Mental health isn't just in your head
Watching the Olympics this year, we witnessed a changing attitude or perspective play out upon the world stage regarding mental health.
Typically, professional athletes are known for ignoring the body’s pleas for rational limits by building muscles into freakish proportions with brutal training schedules, strict diets and ignoring injuries, all in order to perform near impossible feats with nothing less than perfection without anyone so much as batting an eye about mental health.
But this year we saw something different.
Several of the world’s most accomplished athletes encountered performance issues and perhaps for the first time we saw them treated as human beings rather than gladiators.
American gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from competition, Canadian diver Pamela Ware aborted her dive, and British hurdler Jessie Knight didn’t make it over the first hurdle. These are some of the athletes who appeared to have encountered sudden mental blocks during their performances.
Instead of the media hammering exclusively on the failure aspect of these performances, there was a rallying of the world community to show support.
Attention fell on the mental health of the athletes and a mantra developed within the Olympic village for the athletes that it was okay to not be okay.
Commentators and sportscasters took time to interview coaches and educate people on what athletes commonly go through in their efforts to be the best. This approach seemed to provide a more supportive, understanding role versus criticism of failure.
The Washington Post wrote, “Biles planned to perform a 2 ½ twisting vault, but her mind chose to stall after just 1 ½ twists.’ It went on to state, “When gymnasts have the “twisties,” they lose control of their bodies as they spin through the air. Sometimes they twist when they hadn’t planned to. Other times they stop midway through as Biles did.”
Coaches explained that the ‘twisties’ and the ‘yips’ were terms commonly used to describe what happens to athletes when ‘out of nowhere’ with ‘no rhyme or reason’ they cannot perform the basic fundamentals of their sport. The well-developed muscle memory that athletes rely on, suddenly short-circuits and goes off-line.
Conversely, I watched swimmer Caeleb Dressler being interviewed immediately after he had just won the gold in his event. Dressler was clearly overwhelmed but I don’t think it was from happiness. I heard him say that the last year had been ‘so hard’ and that he ‘just hurt.’ So much so that he could barely speak at all.
Watching Dressler, I was reminded of an emotional breakdown I experienced when working with a trainer at the local fitness club several years ago.
When I signed up to work with a trainer I was in my mid-late forties and looking for a variety of moderate exercises I could do to keep my body in good working order as I embraced the realities of an aging body.
Everything was fine with the workouts for the first few weeks. But then the trainer continued increasing the intensity of the workouts to the point where I was exhausted by the end. The trainer seemed pleased that he was doing such a good job. I began to dread the workouts until one day I completely broke down and sobbed.
My body gave me all the signs that it did not like what I was doing with it and I kept pushing it to exhaustion anyway. I explained away the body’s discomfort to the fact that I was just being lazy. The experience taught me that there is an intimate relationship between mental health and respecting what is comfortable for the body and what is not.
Perhaps these elite athletes are demonstrating to the world that pushing the body out of its comfort zone for whatever reason, has a direct impact on mental health.
Simone Biles made the statement that her mental health was more important than a medal or sporting event. She knew if she had continued to try to perform, she risked serious injury.
She was smart and didn’t buy into the belief that pulling out of the competition made her a failure. Simone did what was best for herself in that moment.
Each of us can improve our own mental health by reviewing our own routine behaviors and getting in touch with how the body feels when we do certain things.
If we find any strong feelings or sensations within the body, we can use them as clues to sort through behaviors or situations that may be having an overly negative impact on our mental health.
But we have to be willing to make changes for the sake of our well-being, and each person has to find their own version of what mental health means to them. No two will be exactly alike.