It’s time to manage elite expectations

The Winter Olympics start soon. We get another chance to watch and marvel at astounding feats of endurance, strength and precision (assuming the Beijing Games proceed amid the pandemic).

Just six months ago, a stunned world witnessed U.S. gymnast Simone Biles announce she was pulling out of several events in the Summer Games because her mind and body weren’t in sync. She had serious worries that she could get hurt while performing her high-risk maneuvers.

“When Simone Biles made her announcement, I really felt for her,” says associate news editor Ashley Yeager. “There’s a lot of anxiety and judgment in sports. And a lot of your identity is wrapped up there.” Yeager, who was a Division I swimmer at the University of Tennessee, remembers the pressures.

Eager to know what researchers had learned about elite athletes and mental health since she competed in the pool 15 years ago, Yeager dove into the research. She found recent studies suggesting the value of teaching mindfulness and training people to pay attention to the now rather than brood over past mistakes. It was heartening, she says. “These issues haven’t just emerged, but now it seems like there are efforts to help more people.” Among athletes, who Yeager admits are a proud bunch, there’s not a lot of sharing about struggles. But she hopes the data on how common anxiety and depression are among athletes will encourage individuals to get help.

“We’re not just athletes or entertainment, we’re human too,” Biles said on August 4 while still at the Tokyo Games. “We have emotions and feelings and things that we’re working through behind the scenes.” That message seems to be hitting home among athletes and spectators.

Yeager plans to watch the Olympics. “The athletes trained most of their lives to reach this point,” she says. She’ll be rooting for them to shine physically and mentally.

Cori Vanchieri was the features editor from 2014 to 2022.