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When Noah Lyles left the track after the men’s 200-meter final at the Tokyo Olympics, putting in a bronze-medal-winning performance, he entered the media mixed zone, where reporters are waiting to ask questions, and broke down while he described a long, difficult year that so many people—athletes or not—can relate to.
The difference is, most of us are allowed to cope with our long, difficult years in private. When you’re an athlete at the Olympic Games, the effects of all that you’ve endured to get there are on display for the world to see. When a race doesn’t meet expectations, the first question is, “what happened?”
The answer is not always easy. And the reaction to a performance isn’t always what we think it should be. What mere mortal wouldn’t be thrilled with a bronze medal? But Lyles said his bronze was “boring,” because “everybody wants to win when they come, right? It’s not what I wanted but it was a great achievement. It’s a sign you can’t take anything for granted. It’s great to have but I want more.”
Therein lies the challenge of the Olympic experience. You work your entire life—or a significant portion of it—to prove you’re the best in the world. Some, like Lyles, have less than 20 seconds to do it.
Behind the scenes, many athletes come to the Games under less-than-ideal circumstances. Maybe competing on an injury they’re not talking about. Perhaps a personal tragedy—like a loved one’s death—is unfolding out of public view. The isolation and intimidation factors at the Olympic Village can be a shock for everybody, especially those who are new to it. Lyles came off antidepressants in the lead up to the Olympics because they were interfering with his training—although they remain a treatment for his mental health struggles that he felt compelled to share.
“I knew there were a lot of people out there that may be too scared to say something or start that journey. I wanted them to know, if they see me in a big light, then I want you to know it’s OK to not feel good,” he said in the mixed zone. “You can go out and talk to somebody. It’s a serious issue. You don’t want to wake up one day and think, ‘I don’t want to be here any more.’”
As we watch from home, we see all the emotions—from relief, to sadness, to frustration, to anger, to unadulterated joy. And for the athletes, it’s all of that and more.
“Achieving this high level, it’s kind of one of those anti-climatic moments,” says Hillary Cauthen, a doctor of psychology at Texas Optimal Performance & Psychological Services in Austin, Texas. “You made it and it’s so exciting, but then it’s like, ‘Oh, is this going to be everything I want it to be? And can I prepare for that? It might be a let down.’”
Here are a few of the common emotional challenges that Olympians may experience during the Games:
Abbey Cooper, who competed at the 2016 Rio Olympics in the 5,000 meters, came to those Games already injured with stress reactions in her pelvis. She was a first-time Olympian who was determined to compete as best she could while soaking up what could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“It’s really hard to manage these situations when you’re in the pressure cooker,” she says. “You really have to stay connected to your secure relationships, where your value has nothing to do with your performance. You have to ask for help from those relationships when you’re at the Games, where there is so much expectation placed on you.”
Nonetheless, Cooper remembers a “world of loneliness” at the Olympics. You’re surrounded by thousands of athletes all grappling with individual pressures to perform. The instinct for many is to turn inward.
“I had to force myself to be relational,” Cooper says. “I would just go to the dining hall and talk to random people. I’m an introvert and it’s not the easiest thing for me to do, but I forced myself to connect with people. You realize that everybody is experiencing some version of the same thing.”
This year that isolation is more pronounced. Families weren’t allowed to come to the Games to watch and support their athletes. Coaches and agents in many cases also were prohibited from attending. Face masks and plexiglass complicate matters, too, when trying to connect with other people.
“Preparation for athletes is also learning how to sit in silence and be comfortable with the unknown,” Cauthen says. “We’ve all had to adapt and change our plans. Many of them will seek out support or use social media to connect. And that could be a good thing for them to re-ground themselves.”
Intimidation and Expectations
It’s a lifetime achievement to qualify for the Olympics. And it can make a person feel pretty special. And they are. But then they arrive at a village where they see 11,000 other special people. It might feel…a little less special?
As Cauthen describes, Olympians work toward achieving this one dream in a constant chase, which is exciting. They put themselves in many different situations along the way that lead to success. It’s a pattern that leads to this one event.
“And then you get to this event and it’s like this high that you’ve been riding on, but then you show up to an environment that everybody is the best at their event. Now you’re no longer the best,” she says. “You have to adapt to being like, ‘Oh, we’re all the best.’”
It’s a lot to digest before you put yourself on the starting line to compete on a broadcast watched by millions of people around the world—every one of whom seems to have an opinion.
“Part of it is the societal culture of sport as entertainment. We’ve made it fun to watch, so it’s hard to have an emotional connection. It’s hard to have the awareness of ‘Oh, this is their job and sometimes, like at my job, they have a bad day,’” Cauthen says. “I’m sure we can all empathize at some level from our own experiences in high-pressure situations where we didn’t succeed.”
Emma Coburn, who in Rio won bronze (the first American woman to bring home a medal in the 3,000-meter steeplechase), was a gold medal favorite this week in Japan. But, indeed, she had a bad day—off kilter from the start. She wasn’t able to respond to any moves in the race, which is uncharacteristic of the medal contender. She fell on the first barrier of the final lap, landed on the inside of the track, and was disqualified. It was a devastating moment for her.
“This is going to be really hard for the next year, until the next championships can come around,” she said, continuing, “I’m really sad. I’m really disappointed that I couldn’t do better for my coach and my family.”
No matter what the outcome, when the Olympics are over, it’s the end of a four (or five) years endeavor. As many high-profile athletes have described, it’s a difficult transition to make when that torch is extinguished. For some, it’s the end of their athletic careers and time to redefine themselves. Who am I if I am not an athlete? What is my purpose now?
We can all relate to the letdown after major life milestones.
“I think reflective practice is a really big piece—finding time for yourself to make meaning of the experience,” Cauther says. “Maybe you have to work through something if it didn’t go the way you wanted it to. Maybe it’s really owning and accepting the accomplishments of being there. But it’s important to take time to find your balance, be able to reset emotionally and physically, let your body heal, and let your mind and emotions calibrate back to whatever is next.”
For Cooper, the aftermath wasn’t what she expected. During the 5,000-meter semifinal in Rio, she fell, along with another runner, Nikki Hamblin of New Zealand. They helped each other to finish the race and were hailed heroes for exemplifying the spirit of the Games, but Cooper spent the next five years recovering from surgery and the severe damage to her ACL.
Immediately after the Olympics, the spotlight was on Cooper for reasons that had nothing to do with her athletic performance. She appeared on morning news shows and had media requests from every direction.
It was an honor, but also an overwhelming way to process an already overwhelming experience. Her advice to the athletes coming home from Tokyo? Know when you’ve reached your limit and let go of opportunities that aren’t serving you.
“I had to be very deliberate in setting some boundaries when I came home,” Cooper says. “I wouldn’t go back and change it, though. The platform and the story it’s allowed me to tell, I hold very dear.”
Lyles recognizes that although his performance didn’t stack up to his expectations, it is that platform of the Olympics that provides an opportunity to make another kind of difference. When he put his emotions on display in the mixed zone, he did so with purpose—to encourage anybody watching to know that he might be an Olympian, but he, too, needs help, in the form of therapy and medication, to sustain his mental health.
“The reason I am telling you guys is I want you to go tell others,” he said. “I want other people to know there is a better way. I don’t want anyone to think so-and-so isn’t doing it. Well, so-and-so is doing it, and they want you to do it too, because I don’t want anyone to go through what I went through.”