As Winter Olympians face struggles, the conversation on athlete mental health continues | Nebraska Today

While often viewed as superhuman — achieving incredible feats of strength and stamina, sometimes setting global records — Olympic athletes remain very human.

They face similar day-to-day worries as their countrymen, with the added pressure to perform, facing literal trials that determine their fates. And, while they can seem untouchable as they flow down mountains at break-neck speeds or spin gracefully through the air on skates, they sometimes fall from the pedestals (and podiums) they are placed on.

The ongoing 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing set the stage for moments of success and failure that test the mental health of athletes. For example, when Team USA’s Mikaela Shiffrin — a gold-medal winning skier favored to add to her Olympic glory — fell and was eliminated from her second event, the camera cut to her standing on the slope, staring in disbelief.

Back on campus, the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Mariah Bullock, athletic psychologist, works directly with Huskers, helping them manage those moments of brief disappointment — which can grow into deep grief for athletes who have spent years working toward achievement on the playing field.

“It is grief,” Bullock said. “At the time, I don’t know how well I did it. I would do it differently now.”

Bullock has the unique combination of both psychological background and athlete understanding. She is a former soccer player, having started the sport at age six, growing to compete in college with Stanford’s national-championship team and professionally in the National Women’s Soccer League and the Samoa national women’s team.

After retiring from soccer, Bullock decided to pursue a doctorate in psychology in the hopes of entering the then-developing field of sports psychology. After starting her studies in clinical psychology at Brigham Young University, she connected with a sports psychologist who was able to help her hone her specialty.

“That’s when I started working with student athletes at a college level, and that’s where it kind of clicked,” Bullock said. “Where it’s like, ‘Awesome, I’m able to connect this passion and experience I had as an athlete with this new specialty area and expertise I’ve developed as a psychologist.’”

With her long background in soccer and her experiences playing in high-pressure championships, she understands what it is like to feel the intense gravity that comes with major moments in sports. And, she’s able to apply those experiences in her work to help Nebraska student-athletes succeed on the field and in the classroom.

In that work, Bullock focuses on her experience, trusting in lessons she learned on the soccer pitch.

“I tried to shrink the gravity of the moment, because I think sometimes we get very caught up in the hype around big moments,” Bullock said. “And what it means and for me, I just shrunk it back down to: it’s the game of soccer. I know how to play soccer.”

In the emotional moments following Shiffrin’s second elimination, the 26-year-old skier stated to an NBC reporter that she was second-guessing the last 15 years of training she had undergone. After seconds on the slope in Beijing, she was questioning everything she had known for the better part of her life.

The immense pressure placed upon athletes — be it on an Olympic stage or the turf of Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium — is difficult to comprehend. For many, competing is a goal worked toward for most of their lives. For Olympians, those journeys are often highlighted in commercials and network coverage — like the grainy home video of 21-year-old Chloe Kim honing skills as a child with her father.

According to Washington Post data, the average age of competing Olympic athletes is 27. With the intense preparation it takes to reach that level of competition, most athletes begin training in the sport in some capacity during their early childhood — making the sport an almost life-long affair by the time they reach their first opening ceremony.

“I think that athletes…people treat them as superhuman, and forget how young they are,” Bullock said. “And how early they are in their development.”

Additionally, athletes are not immune to the human aspect of loss and turmoil. Shiffrin lost her father, who attended her previous Olympic games, in 2020. His passing affected her to the point that she told Today that she considered quitting skiing completely.

After Shiffrin’s second disqualification, support on social media poured in for the skier. While her fans were just as shocked as she was at the situation, they rallied around her and called for compassion and empathy regarding her mental health surrounding the situation.

It should be no surprise that mental health in athletes is becoming a larger topic across social media. In the past two years, greats like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka have opened up about their own struggles and withdrawn from competitions to safeguard their mental health.

“I think it’s pretty intuitive to understand that if someone is sad or anxious, they’re not going to perform as well,” Bullock said.

While conversations surrounding mental health have become more prevalent, it does not dismiss the fact that they have been lacking in the sporting world — the place where perseverance and tenacity are purported to overcome everything.

“When I was playing, it was very much, ‘You’re tough. You show no sign of weakness,’” Bullock said. “Because when you show weakness, that is a vulnerability that allows either your coach to not trust you to perform, or that allows whoever you’re competing against to have an advantage over you.”

But those vulnerabilities still exist. And luckily, more athletes and teams are beginning to recognize and address them. As a sports psychologist, Bullock sees first-hand how her career field is booming as more teams add psychologists to their support networks.

It is not always about addressing clinical psychology issues like depression and anxiety. While that is a part of Bullock’s position, as a sports psychologist she also works alongside athletes to address sport-specific issues like performance anxiety and performance-related mental aspects like sleep, relationships and self-talk.

And, for Bullock, seeing leaders like Biles and Osaka speak up about their mental health shows a promising sign for the future of athletes everywhere.

“I think it gives permission to athletes and student athletes to prioritize and be proactive about their mental health…It also gives permission to step away when it’s unhealthy either from a physical or psychological perspective,” Bullock said.

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