Mentality over medals

How is the next generation of athletes taking the edge off mental health?

Olivia Torrez, In-Depth Editor

Olympic medalist Simone Biles backed out of the team and individual finals in gymnastics at Tokyo’s Olympics to focus on her mental health. Four-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka decided against competing in the French Open, citing bouts of depression inhibiting her. 

In this generation, athletes are taking their mental health more seriously– prioritizing their health over their medals. Which raises the question: What is the next generation of athletes doing to follow the curve?

MN  athletes are under stress- both physical and mental- to perform at peak in every casing, competition, game, and race, but outside opinions don’t often consider the mental game as part of the game at all.

“That mental component is half the race. That’s half the race, half the training, that’s half of everything,” Cross Country coach Emily Janda said. “That kid’s not mentally there one day or the kid’s dealing with something else, it’s hard to give it their all during practice, so it’s half the battle.”

Janda is the head boys and girls cross country coach. She’s in charge of planning the daily practices, making sure everyone’s doing their best, and keeping an eye out for the entire team of 100 kids and their health.

“In the past, pre-COVID, we did team yoga. We do fun things in cross country to give that mental break. We’ll play a game or do a scavenger hunt– something that helps take away from the actual pressure of what we’re doing,” Janda said.

Coaches aren’t the only people in charge of taking care of their team’s health. Sophia Smith is a section leader in Colorguard; she’s in charge of everybody knowing where to go, when, and what to do. 

“Part of the section leaders being on the team instead of just our coach is so we can check in on people. If we feel like anyone is having trouble, we can check in on them and do what we need to do to help them,” Smith said.

Those check-ins include: telling the coach, being more accommodating during practices, and talking out these issues.  

“When students are athletes, that’s really great for their physical and mental health because it helps them to create the endorphins that help them feel well, both physically and mentally,” School psychologist Kelley O’Toole said. “There can be some negatives though, having to balance it all. If you’re not someone who has the coping skills to manage that stress, you can become very overwhelmed and stressed.”

Both school psychologists, O’Toole and Terrin Dorathy agree: mental health is just as important as physical health. Mental health is included in general wellness along with physical, social, and emotional.

“There needs to be a balance. You’re only as good as you’re feeling, so it’s hard to be an athlete, a student, anything if you’re not feeling the best that you possibly can,” Dorathy said.

Varsity soccer and basketball player Romey Loveridge knows this as well. She has been playing sports since she was three, even being on soccer teams where mental health was the priority and they saw a sports psychologist every 2 weeks.

“It boosts my mental health because when I’m active, I feel better. When I do something right, I feel better. But it can also bring you down because if you do something wrong, it can make you feel bad,” Loveridge said.

Ex-softball player Payton Stone has also been on teams where they both prioritized and downplayed mental health.

“Freshman year they really made mental health important. We’d have meetings about how handling a sport and school were going and even went  to do goat yoga.” Stone said, “Sophomore year was different– we didn’t have anything that had to do with mental health. It was just focusing on the game and not the players.” 

Both the lack of mental care and a shoulder injury caused Stone to quit the sport.

Self-esteem and self-concept play huge roles in affecting mental health. Interacting with a support group is a good way to improve collaboration and a sense of belonging.

“[Mental health] is really important. Whether a kid’s mentally there or not in a race, or just in practice, that impacts the whole team so it’s important for the kids and part of the job,” Janda said.

The stigma on mental health is slowly but surely being faded out of mainstream sports. In this day and age, the importance of mental health is taking the limelight, and open communication is a big part of it. Carving out the time to take care of oneself in a stressful schedule is the next step in realizing that focus should be on mentality, not medals.