Olympic athletes are used to pressure. Before every Games, a handful of stars from each country get singled out as medal contenders, their faces plastered across billboards and newspapers, on social media and in yogurt ads.
They work with sports psychologists and performance coaches to help them handle the weight of expectation, developing mental coping strategies to ensure peak performance: visualization, breathing exercises, adaptability. But the Tokyo Olympics has thrown up unique challenges that have been impossible to prepare for. Shorn of their support systems, some athletes are feeling the pressure.
These Games have been unique because they’ve brought the mental health of athletes front and center. US gymnast Simone Biles has withdrawn from two events citing concerns over her own state of mind, and Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka—the face of these Olympics—also cited her mental health after being knocked out of the singles tournament. They won’t be the only athletes facing these challenges.
Sports psychologist Josie Perry has witnessed a huge rise in people contacting her for help with performance anxiety during the pandemic. “With so many differences in our lives, we’re all a lot closer to the edge of anxiety,” she says. “Certain environments push us closer to the edge—being in a place we’re not used to, being around people that annoy us, being hungry, being in a pandemic.”
Anxiety can affect performance by triggering what’s known as an amygdala hijack. The primitive parts of the brain short-circuit, bypassing more rational areas and flooding the body with stress hormones. This can lead to fight, flight, or freeze response—athletes may panic and make bad decisions, or may focus too much on skills that should be easy and automatic. But as well as affecting their performance, anxiety also exerts an emotional toll—and that’s finally starting to be recognized as the pandemic has pushed underlying issues to the fore.
When Covid-19 first emerged, few could imagine the eventual scale of the pandemic. For athletes whose entire training schedule was timed to peak in the summer of 2020, the delay was a body blow—some faced the challenge of training without access to equipment or venues, not to mention dealing with getting the virus and the potentially debilitating long-term effects of returning to action too soon.
It’s only in the last month or so that we’ve been able to say with any certainty that the Games would actually even go ahead in 2021. “Any time you put uncertainty into a situation, it comes with psychological stress,” says David Shearer, professor of elite performance psychology at the University of South Wales. “Some athletes thrive on that and rise to the challenge; for others it may impact their well-being.”
The environment of the Games is far from what athletes will have expected—from the holding camps they were placed in on arrival to the absence of support staff who would normally be on hand but are now stuck behind a video call. Athletes may be distracted by the situation at home, or comparing themselves to rivals from other countries—did they have to follow the same stringent rules? Has their training been affected? “It opens the door for the possibility of negative thinking spiraling out of control,” Shearer says. “At that point it’s the individual’s skill level in dealing with those thoughts.”
“The whole tournament has been so different to what I’m used to,” said Great Britain’s Jade Jones, who was the favorite going into the women’s tae kwon do but lost in the round of 16. “Usually I have my whole family there, so when I am scared when I come out, them cheering gives me that extra push to go for it. I got trapped in that fear mode today.”