Olympic athletes are used to the pressure. Ahead of each Games, a handful of stars from each country are singled out as medal contenders, their faces plastered on billboards and newspapers, on social media and in yogurt ads.
They work with sports psychologists and performance coaches to help them manage the weight of expectations, developing mental adaptation strategies to ensure optimal performance: visualization, breathing exercises, adaptability. But the Tokyo Olympics launched unique challenges that it was impossible to prepare for. Stripped of their support systems, some athletes feel the pressure.
These Games were unique because they put the mental health of athletes first. American gymnast Simone Bilès withdrew from two events citing concerns about her own state of mind, and Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka, the face of these Olympics, also cited her sanity after being knocked out of the singles tournament. They will not be the only athletes to take on these challenges.
Sports psychologist Josie Perry has witnessed a huge increase in the number of people reaching out to her for help with performance anxiety during the pandemic. “With so many differences in our lives, we are all much closer to the edge of anxiety,” she says. “Some environments push us closer to the edge – being in a place we’re not used to, being around people who annoy us, being hungry, being in the midst of a pandemic. “
Anxiety can affect performance by triggering what is called an amygdala hijack. Primitive parts of the brain bypass, bypassing more rational areas and flooding the body with stress hormones. This can lead to a fight, flight, or freeze reaction – athletes can panic and make bad decisions, or can focus too much on skills that should be easy and automatic. But in addition to affecting their performance, anxiety also exerts an emotional impact – and this is finally starting to be recognized as the pandemic has brought the underlying issues to the fore.
When Covid-19 first emerged, few could imagine the possible scale of the pandemic. For athletes whose entire training schedule was due to peak in the summer of 2020, the delay was a big blow – some faced the challenge of training without access to equipment or venues, let alone of the fight against the virus and the potentially debilitating long lasting. long-term effects of returning to action too early.
It was only in the last month or so that we were able to say with certainty that the Games would even take place in 2021. “Whenever you put uncertainty in a situation, it comes with stress. psychological, ”explains David Shearer. , professor of elite performance psychology at the University of South Wales. “Some athletes thrive on it and take up the challenge; for others, it can have an impact on their well-being.
The Games environment is far from what athletes expected, from the retention camps they were placed in upon arrival to the lack of support staff who would normally be on site but are now stuck behind a video call. Athletes may be distracted by the situation at home, or compare themselves to rivals from other countries, did they have to follow the same strict rules? Has their training been affected? “This opens the door to the possibility of negative thoughts getting out of hand,” says Shearer. “At this point, it is the individual’s skill level to handle these thoughts. “
“The whole tournament has been so different from what I’m used to,” said the Jade jones, who was the favorite before women’s taekwondo but lost in the round of 16. “Usually I have my whole family there, so when I’m scared when I go out, the applause gives me an extra boost to get going. I found myself trapped in this fear mode today.