More on Athletes and Mental Health

When I wrote about watching Athlete A last week, I mentioned the fact that the win-at-all-costs mentality of USA gymnastics blinded the organization to the fact that girls were being abused right under their noses, and played a role in their lack of response to allegations. They had one guiding quest, winning gold medals, and anything else was not to be focused on.

As more news has come out about physical and verbal abuse in addition to sexual abuse in multiple sports across multiple countries, it’s become clear that being solely focused on winning at the expense of everything else, is doing quite a bit of harm.

Now, we have the new film “The Weight of Gold”, narrated by Michael Phelps, about the mental health damage that comes with being an elite Olympic athlete. I haven’t seen it myself yet, but I caught this article about it and thought this was an insightful look at the issue:

The crux of the problem, Phelps and other athletes say, is that for several years Olympic officials and elite athletes have had two very different definitions of athlete support.

To the Olympic committee, athlete support has largely meant providing services — state-of-the-art training facilities, top coaches and sports scientists, access to sports psychologists, plus a lot of Team USA swag — that seemingly led directly to bringing home medals.

To athletes, support should have evolved by now into something more holistic that included caring for their mental health in ways beyond the sports psychologists who focused on priming their minds for competition.

When your focus is only one winning, this disconnect will happen. Officials saw a swimmer who wanted to win, and gave him everything they could to help him do exactly that, so what’s the problem? And, personally, I don’t have a problem with that, but that narrowly focused view of him as “a swimmer”, and not a human being with mental health needs, and a life outside of sport, also means that when an athlete is dealing with depression, or grieving, or has an eating disorder, or is being abused, your concern is not their overall well-being, it’s how do we get them back to competing.

To those of us outside the elite athletic bubble, this may seem incredible, and it kind of is. But, it is what goes on.

In fact, it reminds me of the recent ESPN multi-part documentary about the Chicago Bulls, and one specific comment made by Michael Jordan when questioned about his behavior towards teammates and others. Now, understand something about Michael. He is famous for taking any slight, and turning it into massive motivations to beat someone. And, if there wasn’t any slight, he’s famous for making one up in his own head. A conspiracy., of potential slights. He’s also famous for starting fights and bullying teammates and really just generally being a bit of a jerk. When asked about it during an interview what was his response?

Maybe you wouldn’t act that way, but “you’ve never won anything”.

Which, to me, tells me exactly what we all know about Michael. He was willing to be a jerk to win. Winning was more important. That was the choice he made, and maybe that even explains what happened after his father was killed, when something more important intruded into his life suddenly and shockingly. Maybe.

When I watched that section of the show, my immediate thought was but, most of us aren’t trying to “win” in the same sense. Real life isn’t a game with a score and a trophy at the end. It’s way more complicated than all of that, and not taking care of our mental health, and each other, is not going to result in the glory of championships. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Which, brings us back to the question of Michael Phelps and other elite athletes. Would taking care of his mental health issues resulted in fewer gold medals? Possibly. Does it have to be that way? Can we find a way to be successful at sports, without an unhealthy single-minded focus that wrecks mental health and puts athletes in harms way? I’d like to think that we can, that coaching and development will evolve to recognize the importance of finding that balance.

As much as I like sports, I’d like to not have abuse and mental health scandals just because we want to watch winners. That’s a little too much like gladiator combat for my liking.

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