Team USA’s 200m World Champion Noah Lyles opens up about his recent struggles with mental health and the psychology behind his race preparation.
When Noah Lyles won the 200m final at last year’s IAAF World Championships in Doha, it would have been easy to think he was on top of the world.
But nothing could have been further from the truth for an athlete who has been frank and open about his struggles with mental health.
“After World Champs - even before the World Championships last year - I was just in Europe for so long and I was getting really homesick,” the athlete explained in an Instagram Live with the Olympic Channel.
“And to be honest I thought about going home so many times because I was getting really depressed, and I was getting into that mindset of I barely want to even train anymore.”
Lyles returned home to the USA expecting to be able to relax for a period, but a rollercoaster of media appearances and commercial obligations took him across the country and plunged him deeper into depression.
“I was like, 'I don’t want to do any of this… I just want to sleep and do nothing, maybe go on vacation.'
“It got to the point where I was just so deep, deep inside of myself where I was basically just putting on a face.”
It was Lyles’s mother who noticed the signs of depression and suggested he needed to re-start sessions with his personal therapist. But with recent events in the US and the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, he found himself spiralling deeper into himself, no longer able to get his “needs out.”
I was more shocked on how many people were sharing,
more than how hard it probably would have been being able to share
“You know, some people actually need physical touch - that’s a love language… and I’m definitely one of those people.
“And I’m not able to get it, so it just drove me more and more into that depressive state and eventually I was like, ‘everything I’m doing, I’m still talking with my therapist, I’m still doing everything she’s telling me to do, but it’s just not working.’
"My mum was like, ‘I think it’s time for you to go on antidepressants,’ and I was like, ‘yeah, I think you’re right.’”
Even with everything he has been going through, sharing his experiences is something that comes naturally to Lyles. And with the positive influence that the athlete is able to have by openly talking about his mental health, it is the reaction of other people that he has been most surprised by.
“I didn’t feel it was very hard to share. I was more shocked on how many people were sharing, more than how hard it probably would have been being able to share.”
The psychology of an Olympian
For Noah Lyles, the psychological aspect of sport is more important than any other physical element. And, the ratios - “90% mental, 10% physical” - aren’t even close.
“If I have a strong mindset, even when my body’s down, I can make it do something. So if you’re really struggling in practise, you can train your mind to say, “hey, every time you’re struggling in practise just think of, ‘I’m trying to get over a hill and once I get over that hill, I’m going to be such a better athlete.”
And even the prospect of losing a race is something that Lyles sees as the perfect way to continue to learn and grow.
“When you take an ‘L’, a lot of people can get really discouraged in losing. But losing is a great teacher.”
A lot of my races are pre-visualised down to a tee,
so I can break down my whole race by every step
His dedication to the psychological aspects of sprinting extend even further, having become an integral part of his mental preparation for a race.
“I’m a big advocate of visualisation. A lot of my races are pre-visualised down to a tee, so I can break down my whole race by every step, and if I learn something new in practise I’ll add it to my visualisation and then my sports therapist will go over it when we’re getting ready for the race.
“So when we’re in the race it’s second nature.”
As he heads into a season that marks the beginning of the buildup to the Tokyo Olympics, Lyles is clearly excited about putting his techniques into practice when racing returns with this Friday’s Diamond League meet in Monaco.
“I’m so excited, this is going to be my first race inside a stadium [since the pandemic started], as everywhere else has just been at local track meets where you can’t control the wind.
“I want an official time, so I’ve geared up knowing that this track is going to be fast, it’s one of my favourite places to race, in Monaco, and this is where I’m going to try and run really fast.”