How has COVID-19 affected the mental health of athletes? 

Michael Phelps of the United States competes in the second Semifinal of the Men's 200m Butterfly on Day 3 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
Michael Phelps of the United States competes in the second Semifinal of the Men's 200m Butterfly on Day 3 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

As the world continues to fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health has been discussed openly by many including athletes. 

While the COVID-19 pandemic has affected almost every individual's lifestyle across the globe, there has been a focus on the #StayActive #StayStrong and #StayHealthy movement. People around the world have been inspired by a magnitude of athlete home training videos, motivational workouts and much more.

However, it is not just physical health that is important at such a sensitive time, but also mental health. From the lack of competitions and the postponement of the Olympic Games, to social isolation and anxiety, the pandemic has taken a toll on the mental health of numerous athletes.

It is important to remember in times like these that regardless of physical isolation, you are not alone. Let’s look at what some of the top international athletes have said about their mental health.

Michael Phelps of the United States celebrates winning gold in the Men's 200m Butterfly Final at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (Photo by Adam Pretty/Getty Images)
Michael Phelps of the United States celebrates winning gold in the Men's 200m Butterfly Final at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (Photo by Adam Pretty/Getty Images)
2016 Getty Images

“I can’t imagine what these athletes are going through right now” - Michael Phelps

With a total of 28 medals, Michael Phelps is the most successful Olympian in history. He recently opened up to ESPN about the potential mental health issues athletes are likely to face during this time:

"As athletes, we're so regimented," Phelps said. "At this point, all the work is done. We're just fine-tuning the small things to get to this point. Now it's like, 'Oh...we're not competing'. All these emotions start flaring up. I really think mental health is so important right now."

Phelps is determined to break the stigma around mental health and urges athletes to speak up about their struggles and to reach out for help if they need it.

"Some guys have already reached out, asking questions about what they can do," he said. "Anything I can do to support my friends and others who want to try to accomplish their goals and dreams, I'll do it. This is such a big time for mental health.”

“I’m learning how to be patient” - Clarisse Agbegnenou

Rio 2016 silver medallist Clarisse Agbegnenou shared a similar sentiment when she spoke to Eurosport.

“[The uncertainty about when we will be able to train and compete] is very difficult to handle...I like to schedule things in advance. Being in the fog really turned me down. I’m learning how to be another person, to live day by day, which is not easy. I’m learning how to be patient in uncertainty. This is not easy,” she said courageously.

View this post on Instagram

C’est officiel, #RoadToTokyo2021! Même si je m’y attendais, la décision reste un déchirement ! En tant qu’athlète nous consacrons notre vie à notre sport, c'est un coup de massue, une partie de moi ressent une certaine frustration. Cela fait quasiment 4 ans que je me prépare physiquement et psychologiquement pour une seule et unique compétition, celle initialement prévue le 28 juillet 2020. J’ai organisé ma vie et fait des sacrifices au quotidien pour cette échéance. Mais... Comme vous le savez l'urgence est ailleurs. Face à ce que le monde entier traverse, il est indéniable que c’est la santé publique qui passe en priorité. Et à ce jour nous sommes tous concernés. Alors, OUI, à l'annonce du CIO j'ai été particulièrement décontenancée, mais, je me dois de penser aux personnes qui sont en première ligne et qui combattent au quotidien ce virus que ce soit personnel soignant ou malades et qui pour eux il n'y a pas de report... A cet instant, j’ai besoin de temps pour digérer l’information. ‪Merci à mes partenaires qui m’ont renouvelé leur soutien et confiance face à cette situation inédite. Mais d’ici là, s’il vous plaît prenez soin de vous, de vos proches, restez solidaires les uns des autres et surtout restez chez vous pour protéger ceux qui sont en première ligne et stopper la propagation du virus. C’est donc officiel #roadtotokyo2021

A post shared by Clarisse Agbegnenou (@clarisse_agbegnenou) on

“I'm struggling in my own ways" - Katherine Nye

American weightlifter Katherine Nye who is bound for Tokyo 2020 has had her own share of personal battles, having been diagnosed with bipolar disorder last year. She has been extremely vocal in her support for the mental health movement.

Nye shared the difficulties she is facing during the pandemic when she spoke with America’s WOODTV.com.

"I would be lying if I said I was all right. Just like most people I'm struggling in my own ways."

However, she took to Instagram to share what she’s doing to keep her spirits high.

“Spending every day being intentional and controlling what I can control” is one of her coping mechanisms.

An expert sports psychologist weigh in on the impact on athletes

French Sports Psychologist Makis Chamalidis spoke to tokyo2020.org about his understanding of the impact of mental health on athletes, while also sharing some coping mechanisms that can help during this trying time.

He says, “the brutal stop of sport in the athlete's life can lead them to be withdrawn or depressed. This is a serious problem in sports."

“The main problem is the lack of goals. As opposed to a brutal stop because of an injury, which can last a few months, the entire sports agenda has stopped, therefore the athletes have nothing to focus on.”

Perseverance, patience and resilience will be the winner in this mental challenge

Chamalidis believes, however, that the athletes are equipped with the tools to face this issue head-on, due to their sports lifestyle.

“We can also count on the athletes' resilience and ability to adapt. This is what they are facing in their daily life and in competition. The elite athletes know how to accept changes and make the best of the situation.”

In terms of advice on how to cope during the global lockdown, Chamalidis suggests: “Some athletes take advantage of this period to learn new skills, like how to play an instrument, how to cook or a new language.”

“The brain needs to be challenged and, by learning new things, even though those are not related to their sport project, they can stimulate their brain and get satisfaction."

Nathan Adrian, Ryan Murphy, Michael Phelps and Cody Miller of the United States celebrate winning gold in the Men's 4x100m Medley Relay Final at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
Nathan Adrian, Ryan Murphy, Michael Phelps and Cody Miller of the United States celebrate winning gold in the Men's 4x100m Medley Relay Final at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
2016 Getty Images