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What Happens When Passion Becomes Pressure? The Effect on Athletes’ Mental Health

BALM | October 3, 2022

Excellence in athletics is driven by passion and love for the sport. But, what happens when the drive for excellence takes over and winning becomes paramount? Passion can become pressure that feels insurmountable. When it comes to the Olympics, for instance, is all that glitters truly gold?

Olympic Gold Medal Winner Michael Phelps and other Olympians share their perspectives in a powerful documentary about Olympians’ mental health. The documentary, titled The Weight of Gold, shares the experiences of Team USA Olympic winners and non-winners who have struggled over the years with their mental health and the difficulty top athletes have in admitting to and getting help for their struggles.

For many, getting to the Olympics or a place on a professional team becomes the overarching passion of the young person and the family helping them pursue their dream. While this is admirable on so many levels, it falls on the family, trainers, and professionals to be better guides of the young hearts and minds along the way. This need for better stewardship of all young people’s mental and emotional growth also falls on educational and other professionals of all types, all the way up to Team USA.

After five recent Olympian suicides, Olympians like Phelps are coming out on this documentary to share how difficult it is to get help for mental health challenges. Knowing this, it becomes essential for parents and educators to be aware of the dangers mental health challenges pose for young athletes before, during, and after the games.

Two recent athletic superstars who started taking her mental health seriously while still active in their sports were Olympic Gymnast Simone Biles and four time Grand Slam Champion Tennis Player Naomi Osaka. Bile decreased her own participation in the Tokyo games, coming back only for the last day of the finals, in order to put her mental health first. When inspiring young women of their caliber lead the way not only in their sports but also in protection of their mental health, it’s time to pay attention!

In addition, we know that alcoholism and addiction often mask mental health challenges. So, what can parents and families do to protect and preserve the mental health of their aspiring young athletes? And how can you help a young person who may already be dealing with addiction?

Here are five tips for parents of aspiring athletes, some of which you may want to turn away from, all of which are essential to helping you be YOUR young person’s BEST chance at prevention or, if there is a problem, early intervention:

  • Break the spell at home and in the community so they are seen as a whole person, not just as someone who is above the fray, to be admired from afar.

    As they grow, don’t allow the starry-eyed awe you may have for their growing skills take away from your ability to see through the facade they may display to the world of impermeable strength and perfection.

    This doesn’t mean to be hypercritical of them. In fact, if being hypercritical is what you feel is helping them evolve as athletes, be willing to reconsider that approach, if only when it comes to your personal relationship with them.
  • Take a look at yourself and at your family to see if mental health or addiction issues (food, gambling, alcohol or other substances, sex, etc.) have historically been present.

    If so, be aware that your child may be at risk, even if they become highly successful. Be sure to educate yourself and your child about these issues and the importance of getting help should any of these challenges appear. Even if there are not mental health or addiction challenges in your family, stay aware that the tremendous pressure your child is under can unleash a mental health storm resulting in challenges you may never have imagined happening in your family.

    Though the hallmark of addiction is often denial of its existence in the person who has it and those closest to that person, work toward cracking through that barrier in your own mind so you can be there for your child along the way. Remember, prevention is early intervention. The sooner you see a problem, the greater your chance of dealing with it effectively.
  • Learn how to communicate in a new way to help your young athlete build their self confidence.

    The BALM (Be A Loving Mirror) Method of Family Recovery can help families find new ways to communicate (see MI and BALM) and a myriad of other tools and techniques. Since the research on what drives Olympians’ success emphasizes the importance of self-confidence (see confidence in world-class sport performance), it is important to find ways to communicate that will help your teen build their belief in themselves.

    Many people think that by telling someone you believe in them you are making them believe in themselves, but that is often not enough. There is also knowing from deep within that you are good and you can do it. For the family member trying to help a young person build their own self confidence, consider the two parental conversational habits encouraged in both the BALM conversation and the Motivational Interviewing (MI) conversation.

    The first is giving a young person the opportunity to hear the facts of their own accomplishments from someone who cares (You!), without the typical “you are so wonderful” platitudes that don’t ring true when the young person is not feeling good about themselves. This can happen in a BALM conversation, a method for imparting facts without opinion in a way that is easy to hear and helpful for breaking through denial and other negativity.

    The second is asking questions that help the person remember and state their own accomplishments aloud so they can begin to recognize their own inner strength and confidence. This is a tool of Motivational Interviewing.

    These methods of communication can work to both address and prevent problems by taking the focus off of inflaming opinions or judgments and putting the focus on the facts shared calmly and objectively, paired with questions asked in a spirit of curiosity and sincere interest rather than judgment or sarcasm.

    The core of both of these well-worn methods is love. When you build a reservoir of peace within yourself, loving conversation comes naturally. While coming from a place of inner peace may sound like a cliche, the BALM Method of Family Recovery teaches family members how to use the breathing techniques and/or meditation to create a daily practice that makes peace your default. In fact, the first step of the 7 Steps to Be A Loving Mirror (BALM) states, “Be the Peace You Wish to See in the World.”

    On the basis of your inner peace, you can have loving conversations that build rapport and calm the waters in your child’s and family’s life, even in the middle of great excitement and competition.

    (For more on these methods and the loving approach to family recovery and family life in general, see BALM The Loving Path.)
  • Advocate for their optimal mental health as well as for their athletic success.

    Actress Glen Close has been quoted as saying, “What mental health needs is more sunlight, more candor, and more unashamed conversation.”

    I would add that it also needs more role models.

    When Olympians and former Olympians appear in a documentary (The Weight of Gold) to share their own struggles and beg for help from Team USA in changing the system to one that also attends to the athletes’ mental health, parents need to listen.

    You can do this by attending to your own mental health while attending to that of your child before, during, and after the games. Providing them with social and emotional support throughout their childhood and adolescence and making support normal and accessible will be YOUR job as they progress. By attending to your own mental health, you will operate from a place of strength as their advocate and serve as a role model and as someone they can turn to in times of stress on their own path.
  • Build within your child a commitment to finding other interests, passions, and career alternatives as they grow.

    This will help you make sure they have other alternatives after retiring from their sport. An awareness that the inner discipline they are building now to win will help them in other aspects of life is critical as well.

    As Michael Phelps said in the documentary, “Athletes are people, not just performers.”

    Observe your child. What are their other potential talents and interests? What do they enjoy? Who do they like to be with? What can they do now and as they grow to build the inner and outer resources to go on with passion and drive even when they retire from their sport? Empower them to grow holistically as they grow in their sport. While their sport may be their main passion now, when it is gone, life will go on.

The BALM Method of Family Recovery teaches families to become their struggling loved one’s BEST chance at recovery. Though it was written to help the families of persons with addiction, it can be seen around the world helping families cope with mental health struggles and as a preventive measure for families to help their children grow into healthy, self-confident adults.

(For more information, go to https://bealovingmirror.com/ or call us at 1-888-998-2256.)