Athletes Are Admired, Idolized, and Often Distressed

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Katelyn Ohashi, gymnast for UCLA, is no stranger to going viral for her showstopping floor routines. Not only does she wow with her impressive flips and moves, but the pure joy on her face and love for her sport is contagious to anyone watching.

Yet, Ohashi didn’t always feel this way about gymnastics. Once an Olympian hopeful, she recently spoke out about how the intense physical, mental, and emotional stress of the sport caused her to leave the Olympic world to compete at the collegiate level.

And Ohashi isn’t alone in telling her story.

More and more competitive and professional athletes are speaking out about the demands of their sport, including swimmer Michael Phelps, tennis player Mardy Fish, baseball player Rick Ankiel, and more.

“We glorify someone who has amazing talents and abilities and we should acknowledge how great they are, but we should not underestimate the amount of work that they went through and struggles that they went through to get there,” Hillary Cauthen, PsyD, sports psychologist, explains.

Ryan Hall, half-marathon record holder for the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games and author of “Run The Mile You’re In,” says it’s hard to grasp what high-level athletes endure unless you’re observing them up close.

“My friends and family would be struck by being around me because I was always doing something related to running — so if we were watching a movie, I’d be on the foam roller or stretching or doing core,” Hall tells Healthline. “You are always thinking and preparing yourself for your next workout or how to recover from the last to get yourself in optimal shape.”

Physical demands take a toll

Most people understand to some extent the physical demands athletes endure. However, Hall says they might not know how all-consuming staying in performance shape is.

“When I trained, the rest of the day I was useless. I had to block out two hours in the afternoon from 1:00 to 3:00 that I called my ‘business meeting,’ and I would just sleep that entire time. And nothing would get in the way of those naps,” he says.

Being an endurance athlete was especially taxing on his hormones, he adds. His testosterone levels were always low no matter what natural means he tried to increase them.

“That leaves you [with] low energy, and motivation becomes an issue,” Hall says.

He also struggled with body image issues.

“You look at the guys who are the best in the world in our sport and they are tiny guys who are 5'4" and 115 pounds, and I’d look at myself and I’m 5'10"and raced at 137 pounds. I wanted to be skinnier and smaller,” says Hall.

Near the end of his career, he experimented with how light he could get, and as a result says his performance suffered.

“I got all my worst results when I was at my lightest. It made me realize that what weight I’d perform my best at wasn’t going to be the same as it is for someone else. I had to realize that my body performs better a little heavier and I have a different frame than other guys,” he says.

Cauthen says body image is a microcosm of society.

“We see it starting at a young age when we start to do social comparison. We start to look at the people around us to see how they look, how they act, how people respond to them. This is highlighted in the athletic culture — that you’re supposed to look a certain way and perform a certain way,” she explains.

“If you notice someone else being successful, you’ll start analyzing the things they’re doing and you’ll start to adapt that to your behavioral patterns, whether that’s changing your diet or working out a little bit more or over-training, because you think that’s going to give you the answer to being successful.”

The downside to this is that athletes may initially experience success, Cauthen says, but eventually their body may break down and their psyche and emotional well-being can suffer as a result.

“Social comparison is really hard especially when you’re in a toxic culture and you see coaches who validate athletes who are suffering mentally, physically, [and] emotionally. They are being rewarded for unhealthy behaviors we don’t want to happen,” she says.

Psychological pressures are real

Cauthen says many athletes feel psychological symptoms on a daily basis, and as more and more athletes continue to speak out about their mental health, the more we’ll gain a better understanding of how prevalent mental illness is in athletes.

“The NCAA does a lot of research trying to figure out what college athletes are experiencing. [A] majority of our college athletes are reporting feeling stressed on a daily basis and some report that they struggle with anxiety, depression, and adjusting to the new challenges they face due to the high-pressure situation of the sport and balancing their lives in college.”

Hall understands, and says being a professional runner was all-consuming, often leaving him unable to do anything else. 

“Running was always a bit of an emotional roller coaster ride for me. I’d have a workout and mentally I’d be sky high, then the next day I’d feel down and want to sleep all day.”

“The excitement and the confidence and the endorphins weren’t there the next day,” he says. “It was an up and down roller coaster.”

Dealing with defeat and failure is another mental component of competing

In fact, failure is a big theme throughout Hall’s book.

“The problem is I took my failure very personally during a lot of my career and if I’d fail, I’d feel like a failure, whereas when guys from Kenya and Ethiopia who dominate our sport fail, they don’t take it personally. They are able to walk around with their head held high and acknowledge they failed then move onto the next race. I had to learn how to handle failures.”

Cauthen teaches many athletes techniques for dealing with failure.

“Failing is really hard. No one wakes up and says, ‘I can’t wait to lose.’ But you have to understand the emotional impact it will have on you and learn how to reflect and process those emotions and be able to look back and say, ‘Okay, it didn’t go the way I wanted it to go. What can I learn from it and how can I adjust the next time to do better?’”

She also helps athletes understand that their sport does not define them.

“I talk with them about the fact that sport is something you do — not who you are. This can be hard because their identity can be really wrapped up in their sport because they get accolades and successes and validations and people notice them for doing a great job with the activity so that becomes more of their identity,” Cauthen says.

Hall relates all too well. During his sophomore year at Stanford University, he says he began to question his entire self-worth, which was based on how he was performing.

“I was failing in every area of life, running and academically, and I remember waking up and not liking who I was. I just saw someone who was a failure,” he recalls.

Hall dropped out of school, but when he went home, he says he felt worse emotionally and physically. After some soul searching, he decided to go back to Stanford.

“I loved my team and wanted to go back, [but I had to shift] how I defined myself.”

“I had to try not to be defined by performances.” Hall says. “We need to first firmly establish who we are before we judge ourselves based on our work or school or sports. Identity is something I’m constantly working on.”

Ways to change the sports culture

Both Hall and Cauthen agree that the pressures young athletes face can be detrimental.

Cauthen see this professionally, and experienced it personally, too. At 9 years old, she competed in the Junior Olympics by running the 1,500-meter race. She also ran track at the Division 1 level for the University of New Hampshire.

“I remember at 8 years old, my family went on a week-long summer vacation and I missed practices. When I got back, we were all sitting on the bleachers and coach says, ‘Hillary you missed practice last week so I’m going to take you off the relay [for competition].’ I remember saying, ‘That’s not fair.’ And he said, I could have a dual to see if I could beat out the girl who was going to replace me,” Cauthen recalls.

She remembers racing her teammate in front of her entire team, which included kids ages 5 to 18.

“I had to literally fight for my spot just because I went on a family vacation. And I remember thinking now my family has to sacrifice our summer vacations because track was that important to me at 8 years old,” she says.

One way to change the nature of sports, she adds, is for parents to choose coaches who meet their philosophy.

“Parents can look at the education behind who is coaching and know their philosophy. Does that philosophy spread the same message that you are spreading in your family about healthy life skills and movement? And will that coach provide the most positive learning experience that will be fun and help your child learn skills beyond the competition level?” she says.

She also encourages playing multiple sports until kids are in high school.

“Being multi-sport will help you physically develop at different levels and protect you physically as well, engaging you socially with new teammates and coaches and learning environments,” she explains.

“When kids are required to play one sport all year-round, we see burnout and dropout rates [rise] because it’s not fun and the added pressure of being great at that one sport can be overwhelming.”

Hall suggests allowing kids to determine their passion.

Growing up he wanted to be a professional baseball player like his dad Mickey Hall, who was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles. However, as he got into high school, he realized baseball wasn’t his strength and decided to focus on running.

“My dad told me it was up to me,” Hall says. “Parents need to step back and let kids decide rather than pushing their kids to be highly specialized in one area. The passion should be driven by the child.”

Both Hall and Cauthen say they wouldn’t eliminate the competitive aspect of youth sports.

“I love youth sports and all it can provide with the right culture and context. It’s important to talk about competition with our kids because it does naturally exist,” Cauthen says. “We are constantly trying to survive and adhere and meet the demands to be successful, so competition is a natural part of our society that we can’t shy away from. But we need to learn what it takes to be a good competitor and to be confident and humble when successful, as well as [how to] learn from our failures.”

Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer who specializes in stories around health, mental health, and human behavior. She has a knack for writing with emotion and connecting with readers in an insightful and engaging way. Read more of her work here.

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