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Olympians share what mental health means to them

From Olympic champions Mikaela Shiffrin and Kendall Coyne to first-time Olympians Kagiyama Yuma and Dmitrii Kozlovskii, we asked elite winter athletes to describe their relationship with mental health.

8 min By ZK Goh
Mental health composite thumb
(Picture by USA TODAY Sports / Olympic Channel / Getty Images (composite))

The discussion surrounding mental health in sports has never been louder.

A simmering topic for many years, it burst into public consciousness in 2021 thanks to Naomi Osaka in tennis and gymnast Simone Biles, who each spoke openly about their struggles.

The subject has understandably taken on a new life during the pandemic, and athletes – who have long been used to performing at the highest levels while often keeping their mental health difficulties under wraps – are glad that the talk is finally out in the open.

Ahead of the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022, we asked the world's best winter athletes, who will be in the Chinese capital, what the topic of mental health means to them.

Athletes: "We are not machines"

Alpine skiers Mikaela Shiffrin of the U.S. and Petra Vlhova of Slovakia, competitors on the ski pistes, both mentioned the pressure put on Biles ahead of last year's delayed Olympic Games of Tokyo 2020 in 2021.

Biles, who suffered from the 'twisties' – a mental block preventing her from executing her moves in mid-air – withdrew from four of her five finals.

Shiffrin said: "I don't know if there's any athlete in the world in history who was ever expected to win with such certainty as she was. In everyone else's opinion, that's an easy position to be in.

"But for her, I mean, I know this position. It's never easy to win. It's never easy to do what she's doing. That's harder than anything that anybody could imagine. And being in the position where you are expected to do it makes it even more difficult.

"People are very quick to make judgments and have opinions about something that that they couldn't understand, even if you've been in that position or something similar."

Vlhova added: "Everybody was thinking that she's the best and she has to win all the time. And it's not like this because she's not a machine. She's still human. She's a woman. So sometimes it's normal that she falls, you know.

"We are the same, like normal people. Maybe we have some talent inside because we are good, we know how to win, but we are still human. We are not machines."

Canadian ice dancer Paul Poirier agreed that the idea that Olympians and top athletes need to always be the best can be detrimental.

"As an athlete, that's something that we really take upon ourselves and that we carry around our shoulders," he said.

"I think there really is a culture in sport of needing to be self-sufficient all the time of thinking that you can only you can always do more and that you can always keep pushing yourself.

"I think it is a challenge at times, especially in the world of sport, to take a step back and to say I'm struggling or I'm hurt or I need help, and we're really programmed to push those things aside.

"We are trying to achieve incredible things, but we are also human. And because our work is our bodies, sometimes it's hard to separate those two things."

Mental health as part of physical health

Just as athletes need to be in top physical shape to perform as best they can in their events, an increasing number of them are starting to include mental health in this conversation.

Olympic gold medallist ice hockey player Kendall Coyne Schofield, captain of the United States women's team, says she would like more people to appreciate this point of view.

"I think an athlete's physical health is often talked about more because you can see it," she said. "You can see someone lifting weights in the weight room or you can see them shooting pucks and see how hard their shot is. And so I think oftentimes the physical strength of somebody of an athlete is discussed more.

"But the mental strength of an athlete is equally as important. It needs to be strong, as strong as you are physically if you want to compete at the highest level.

"The mental aspect of the game is definitely taken seriously here by our program, by our players. And we know that it's equally as important as our physical strength is our mental strength."

That's also a view shared by Dmitrii Kozlovskii, a pairs figure skater who will represent Team ROC in Beijing.

"It's probably one of the key components of sports," he said.

"There are a lot of examples where we saw with our own eyes, insanely talented athletes, just really outstanding athletes, couldn't overcome this mental and psychological … block.

"In addition to training physically and being responsible about that, an athlete should also take a responsible approach to his mental rehabilitation and recovery. Our mental capacities tend to get worn out."

Spain's Ander Mirambell, who will take part in his fourth Olympic Games when he takes to the skeleton track in China, agreed.

"I think that society is not yet ready to understand that the mind is as important as the body," he said when asked if mental health remained a taboo subject in sport.

"As an athlete you train your body; jumps, runs, aerobic work. But mentally you have to train it the same, that is, go to a psychologist or go to an emotional therapist. I think it is essential in high performance, because your head goes at an abnormal speed.

"Athletes are not super heroes, we also have many problems and many times we turn to professionals, not only to improve performance, but so that our heads are clear and [we are] prepared to do our sport."

Mental health: a challenge for everyone, including athletes

Dealing with mental health challenges does not come easy to anyone – and the athletes want you to know they go through the same thing.

"You can't actively avoid something when it has to do with the mental side of things, the emotions," Shiffrin points out.

"But you can direct where you're focusing your mind or what you put your attention on; the things that you decide are important to you."

Poirier's ice dance partner Piper Gilles added: "Mental health to me is an ongoing challenge.

"We can be so focussed on all the bad things and all the things that we need to improve on and not really reflect on all the things that we are capable of and it's a forever challenge.

"I think just learning when you're at your highs and when you're at your lows and how to get yourself back up to kind of a middle ground is the most important."

Taking a break and thinking positively to help mental health recover

Japan's Kagiyama Yuma, the men's figure skating champion from the Lausanne 2020 Winter Youth Olympic Games, says he has learned to manage his competition nerves and low moods in order to help his mental health recover.

His advice is to know one's limits.

"Taking a break is important when you’re not in good condition," Kagiyama offered. "I took a break once and surprisingly I could see in my head what was wrong and what needed fixing.

"If you are always at 100 per cent you might overreach. At some point, you need to rest and restore your energy."

Fellow Japanese winter athlete Takanashi Sara, her country's top female ski jumper, said she attempts to always think positively, even when she is struggling.

Mental health is a "focal point of being an athlete," she explained.

"Everyone can feel upset and impatient. Even if I feel that way, I have trained as much as possible to be confident in myself. I have always done the best I could and thought positively… and I discovered some good things along the way."

Mental health key to a happy life

Gilles and other athletes said that for them, finding the right approach to mental health was important in them feeling content with their life – whether related to sport or not.

"You have to be more aware of yourself, you're never going to be perfect. No one ever is going to be perfect," Gilles offered.

"The challenge is trying to figure out what's perfect enough to be functional and happy and feel like you're enjoying life."

The Canadian isn't the only one to feel that way.

"Mental health shapes you into the human that you are," American speed skater Brittany Bowe said.

The PyeongChang 2018 bronze medallist said she tries not to dwell too much on her performances, good or bad, and would rather focus on her mental health.

"If you do not have that mental stability and good mental health, it doesn't matter what you do out here on the track.

"Winning out here is very short lived, but to live a happy, healthy lifestyle is what it's all about."

Swiss curling skip Peter de Cruz, who won men's team bronze in 2018, said for him, being mentally healthy came from a place of self-love.

"Mental health for me, happiness comes first through love and learning to love yourself, and to feel good about yourself in your own skin and body," he reflected.

"It's really about getting to know yourself and whatever you have, whatever you think of, whatever you do, be happy with it, actually."

And, it turns out, even elite athletes turn to the same things as us to stay happy.

"Mental health is peace and stability for me," ROC pairs figure skater Aleksandra Boikova said. "What helps me restore it?

"Probably cats on the Internet. Every day I watch cats on the Internet."

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