Mental Health and Sports: Lessons From the Olympics

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By News Team on August 2, 2021

Competitive sports are as much about an athlete’s state of mind as the condition of their bodies.

And sport psychology can be as valuable as good coaching, physical therapy and Sports Medicine to help an athlete perform at their best.

John Heil, D.A., L.P.C., is a sport and clinical psychologist who serves as a consultant on Carilion Clinic’s Inpatient Rehabilitation team and as a lecturer for Carilion’s Psychiatry Residency program.

What’s more, he led the sports medicine and science team for the U.S.A. fencing for 15 years, serving as a sport psychology consultant at three separate Olympic games.

When Olympic superstar Simone Biles withdrew from the Olympics in response to mental health concerns, Dr. Heil understood and supported her.

"If an athlete’s mind is not ready to compete, they are at increased risk for injury just as they would be if their physical condition were compromised,” he said.

In gymnastics, those injuries can be devastating—traumatic brain injuries, spinal cord injuries and even death.

“Elite athletes do not want to step down from competition,” he said. “They are the best judges of what their minds and bodies are capable of, and if they say they’re not ready to do it, we can be sure their reasons are valid. They’re the experts.”

Sport Psychology for the Rest of Us

What’s true for elite athletes is also true for the rest of us, and Dr. Heil’s insights can benefit everyone.

“There are lessons here for us all in sport and in everyday life,” he said. “Everyone has limits. When we know our limits, we can act accordingly, performing safely and at our best. Ignoring limits is a recipe for disaster.

The historical stigma around mental health keeps many people from asking for help, but as the supportive response to Simone Biles has shown, that is slowly changing.

Many workplaces now offer employee assistance programs, K-12 schools employ school psychologists and offer adolescent health programs, and college and university health clinics throughout the country have expanded to include mental health programs.

“While the importance of the mental game in sport and other areas of performance is now almost universally recognized, there is still a disconnect between this widely-held belief and the readiness to take action,” he said. "If you want to perform mentally at you best, why wouldn’t you seek out professional guidance when it is available?”

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"ACL Injuries in Young Female Athletes"
"A Day in the Life of Carilion's Sports Medicine Team"
"Could an Overuse Injury Put Your Child on the Sideline?"
"A Note to Parents of Student-Athletes"
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Mettle Minds Podcast: Athlete Health and Performance—The Biles Effect

Dr. Heil went into detail about the impact, importance and underlying issues surrounding Simone Biles’ decision in a wide-ranging discussion with fellow sport psychologist Les Podlog in episode 54 of the Mettle Minds podcast.

The episode addresses athlete mental health, injury risk and psychological readiness; athletes’ rights and organizational culture; cumulative stress and critical incidents; remarkable feats and traumatic growth; the enduring impact of the ideals of the Greek Olympics on the culture of contemporary sport; and advocacy and the importance of seizing the moment as an opportunity for change.

You can watch it here or listen to it where you get your podcasts.

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