Athlete mental health of concern at pandemic Olympics
TOKYO – The COVID-19 pandemic has dominated discussions around the Tokyo Olympics, but the mental well-being of athletes is also a health issue for visiting teams.
In addition to the pressure of competition this summer, measures to reduce the spread of the virus mean that athletes will have little opportunity to let off steam. Human interactions will be discouraged and competitors will be asked not to visit any venues other than the venues, training centers and their accommodation.
The Olympic Village, where many events usually take place, will be much quieter. Athletes will be encouraged to eat their meals in the main dining halls as quickly as possible, and alcohol may be prohibited. Their families will not be able to come to Japan to watch them compete.
Such restrictions could affect the mental health of athletes, experts say. “Many athletes can feel isolated. They need empathy, understanding and support to ease feelings of loneliness,” said Hisashi Tanegashima, sports psychologist and professor at Nihon University.
A clinic with services including psychiatric counseling will be set up in the Olympic and Paralympic Village. But some countries are taking extra steps to keep athletes in a healthy state of mind. For example, the British Olympic Association will send a team of mental health experts to support athletes and staff.
“From Britain’s perspective, the mental health and well-being of athletes and staff is a primary focus for the British Olympic Association,” a BOA spokesperson said. “Mental health is an important aspect of making sure everyone can perform at the Olympics.”
While doctors trained in mental health have already accompanied the team, “this is the first time that there is a team dedicated to mental health. It is a really important element of our support to the delegation”, added the spokesperson.
The mental health team will be led by a clinical psychologist and supported by a mental health specialist, as well as a team of around ten mental health champions, who have training and knowledge in this area. Overall, the FOB expects to take around 370 athletes and over 500 support staff to the games.
The Australian softball team was the first foreign sports organization to come to Japan, arriving on June 1. She is staying in Gunma, a prefecture northwest of the capital.
Deidre Anderson, athlete welfare manager for Softball Australia, said the team is monitoring athlete welfare on an app. Asking them to rate their sleep – the first thing that impacts when well-being is diminished – the team would get an update if an athlete’s sleep quality was below a certain level, said Anderson.
The Singapore delegation will include three sports psychologists. “The mental well-being of our athletes is very important for them to safely excel,” Stevenson Lai, senior sports psychologist at the Singapore Sports Institute, told Nikkei Asia.
China released a manual called “Psychological Guide for Active Athletes” in January as part of the country’s preparation for the Tokyo Olympics. “When you fail, tell yourself it’s because you haven’t tried enough, not because of your abilities,” he said. The manual is downloadable on smartphones.
Earlier this month, tennis champion Naomi Osaka opened up about her depression, raising awareness about athlete mental health.
“His remarks gave society the opportunity to examine the fact that even the best athletes suffer from mental health issues. More people, including coaches, should be aware of this,” said Hiroaki Yamamoto, a psychiatrist who is also a member of the board of directors of the Japanese Associationof sports psychiatry.
Osaka is not alone in suffering.
A survey last year by Stanford University and Strava found that one in five American professional athletes reported difficulty exercising due to mental health issues, lack of motivation or of COVID-19.
A 2020 survey conducted by the Japan National Center for Neurology and Psychiatry found that 32.3% of players in the Japan Rugby Top League had shown symptoms of mild anxiety and depression in the previous 30 days. Some 7.6% of those surveyed said they had had suicidal thoughts in the past two weeks.
Yamamoto at the Japanese Association of Sports Psychiatry warned that athletes could be exposed to online attacks.
Some are already going through this. On May 7, Japanese swimmer Rikako Ikee, 20, said she received messages on social media asking her to skip matches. “To be honest, there were some posts that really hurt me,” she said in a post on Twitter.
Yamamoto added, “Social distancing is important at the Tokyo Olympics, but an effort should be made to reduce the psychological distance with athletes through online tools.”
Many Olympic committees in Asian countries see obstacles to the arrival of mental experts in Tokyo.
The Chinese Olympic Committee in Taipei has said it has mental health therapists at Taiwan’s National Sports Training Centers, but does not plan to send these experts to Tokyo due to limitations in the number of participants.
Tokyo organizers have reduced the number of officials and other personnel coming to Japan from 180,000 to less than 78,000, as part of infection prevention measures.
“We continue to organize simulation competitions to create a positive atmosphere and help athletes set positive goals to ensure their mental and physical state is ready for competitions,” said a spokesperson for the committee. .
“With the exception of qualified athletes, we cannot add new names to the list at this time, and as far as I know there are no mental health experts,” said Rajeev Mehta, general secretary. of the Indian Olympic Association.
“It is not possible at the moment [for us to add a mental health expert] but it is a very good idea “to consider for big events, especially given the rules regarding the current COVID situation which could leave a lot of people isolated, he added.
Thana Chaiprasit, who oversees the Thai team, said there were no plans to bring mental health specialists to Tokyo due to the limitations of COVID. Much of this is due to the small team of 40 to 50 athletes that the country sends, which means their quota for other officials is only three. As such, the team only takes two doctors and a medical assistant.
But Thana said athletes can be supported using online tools.
“If there is mental stress or mental issues in the Thai team during the Olympics, we could use a video call to allow our athletes to see psychiatrists here in Bangkok,” Thana said.
Additional reporting by Francesca Regalado in Tokyo, Rhyannon Bartlett-Imadegawa in London, Lauly Li in Taipei, Kiran Sharma in New Delhi, CK Tan in Shanghai, Apornrath Phoonphongphiphat in Bangkok and Dylan Loh in Singapore.