Joe Puentes, Psy.D.
A Wave of Change, Mental Health in Elite Sport
Updated: Jan 3, 2022
I had a chance to talk to The San Jose Mercury News this summer about a topic very important to me, promoting mental health and well-being in athletics. This was in the wake of Simone Biles withdrawing from the Olympics, arguably one of the most decorated athletes of all time stepping away for her well being. As someone on the sidelines, respect and compassion for Simone and the many athletes sharing their stories about mental health. Below I've summarized my thoughts on this.
It's important to listen and believe athletes when they talk about their experiences. As a Clinical and Sport Psychologist, I get to hear the inside story, and undoubtedly there is a human story behind every athlete, even if we don't see it on the outside or in the media. Listening and believing is a start to understanding and awareness.
As an observer, I see an athlete with awareness and a wise response in a very difficult situation. To train so hard for so long, it must not have been an easy decision. From my perspective from across the world, it looks like there was a lot of awareness in a short amount of time to be able to make a wise decision about well being, for personal, team and sport well being.
I'm feeling for how painful it must be to go through. Again, blood, sweat, tears, the hopes of so many are often on the backs of elite athletes. To make a decision to withdraw must have been accompanied by a lot of physical and mental pain.
I immediately noticed how many other Olympians and gold medalists are supporting Simone's choice, they get it, they've felt it on some level, they understand the wise response. They understand that winning at all costs is not always the answer, there is life beyond and alongside sport.
Many athletes carry shame and hide mental health concerns or emotional pain, this brings it to light, bright light. I've seen in my practice and in my conversations with athletes, coaches, sports medicine professionals and administrators, there is a wave of awareness and respect for overall well being happening in sports. This is creating a space for many elite athletes to widen their focus to care about their mental health and life outside of sport. This kind of care ultimately is more resilient and sustainable for elite athletes versus injuring themselves physically or psychologically being stuck in the "tough it out gear."
Let's respond with respect and care deeply about this part of the journey and human experience. Getting the chance to hear the human side of elite athletes' stories, respect and care is the right response. We will not escape this life without loss, struggle, pain and the more we can have compassion for one another in these parts of their journey, the more we will have it for ourselves and receive it when we are there.
The Performance Psychology Center provides therapy, training, and education to athletes, coaches, and professionals. Our team is made up of licensed mental health professionals with backgrounds in athletics and expertise in Sport and Performance Psychology. We are based in the San Francisco Bay Area and provide Sport Psychology services throughout California. Our mission is to promote well being and teach core mental skills so that our clients can be at their best when it matters most. Contact us today to start the journey.