Winning the Long Game: Mental Health in Sports
By David Williams (he/him)
Professional athletes push themselves to the limit in their quest for greatness. But when does that push for gold become too much? David Williams investigates the pressures under which athletes are placed, and what happens to their mental health after they retire.
We all want our favourite athletes to win. Whether on a national or an international level, fans want victory. To achieve that, sporting bodies spend millions of dollars and put in thousands of hours pushing athletes to reach greater goals and surpass records. There’s a win at all costs mentality ingrained in athletes as they set out on their journey. But how do they feel about this?
During this year’s Tokyo Olympic games, American gymnast Simone Biles stated that she was taking a break from the competition to focus on her mental health. Two months before that, Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka expressed similar sentiments when she chose not to speak to tennis media because of the anxiety this causes her. She later pulled out of Wimbledon and the French Open to focus on her own mental health. Both women were praised (and criticised) for opening the conversation about the mental health struggles that professional athletes face.
However, sadly, sometimes the pressure of high-performance sport on athletes can end in tragedy. Olivia Podmore, a 24-year-old New Zealand Olympic and Commonwealth games track cyclist, died on the 9th of August this year. Although not confirmed, it was a suspected suicide. In the hours before her death, Podmore posted on Instagram talking about the pressures high performance sports takes on an individual. Former New Zealand Olympic cyclist Eddie Dawkins called her death heart wrenching but completely avoidable.
Now questions are being asked as to whether this is all worth it. Are Olympic medals and world records worth risking the mental wellbeing of the athletes who pursue them?
I spoke to New Zealand track cyclist Rushlee Buchanan and retired Football Fern Katie Duncan about their experiences at high level sport.
Buchanan tells me that the nature of high-performance sport means that you are constantly under scrutiny. Sporting bodies and clubs set performance standards for their athletes. Unfortunately, that is the nature of the task at hand. “If you want to perform and win on the international stage you have to accept that you will be held to particular standards.”
These external standards control not only your place on the team, but your entire life. Dawkins mentions “If you have a bad performance, you lose your funding, you lose the ability to pay your rent, or your mortgage or buy quality foods to sustain yourself, so you’re just getting shot in the foot.”
But, as Buchanan adds, athletes also set their own personal standards. Even on days off, they create their own goals, records, and expectations to meet. This pressure to measure up to one’s own personal standards places enormous strains on an athlete’s mental health because the only person they must answer to is themselves. “What is often the hardest part is to not be consumed by that constant measuring system, and to be able to be self-compassionate when you don't meet set targets.”
While the stresses of performing impacts current athletes, depression and anxiety can also affect those who have left professional sport. The Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand says that sports men and women are at risk of depression after retirement. According to their CEO Shaun Robinson, “One reason why many athletes experience depression after leaving a top-level sport might be because of the immense lifestyle change that retirement brings to their lives.”
This statement is true for Duncan. Football provided a structure to her life and, after that structure disappeared, it made her realise that she had been using the game to ignore her past traumas. “This, combined with working in my first full time proper job, led me to a rather low point in my life. It eventually was a factor for me to seek professional help, in which those who may have gone through that process actually lead to some pretty confronting realisations about yourself.”
The tragic death of Olivia Podmore is seen as a final straw. Many former athletes, friends, and family members have led calls for greater discussions on what it is really like to be a high-performance athlete. They are calling for the win at all costs mentality to be readjusted and for sporting bodies to strike a greater balance between striving to win and the welfare of athletes. Or as Buchanan summarises it: normalising failure. “At an event such as the Olympics, most athletes do not 'win', but it does not mean their journey is any less deserving."
They are calling for the win at all costs mentality to be readjusted and for sporting bodies to strike a greater balance between striving to win and the welfare of athletes. Or as Buchanan summarises it: normalising failure.
Already, sporting bodies are beginning to sit up and take notice of the need to safeguard the wellbeing of their athletes. In 2017, New Zealand Rugby created Headfirst, a campaign designed to help players deal with stress, depression, and anxiety. As part of their 2024 strategic plan, High Performance Sports New Zealand has placed a greater emphasis on athlete wellbeing. They are creating eight new wellbeing manager roles, mental health initiatives, and introducing objective measures to monitor wellbeing in National Sports Organisations environments. They have also promised $3.85 million to improve wellbeing structures in women’s sports.
Buchanan recognises that sport has gone through its own development and growth, and the importance of integrating mental health into sport at all levels is now acknowledged. Both her and Duncan regularly used a sports psychologist.
Buchanan tells me “I personally have found it very helpful as they gave me tools to use in many situations. We don’t know what we don’t know, so I chose to work with a psychologist to enhance my knowledge base.” Duncan mentions “Being at the top of my sport meant I was very fortunate to have access to professionals such as a sports psychologist and a life advisor – who I meet with regularly to plan my year and schedule.”
But athletes are now less afraid to take a greater stand for their own wellbeing. Buchanan says one of the most important things that she learned was that it was up to her how she perceived the challenges that she faced. “Winning or not, you are always learning, and to look at everything as a learning opportunity, and an opportunity for growth, has allowed me to progress through sport. In sport there are more challenges and setbacks than success, but it is all down to how you perceive things that happen to you.”
Duncan echoes the same sentiment. “You need to find out how you operate at your best to manage your mental wellbeing. It’s not a case of I’ve read this book or had that psychologist session, so I am all good now. It’s forever on going. So, you may as well figure out what works best for you!”
But most importantly, if someone needs support, don’t be afraid to ask for it. Buchanan says “A common misconception is that asking for support is weakness, but in reality reaching out is extremely brave and strong. I can speak on this from personal experience.” Duncan adds “Don’t wait until you are retired to ask yourself the hard questions.”
High performance sport is an immense commitment where athletes dedicate everything to be the best in the world in their chosen field. But, often, the culture of these sports comes at a great mental strain to the athletes performing. We as spectators want our favourite athletes to win, but that win should not come at the expense of the athlete themselves. When they say they are mentally struggling, we must listen and treat them with the same compassion that the rest of us would like to be treated, regardless of how well they performed. Starting the conversation can be one of the hardest steps to addressing a problem, but with the discourse gradually opening up there is hope that future athletes will be able to balance their wellbeing and drive for success.