MENTAL HEALTH CHALLENGES PARALYMPIANS FACE + WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM THEM
DESTIGMATIZE MENTAL HEALTH IN OLYMPIC SPORT
Being an Olympian is advertised as this amazing thing, and they leave out all of the side effects, including eating disorders, depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation, figure skater Gracie Gold said in "The Weight of Gold," a documentary narrated and co-produced by famed swimmer Michael Phelps, who's been championing mental health for years.
While the benefits of sport participation such as the development of motor skills and improved physical and psychosocial health are widely reported, the stresses and challenges associated with the high-performance sport may buffer these positive effects. Due to high expectations, high-intensity training environments, increased media exposure, and more severe consequences for below-average performances, elite athletes are exposed to exhaustion and burnout, prone to physical injuries, and at extreme cases, psychological and physical disorders.
These challenges are especially difficult for athletes emerging onto the national and international competition, from both athletic and social development perspectives.
THE PARALYMPIC CONTEXT
While there is some literature on these changes and their implications for athletes and coaches participating in able-bodied sport, there has been very little exploration of these issues in Paralympic contexts.
Similarly, there is also limited knowledge of the challenges Paralympic athletes face in preparation for these types of Major Games.
In studying motivational profiles of Paralympic and Olympic athletes, researchers have concluded both groups have similar motivation profiles. However, due to their impairment or injury-related trauma, Paralympic athletes use different coping strategies (i.e., more mastery-oriented climate) while reflecting different mood profiles and satisfactory responses suggesting Paralympic athletes cope with stressors in their environment differently.
Coaches have explored the associated stress of Paralympic athletes before, during, and post-competition, along with various factors like
the adequacy of their preparation for the games (e.g., whether training would result in match performance, not feeling fully fit)
how they will manage psychosocial pressures (preventing or treating nagging injuries, personal, and team performance potentials, consequences of results)
Team culture (i.e., teammate personalities, conflicting goals, teammate behavior and interactions, roles and responsibilities, team disparity)
(*not to be included under the paralympic context slide)
An October 2020 study found that professional athletes were much more likely to experience anxiety or depression during COVID-19 than pre-pandemic. Between mid-March and August 2020, 22.5% of athletes felt down or depressed at least half the week, compared to 3.9% before restrictions started that year. Anxiety and nervousness followed a similar pattern, with 27.9% of participants reporting feeling these emotions, compared to 4.7% pre-pandemic.
TAKEAWAYS FROM PARALYMPIC ATHLETES
Mental toughness is perhaps the most overused and misunderstood term in sports. Contrary to what most believe, it is characterized by being able to cope effectively with setbacks and being focused on your goals. It is not surprising that these skills are shared by many Paralympians, as the ability to maintain motivation and confidence over a large period of time is vital for success in an event that occurs once every four years. We can’t stress enough that not just athletes but nonathletes too need to understand what mental toughness actually is; otherwise, it has the potential to be damaging.
THE NEED TO CONTROL
Our brains can struggle with uncertainty – not knowing what will happen often leads to nervousness or stress. This is why many athletes talk about being “process-focused”; they concentrate on what they can control, which usually means their strategies, routines, and performance in the present rather than the future.
Students can take a similar approach by focusing their efforts on “controlling the controllables”. This can be done by developing a pre-exam routine or creating strategies that reduce confusion and doubt. By focusing on what they need to do and not on the potential consequences, they can build confidence while reducing the fear of failure.
Paralympians and Olympians have been found to be more optimistic than most average people. In psychology, optimism is measured by how someone perceives their successes or failures. They can be temporary or permanent (“Today was a bad day” v “Things will always be bad”), and specific or general (“I am not good at this” v “I am not good at anything”).
Being optimistic has been associated with lower levels of dropout and higher levels of motivation, both of which are vitally important for any team and have been associated with reducing the likelihood of dropping out and coping more effectively with academic transitions. Conversely, a pessimistic outlook is seen as a strong predictor of high levels of hostility and fear in high school students
Are Paralympic champions less anxious by nature, or are they better at handling their nerves? Probably a bit of both. Stress and anxiety can hinder concentration, so it takes a lot of self-composure to deliver your best performance when it matters the most.
There are lots of strategies for managing emotions, many of which can be adopted by students facing stressful challenges at school. Improving self-talk – making pupils’ inner monologues more positive – can be used to boost productivity, and changing their mindsets to see big events as opportunities rather than threats can also help.
Writer - Simone Sharma
Editor - Vaishnavi Bhojane
Graphic Designer - Akshaya Shankarganesh