In this podcast (episode #305) and blog, I speak to Olympic gold medalist and gymnastics coach Jordyn Wieber and renowned performance psychologist Dr. Michael Gervais about mental health and performance anxiety in sports, especially considering events at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics and the French Open tennis championship.
The pressure of performing in sports (and other forms of public entertainment), combined with the pre- and post-performance demands, can cause a lot of anxiety, and, when these external and internal demands are not managed, the pressure can explode like a volcano, affecting an athlete’s mental and physical wellbeing.
It is important to note that, for elite athletes, the pressure to perform is not really focused on the question, “Can I do it?” They know they are the best in the world at what they do. Rather, the pressure is, “What happens if I don’t do it?”. This pressure is defined by the need to think and perform faster than they may be capable of thinking and perform in the moment, which can lead to a cascade in the mind and body that is based on feelings of internal constriction.
Performance pressure comes from the relationship between an athlete’s internal inventory (“Do I have what it takes?”), the external demands they face, and the consequences that may occur if things do not go well. When one of these elements get too big, then this pressure can have mental and physical repercussions. The brain gets thrown off, and the athlete can suffer as a result by losing their sense of space or time. Consequently, the brain loses its ability to predict and act based on the frames it has taken, and what they call the “twisties” in professional gymnastics can happen (which can also occur in other sports).
As Jordyn notes, this is why elite athletes need to have a mental health professional to speak with, such as a performance psychologist, who is separate from their team and family. It is so important that they have someone who can walk them through what they are experiencing and give them tools to handle the mental and physical demands the sport has on their performance.
Unfortunately, many professional athletes are taught to suppress how they feel in the moment to meet the demands of their sport, which can impact their health and wellbeing. Why? Elite athletes, as Dr. Michael Gervais points out,have a condensed professionalism. They hit their peak at a young age, which means they miss out on a lot of important mental and social events.
Indeed, many athletes do not perform professionally past the age of 25—an age when many scientists argue part of the brain is still developing. As a result, when they reach their peak, they don’t have a full command of important life experiences, and they are forced to find something to fill the vacuum left as the one thing they were great at is taken away.
Many professional athletes experience what Michael calls “identity foreclosure”. Their sport becomes their whole identity and they rule out a lot of other aspects of who they are or can be. They essentially “foreclose” on their identity as a great athlete. This is part of how they become great at something, because they go “all in” on their sport, but it can also have repercussions later in their life. There is even a saying in professional sports that “true high performance begins where health ends.”
However, there is hope! Over the past decade, there has been a shift in this kind of thinking; elite athletes and other sports professionals are beginning to realize that it doesn’t just have to be this way. They are beginning to realize that appropriate mental health support for all professionals is so important, and for elite athletes, this can help them discover better ways of managing their identity and the pressure to perform. Sports psychology is now taking center stage as part of the 3 pillars of growth of an elite athlete: craft, physical training and mental health. Proper mental care is becoming inextricably linked to the professional performance of a sport, as Jordyn points out in her own role as the head coach, where she trains professional gymnasts for the Arkansas Razorbacks. Progressive coaches like Jordyn are now asking themselves, “What percentage of the game is mental?” They are realizing that mental health is no longer an “add on” or extra; it is central to the game!
For more on mental health and performance in professional sports, listen to my podcast with Jordyn and Michael (episode #305), and check out Michael’s company, Finding Mastery. If you enjoy listening to my podcast, please consider leaving a 5-star review and subscribing. And keep sharing episodes with friends and family and on social media. (Don’t forget to tag me so I can see your posts!).
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4:00 Jordyn’s experiences as an Olympic athlete & the nature of performance anxiety
5:10 The different external & internal pressures on high-performance athletes
6:00 Why athletes need a strong mental health support system
7:45 How to cope with performance anxiety as an athlete
10:18, 23:00 The volcanic nature of thoughts & emotions, and how this can impact performance
14:00 The condensed nature of elite sports & its social and developmental repercussions
15:00 What is performance pressure & how does it lead to anxiety?
17:50 What are the “twisties” & how do they happen?
19:50 Why what Simone Biles said at the Olympics is so powerful & important
24:50 Why many athletes are taught to suppress their feelings in the moment
26:30 What is identity foreclosure in professional sports & how does it impact mental health?
28:00, 45:40, 52:50 How mental healthcare in professional sports is changing
48:30 How Jordyn manages her professional gymnastics team’s mental health
This podcast and blog is for educational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. We always encourage each person to make the decision that seems best for their situation with the guidance of a medical professional.
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