At last year’s Tokyo Olympics, Simone Biles brought the mental pressures felt by athletes to the forefront with her stunning decision to withdraw from competitions. This time around, Team USA organizers are committed to taking care of athletes’ mental health.
At the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, sports psychologists will be available in the villages and at the venues for any issues athletes may be facing, said U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee Senior Sport Psychologist Alex Cohen.
“That’s something we want to message very differently from Tokyo — I think a lot of the athletes were under the impression they had to be in crisis. But you could just be having a crummy day … and we’re going to be available,” says Bartley.
Athletes will be given access to free counseling, group therapy, and hotlines in case of crisis, Jessica Bartley, the USOPC director of mental health, told the virtual Team USA media summit.
Team USA is also providing free access to wellness apps like WellTrack and Headspace Plus, and have curated a list of counselors who have experience with elite athletes.
In Tokyo, Biles said she felt like she was carrying “the weight of the world on her shoulders,” which caused her to withdraw for the sake of her mental health. Many supported and even thanked Biles for her courage.
Biles certainly isn’t the only Olympic athlete to grapple with the pressure of competition. Michael Phelps candidly shared his experiences with depression and Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open after admitting that she struggled with depression and anxiety.
Lindsey Vonn, the most decorated female skier of all time, also revealed that she’s endured a decades-long battle with depression.
“I think I was misunderstood in a lot of ways,” she told Hoda and Jenna. “I think everyone thought that because I was successful on the mountain that I was always happy and I led a perfect life, and that’s absolutely not true.”
Athletes and experts say the mental strain for athletes can be overwhelming, especially at the Olympics.
“It is a unique pressure because of the idea that it’s once every four years and then if you think about the fact that it is very difficult to become a two-time Olympian. So when folks go to the Olympics it may be their only shot,” James Houle, a sports psychologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, told TODAY.
The COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to the strain, with training schedules disrupted and family and friends unable to accompany athletes and provide support.
Bronze medal-winning figure skater Gracie Gold withdrew from competition ahead of the 2018 Olympics, saying she would seek treatment for depression, anxiety and an eating disorder.
“Definitely athletes in the spotlight — figure skaters, especially — are under pressure to fit a certain mold, and fit a certain body type,” Gold told TODAY.
But after getting the mental health treatment and support she needed, Gold vowed that she would skate again one day — and skate, she did. On Jan. 7, she had her comeback performance in the women’s free skate program during the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Nashville.
Gold had a message for athletes competing at the Olympics in Beijing: “There is not an Olympic medal for who can suffer in silence the longest.”
Madeline Merinuk is a writer at TODAY.com.