Olympic Athlete Mental Health Preparedness

At press, the 2024 Summer Olympic Games are two months away. American athletes are ramping up their programs in advance of the once in a lifetime (for most) opportunity to represent their country. That being said, preparations are made many months if not years prior as athletes and the programs behind them strive for a competitive edge. While physical prowess has always been in the spotlight, there’s no denying that it now shines with equal intensity on mental health. It all came to light when in 2021, American gymnast Simone Biles suddenly withdrew from individual all-around competition, citing mental health reasons. Since then, the vault on Olympic athlete mental health opened wide.

In response, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) introduced a new Mental Health Action Plan, which features the following initiatives:

Culture and Leadership: Leadership will foster a culture that recognizes the importance of mental health.

Measurement and Research: Take an evidence-based approach to responding to and managing mental health concerns of elite athletes.

Reduce Prevalence and Improve Well-being: Continue to develop expert-led resources and initiatives to enhance mental health literacy, build mental resilience, reduce sport-specific stressors that affect mental health, and end the stigma surrounding related issues and disorders.

Improve Care: Promote access to, and provide better pathways to care.

Improve Access to Sport: Promote the positive impact that sports can have on mental wellbeing, while improving access to sport throughout global communities.

In theory the IOC’s plan checks the right boxes. However, it won’t necessarily reverberate into the “any town America” where athletes undergo rigorous training programs and participate in qualification events in preparation for the next Summer and/or Winter Olympic games. It may not accompany them on flights, into Olympic Villages, and on the track, field, court, arena, stadium, halfpipe, slope, pool, or waterway. Moreover, it may not address all mental health concerns that are experienced by athletes beyond the pressures to compete amongst the world’s elite. There are many nuances to the Olympian mental health experience that need to be addressed, which we discuss below in our guide to better preparation.

5 Ways American Athlete Mental Health Can Be Better Protected and Prepared for Participation in the Olympic Games

Team Approach to Mitigating Burnout Before the Games

Burnout was the blanketing term used to address Simone Biles walking away from a near certain gold medal. It is the word used my many athletes when they can’t quite describe what the pressures of competition have done to their emotional and mental wellbeing. In reality, burnout is a syndrome that is recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) as an occupational phenomenon that can be experienced across all populations. That being said, it’s markedly high among elite athletes when compared to many other occupations. IOC Medical and Scientific Commission reports that around 35% of athletes experience mental/behavioral health disorders, with burnout being one of them.

Burnout is typically the result of continual training, competition, and an amalgamation of other demands that align with being a highly competitive athlete. Signs and symptoms of athlete burnout include the following:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Chronic stress
  • Mood swings (anger, irritability, etc.)
  • A loss or plateauing of strength and stamina
  • Chronic fatigue
  • High resting heart rate
  • High blood pressure
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Compromised immune system
  • Loss of appetite
  • Loss of focus on self-care
  • Loss of interest in competition
  • View more

On top of the pressure to represent their country, Olympic athletes are thrust into environments that place them outside of their personal comfort zone. They have their teammates and coaches to reply upon, but if they do not have a good relationship with these individuals (or don’t perceive that they do) the risk of burnout may increase. In a bio-physio-psychological investigation of athletes’ burnout, researchers found that discomfort with self-identity and relationships with coaches/teammates can negatively influence physiological and biological markers, resulting in increased stress levels and expenditure of mental energy that eventually may lead to burnout. The chart below shows the relationship:

Olympic Athlete Mental Health - Olympics

As it turns out, it’s not just the opponents from other countries that our athletes must contend with, but internal struggles with oneself and the teammates/coaches they are traveling to foreign lands with. This is why therapeutic intervention must not only apply to the individual, but the entire program. In doing so, teams (coaches and competitors) can move forward with greater awareness about what their members may be going through, and can support one another accordingly.

Undressing Olympic Village Sex Culture

Olympic Athlete Mental Health - Olympics

While more research needs to be done, there is evidence to suggest that athletes may be more vulnerable to hypersexuality than the average person. It’s important for individual athletes to be aware of this and seek counseling (as needed) heading into the Olympics. Why? Because of the well-known Olympic Village sex culture.

“‘There’s a lot of sex going on,’ says women’s soccer goalkeeper Hope Solo, a gold medalist in 2008. How much sex? ‘I’d say it’s 70 percent to 75 percent of Olympians,’ offers world-record-holding swimmer Ryan Lochte


Ever since the Olympic Village sex culture gained attention at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, IOC organizers have given out hundreds of thousands of condoms to the elite athletes. The Washington Post reports that for the 2024 Summer Olympic Games, Paris has an inventory of 300,000 condoms to hand out. In reference to the provisioning of said condoms, the director of the temporary community stated:

“[They] will have what they are expecting and what they need. [They will] feel very enthusiastic and comfortable. It’s going to be a great place so they can actually share their moment.”

Laurent Michaud, Director of the Olympic and Paralympic Village

It’s easy for the City of Love (Paris), the mainstream media, and public opinion to chalk Olympic Village promiscuity up to fun and games of healthy young males and females. However, if hypersexuality is indeed a vulnerability of elite athletes, the symptoms of sex addiction (here) and porn addiction (here) could have a ruinous affect on both athletic performance and overall wellness.

300,000 condoms may protect against pregnancy and STDs, but where’s the barrier against compromised mental and behavioral health?

Reaching the Fringe Athletes Too

Olympic Athlete Mental Health Preparedness

The presence of extreme sports athletes increased significantly in the 2020/21 Summer Olympic Games as skateboarding, surfing, sport climbing, and BMX freestyle joined the fold. While done to increase viewer interest in the Games while providing opportunities to alternative athletes, it created another concern regarding Olympic athlete mental health.

In our article regarding Extreme Sports and Mental Health, we unpacked vulnerabilities that are more unique to action sports athletes. They face sponsorship pressures at a much younger age (typically beginning in pre-teen years), they have elevated risk-seeking personalities, and they experience withdrawal symptoms comparable to behavioral addictions. In addition, unlike with major U.S. sports organizations with athlete representation in the Olympics (NCAA, NBA, ATP, PGA, etc.) there is no adequate mental health infrastructure in place for them through their respective leagues. They are coming into the Olympics with a very limited support system at a very vulnerable age.

Unpacking Travel Anxiety

Olympic athletes are required to travel great distances for qualification events and for the big show. They are coming into these travels with a range of psychological issues that include stress, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and behavioral addictions, and the aforementioned burnout. It seems that travel and the mental health conditions that they struggle could be a recipe for further compromise.

Research shows that people who suffer from anxiety and depression could experience inflated instances of anxiety and depression when traveling. Jill Moffatt, an Olympic rower who suffers from anxiety, discussed how she experienced panic attacks regarding travel for the first time as she readied for a World Cup Olympic qualifier:

“Before leaving for a World Cup, things came to a head. I felt a fear of flying I had never experienced before. I had multiple panic attacks throughout the night, barely getting any sleep. At a loss of what to do, I called my coach and we got in touch with the team doctor. Luckily, I was provided with medication to get me out of the panic cycle I was in. I went on the trip, as my team doctor would be available in person and it seemed like a much safer option than being alone at home.”


Managing Mental Health When Far from Home

Olympian Moffatt’s experience above allows us to segue into an important point. Aside from when held on home soil, our Olympic athletes are thrust into the far corners of the world and expected to perform at the highest level amidst all the mental and behavioral health struggles that they pack along with them. They are accompanied by team coaches, physicians, and physical therapists, but what about mental/behavioral health counselors? More precisely, what about counselors who specialize in the disorders unique to them as individuals?

It is extremely important for Olympic athletes to have access to mental/behavioral health specialists without having to depend upon physical proximity. They must be afforded this access online in a safe and confidential, and in a manner that is convenient to them.

Kindbridge Behavioral Health specializes in treatment and therapy for elite athletes, and for the mental/behavioral health disorders addressed above. We have developed programs for professional sports and amateur/collegiate organizations alike. Moreover, Kindbridge has partnered with Momentum Labs, who can supplement efforts by working with current and budding Olympians to tap into their mind power for enhanced performance. Whether an individual athlete, or representing a team, reach out via the contacts provided below to discuss a customized Olympic athlete mental health strategy.

Olympic Athlete Mental Health - Olympics

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Olympic Athlete Mental Health - Olympics