Mental Health and the Pressure of Performance

This past year, Simone Biles made headlines when she withdrew from several Olympic competitions due to a severe case of the twisties—known in gymnastics as the severe fear of competing and executing dangerous moves. Some sporting fans supported her decision to not perform stating that mental health was more important than a gold medal. Others stated that she had come all the way and owed it to herself to compete no matter the outcome. This leads us to the all-important question—where is the line between mental health and winning?

Pamela Minix, the CEO and co-founder of Lasso Safe, an organization that places safety ratings and provides educational programs for facilities and training centers nationwide states that while she had a great sports experience growing up, her partner and Lasso Safe co-founder, Luis Hernandez, did not.

“Luis was the first to introduce me to the psychological pressures and traumas ensued by a harmful sports environment. Before Lasso Safe, I married a man with psychological traumas from sport that brought harm into our home. Through Lasso Safe, I aim to make my experience in sport a baseline for all athletes.”

World Mental Health Day has risen in popularity within the last decade.

Instantly after going through a few years where trauma from sports was present in the household, Minix started to act.

However, it did not happen overnight. According to the Lasso Safe website, “in 2010, Pamela Minix and Luis Hernandez began researching and developing sport cultures’ safe practices in collaboration with Olympians, sport industry executives, governing officials, and childhood trauma health care professionals. Together, we shared ideas of an open and balanced coalition spanning the entire sport industry and for a defined rating system, which later became Lasso Safe Certified. Lasso Safe Certified was created to measure and define what safe and prosperous sport environments meant, and to provide a road map for developing lasting, united sport communities.”

Minix says her story and sport induced trauma put a permanent stamp on not only her life, but lives around her as well.

The pressure of performance is getting out of hand. Saying such as “you came too far to quit now” and “you are throwing away our sacrifices for this” are said far too often.

To set the record straight, there is a thin line between pushing someone to do their best and pushing someone to the brink of exhaustion, poor mental health, poor physical health, and the risk of permanent damage. This thin line is often blurred in favor of a win, record, or medal. At what point is the industry going to put a stop to sports related trauma? According to Minix’s research including other Lasso Safe partners, the end to sports trauma needs to happen rapidly.

“Since 2010, Lasso Safe has been researching sports psychological, sexual, and physical safety.”

To date, Lasso Safe has worked alongside several gold-medal Olympians, national team members, and coaches over the last decade. Their findings were the opposite than expected.

“We had a large surprise; the pressure to perform does not increase or decrease a countries’ result in world competitions or the Olympics. However, we had other notable effects. Athletes in safe communities had a 56 percent longer athletic career as opposed to athletes in abusive communities with a higher drop-out rate. This leads to immediate revenue loss for the sports organization— a higher turnover rate, higher new customer marketing/onboarding costs, and loss of talented athletes who could generate organizational profit. However, athletes in safe communities had more consistent results and careers. Those in abusive ones had their careers punctuated by treatments for depression, eating disorders, and more.”

What should be a universal equation across the board for athletes was simply not in place at the time most of Lasso Safe’s research was ongoing leading the team to create the program.

Aside from Lasso Safe, best-selling author Cory Camp of Forever Athlete: Connect with your True Identity Daily says he faced the athlete pressure to perform greatly during his time as a swimmer.

Cory Camp, the author of Forever Athlete, has interviewed over 1000+ athletes to date regarding the pressures of mental health. 

“I grew up an athlete myself having swam at the University of Delaware where I set numerous school records while handling my own pressures both in and out of the pool. I’ve lived it, and it started with me speaking out about my experiences on my podcast, Forever Athlete Radio, over three years ago that I started to find out I wasn’t alone in this journey.”

Forever Athlete, which focuses on centering the athlete experience at the intersection of content, community, and coaching to improve overall well-being, has rocketed to popularity within the burnt-out athletic community.

“I’ve sat down with over 400 athletes at this point through motivational interviewing. We discovered that most athletes that we’ve talked through were faced with some sort of mental health hurdle at various points in their career. The main surprise was that for as many athletes that admitted to mental health hurdles, almost all of them didn’t feel like they had the skills needed to take advantage of the resources at their disposal.”

Additionally, Camp writes on LinkedIn that, “we wonder why mental health is a hot debate in athletics while we see statements like ‘you’re just a quitter’ in the comment section of most athlete mental health coverage stories. It highlights truly how misunderstood they are.”

Like Minix, Camp believes there is still time to change the outlook of our industry stating, “to truly change the sports industry and its relationship with mental health, more needs to be done upstream. Creating spaces and having open and organic conversations that allow athletes to explore who they truly are allow them to learn the skills necessary to cope with the extreme pressures/demands that they are faced with. As it stands now, a lot of these athletes are given keys to a car they never learned how to drive in the first place. In addition to more mental health professionals being on staff—as low as 1 professional to 500 student athletes—the NCAA needs to create more engaging education that allows the student athlete to learn how to take advantage of what’s available to them. This can be as simple as introducing mindfulness practices, guided journal activities, and group activities that are focused on more than just talking about feelings. We all handle pressure differently. While how we cope changes, the fact of the matter is we all need to be equipped with the skills needed to explore how we can cope. Healthy coping takes time to learn, it must come organically—most athletes don’t like being forced to do anything outside of their sport. Being an athlete is hard no matter what era you competed in, and the pressures we face are real and often are a result of expectations we place on ourselves,” says Camp.

Of course, the consensus would be why is it courageous to stand up for yourself in the first place. Unfortunately, in such a high-stakes and “tough” minded industry, the emotional aspect of the games may have lent a hand to putting athletes on a staunch pedestal perfect for an ancient god in Greece or Rome.

The key, remembering people are, well, people.

“This is a complex problem that will require a multi-faceted solution. The more that can be done in the space, the better, but we must remember these athletes are human above all else,” Camp adds.

Looking ahead, both are confident the industry can change with teamwork—no pun intended—with the fusion of athlete safety programs and open discussions on mental health.