The Olympics’ real role models

The recent Olympics showed we are entering a new era, one in which people can be honest about their triumphs and their struggles, with athletes proving themselves true role models, says Dr Dougal Sutherland.

The games of the XXXII Olympiad once again highlighted the athletic feats of humans going faster, stronger, and higher than ever before. However, this time they also highlighted our improving view of mental health.

United States gymnast Simone Biles made a highly publicised withdrawal from several of her events citing, among other reasons, mental health concerns. Her withdrawal prompted criticism from some circles, with some commentators in the USA describing her as an embarrassment and arguing she should have been relegated from the team.

Biles’ withdrawal brought into focus our underlying views towards mental health. If she were to have torn her meniscus and been unable to compete, it is unlikely she would have been subjected to any criticism, instead receiving only sympathy.

Those who criticised her should examine their assumptions about mental health. Frequently we find that such criticisms reflect the underlying belief that ultimately mental health difficulties are a matter of weakness or some form of failing. In turn, these beliefs fuel unconscious bias, stigma, and discrimination against those with mental health difficulties.

Biles should be recognised for her bravery in being open about her mental struggles and their impact on her.

Our high-performance athletes often experience levels of stress and pressure unknown to most ordinary people. The pressure to win and to constantly better oneself can be particularly pronounced for individuals competing in solo events, potentially leading to isolation of low mood.

This self-criticism may be exacerbated by a sense of shame or embarrassment about not being good enough, especially when they are openly criticised in the media.

However, listening to Kiwi competitors and coaches in the 2021 New Zealand Olympic contingent suggests there has been a positive change in this area.

Lisa Carrington, who spends most of her performing time alone in a boat, spoke about the sense of community and support she felt from other athletes in the New Zealand group and her supporters at home. This sense of community is an important buffer against stress and anxiety.

Mental skills coach John Quinn spoke on TVNZ about his focus with our athletes, placing the importance of personal values and enjoyment in their sport over winning at all costs.

These attributes were evident in golfer Lydia Ko’s performance during her playoff for the silver medal in Tokyo. Ko could be seen actively supporting and encouraging her competitor and was clearly enjoying her time on the green. These approaches are critical in developing mental wellbeing and resilience.

Other outstanding mental health Olympians were Dame Valarie Adams, Laurel Hubbard, and the women’s rugby sevens team. All have shown grit and determination in overcoming adversity to achieve at the highest level, but were still open about their struggles and vulnerabilities, demonstrating that these things are normal and can be conquered.

There may still be some who are sceptical of this approach and who believe the emphasis should be on winning, not emoting or having a good time. That view is of the past, harking back to an era when athletes never showed emotion on the field, an era when mental health difficulties were seldom talked about or treated.

The recent Olympics showed that, as a society, we are entering a new era, one in which people can be honest about their triumphs and their struggles, their ups and their downs, their wins and their losses.

Our Olympians are role models to our children and have, in 2021, role-modelled their humanity. And that is something to be celebrated.

Dr Dougal Sutherland is a clinical psychologist and the Clinical Practice Manager in the School of Psychology at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.