simple day to day tasks.”
Don’t get it twisted
Meanwhile, KwaZulu-Natal-based psychologist Slindokuhle Mkhize illustrates how Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka took the decision to withdraw from Roland Garros earlier this year citing her struggles with mental health.
“A woman, being emotional at work, is seen as a sign of weakness, whereas if the same term is used from a male perspective, they are seen as courageous. As a result of the stigmas attached, people are unable to speak openly”, says Mkhize.
Also, US gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from three events in the Tokyo Olympics to focus on her mental health.
She took to her Instagram stories last week to defend her decision to withdraw from the games, explaining that she was struggling with the “twisties.” “For anyone saying I quit, I didn’t quit… My mind and body aren’t in sync,” she wrote.
Suffering from the “twisties,” might sound odd, but according to a leading US Olympic team doctor, Dr Mark Hutchinson, it is a phenomenon where a gymnast can become dangerously disorientated doing mid-air routines.
Speaking to Chicago radio station WTTW, Hutchinson said, “It’s really, for her, probably worse than anybody else in the world. If you get disorientated while you’re up in the air doing flips and you don’t know where to land, she could land on her neck.”
Finding a coping mechanism
Mkhize says coping mechanisms are vital to the lives of athletes. “I’m a firm believer in being proactive and engaging in activities that strengthen your resilience, you need a pillar that grounds you by focusing on the positive.
“Positive psychology recognises that bad events occur in our lives, but they are not the focus of our attention. As a result, we strive to maximise the positive aspects of our lives that benefit us and make us happy.”
United Kingdom diver Tom Daley, who won an Olympic gold medal in the men’s 10-meter platform event, said knitting was his “secret weapon.” He took to Instagram to declare, “Learning to knit and crochet has helped me so much through these Olympics.”
Following Daley’s viral post on social media, many joined him in sharing how knitting helped to relieve stress.