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Bryan Win, co-founder of sports psychology practice Mind Gap gets real about the pressure on athletes today and why mental health awareness is such a gamechanger

While the pandemic has had a part to play in making the Tokyo Olympics 2020 the most challenging one yet, it's also hard to ignore international news headlines where top athletes like Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles and others have voiced out their struggles with mental health.

As many grapple with mental health issues during these indefinite periods of isolation and social distancing, athletes too cannot afford to ignore the signs of burnout and mental fatigue, given the added physical strain of training, the pressure of competition and more. How does mental health factor in with the grit and endurance so often needed to excel in sports?

Psychologist Bryan Win, co-founder of Mind Gap sports psychology consultancy, shares his thoughts on the hidden pressures of being an athlete and the importance of shifting unrealistic mindsets about sports celebrities today.

Related: Why Naomi Osaka Withdrew From French Open        

What typically leads to burnout, depression and anxiety in athletes?

Win: Athletes that I've seen are so focused on their sport that their identity is tied too closely to what they do instead of who they are. The results they achieve then affect how they view themselves. If they win, they think they are worthy as a person and good at what they do. But when they lose, they take it out on themselves with thoughts like "I'm useless" or "If I'm not good at this, what else am I good for?".

Tying your identity and self-worth to what you do instead of who you are is dangerous, as your self-worth and identity then become dependent on things that you may not be able to control, like the results of a match or tournament.

Related: Meet Former National Hockey Player and Tech CEO Kimberly Wan 

 

Would you say there's been a greater awareness about athletes' mental health on a global level recently?

I think that the Covid-19 pandemic really sparked a change in the tone of conversation regarding mental health. Whether it is the struggles of working from home, the uncertainties of life, coping with this new normal or even just the lack of meaningful human interaction, we have all suffered in this pandemic. Because of that, more people are realising that mental health isn't just a fad or a buzzword.

We hear phrases like 'We are in the same boat,' regarding the struggles we face during this pandemic. While I believe that this pandemic has brought people together in more ways than one, I'd respond by quoting British writer Damian Barr, who said: 'We are not all in the same boat. We are all in the same storm. Some of us are on super-yachts. Some have just the one oar.'

Everyone's ability to cope with struggles is different and that is in no way a measure of how well put together the person is. Everyone goes through struggles, and just because someone can handle it, doesn't mean another person can. A little understanding and kindness goes a long way. It helps that a big number of athletes, teams and organisations have come out on either their own mental health struggles or how they will be supporting their athletes and staff. This includes employing sport psychologists to teams, and more visibility on the work that mental health plays in sport. 

Related: Singapore's National Swimmer Joseph Schooling On Life After The Tokyo Olympics

What effects do training and competitions have on athletes' mental health during lockdown?

Athletes use their body as their tool to work. The injuries that might occur or even the pain that they endure during training shows the harsher effects on their physical bodies. Some people are able to cope with the stressors, but some are not. Everyone handles adversity differently, be it the stressors from camp-based training as the new norm where they are away from their families, in a room alone or with a teammate, or only being allowed to head to training and back into their hotels or dorms, or even having to still perform in competitions despite the pandemic because if they don't perform, it might affect their livelihood.

See also: All The Olympic Medals Malaysia Has Ever Won

In this pandemic, working from home has led many of us to work longer hours and even weekends. Many people use hobbies or even something as simple as heading out for a meal to turn off from work and concentrate on other parts of their life, but when these things were taken away from us other than work during the pandemic, prolonged work and no way to turn off can and will lead to burnout and mental health issues. The same applies to athletes. As much as it is important to put in extra hours if you want to be the best, it's also important to learn that rest and recovery are equally important to your pursuit to success.

What's your take on celeb athletes like Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles withdrawing from tournaments for the sake of their mental health?

We have to remember that we only see snapshots of these athletes' lives, we don't know the full story of how they got there and what led to their decisions. I am happy that they did what was important for themselves because ultimately you know yourself the best and you have to take care of yourself.

As much as I am happy that they did what was right for them, they would not have gotten the same attention and criticism if they had pulled out for a physical injury reason, like a pulled hamstring. When someone pulls out from a tournament for having the 'twisties' like Simone Biles, you hear shouts like "It's your job, just get on with it", or "I have a bad day but I still have to go to work, what do you have to worry about? You're earning big money" and so on. Have you ever heard someone tell an athlete to just get over a broken foot? The nature of mental health is that it is invisible and intangible compared to physical health, and that is what makes it so hard for people to understand. 

More: Malaysia's Athletes Open Up About Competing During A Pandemic

What are some techniques that athletes can effectively manage the stress that comes with their livelihood?

I would say that athletes likely do know what works for them in terms of managing their own stress. However, since the pandemic happened, some athletes may have lost their coping mechanisms, which could be heading out for a meal, spending time with their loved ones or doing other hobbies. Stress is not bad; we need stress or else we would just be comfortable with what we have and never push ourselves.

It becomes bad when the stress gets too much for the athlete to cope with. The first thing athletes must do is to accept and be aware that they are struggling with stress. If even if you have the best interventions, it won't make much of a difference if you have not accepted or do not even realise that you cannot cope well.

Some ways that we teach athletes to manage stress is to practise being present in the moment, acknowledging their stress and using relaxation techniques, be it breathing exercises, muscle relaxation, visualisation, or even a combination of all the above. There really isn't a sure-fire gold standard solution for everyone, but these are the ones that have helped the most athletes so far in my experience. I also use them to manage my stress!

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