Mental health in sports


I got inspired to write this blog after I heard that the American gymnast and Olympic champion Simone Biles withdrew from the women's gymnastics team competition due to her mental health issues.

Who follows this gymnast knows that she was one of the many sexually abused elite gymnasts representing the United States of America. The gymnasts were molested by former USA gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar. Simone said through tears in her testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee that she blamed Nassar as well as the whole system - U.S. gymnastic and Olympic officials together with the FBI as they completely failed to stop the sexual abuse. Nassar was given a life sentence.

A few days after her withdrawal, Simone explained that the sexual trauma she experienced is what's been causing her mental health issues. Unfortunately Simone's upbringing wasn't privileged either. Simone grew up with a mother who had alcohol and drug addiction. Simone ended up in foster care together with her siblings when she was only 2 years old. A few years later Simone and her younger sister were adopted by their grandparetns.

Physical activity often helps us manage our mental health issues but unfortunately it doesn't deal with the root cause. It's just a coping strategy that temporarily helps us suppress negative emotions while being active.

Thanks to my fitness background I got to know many athletes who put themselves through hours of hard training without any focus on mental health. I wasn't much different when I started in this industry. When I first qualified, I immediately started to teach around 20 classes a week. I was often tired, injured or ill, not realizing why that was.

This is why I appreciate athletes like Simone who publicly speak out about the importance of our mental health for our overall wellbeing. The truth is that if we don't pay any attention to our mental health, our physical body suffers. Simone herself made this statement: "My mind and body are simply not in sync. People don't realize how dangerous this is on hard/competition surface, nor do I have to explain, why I put my health first. Physical health is mental health."

Although it is common for elite athletes to be working with psychologists, how often do we get to hear about their ups and downs? It is still a sensitive and often a taboo subject that brings up a lot of shame in many of us.

What we often talk about is stress. Most of us have felt certain levels of stress at some point in our lives. We gradually get used to it, we manage to resist it for a certain period of time but eventually we do start feeling physical symptoms of anxiety, chronic fear or depression, such as stomach pain, nausea, insomnia, increased heart rate, shortness of breath and many others.

I often get asked how to achieve the balance between our mind, body and spirit. My answer is quite simple although the process can be challenging if we haven't been paying attention to how we feel. The only way to achieve this balance is to be attuned to our emotional and physical body. Allowing our emotions and listening to the signals of our body is the key to our mental and physical health. If we feel any physical pain, this is our body's way of communication that we need to learn and understand. If we suffered a trauma that triggered our freeze instinct which can make us feel stuck, powerless or paralyzed, it's important to pay some attention to this and release it from our body with the help of a good therapist.

Many people struggle with anxiety and chronic fear. It is necessary to explore where these emotions came from. What are they trying to teach us? Also pay attention to how you react when you feel these emotions. Do you go out for a run? Do you get something to eat? All these can be strategies that we developed to escape whatever we don't want to feel.

The last thing I'd like to mention is that learning to pay attention to our emotions is a process and we shouldn't expect that we will become masters at this over night.

I recommend doing a simple exercise 4x a day. You can set an alarm clock so that you don't forget. Close your eyes and pay attention to how you feel for 5 minutes each time. What physical sensations do you feel in your body? What is your body trying to communicate to you? If you feel anxious or fearful, don't try to change these emotions, simply allow and observe them.

The more you practice, the easier it will get. The aim is to be attuned to how you feel 24/7